08 – One (Not So Brief) Interlude on Insects

Continued from Settling In.

Although it was still dark outside when Grissom woke the next morning, he found the space on the cot beside him empty and cold to the touch. He sighed and rolled over to reach for his watch.

He blinked at it bleary-eyed for a minute before the numbers finally resolved into focus. They confirmed what he already suspected. It was just past five and Sara was up and probably hard at work already.

Some things it seemed never did change.

He dressed quickly and when he did step out into the dimness discovered that Sara was indeed busy with her specimens. He was heartened however that it didn’t appear as if she had been at it very long.

“Good morning,” he whispered, placing a long lingering kiss into her hair.

“Hey,” she replied and remembering the mishap of the day before carefully set the beetle she was in the middle of processing aside.

He rested a hand on her shoulder. It stayed there while he leaned in to get a better look at what she had been working on. “Is this what is always getting you out of bed so early?” he asked, peering curiously at the boxes in front of her.

She shook her head. “No, that’s your snoring.”  And as it became apparent that Grissom wasn’t going to rise to the bait, she added, her eyes bright with mischief, “If you are going to make a habit of sneaking up on people, we might have to seriously consider making you wear a bell.”

“I don’t sneak,” maintained Grissom.


When he returned his attention to the series of freshly labeled specimens, Sara said, “However, you were right about that entomology textbook of yours coming in handy.”

She could see his lips twitch into a ghost of a grin, but he only continued in his examination.

“Well?” she asked after a while. Although she should have known better than to expect any sort of cogent response from him when there were bugs around.

His vaguely muttered, “Hmm?” only served to reinforce that fact.

“How am I doing?” There was a faint hint of insecurity in her voice, one that hadn’t been there for a long time, at least not when it came to things of a professional rather than personal nature. But as bugs were Grissom’s specialty and she was in many ways still really just starting out, Sara valued his expert opinion.

“Good,” he replied. “Really good.”

“Don’t sound so surprised,” Sara quipped uneasily.

“I’m not,” he said. “I was just thinking you really don’t need me around here.”

Sara sighed, “I think you more than just a little overestimate my abilities, Gil.”

“Hardly,” he countered. “And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Ana had nothing but praise for your skills. Said you had the best eye for detail that she’s ever seen.”

“Yeah, well it seems that all those years of practice looking for hair, fiber and trace evidence come in handy for something else too.”

“She also said your field notes and sketches were legendary.”

“For their bad handwriting,” laughed Sara.

“Well, that too,” Grissom conceded. Then in all seriousness he added, “It really is good — all the work you’ve done here.”

“I can’t take all the credit,” she replied. “I’ve had a really good teacher.”


Sara nodded. “Yes. Very thorough. And no, not the least bit dull.”

She saw him smile both at the compliment and the reference.

“I have, too.”

This response came as a bit of a surprise to Sara. “I knew Gerard was a pioneer in a number of forensic disciplines,” she said. “But I didn’t know he did bugs, too.”

“He doesn’t. But I wasn’t talking about bugs.”

Their eyes met; Sara’s widened as she realized what he was intimating, and like it so often happened when it came to Grissom’s earnest pronouncements, found that she could not think of a reply — any reply at all really. So she merely gaped at him for moment.

“I still have a lot to learn,” he admitted softly, brushing a curl back behind her ear as he said it.

“So do I,” she said with a slight smile. “And yes, we really do need you around here.

“Like yesterday. That Canthidium specimen. You knew exactly what it was in less than ten seconds, while I had been pouring over that thing for ten minutes.”

“That’s easy enough to explain,” Grissom offered. “Do you have it handy?”

Sara retrieved the appropriate box from the day before. Using the long metal forceps, Grissom gently withdrew the tiny dung beetle.

“There are more than twenty recorded Canthon species indigenous to Costa Rica and probably several more that have yet to be discovered. Sadly, a lot of them look alike.”

“Yeah, I hadn’t noticed.”

“Well, people probably all look the same to insects.”

Sara wasn’t entirely sure that was true. It was more likely that the insects couldn’t even be bothered to give humans a second glance. Her experience out in the field was that when it came to most bugs — or at least the ones that weren’t interested in using you as a food source — they tended to regard people as something at least — if not more — inconsequential than rocks.

Grissom held the specimen beneath the desktop magnifier. “Take a look at the tip of its head. See how the edge is serrated so it looks almost like a series of teeth?”

She squinted. “Yeah.”

“The principle distinguishing feature of Canthidium variolosum is that there are always four of those teeth-like projections.”

Sara sighed in bemusement, “So in this case, the devil really is in the details.”

He nodded. “Especially with beetles.”

“And there are a lot of beetles,” she replied.

“More than eight million species of them. Which means that Haldane was probably right.”

“J.B.S. Haldane, one of the fathers of population genetics Haldane?”

He gave her another nod. “He once said — probably more tongue-in-cheek than not — that if the natural world said anything about the nature of a divine creator, it must be that God had ‘an inordinate fondness for beetles.’”

Sara chuckled and familiar with Haldane’s rather atheistic views on religion and the universe said, “Then Shaw must also have been right — ‘All great truths begin as blasphemies.’”

