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The Big Bug Hunt

Starship Troopers
Tippett Studios

Planet of the Ates: Sort of a giant cousin to the earthly cockroach, an alien defends its world and insect buddies and prepares for a late brunch of beautiful young hunks in 'Starship Troopers.'

Buzzwacket creator Richard DiLeo, a real live entomologist, gets real about 'Starship Troopers' and bursts a few fantasy balloons about insects

By David Templeton


Metro Santa Cruz writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he teams up with bug-baiting entomologist Richard DiLeo, inventor of the deadly Buzzwacket, to view the futuristic giant-bug epic Starship Troopers.

DIRECTLY BENEATH the movie theater, this cavernous underground parking garage echoes with odd, eerie sounds: low, droning voices, doors snapping shut, the reverberant scream of tires. As small swarms of theatergoers emerge behind me, they scamper out among the cars and shadows, quickly disappearing from sight. It is almost midnight.

A tall, swarthy fellow with a curly abundance of hair and a frequent, wide-open smile, Richard DiLeo stands beneath the glowing green exit sign, delaying his own departure to tell me one last bug story, to relate one more amazing bug fact. From the moment we met four hours ago--not counting the 120 minutes spent watching the wild, bug-battling gore-fest that is Starship Troopers--my guest has imparted enough entomological information to fill the pages of a college textbook.

"Here's something else," DiLeo divulges, "and this is an absolute fact: No species of pestiferous insect has ever been driven to extinction. Some non-pests have, but the pestiferous insects--flies, yellow jackets, mosquitoes--have incredible genetic reservoirs, so they'll always survive. Just try to eradicate the fly. You'll never do it."

The eradication of pests is a subject close to DiLeo's heart. Though primarily known as a general contractor, he nevertheless holds a Cal-Berkeley degree in entomology, an area of expertise that, until recently, seemed to exist mainly to give him an edge playing Trivial Pursuit.

Last summer, however, weekend tinkerer DiLeo stepped into the spotlight as the inventor of the Buzzwacket. An elegantly simple device--a cross between a racquet-ball racket, a fly-swatter and a waffle iron that enables humans to whack the airborne critter in mid-flight--the instantly popular Buzzwacket is threatening to turn pest-pulverizing into a national sport.

"Too bad the Starship Troopers didn't have one of these," I say, putting down my fork to reach into my backpack for my own bright-yellow Buzzwacket. "They'd need a really big one, obviously."

It is just minutes after we saw the bug-bashing movie about a group of military trainees during an intergalactic war with voracious alien insects that can breath fire, hurl meteors through space, suck the brains from hapless humans and shoot explosive gases from their butts, and we are now happily scarfing pizza in a restaurant near the theater.

Earlier, while waiting for the film to begin, DiLeo had enthralled nearby audience members with tales of his entomological exploits. ("Yellow jackets," he explained, "are predatory insects that hunt with their jaws. Think of them as really ferocious flying ants. When I was kid, I tried to capture a colony of yellow jackets. I must have been stung 60 times.") Now, as we eat, DiLeo grins at the sudden appearance of his invention.

"Unfortunately, the Buzzwacket wouldn't have worked against those bugs," he admits. "Even a big one. Those bugs were the size of trucks. The Buzzwacket only works because it's being wielded by someone so much bigger than the bug. We can apply the force and momentum necessary to clip their wings because we're 100 times taller. You'd need something like insecticide. Bugs could never get that big, by the way," he cheerfully adds.

"Bugs have their skeletons on the outside, right? And when they grow, they basically burst out of the old exoskeleton and wait for a new one to form. Until then, they're basically a thin bag of water," DiLeo instructs. "If bugs were any bigger than they are, standard gravitational forces would cause them to burst like balloons."

"Too bad," I reply. "I guess the next thing you'll tell me is that real bugs can't shoot fire from their butts?"

"Actually, they can do that," DiLeo laughs. "Bombardier beetles. Dark green, about three-quarters of an inch long, native to California. They manufacture two different kinds of chemicals in their bodies. If you're a predator and you grab one of these guys, they'll aim their butt at you. They combine the two chemicals, then there's a loud 'pop!', a puff of smoke and a really hot explosion."

"Yow," I declare, appreciatively. "Does the explosion melt the attacker or anything?"

"Well, no," DiLeo shrugs. "But let's put this in the proper scale." He pushes back his plate and raises his hands in a reptilian attack gesture. "I'm the lizard," he says. "So, we're talking about a beetle this big." He extends his arms to indicate a bug the approximate size of a World War II naval harbor mine. "A bug this big suddenly lets loose with a puff of smoke, a noise and a big blast of heat right in my face. I don't know about you, but I'd let go of the bug."

DiLeo takes another bite of pizza.

"There's even an insect, an ant, that has caustic chemicals in its body," he continues. "Let's say its colony is attacked. It starts to freak out, goes, 'Huh, I'm about to be eaten,' and what it does is, it explodes itself, splattering the attacking animal with poisonous body parts, thereby saving the rest of the colony.

"Don't even get me started on blister beetles," he adds.

In the now silent cavern, still stretching out our farewell, DiLeo shrugs at my suggestion that perhaps it is, uh, a little bit cruel to slice the wings off a bug, in the way that the Buzzwacket so effectively does.

"Cruel? I'm the guy who gets quarter-sized welts from mosquito bites," he laughs. "Here's an absolute fact. Bugs don't need to worry. Bugs are the most successful group of animals on the planet. Believe me, they'll be here long after we've driven ourselves out of the picture."

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From the Nov. 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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