To Be a Rove Beetle

September 15th, 2011 | Meera

I have a small number of tracks that I follow through the halls of the Field Museum almost every time I go there. The museum, as those of you who have visited it will know, is a cavernous structure. Its walls contain more than a million square feet of floor space, less than half of which is devoted to publicly displayed exhibits—so if you have been there, imagine how big it seems to you when you’re standing in that enormous central atrium and then just go ahead and double that feeling.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even if all you ever wanted to do was travel back and forth between two spots in the entire building—say, the doors of the West entrance and the bird prep lab on the 3rd floor—you could probably devise a near-infinite number of different routes to take.

Some might whisk you through the plant hall, others past the ancient Americas; some would wind their way around the feet of dinosaurs, others plunge you deep inside the heart of minerals. If you had an all-access-granted ID pass, no staircase, door, or elevator would be closed to you; you could make the Field your only home, and walking it your only recreation, and still you’d likely need more than one lifetime to traverse each one of the possible passageways it contains.

Me, I’ve been there close to a hundred and fifty times in the past two and a half years. And almost every single time I enter its doors, I take one of perhaps three, or, at most, four paths to get where I am going. It’s embarrassing, actually. I feel like an ant following some set of strange, self-made, incredibly persuasive pheromone-laden tracks; each week I sniff out what I left there seven days before and lay down new markers in the same old places as I crawl.

All this, friends, to explain why I have certain very favorite objects at the Field. For the things in the museum that I adore the most just happen to be, besides inherently lovely and fascinating, also conveniently located right along my ant-tracks.

The one I thought I’d share with you today is a large pair of drawings, mounted together in a single frame on a wall on the ground level, near the McDonalds. Each depicts multiple whole and partial specimens of Rove beetles: a large group of beetles belonging to the family Staphylinidae that, as far as I can gather, get their name because they’re fond of getting places by scurrying inconspicuously across the ground instead of taking wing.

(Their other common characteristic is a pair of unusually short forewings that leaves their abdomens half exposed, like teenage girls wearing midriff-baring t-shirts. But unlike most teenage girls, they’re shy, sleek little things.)

I’ve admired these drawings dozens of times, but today was the first time I stopped to photograph them, and it was also the first time I noted the name of the person who created them. He was Alexander Bierig. He loved beetles. And, as we shall see, he had something to teach me.

Alexander Bierig was born in 1884 in Karlsruhe (the prettiest fan-shaped German city you’ve never heard of). He was the youngest of the four sons of the shoemaker Ludwig Georg Phillipp Bierig, who apparently spent his spare time writing plays and poems. Nice work, Ludwig.

What I love about Alexander’s life story is that it has a wonderful sort of pivot in the middle of it; the first half of his biography is entirely respectable and sedate and conventional, and then he meets someone who changes things for him forever, and suddenly he embarks on a life of adventure! And jungles! And insects! To wit:

Respectable: After studying to be a graphic artist in his home town, Bierig spent a few years living and working as an illustrator in Berlin, where he got married. Then he moved to Paris with his wife Katherine, taught a few private art classes, drew pictures for scientific articles and books, and had his only child, a son who would one day grow up to be an architect.

When World War I began, the Bierig family moved back to Karlsruhe, and Alexander was soon called up to serve in the German army. The end of the war also marked the beginning of the end of Bierig’s staid life, because it proved impossible for him to find work as an artist in a country whose economy had been so thoroughly devastated.

Pivot: What happens next seems to have been that in 1919, some Russian friends of the Bierigs decided to move to Havana in search of work. This was a sensible enough plan, since at the time Havana was just starting to undergo two huge booms: one in sugar and one in tourism. There was definitely more money flowing to it than to Karlsruhe. Inspired, Alexander decided to move his little family to Cuba too.

In Havana, Bierig walked down some old paths for a while. He freelanced as a graphic artist, became a teacher of drawing and natural sciences at the German School, and kept giving private art classes.

He also met the person who would be his pivot: an eminent Costa Rican entomologist named Ferdinand Nevermann. Bierig had become interested in beetles while he was in Paris, and had even written a scientific paper about two species of Carabidae after he moved back to Karlsruhe. But it was his friendship with Nevermann that ignited what would become a lifelong love affair with field work, collecting, and Rove beetles in particular.

