Agri Leader

Good chemistry

Many people move to Highlands County for the weather or the lakes, but research entomologist Dr. Mark Deyrup made a beeline to the area from upstate New York for a different reason - the amazing local ecology, including 114 species of bees, a mint plant specific to Lake Placid and another mint plant specific to Sebring.

Deyrup, who works at Archbold Biological Station in Venus, said that Highlands County has more rare species than any other county in eastern North America.

A native of New York and a veteran of the Peace Corps, Deyrup earned his doctorate in forest entomology at the University of Washington in Seattle. As an undergraduate at Cornell in upstate New York, he had the opportunity to come down to Archbold for spring break.

“Richard Archbold was very friendly to students,” Deyrup recalled. After earning his doctorate, he found himself very happily teaching at Purdue University in Indiana, but happened upon an ad for a position at Archbold. He couldn’t resist a chance to get back to the Florida scrub and took the job.

Since working at Archbold, Deyrup has discovered at least 20 new insect species. One of his finds is a miniscule cricket that feeds on algae just under the surface of the sand and leaves a fine, hardly noticeable trail as it pushes up grains of sand. He named it neotridactylus archboldi after the station.

“Nobody knew about it because it never comes up,” he quipped.

I saw the white tracks, and I knew something was there, so I took my penknife and scraped away the sand and found it, Deyrup added. The little cricket is only about a quarter of an inch long.

The Lake Wales Ridge is home to so many unique plants and creatures, he explained, because of three things: sand, fire and time.

When most of the state was underwater, the Lake Wales Ridge was still dry. “This place has been here a long time; it’s a very ancient habitat,” Deyrup explained. And it isn’t a very hospitable habitat. Sugar sand is hardly nutrient-rich. Plus, the sand provides an underground highway for pests like ants and nematodes. Any plant trying to survive here has to overcome those two obstacles, as well as a third: the natural fires.

Deyrup hiked up a trail and pointed out a small plant with a thin stem and very little foliage. The papery nailwort is only found in this habitat and is federally endangered, Deyrup said. He noticed a little wasp burrowing in the sand. The sand wasp doesn’t sting, and it eats horse flies, he explained. He moved over to a strange-looking plant growing just on top of the hot, white sand. “Sand spike moss,” Deyrup identified it. The primitive plant is related to the ancient foliage that existed before there were any flowering plants, he went on.

How do these plants live in such an unforgiving environment? Deyrup said scientists are looking at possible partnerships with fungi, where the fungi are able to pull trace amounts of water and nutrients out of the sandy soil. There is also the role of natural signals produced by the plants and animals here - an entire chemical language that we are only beginning to understand. Deyrup said learning more about these chemical protections might help us humans protect our crops from insect predators.

In fact, one of his current projects is understanding pollination systems in the Florida scrub habitat. Deyrup explained, “You don’t protect pine trees and oak trees by spraying them. That’s because everything is kept balanced out by predatory insects ... and they are fueled by flowers.”

The cheerful 67-year-old has also published books on local entomology, including “Florida’s Fabulous Insects” and has presented to the Florida Master Naturalists on native pollinators. Unlike honeybees, these solitary insects don’t sting unless threatened and can be great pollinators for crops like cucumbers, squash and melons. Deyrup is also helping to complete a catalogue of all of the insects, spiders and plants found on the station. Hung all around his office and lab are striking pencil drawings of different types of ants, which he creates with the help of a microscope. Deyrup said art is a hobby of his, as well as gardening. He and wife Nancy, who also works at the station, enjoy growing food crops, and are even trying to entice some native pollinators to their garden.

The couple have passed their love of science on to their three children. Their son Stephen is a chemical ecologist, daughter Ingrith Martinez works in the butterfly rainforest in Gainesville, and son Leif is a biology professor.

After more than 30 years, Deyrup’s love of the Lake Wales Ridge is still strong. “It’s a really special place. I’ve been here for 31 years and it’s just as exciting as when I came,” he grinned.