Take a walk with the ‘Bug Guy’ from Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Produced and reported by Giuliana Mayo

“I'm the terrestrial invertebrate conservation ecologist at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, which is just a long complicated title for ‘bug person,’” says Zach Phillips of his gig at the garden. Photo by Giuliana Mayo.

If you’ve never heard the term “terrestrial invertebrate conservation ecologist,” don’t worry, it was new to me too. That’s what scientist Zach Phillips’ title is at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. And basically, it just means that he studies bugs in, on, and around plants.

“Surveys of bugs on the plants on the Channel Islands has been one of my main jobs. And then I also help with restoration projects that are run by the Botanic Garden,” explains Phillips. “We basically replace all the non-native plants that are commonly there with native plants. And then part of my job is seeing how that affects the insect communities and the bird communities, with the hypothesis being that the native communities of plants will promote native insect diversity and bird diversity, compared to the non-native plant communities.”

A full conclusion on this project is still a couple of years away, but Phillips says the hypothesis holds.

On the day we strolled around the gardens, he showed me some of the ways he surveys bugs, and first up was “beat sheeting.”

“Basically ‘beat sheeting’ is what it sounds like. You have a sheet, and you put it underneath part of a plant that you're going to hit with a stick or something else, and a bunch of bugs fall off onto the sheet. And then you collect them. So it's a good crude method of collecting a range of insects that are on the plant.”

On this day, we saw many an invasive Argentine ant, spiders, and roly polys crawling around on his white sheet. He sucked up a spider into an aspirator, which is a glass vial with two tubes coming out of it. Air went into one tube and bugs went into the other. A filter made sure he didn’t accidentally swallow the bug. 

After that, we moved on to sifting, which looks like panning for gold with two cake pan-sized sifters. He threw handfuls of dirt and leaf litter on top of the sifters, then shook them until bugs and leaf bits were left. More invasive Argentine ants and more roly polys emerged. 

Then we looked at leaf galls, which are parts of the leaf that critters have moved into. The galls expanded, and in this case, changed color to make room for all the creepy crawlies. 

“The gall-forming insects are really interesting because they have a symbiotic relationship with the plant that hosts them,” Phillips shares. “They manipulate the plants to create little homes for them as they develop and feed. And then those little homes are exploited by other insects that come feed on the gall-forming ones, where they take over the gall itself. So it's a whole little ecosystem.” In this case, the ecosystem looked like a red wart on the manzanita’s green leaves.

“It's good to have long fingernails for some entomology,” Zach Phillips said before splitting the gall open with his carefully tended nails. Photo by Giuliana Mayo.

After all this, it was time to say goodbye, Phillips had other important science-y stuff to do. “I'm gonna go to a park where we're doing one of our transformations. Because tomorrow, I'm leading a plant bug walk. And I'm going to just scope out what bugs are available on what plants, so I can highlight them for the people in the walk.” 

A bug guy’s work is never done.



  • Zach Phillips - Terrestrial invertebrate conservation ecologist, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden


Giuliana Mayo