(At some point in 1923, Katherine—who didn’t like Cuba or its climate at all—moved back to Germany with their son. I haven’t been able to determine whether she was also irritated with her husband’s growing obsession with beetles, but I wouldn’t rule it out. In any event, the marriage didn’t survive the separation. Alone in Havana, Bierig befriended several other zoologists, learned everything there was to learn about Rove beetles, and began publishing more scientific papers. But it wasn’t until 1938 that his second life really began.)

Adventure!: In 1938, Bierig went on his first field trip, an excursion with Nevermann to Costa Rica. I don’t know how the trip would have been graded by scientific criteria, but by all other benchmarks things did not go well. There was An Accident. I wish I could tell you with certainty exactly what this accident was, but the small amount of literature I’ve been able to find on the subject contains conflicting details.

One story is that Nevermann and Bierig were attacked by a jaguar which pounced on them from a treetop, and Nevermann was killed, while Bierig was severely wounded. Another is that Nevermann was out collecting insects at night, by headlamp, and was accidentally shot by a local hunter who mistook his light for the glowing eyes of a large animal. One version of this second story has Bierig there and wounded, too; another doesn’t mention Bierig at all.

What is clear is that Bierig’s first exposure to field work was extraordinarily traumatic. It resulted in the death of his scientific partner and good friend. It seems to have gravely injured him. Yet one year later—clearly intoxicated by the glorious, colorful, totally overwhelming world of tropical wildlife that he’d found in Costa Rica—he returned to the same country to continue his beetle collecting. And he never left.

In Costa Rica Bierig would become a professor of entomology in San José, author dozens of scientific papers, collect approximately 26,000 individual specimens, and describe over 150 new species and over 30 new genera of insects (most of which were Rove beetles and all of which, of course, he would also illustrate). He was a field biologist extraordinaire. He was also a celebrated and often exhibited artist in his adopted country, remembered till this day for his influence on an entire generation of Costa Rican painters and illustrators.

rove beetles

The final years of Bierig’s life were not easy ones, although they had some bright spots (like the happy discovery of a granddaughter he’d never known he had). He began to lose his eyesight, became rather solitary, and finally died in 1963 after a long and painful illness. With no one to maintain them, his drawings, papers, and the tens of thousands of type specimens he’d collected began to deteriorate in the tropical heat and humidity.

Fortunately for posterity, this is when they were scooped up by the Field. And very fortunately for me, a few of Alexander’s drawings happened to find themselves (nearly 50 years later) located on one of my three or four short and unimaginative ant-trails through the museum.

As far as I can tell, Alexander was pretty damned good at roving. In tribute to him, next time I go into the Field Museum, I’m going to experiment with some different routes to where I’m going. I bet I’ll find a new favorite object or two. And if today is anything to go by, I might also find another great story to tell you.

(This is a self-portrait Alexander drew. I think he looks fantastic.)

16 Responses to “To Be a Rove Beetle”

  1. Anya Weber says:

    Love this post M! What an amazing life story.

    • Denis Glover says:

      Bierig was a close friend of my mother-in-law, artist Doris Lindo Lewis, when they lived in Cuba. We have a wonderful large oil he did of Vinales Valley there. I’ve been trying to research him for some time and have been in touch with his grandson.

  2. Chuck Metz says:

    Interesting story that resonates at many levels I suspect. Pivotal life points seem only recognized in retrospect for the most part whereas epiphanies declare change with an immediacy that is often breathtaking. I believe I’ve liked both about equally over the years, but epiphanies are certainly the more exciting . . . retrospection is too much like work :)

  3. Diana Sudyka says:

    Meera, what a great post. I am not familiar with these images, and am definitely inspired to check them out the next time I am at the Field. It’s so impressive how thorough you were in your research of Bierig, and I love your description of exploring the museum. I have the same “pheromone -laden tracks” problem. We’ll have to try and get lost the next time we go.

    • Meera says:

      A., Chuck, Diana—wasn’t he an interesting person? I was so excited when I got home and started trying to find out as much as I could about him. There isn’t much available, and much of what is out there is in Spanish, so I am indebted to the good work of Google Translate. (About which there could easily be another post.)

      Diana, let’s definitely go roving sometime soon!