Grissom grinned, then gesturing to the specimens on the table said, “Ana only gave me the highlights yesterday. Can you walk me through the actual protocols?”

“Here? Now?” Sara asked.

He shrugged. “Why not? I mean if you have the time. Or would you rather not have company at the moment?” he said, echoing her words from the night before when she had found him busy reading.

Seeing that he was as serious as he ever was, Sara scooted over to make room for him on the bench and motioned for him to join her.

“First,” she began, “You have to understand that most of what I know is limited to insects and other arthropods, so if you want to know about the botanical side of things you are going to have to talk to Ana or Stephen.”

Grissom, accepting the caveat, indicated for her to continue.

“As you probably already know, much of the data scientists currently have on tropical rain forests is incredibly incomplete. Even when it comes to something as seemingly simple as knowing which species can be found where. Particularly when it comes to invertebrates, as most studies have focused on the populations of higher orders like mammals and birds.”

“Ah, the charismatic mega-vertebrates –” Grissom supplied, his tone rife with the same sort of disdain as one used to utter a dirty word.

“Yeah. The sexier side of conservation biology I guess.”

“Ah, if they only knew,” Grissom said with a knowing sort of grin.

To which Sara gave him a curious raise of the eyebrows.

“Let’s just say that by human standards there is nothing conventional about the reproductive habits of plants,” he replied. “The allure of the bright flowers. The false pretenses. Bribery. Rampant promiscuity. Cross-kingdom ménage à trios –”

“The scandal –” Sara cried in mock horror. “And yet,” she said gesturing to the fauna around them, “they all look so innocent.”

“There is nothing innocent about flowers,” he countered. “Despite what all the poets say.”

“When you put it that way,” she conceded before returning to her explanation. “As it is hard to see which species are being affected or lost because of climate and change or habitat loss if you have no idea what plants and animals were there in the first place, what Ana and Stephen as well as other researchers in various sites throughout the country are trying to do is to come up with a sort of master list of species — of all the species — that make their homes within the various biomes.”

“Sort of like a species census.”

“Yes, all linked to detailed habitat maps,” Sara replied. “But this requires an almost constant state of sampling. Species migrate based on weather, the food on hand and availability of suitable mates. And with insects it is even more complicated.”

“Because of the huge lifestyle differences between immature stages and adults.”

“Right,” Sara nodded. “Besides, the sheer volume of insect species is mind blowing. A single square mile of rainforest here can be home to thousands of species of arthropods.”

“You should be happy that they’ve narrowed the definition of insect over the centuries,” said Grissom. “In the 1600’s the term not only covered what we typically consider insects today, but also worms, slugs, frogs and even crocodiles.”

She shook her head in incredulity. “Okay, the worms and slugs I can vaguely understand, but crocodiles?”

“Sometimes even science is more of an art than an exact science.”

“True,” she agreed, then said, “At first, I wondered what difference something as simple as identifying plants and collecting beetles could make. But you have to start somewhere. And having and knowing the names are that first step.”

She then began to explain that while Ana’s specialty had always been tropical botany, it hadn’t taken her very long to recognize the importance of having a bug specialist on site. However, Sara hadn’t had a chance to meet the previous entomologist-in-residence, as the young post-doc had returned to the states in late October to give birth to her first child.

As this had left the station one bug person short, Sara tried to help out as much as she could. And while having worked and practically lived with a highly respected entomologist hadn’t hurt, and everything she had picked up from all the subsequent reading she had done after Grissom had given her that entomology textbook for Christmas several years back had proven useful, she was no expert by any means. Definitely not the way he was.

So she was certain that she wasn’t the least bit exaggerating when she told Grissom, “Ana must have been ecstatic to hear that you wanted to come.”

He smiled at this, but only waited for her to continue with her explanations.

Bernie and Luis, the camp’s local resident parataxonimists, had received a six month course specializing in taxonomy and were ostensibly responsible for collecting, sorting, cleaning and identifying the specimens, but mostly they handled much of the grunt and dirty work and never seemed to complain, at least not in any English or Spanish Sara could recognize. That didn’t mean they were exactly crazy about having dung-duty though.

When Grissom asked, “Horse, pig or human?” Sara knew he was inquiring about the source of the bait that they used to attract coprophagous insects.

“Human,” she supplied.

“That gives a whole new meaning to the phrase waste not want not,” he quipped. “So how did you get to be exempt?”

“Apparently, chivalry is not dead,” Sara replied. “Or perhaps it is just machismo. I don’t know.”

“But you aren’t complaining.”

“Not very loudly, no.”

“So what exactly do you do then?” he asked.

She explained how she had spent her first week becoming acclimated to the heat and humidity, visiting the various research plots to familiarize herself with the environs and microhabitats and learning everything she could about the survey, collection and analysis protocols the study operated under before transitioning into the actual field rotation.

