The Bugman of Mt. Washington


The Bugman has a list of top SoCal bugs that he wants to see one of these days: the long-horned California prionus beetle, the luxurious ceanothus silk moth and the lovely Pacific green sphinx moth. He’s also itching to see the rain beetle in action. “The males are the only ones that fly and the females are 8-10 feet underground,” he says. “They mate only during the winter rains in the early morning or late twilight hours.”

Alas, for the Bugman: most of the bugs he sees daily come across to him via emails – usually in the arena of 140-200 per day. As the driving force behind the internet sensation website “What’s That Bug?” the Bugman responds to queries from all over the country from folks who have snapped an unidentifiable bug and whose curiosity demands answers.

The Bugman is a nom de plume of Daniel Marlos, a resident of the Mt. Washington area of North East Los Angeles, who has no background in entomology but who does possess a passion for creepy crawlies; thanks to the plethora of insects that inhabit the world, Marlos has managed for the last decade to carve out a secret second life as the Bugman.

As a full-time instructor of photography at Los Angeles Community College in their media arts department and occasional part time teacher at Art Center College of Design, Marlos has infused his wit and boundless enthusiasm into the website for more than a decade.

Because of the success of the popular website – which drew 2 million people last year from 219 countries – Marlos has just published his first book, The Curious World of Bugs: The Bugman’s Guide to the Mysterious and Remarkable Lives of Things That Crawl from Penguin Group publishing.

Marlos will be at L.A.’s Theodore Payne Foundation on Saturday, May 28 discussing his book as well as riffing on insects and sharing buggy tales.

“The book is done in the spirit of ‘What’s That Bug?’ but a little more organized,” he says calling it a Farmer’s Almanac-style book that contains short stories, tidbits and facts. Unlike the website though, there are no photos – just wonderful vintage line-drawings of insects which elevates the book into an artistic celebration of the science of insects.

The Curious World of Bugs is garnering some great reviews: Good Reads says the book “celebrates bugs for what they truly are: strange, mysterious, cute, beautiful, and occasionally disturbing…[it] offers a glimpse into the magical world of bugs that bite, infest, fascinate, repulse, and inform us all.”

Marlos got his first taste of entomological writing back in the 1990s when he helped his friend Lisa Anne Auerbach by writing a regular column about bugs for her zine, American Homebody. “People always want to find out what kind of bug they have discovered in the bathroom, outdoors, etc.” he says. “As a child growing up in Ohio, I had – and still do — a great fascination with insects.”

The ‘zine moved online in 1998, but over the months it was apparent that Marlos’ column struck a chord with readers. People were sending digital pictures of strange and interesting bugs, insects they found in their homes, while on vacation, hiking or just down the street. Everyone wanted to know “what’s that bug?” and Marlos became the self-proclaimed insect expert.

Overwhelmed with the requests, Marlos reached out to the real experts in the field who helped him identify and offer enlighting information about the critters people have discovered. From flies, wasps, beetles, caterpillars, scorpions, spiders, etc., Marlos quickly learned that the insect world is a complex, specific and almost magical in its depth and breath.

In 2002, “What’s That Bug?” branched out on its own as a unique website with 15,000 posts under its belt and an ability to translate queries from 50 languages, including Arabic and Japanese. Accolades include Yahoo Pick of the week in 2003, USA Today Hotsite in 2004, Earthlink Weird Web in 2006, Real Simple Magazine in 2006, Sunset Magazine in 2007, and a lecture at the Getty in 2008. Google the word “Bug” and the first listing will be “What’s That Bug?”

Marlos is proud that the site is child-friendly even with a section on Bug Love (photos of mating bugs accompanied by the occasional double entendre) and the sometimes-disturbing Carnage section (photos of squashed bugs — not for the squeamish, by no means).

The Bugman is a strong supporter of not killing bugs. “People react fast and don’t realize that just about every bug they encounter is perfectly harmless and not worth killing,” says Marlos. The website, while it celebrates bugs, understands that there are those out there who shriek from them. To that end, Marlos uses the website as a platform to preach tolerance and encourage readers to look more objectively at bugs as natural engineering marvels.

All in all, teacher by day, Bugman by early morning, Marlos sees the world of insects both scientific and artistic.  He can rattle off facts and figures about the iron cross blister beetle but also wax poetic about the charmed life of the Brunner’s mantid, a mantid species of in Texas that have evolved to only be female, no males.  They reproduce by cloning, of all things. Is there no end to what bugs can do?!

As it goes, Marlos owes a lot to bugs; they have given him a second “glamorous” life as well as a deep appreciation for the natural world.  “It’s all about the interconnectivity of all things on this planet. We can’t eliminate one species without affecting others,” he says.  “We can appreciate these lower beasts and, in the process, get a bigger picture of the world around us.”

— Brenda Rees, editor