Eleanor Spicer Rice spent her childhood fascinated by ants, flies, maggots, bones and other natural curiosities. Her family encouraged that inquisitiveness — her father would take her on walks in the swamps near their Goldsboro home, and her parents never told her the bugs that enchanted her were gross.
Spicer Rice loved insects, but she did not realize they could be a career until she started college at North Carolina State University. She majored in zoology and came back to NCSU to get her doctorate in entomology.
Today she is a senior science writer at Verdant Word, the company she founded with a childhood friend. She is also involved with the Recluse or Not project, and she is the author of “Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants” (University of Chicago Press/2017) and “Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Spiders” (University of Chicago Press/2018).
Host Anita Rao talks to Spicer Rice about how her childhood wonder became her career and about her work’s mission today. Note: This program originally aired July 29, 2019.
Spicer Rice on the similarities between her two passions:
I feel like literature and science both seek to find the truth. They both look for meaning … There's a lot of themes and patterns to things that you have to follow. There's a tremendous amount of creativity involved in science [and] reading comprehension … Literature has a lot of process. You have to learn how to write paragraphs. You learn the heroic cycle. You learn the way books unfold. And science has its own process. And these things blend together very well when you start looking at them, and they complement each other.
On the conclusions she drew after witnessing a tragic accident when she was 17:
I came out of that with these two very simple imperatives on life. And the first is that you should love people, and you should be loved by people. And you should know people. It's important to know people and to love the people you know. And the other imperative is that you should be able to find your interest and your talents and use those to help yourself and to help other people. And I’ve used those two ideas to make decisions for the rest of my life.
On the first time she went bug collecting at night:
It's like I'd been living half of a life. And I had no idea about these things that came out of the trees: stag beetles, Hercules beetles, moths as big as your hands. And they're everywhere … It was like a tropical forest. But it's here. It's right here. And we're living with this. And I had no idea how beautiful everything was around me at night. I knew in the day, it was amazing. But the whole world just turned into this magical place where anything was possible.
On what makes North Carolina’s environment special:
Here in North Carolina, we are part of what is called a global biodiversity hotspot … Eastern North Carolina and parts of the Southeast are [some] of the wealthiest places on the planet. There are only 36 of these places — 2.4% of the earth’s surface. The environment there takes care of 35% of the ecological services that the rest of the world needs to survive. And we have that. We have one of the most abundant and rich places in the world to live.
On what bugs can show us about climate change:
Now we are seeing things that we've never seen before in insect communities. We're seeing things that used to die in the winter that are overwintering. So you're finding yellow jacket nests down South the size of Volkswagen beetles. Or you're seeing an extra generation per year because the warm season is longer. So we're seeing that butterflies, there's an extra generation of butterflies … There's an extra generation of crop pest. And we're also seeing things like carbon dioxide will increase carbohydrates in plants. But the hot temperatures decrease the nitrogen in plants. So insects are having to gobble up so much more plant material in order to survive. So not only are they active longer in the year — they're eating more. So these are these are things that we're going to have to contend with that we see right now. And because we've been studying insects for so long, we know that this stuff is new, that we haven't seen it before.