THE SIERRA NEVADA — The windshield of Dave Hawks' 1994 Toyota 4Runner is splattered yellow, but Hawks doesn't mind. He's speeding north on U.S. 395, past Adelanto, Boron and Ridgecrest and running the wipers would only make matters worse. Besides, it's now a point of discussion.
"It's all the fat in their bodies," he says, explaining why this butterfly -- the painted lady -- makes such a distinctive impression. "They need that fat for energy because they have such a long migration."
Spend time in an entomologist's company and you make peace with insect juice. But Hawks, a 49-year-old research associate from UC Riverside, isn't just an entomologist. He's a coleopterist, a tongue-tangling sub-species devoted to the study of beetles.
Catch him in his native element -- the foothills and mountains of California -- and you'll find him chasing down a local variety of these bugs, often in the predawn and often in the cold rain.
He will probably be smiling too, for only under these conditions is he able to find the ever-elusive rain beetle, an insect whose mysterious habits might just tell us one day how California, this far-flung edge of the continent, formed and became home to such a wild diversity of flora and fauna.
Hold this beetle in your hands and you'll stare down nearly 100 million years of evolutionary history, beyond ice ages and the origins of modern man, to the extinction of dinosaurs and the drifting of continents, to a time when the western edge of North America was but a sliver of mountains, these mountains just shy of Nevada, and nothing more.
Now if only rain beetles were easier to catch.
Perhaps the best introduction to Pleocoma, as this genus of bugs is formally known, begins at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park. Step past the dinosaurs and dioramas, take the elevator to the third floor where the Entomology Department houses 5.5 million specimens and pull out Drawer No. 04955.
Pinned to a bed of what looks like white cotton are 100 red-amber and light-brown beetles, no larger than a half-dollar, their exoskeletons glistening with oil, their undercarriages fuzzy with fur. If you pick one up by the head of its pin, you'll find beneath it a tiny label covered with tinier type.
1-20-57. 5 mi. N. Beverly Hills, Oak Pass Rd., Sta Monica Mts., LA Co., Calif, 1100', Noel McFarland.
CA Los Angeles Co. Mulholland Hwy. Allenwood Dr. 20 Nov 83 S. Riff
Mulholland Bridge Sepulveda Pass Santa Monica Mts A.V. Evans at street light.
If L.A. ever had a bug worthy of noir, it would be the rain beetle, a critter whose mating habit puts it in the category of the slippery grunion for being both strange and wondrous, a species that emerges from the shadows of nowhere to mate only in the early morning or late twilight hours -- and only during the winter rains.
Or in the case of the species that Hawks is after this afternoon, Pleocoma rubiginosa, in the spring, at sunset and near melting snow, conditions that make today's outing all the more pleasant.
Hawks hardly needs to add more specimens to his collection, but he relishes the chance to slip out of the lab. He accelerates up Nine Mile Canyon Road just past Pearsonville. The northern stretches of the Mojave fall behind in the rear-view. White patches lie scattered like puzzle pieces on distant peaks.
In 10 miles the road gains 3,700 feet, and at the Chimney Peak Fire Station, he turns onto a dirt road. A meadow is covered with rabbit brush. The sun is warm, and at the top of a small hill, he stops and turns off the engine.
"This should do," he announces.
No one can say why rain beetles prefer to mate under such specialized conditions. Do they warm to the angle of the sun detected deep where they live underground? Do they thrill to the vibration of rain striking the surface of Earth or the dry loam of the forest turning to mud? Are they attuned to changes in barometric pressure?
For a creature that spends most of its life as a lowly grub -- that leggy, waxy comma-shaped denizen of dirt that works the folds of earth, nibbling roots and waiting about 10 years for the moment of pupal transformation when it can fulfill its destiny, become a beetle and live for a few more months underground, waiting for the rain, then mating and dying -- such possibilities are not unreasonable.
Perhaps equally odd is the fact that this seldom-seen bug has been studied as thoroughly as it has.
It all began in 1856. Some gold miners in California had excavated a beetle, stranger than any they had ever seen, and rather than just stepping on it and moving on, they saved it. Then one day John L. LeConte got his hands on it.
Excited at the prospect of a new species, LeConte delivered a paper to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. "A very remarkable insect . . ," he began, quick to make his mark.