Over time though much of the archival work had fallen to her. Sara didn’t really mind. The two young men knew and understood the forest far better than she probably ever could or would, and after all the years she had spent as a CSI, she was very adept at analysis. So more often than not, she spent the pre-dawn hours when everyone else was still asleep working on keeping up with the specimens that had been gathered the day or days before. Then once chores and breakfast were attended to, she went out with the young men to set and retrieve traps and do various other sample and data collection. In the afternoon, she returned back to camp to set to work on sorting, cleaning and preparing the specimens. As there could frequently be more than 100 new ones to go through everyday, the whole process kept her very and pleasantly occupied.

And since she was now in charge of most of the cataloging, that not only allowed for an increase in the number of samples the station could handle at any one time, but the arrangement also frequently freed up one of the guys to help Ana and Stephen with their plant surveys and habitat maps.

For the most part, obtaining terrestrial specimens hadn’t proven too difficult. The arboreal ones required a bit more creativity and some climbing on the part of the Luis and Bernie. But Sara admitted they were still slightly stymied in trying to figure out the best way to trap the insects that were primarily of the aerial sort.

When she presented this problem to Grissom, he merely said, “Got any rum?”

“Thinking about making daiquiris?” she laughed.

“No, dear. For sugaring.”

Sugaring?” Sara queried, unfamiliar with the term.

“Old lepidopterist trick,” he explained. “Add four pounds of sugar to one bottle of stale beer and add a dash of rum. Paint it on trees and it will lure your daytime fliers.”

“And it makes them easier to catch because they’re drunk?”

Grissom’s brow furrowed. “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” he said, but she could tell his mind was seriously contemplating the possibility. Although he seemed to shelve it for future consideration for he next said, “As for nighttime insects, can you get a hold of a black light?”

“Like the ones we used to use for ALS?”

“Yeah, but bigger if you can find them. Then you just need a white sheet, some rope and a couple of trees in a fairly exposed space, like the side of a hill, and a night that is fairly still and moonless. Considering how late the moon seems to rise around here, it should be a simple prospect.”

Unsurprisingly impressed at the ease of his suggestion, Sara said, “I’ll mention it to Ana. Unless you want to.”

“No, go ahead,” he urged her.

For while Grissom was ostensibly the bug expert, he wasn’t the boss here and had no desire to be and so was more than content to be just another member of the team.

He was enjoying, too, the fact that in many ways, he and Sara had reversed roles when it came to work, with him as the student and her as the mentor.

Yes, he found the whole thing to be yet another change that he was thoroughly appreciating.

When she had quickly glossed over the preservation and archival protocols, most of which were standard operating procedures that any entomologist would know, Grissom leaned back and let out a genuinely impressed sigh.

But there wasn’t time really for his praise to go to Sara’s head, as there was still work to be done that morning. Several specimens from the days previous had yet to be prepped. Sara moved to set to work on it, intending for Grissom, who insisted on helping, to get started on identifications, but he insisted on undertaking the less glamourous jobs of cleaning and preserving specimens.

It seemed that Grissom had taken to heart what had really been light-hearted teasing when Sara had earlier told him not to “think just because you have the title doctor in front of your name that you are exempt from the grunt work.”

Or perhaps he just enjoyed being able to work with his hands again. It didn’t really matter.

Of course that didn’t keep him from being curious and pausing every now and then to take a closer look at several of the more unusual insects that had been collected.

Sara soon found that by shifting slightly to her right, she could watch him out of the corner of her eye. Not because she wanted to ensure he was doing things properly, for she knew right well there was no need for that, but more to be able to better appreciate the way his spectacles would slip down his sweaty nose or the way that his eyes and face set in concentration as he worked.

Before long, it felt almost as if Grissom had always been there. That this wasn’t the first morning they spent working together like this, even though it was.

They had been quietly occupied for a while, when Grissom put down the specimen he was working on, turned to Sara and said without preamble or pause, “I love you.”

At which Sara started in surprise.

He gave her a perplexed look in reply and asked, “Why does that always seem to come as such a surprise?”

She thought for a moment about this. “Because it is,” she said, “a surprise,” and gave him an uneasy sort of smile. “I guess I have just never gotten used to it.”

“I know I may not say it often enough, but –”

“That’s not what I mean,” Sara interjected. “Gil, You have to understand that when I was growing up, it just wasn’t something that was ever said, even if it had ever been felt, and I’m not really sure it was.

“And with you… I mean I know it’s true. After all these years, I do. But still –”

“Sara,” he began, drawing out the two syllables of her name with much tenderness. He took her hand in his and ran his thumb over her knuckles. “Honey, I know I never did say it enough, showed it enough. And I should have. Everyday. But I do. I love you.

“You may think that science or bugs have been the love of my life, but it’s you. It’s always been you.”

Continued in The Nightmares that Come from Good Intentions.


Have a question or want to leave a comment or concern and don’t have a wordpress account? Please feel free to email me at kadhmercer@gmail.com

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. grissomsgirl72
    Jul 27, 2009 @ 18:18:42

    I don’t know if I ‘like’ the title of the next installment…is it a foreboding of things to come? Bad things? Things that go bump in the night? Either way, I am hooked with each of your chapters, with your work and the spot on ability to capture each character. Great work!

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