THE POCKET WATCH: Local entomologist continues his string of discoveries in web of intrigue

Terry Allen, local renown entomologist posed on May 21, 2014 for a photo in his home laboratory where he houses about 50,000 insects and a “couple thousand fossils.”  Photo by Don Meuchel

Terry Allen, local renown entomologist posed on May 21, 2014 for a photo in his home laboratory where he houses about 50,000 insects and a “couple thousand fossils.” Photo by Don Meuchel

It’s difficult to talk to Terry Allen—even if you’ve known and loved him for 20 years plus, as I have—without occasionally stopping as he speaks and thinking to yourself, “There is no way that is true!” But then he pulls out one of his meticulously kept scrapbooks, and you read a clipping from the Sacramento Bee or from Time Magazine and realize that he really was involved in every one of those crazy adventures that he references in the course of nearly every story he tells. Spend an hour with Terry, and you leave convinced that the guy in the Dos Equis commercials has pretty much led a milquetoast life by comparison.

Nationally recognized and fully-accredited entomologist, longtime Pocket neighborhood supporter and activist, dinosaur expert, cancer survivor, humane trapper, man of intrigue, overall hard luck guy, and friend to all, Terry recently contacted me with a claim that was no less difficult to believe than any of his other impossible-but-true stories: “I know what’s killing the bees!” he declared. With that information, I knew that I would soon be visiting the epicenter of every arachnophobe’s worst nightmare, Terry Allen’s home laboratory in the River Village neighborhood.

I’m not particularly afraid of spiders (snakes and rats, on the other hand… let’s just say that I’m glad that my friend isn’t a herpetologist), but stepping into his lab, the first thing that greets you—other than the pungent scent of mothballs or acetate or formaldehyde or whatever chemicals he uses to kill and/or preserve his specimens; they hit you in the face as with a baseball bat, while Terry appears not even to notice the scent at all—are walls and tables filled with the wildest, hairiest, and, in some cases, biggest, bugs you could never possibly have imagined being concentrated in one room. It is amazing to behold the intricate care that obviously went into each mounting, each exhibit.

Terry is ready to talk Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs (just identified for the first time ever in the Pocket Area by Terry, bad news!), the fate of the European Honey Bees, and a new species of bee discovered here by Terry, the European Wool Carder Bee (or the “Butcher Bee”, Terry’s fitting appellation for the new species), and he enthusiastically launches into his presentation. 

“—Before we get started,” I interrupt politely, still taking in the sheer numbers of creatures well within arm’s reach as I start to sit down, “Is there anything alive in this room?”

“Just that Black Widow behind you,” says Terry. I leap, but only slightly. I don’t think he notices. He is surveying the room to respond to my question. I turn and see a Black Widow in a small cylindrical jar with a stick in it.

“Oh, there is this! I found him yesterday in my garden. I saved him for you!” he beams, as he hands me a stout oversized plastic jar containing a sprig of leaves whose base pierces a small jar of water covered with saran wrap sealed with a rubber band. “Do you see him?”

I raise the jar up to eye level and peer into what looks EXACTLY like the cover of Steely Dan’s fourth album, “Katy Lied.”

“It’s a Katydid!” says Terry. “It looks just like a leaf! I heard him singing the night before…”

Suddenly, the whole mystery of the 1975 album’s cover art, a 40-year play on words by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker that had previously existed well over my head, clears up for me, “Katydid – Katy lied.” The song “Doctor Wu” from the album provides the mental soundtrack of the rest of my time with Terry this day.

Terry explains how the recent discovery of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug in the backyard of his neighbor, Roger Sava, himself a retired biologist, could spell trouble for fruit harvests in the Delta, just across the river from the Pocket. Native to Asia, this particular stink bug (there are several other stink bug relatives, Terry points out) is a voracious eater known to attack a variety of fruit trees. With very few natural predators and an abundance of food sources, this invasive insect is currently classified only as a nuisance threat in California because of its limited presence here. Terry’s identification is just one of a few in Northern California. But in 2010, it caused catastrophic damage in some mid-Atlantic states, where some growers of sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes, apples, and peaches reported total losses. “This could develop into a major threat to the local pear and wine grape industry,” warns Terry, “just to name a few.”

Remnants of another major threat, this to humankind, itself, according to Terry, was recently discovered in a flowerbed in his own front yard, in the form of the European Wool Carder Bee, a nasty little cousin from the Leafcutter bee family that Terry refers to as the “Butcher Bee.” Terry witnessed the very specimen he has mounted on a pin in his lab attack a typical Honey Bee, precious pollinator of 80 percent of all flowering crops, which represent a full third of everything we eat, not to mention pollinating crops like alfalfa, a staple for the cattle that provide our beef and dairy. The demise of this little bee would result in a lot of empty cases at Bel Air and Nugget.

“A lot of speculation has surrounded the mass death of bee colonies across the country,” explains Terry. “Everything from fungicides to insecticides to cell phone radiation has been blames for these deaths, but this new species I’ve discovered, the Butcher Bee, attacks European Honey Bees and maims them, ripping off their wings, cutting off their legs, stabbing them. I’ve found maimed Honey Bee carcasses everywhere, and it’s no coincidence that this crisis occurs at the same time as the discovery of the Butcher Bee.”

Terry says he’s reported his findings to all appropriate agencies, including the Sacramento County Department of Agriculture, the State Beekeepers Association, the California Farm Bureau, and researchers at UC Davis. Interest was enthusiastically received initially, but it has since cooled. Terry wonders if, perhaps, his reputation has preceded him.

In the early 1980s, Terry’s position as an Entomologist with the State of California, put him at the eye of the storm that was the Mediterranean Fruit Fly crisis, a wild episode in state history that sent Terry’s life in an uncontrollable spiral, putting him at odds with state officials all the way up to the Governor, himself, and leading to multimillion-dollar lawsuits, physical attacks, and, unbelievably, to Terry’s arrest and alleged forced retirement. Since that time, he has lived, well, in undeserved infamy in the view of the establishment, as an erstwhile whistleblower.

Terry has countless wild, wild, stories about the kind of intrigue that swirled around him at the time, stories that are virtually impossible to believe of this kind and unassuming man, whose slight stature and bookish appearance belie his claims involvement, albeit as a victim, of chicanery of this level. Yet, each story is has been carefully documented in a way that, really, only a fastidious scientist could document. Doubt him, and he’ll hand you a binder filled with clippings and reports that confirm his claims. You imagine that the movie rights to his story could be worth a fortune, a cross between The Rainmaker and Arachnophobia just waiting to appear in theaters everywhere.

Then there are the bees. It’s such an important scientific issue. Why aren’t people paying attention? Terry just shrugs his shoulders and keeps researching. Every day, seven days a week. “That’s all I can do—it’s what gives my life meaning,” he says.

“Are you with me, Doctor Wu?
Are you merely just a shadow
of the man who I once knew?
Are you crazy? Are you high,
or just an ordinary guy?
Have you done all you can do?
Have they finally got to you?
Are you with me, doctor?
Can you hear me, doctor?
~Steely Dan, “Doctor Wu” from the album “Katy Lied”, 1975.

The Pocket Watch appears in every issue of The Pocket News. Jeff Dominguez can be reached at jeff.dominguez@yahoo.com

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