  4. shoreacres says:

    A wonderful post. Some time back I wrote about Charles Torrey Simpson, the Florida environmentalist and seashell collector extraordinaire. There’s something about people like Bierig and Simpson that is deeply appealing – not least that they were people imbued with extraordinary curiosity about the world around them. Their “careers” didn’t begin with a 20-year plan to become a bug or shell expert – their expertise inextricably was linked to their life circumstances.

    As a matter of fact, that analogy between Bierig prowling his world and you prowling the halls is perfect. Who knows what you’ll find next?

  5. brendan says:

    i love this – mainly because i find myself carried away into the lives of scientists and artists merely by finding out a tiny detail. before i know it, i’m need deep in someone’s story. my most recent was when i discovered the name of a fawn-lilly i’d photographed 7 years ago and then searched out who it was named for. you tied this all together quiet perfectly!

    • Meera says:

      Did you write about that anywhere, Brendan? I might have missed it on WingTrip. If you haven’t yet, put it on your endless list of post topics! :)

  6. Brendan says:

    I never did write about that – but maybe I should? I’ve been regretfully lax as of late.

  7. Bill Smith says:

    Amazing bio! I empathise completely with Bierig. I’m in the process of moving to a small town in central Panama’s rain forest, and hoping to make a small contribution to the local nature study and conservation efforts.
    Thanks for providing this marvelous blog; I happened across it via your Scientific American feature on “spider porn”.

  8. Meera says:

    Hi, Bill! Thanks so much for reading and saying hello! I hope to start posting more regularly again soon, and hope you come back. :) I love that you came over after reading the spider post; it was such a pleasure to work on.

  9. Great to see that people are still writing about Alexander.
    You did quite good research, Meera :)
    I’m his great-great-granddaughter and started researching about him myself a few years ago.
    I’ve been to the Field Museum once, met with one of the Professors there to look at his beetles-collection and drawings (they have a lot of them in the museums archive, as well as some photos and the original self portrait you posted).
    My grandmother, who is his only grandchild, had, though they never met in person, a very lovely and interesting relationship with Alexander. They kept up a correspondence with one another over many years, until he passed away. She kept the letters, beautifully written.
    He also drew a wonderful picture of her (of a photo she’d send him) for her wedding.
    I could tell you a lot about him, but I’m also learning more and more myself every day.
    He actually became a great grandfather (twice) before he passed. First my uncle Michael and then my father, Robert Helmut Weckesser, born in 1961 in Kassel, Germany, where both still live, as well as my grandmother Gisa Weckesser and her husband Helmut Weckesser (senior). Alexander has 6 great-great-grandchildren, and one of them is me :)!
    One day, hopefully soon, I will go to San Jose and try to find his grave…or to see if it’s still existing. He was a Freemason, so it shouldn’t be too hard.
    Thank you, it makes me happy to find posts like this one you wrote!

    Greetings from Berlin!


    • Meera says:

      Rebekka! How fantastic to hear from you, and with such a story! I am very very pleased that you found this, and please do feel free to correct any erroneous information in the post, if you see anything. I would be very interested in hearing about what you have learned and are continuing to learn about Alexander.

      Oh! This is so delightful. :)

      Happy New Year!

    • Virgilio Quesada Acosta says:

      Dear Rebekka, I am writting you down from Costa Rica. I do not know where to start to tell you things about Mr. Bierig that I think will deeply surprise you. My father passed away last Feb. 18th, at the age of 103 years. He knew Mr Bierig for as long as he lived in Costa Rica, and they became good friends. When I read back the article by Meera, I can see that Mr. Bierig was known maynly because of his career as scientist and enthomologist, but in the mean time he was also a great painter and made wonderful drawings.
      In Costa Rica he was teacher at the Universidad de Costa Rica as enthomologist at the Agriculture Faculty, and at the Arts School in the same University. As a matter of fact, here in Costa Rica he was known as a very respected and great teacher. We keep many of his canvas and drawings, as well as many insect drawings like those Meera photographed. I will take some time to make pictures and send them to you. My mother, who is 78, and alive, knew Mr Bierig and remembers him very well. I feel you have now more reasons to come to Costa Rica. I am not used to write in blogs, but please feel free to send me an e-mail to virgilioquesadaacosta so I can send you photos, like the one I have of Mr Bierig riding a Horse. Did you know he was a very talented rider?
      Kind regards from Costa Rica

    • Denis Glover says:

      Note my comment above about Alexander. He did small pencil drawings of my in-laws, and a large oil.