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Bitten by the Bug : Parks Employee Is on a First-Name Basis With Several Creepy-Crawlies

August 27, 1992|DICK WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Michael J. Martinez walked right up to a spider that sat on a honeysuckle vine at the El Dorado Park Nature Center. " Neoscona crucifera ," he said, with the assurance only a bug enthusiast could have. "They've got crosses on their backs."

Martinez, 48, whose job is to spray weeds and get rid of gophers for the city of Long Beach, has become known in scientific journals through his knack for discovering new types of spiders and ants.

Wearing the blue shirt of the Parks and Recreation Department, with "Mike" stitched on it, Martinez ducked nearly invisible, circular webs as he looked for spiders the other morning at the nature center, which is off Spring Street near the 605 Freeway.

"Oh, there's a big one," he said, picking up a crucifera as nonchalantly as if it were a piece of candy. He pulled out his magnifying glass. "See the crosses. The cross-carrying spider would be a good name for it."

According to Harvard University, Martinez was the first person to identify the crucifera in California--in Orange County in 1982. He saw them in Long Beach for the first time in 1990. He said the natives of Africa and the Canary Islands possibly made their debut here when an egg sac hatched after a journey from the East Coast.

Now they are appearing in large numbers, especially in El Dorado Park, and Martinez has also spied them in the Bixby Knolls area. They are displacing the native spiders, but apparently pose no threat to humans. One has yet to bite Martinez.

"They're not dangerous as far as I know," he said, a view later confirmed over the telephone by Prof. Herbert W. Levi of the Department of Invertebrates at Harvard.

Under the magnifying glass, the three white crosses came into clear focus. So did a fly, which was in the spider's mouth.

"There are probably thousands of them here; they are exploding," Martinez said of the light brown, moderately large (just less than an inch-long) spiders. "You usually don't see them until the fall, but this year they're having more generations because of all the insects that have resulted from the heavy rains and high humidity."

The crucifera are unlikely to be found in homes. "They are strictly outdoor spiders," Martinez said. "They try to escape when you try to come close to them."

He grabbed for another, but it retreated deep into the leaves.

The newcomers, winning fights for web spots, have driven the native orb-web weavers-- Neoscona Oaxacensis and Araneus gemma-- off the honeysuckle vines and back into more open areas of the nature center.

Martinez pointed out the natives--they were similar in color but did not have crosses on their backs--as he walked along a trail bordered by mustard plants, sunflowers and eight-foot-tall telegraph weeds.

"It's nice here, unspoiled," the weed sprayer said. Butterflies, living out their few precious months, flitted about, as did bumblebees and moths. The native spiders, who survive only about a year themselves, spun their silky orbs. A bullfrog croaked.

Spiders and bugs have long fascinated Martinez, who enjoys the unofficial title of Long Beach's resident entomologist.

"I was interested in insects as long as I can remember, maybe even when I was seven or eight," he said. "My brother and I would ride our bikes (in Los Angeles) looking for spiders. We'd catch them in the fields and bring them home to my back yard. I also collected butterflies and had pet lizards and frogs. My brother was interested in insects too, but he outgrew it."

Martinez, who lives in Long Beach with his wife, Charlean, and daughters, Sunday, 14, and Andrea, 12, studied entomology at Cal State Long Beach. After graduation, with jobs in his field unavailable, he worked in a mosquito abatement program in Orange County and set traps for Medflies before joining the Long Beach Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine in 1985.

His interest in insects is encouraged by officials in the parks department, who point to the favorable publicity that has resulted from his findings. And he has impressed the bug professionals.

"Mike has certainly an unparalleled interest in entomology," said Nick Nisson, the entomologist for Orange County. "He pursues new things he's found with vigor."

In 1989, at Admiral Kidd Park in West Long Beach, Martinez experienced the thrill of finding an unfamiliar small brown ant. It was later identified by a Harvard University scientist as Pheidole teneriffana, an ant native to Africa that had never been found in North America.

Martinez described the ant in a nomenclature-filled report that was published in the Pan-Pacific Entomologist.

"That was the first article I wrote, and I've received requests for reprints from scientists at the University of Idaho, Texas A&M and the University of Quebec," he said. "And I received one from Western Exterminator in Irvine. It's very exciting to discover a new species."

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