laphriini blog

taxonomy and ethology
of robber flies
as an avocation

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The photo was taken in November 2006, in Michigan.
I'd been in the field for over a month and had a good tan.  Normally I wear

Hi, I'm Steve Bullington. I got my MS. and PhD. degrees in entomology. My thesis was on the taxonomy of gall-like scale insects (Homoptera: Kermesidae) and my dissertation was on the taxonomy of a group of robber flies (Diptera: Asilidae). Over the years I've done a lot of things for a living, but for nearly a decade now I've been employed as a regulatory official for the federal government. I'm still sort of an entomologist, but my title is "Agriculturist," and much of what I now do is database work, i. e. programming. This site is a continuation of work I started on the group of flies I revised for my PhD. dissertation. It has nothing to do with my job for money, and in fact is the public face of my avocation, which is working on the taxonomy and ethology of robber flies.

I've been collecting or otherwise working on robber flies since I was a Biology undergraduate at Virginia Tech in 1974. For most of the time since then, except for about a year while working towards my PhD., my work on asilids has been a hobby, or, better-put, self-funded. I'd hoped it would develop into a paid career, and in fact have spent much of my life working toward that goal. But it never happened, mainly because I was trained as a classical taxonomist. After about 1990 no one would hire classical taxonomists except as Collection Managers. Several years earlier I probably could have gotten a full-blown taxonomy position working on scale insects--an extremely specialized activity--but I just couldn't stand working on things that didn't move and couldn't see. I suppose I was a disappointment to my scale mentor. But you have to follow your heart. At least I did; and I have no regrets. Apropos of Collection Managers; in a University environment, whether as staff or faculty, they do not really make enough to live, do not qualify for tenure, and generally are not expected to do research. In truth the positions were originally designed as stepping stones, for people who have an MS degree and will in short order move on to something better. Yet in the early Nineties for most taxon-based PhDs there was nothing better. Their profession at the level of tenured faculty had essentially been proscribed; and they were up the proverbial creek. To illustrate how bad things were (and still are), at two of the three Universities with which I have been associated, when the classically-trained Curator retired, he was not replaced, and the associated insect museums, which have no purpose outside of taxonomic study, were left orphan, and in one case warehoused off-campus. I had no way of knowing what was to happen, of course. Being an incorrigible optimist, I took a non-tenured faculty position in 1991 as an Assistant Curator at an insect museum. It took me three years to figure out I had made a mistake. I would have to make a drastic change if I wanted a permanent professional job. I felt had already paid far more than my dues; so much so in fact that I had picked up quite a bit of economic entomology in several term research positions. I believed (correctly) I could take those skills and make more money working for myself. So I struck out on my own as a consultant. This was one of the biggest gambles I've taken in my life; and I was betting on my abilities. I was in business for almost a decade. My consulting had very little to do with taxonomy, and nothing at all to do with robber flies; I enjoyed it immensely, however, because I set my own priorities, and worked on my own schedule. Then in 2003 I accepted a professional position in Agriculture with the federal government. I now work at headquarters in Maryland. I don't work on asilids. Aside from that I could not ask for better.

Meanwhile, as I had always funded my robber fly studies, I decided that it would not be a big jump to make them my avocation, rather than my vocation. I had originally planned for asilid taxonomy and natural history to be my life work. I saw no reason to change. Not getting paid for what I wanted to do would just be another obstacle to overcome; and I had overcome many before that others would consider insuperable. The one thing I wasn't going to do was change my goals simply to make money; that would be like selling the horse to pay for the barn. Regardless of my title, any way I looked at it I would be working on asilid natural history in my spare time, or what little I might have of it. It made more sense to concentrate on making money at work, and in turn use that at home to follow my inclinations. Further, given time, with very little investment I should be able to do on my own what my predecessors had required considerable institutional support to accomplish. I started what is now Laphriini.com in 1999. For most of the time since I first went into business, I've lived far too active a life to do much outside my formal job or on this site, other than set it up. But for several years now, I am regularly home with a little spare time. So I'm working on my revisions again, and hopefully will be updating these pages regularly. In a few years I should be able to devote much more time to this than I am now doing. Incidentally, my paid work has not been a dead loss to my avocation; I have become proficient with several tools, that should eventually prove of service for robber fly investigations. For example, I'm comfortable with and have used statistics extensively; I'm skilled at producing maps from GPS data; and I spend much of my work day writing fairly complex programs in SQL.

A listing of my professional presentations on robber flies is here; and one for my technical papers is here. The latter also includes a small section with my taxonomic papers on scale insects. Although I never could force myself to work on scales professionally, I'm very happy I had the training. I learned almost everything I know of practical taxonomy from that experience. Immediately after I got my PhD I even used my scale training to help revise the genus Chionaspis based on structure of the males. Male scales are minute, gnat-like insects with vestigial mouthparts.

Working on scales also taught me how to draw. I really like to draw. In fact, one of my few heros is Gordon Floyd Ferris, whose Atlas of the Scale Insects of North America I consider to be a masterpiece. It is chock full of well laid-out and well-executed plates. In a way it is a work of art, in the most functional sense of the word. I've made many, many plates, published or yet-to-be published, for both scale insects and robber flies. One of my goals for this site is for it to be well-illustrated with line-drawings and plates I've done. I have yet to post any plates for Laphriini, as I haven't figured out how I plan to publish, and I don't want to scoop myself. But as a teaser some plates for a non-Laphriine genus, Dasylechia are here.

Another thing I very much like is organismic research. If it has to do with things I can see or the relationships between them, I'm for it. I love everything to do with anatomy, taxonomy, behavior, ecology, and evolution of arthropods. Ecology especially, considered in it's old meaning of the fitting of an animal in multifarious ways to its environment. In college, I took so many courses in Ecology I probably could have gotten my degree in the subject. I made good use of my predilections later in graduate school. I spent an entire summer in the field observing robber fly behavior, and wrote many technical papers on their ethology with my PhD. advisor based on those observations. This was one of the several times in my life I enjoyed most (another was when I took Aquatic Entomology as an undergraduate in college, and had to submit a collection). I hope some of that enthusiasm and viewpoint comes through here.

As I hinted at above, I also have a soft spot for arthropods that see well, move quickly, and seem to be cognizant of their environment. Yet there is only so much time in life, meaning that for several decades I've only collected and worked on robber flies; I suspect that just finishing the material this web site is supposed to cover will be more than enough avocational work for the next decade or so, should I live that long.

I'm enjoying making this site bit-by-bit. I hope you find it useful.