Taro Eldredge said he began collecting insects as a young child.
“Little kids like worms,” Eldredge said. “I guess I just never stopped liking worms.”
Eldredge, 34, is the state entomologist for the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Manhattan laboratory, a position he’s held for three years. Born and raised in Japan, Eldredge’s mother is from New England while his father is Japanese. An only child, he lived in Japan until he came to the U.S. after high school to attend Cornell University in New York. He graduated from Cornell in 2009, and later graduated from the University of Kansas with a doctorate in entomology in 2017.
“I found out in college that you can actually major in entomology, and I thought having a job playing with bugs all day would be great,” Eldredge said.
He said there is a widespread appreciation for entomology in Japan that reaches through traditional art forms, including poetry. He said the man who created the successful Pokemon franchise was inspired in part by bug collecting. Eldredge said cultural attachment “was definitely a catalyst” to his passion, along with a large community of Japanese amateur insect collectors from which to draw inspiration.
He said his own bug collection is “in the works” with tens of thousands of pieces spread out across his office and home, but at this point he said it’s “getting to be a problem.”
“Maintaining and curating a bug collection is very hard for a single individual,” Eldredge said. “I do a lot more collecting than I have resources to mount them up properly.”
Eldredge’s expertise in entomology lies in rove beetles, what he says is “a group nobody cares about.”
“It’s a massive group of beetles, like 60,000 different species worldwide and counting,” Eldredge said, “because they’re kind of neglected by the community and difficult to identify.”
Eldredge said there are only about 3,500 known species of rove beetles in the U.S.
“What really drew me to them is they pretty much span the whole spectrum of what beetles are capable of,” Eldredge said. He added that some rove beetles can act as parasites to other social insects, such as ants, and actually alter the behavior of those insects to benefit the beetles over their own species.
Eldredge said the pandemic has led to an increase in phone calls to his office from people asking about strange insects in their yard.
“I think it’s great that more people are spending time outside, getting in tune and in touch with wildlife and the natural world around them, even if it’s just in their backyard,” Eldredge said. “I hope when the pandemic is over that it wasn’t a one-off thing for people, that they continue to show some curiosity about the natural world.”
He said the past 18 months “have been a little chaotic” as he was left with two years’ worth of survey work to accomplish in 2021.
“I think we’ve all felt a little stretched thin,” Eldredge said, “and that we couldn’t spend as much time on individual projects.”
Jeff Vogel is the manager of the plant and weed control program at the KDA lab that oversees Eldredge’s work. He said Eldredge provides “a lot of technical expertise and identification” along with his field surveys that benefit both the state and federal departments of agriculture.
“I think that’s what makes his job interesting,” Vogel said.
He said he and Eldredge also work on biological control projects, or the act of releasing certain beneficial insects to control the noxious or invasive weed species in a given area.
“It’s really neat and cool to be part of those types of projects, trying to use some of our natural plant enemies to help control invasive species,” Vogel said. “Working with Taro is very neat, too.”
Eldredge said the amateur entomology community is a friendly one that encourages people to be curious.
“There are insect collectors in Kansas. I know a couple, besides me,” Eldredge said, “and they’re all great people.”