Community profile: A voice for the bugs
Silt youth entomologist wants to teach others of the insect world
Not many 13-year-olds can say they have an insect collection containing the world’s largest wasp and can also say they caught it with their bare hands. Yet Silt resident and passionate entomologist James Miller Roe has accomplished just that.
“I sympathize for wasps; they are great creatures,” he said.
Since starting an insect quest in 2018, he has been able to fill two display cases of over 80 different insects that range in size from smaller than a pushpin to larger than a baseball.
Miller Roe’s love for the insect world started long ago, and the bug that started the collection was a California root borer beetle found at a neighbor’s house.
“My neighbor called me and said, ‘What the heck is this thing?’ They knew I was interested in bugs,” Miller Roe said. “I’ve always liked bugs. … I had pet grasshoppers. I’ve just always had an affinity for bugs ever since I was little.”
He ran over to check out what his neighbor had discovered, and the rest was history.
“That was really my first exhilaration of finding a bug and catching it,” he said.
He brought the bug home and later showed it to good friend, fellow entomologist and former Garfield County Horticultural Extension Agent Abi Saeed, who told him to freeze it and pin it.
“And I thought, ‘What the heck? I’ve never heard of that,’” he said.
Miller Roe was so excited by the topic of collecting and researching bugs that Saeed gifted him her first insect field guide given to her by a favorite professor when she was starting out as an entomologist.
“James was so excited about the gift that he immediately began reading the book before he had even left the class,” Saeed said.
After that, the hunt was on. He continued to collect bugs for the next year and decided to enter his collection into the 4-H entomology category at the Garfield County Fair in 2019.
“The first year it was judged I actually went to state, which was crazy,” Miller Roe said. “I got reserve champion, which is basically second place.”
The first step to building a bug collection is locating and catching the specimen. Miller Roe then puts the bug in the freezer to humanely euthanize it. The alternative method, which Miller Roe doesn’t agree with, would be to put them in a jar to slowly suffocate them.
“I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to make them suffer at all,” Miller Roe said.
Right out of the freezer the legs and wings of the insect can more easily be manipulated before drying out. He uses a piece of paper to unfold each wing open before pinning each corner down.
The pinning process involves a little board made of cork and molding clay. The pins are specific for pinning bugs and vary in size depending on the size of the insect.
After the bugs are pinned, the insides dry out, leaving just the exoskeleton.
Then comes the hardest work — identification. Each bug in his collection has a little piece of paper attached to it identifying the name, the family it is categorized in and when and where it was found.
“The hardest part is identification,” he said. “That takes forever because take any given bug that you find, any random beetle and try to identify it,” he said. “Try to do that over 100 times, and it’s a lot of work.”
Once identified, each bug in the display is then categorized by the order of the genus species pyramid, including Mantodea, Diptera and Hymenoptera.
“What was particularly impressive to me was how quickly he picked up on the very detailed and difficult task of identifying insects,” Saeed said. “These organisms have very small structures that you need to study in order to identify them, and an insect collection is a great way to build those skills.”
Miller Roe’s favorite insect might seem an unusual choice to some.
“Wasps are my favorite bugs; I love wasps. I argue with my family about killing wasps nests,” Miller Roe said. “They have no reason to just sting you because they want to, it’s for hunting. Wasps are not aggressive by nature — that’s a misconception.”
His wasp collection currently contains 21 different types, including a European hornet, the only true hornet in North America, a tarantula hawk, the biggest wasp in the world, an organ pipe mud dauber, mason wasp, a swallowtail ichneumon and others.
“When I was little, I hated them; they were my worst phobia. But that made me learn about them and become interested in them,” he said.
Miller Roe has more than a passion for wasps — he has an extensive knowledge for them. He can explain in detail how a tarantula hawk hunts, paralyzes and drags a tarantula before laying eggs that turn to larva and eventually eat the host from the inside out.
“A really crazy fact, I don’t know how, but the sex of the tarantula determines the sex of the wasp,” he said with amazement. “It’s all based on this host creature.”
And how does he know all of this? Research.
“I read books, a lot of Google searching, documentaries,” he said. “I remember everything. I remember documentaries that I watched five years ago.”
“I’m just always blown away when I hear him talk and how much he retains,” his mother Angela said. “He just does his own thing; I don’t push any of it.”
His years of research and hunting insects has even inspired his little brother to start his own small collection.
“The next generation of entomologists in the family, that would be awesome,” he said of his little brother who was holding a ladybug he found and pinned.
Miller Roe is fascinated by the world underneath our feet and the science behind it all.
“What always keeps me interested is their world, whether it’s fungus or insects, it’s a completely different planet,” he said. “People are always interested in space, but we’re not focusing enough on the things that already exist here in our world that we just don’t get to see.”
His long-term goals are to attend Colorado State University to become a professor in agricultural or insect sciences.
“That’s why I want to become a professor and go to CSU and teach people about this. Have more people become entomologists and more people focused on the world beneath us,” Miller Roe said.
A few years ago the town of Silt held a town meeting regarding the elm seed bugs that many residents were noticing covering the sides of houses. Saeed led the meeting and informed the residents that the bugs were harmless and gave tips on how to live with them.
Miller Roe attended the meeting of around 50 participants and knew by the end of it that was what he wanted to do in life.
“He came to my presentation at the town meeting and was incredibly engaged during the hour-long lecture,” Saeed said. “Afterwards, Angela told me that James said that he wanted to teach large groups of people about insects as well, and spread the love of entomology to others.”
Miller Roe has been successful in each of the three years he has entered his collection into the 4-H entomology category at the Garfield County Fair. He has won grand champion each year in the county competition as well as reserve champion twice and grand champion at state in 2020.
“I think a lot of winning had to do with the tarantula hawk, because I don’t think anyone else had that,” he said. “It honestly took a lot of guts to catch because it’s the second most painful stinging insect in the world. … It will paralyze your arm for five minutes.”
Though he catches stinging insects for his collection, he has never been stung in the process and believes this is not because of luck but by the way he approaches them.
“Wasps are a lot more docile than you think, and if you know how they react to stuff and have experience with them then you won’t get stung,” Miller Roe said.
Over the next year or two Miller Roe will be working towards unit four in the 4-H entomology category. He will need a collection of at least 75 insects and no more than 150 included in at least nine different orders. He plans to take time building on and perfecting his collection before entering it into the state competition.
“A lot of the (4-H) projects, they tell you not to wait until the last minute, but this one is hard not to because it is insects, and you can’t collect them all winter,” Angela said. “They have to be in that adult stage, so summer is the crunch time, so that’s why he is going to spend a year collecting them. We are usually outside for weeks with nets catching them.”
Miller Roe has a passion for researching the things that are known in the insect world and an immense curiosity to learn about the secrets that have yet to be discovered.
“I think the insect world is so important because it has so many things that can benefit us, but no one pays attention to it,” he said. “It’s crazy how there are so many different things in a bug’s world that we can’t see that could seriously help us.”
Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at 970-384-9108 or email@example.com.
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