FIRST PUBLISHED IN AUDUBON, NOV-DEC 2014
IT WAS A BRIGHT, BREEZY DAY in late April, the flowering azaleas having finally shrugged off the winter that overstayed its welcome, when Sam Droege sailed onto the grounds of the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., behind the wheel of a pterodactyl. It was actually a '98 forest-green Saturn, which Droege had painted with yellow wings and a red-and-yellow beak that tapered to a point down the center of the hood. A piece of wood, lined with a rusty crosscut saw, had been bolted to the roof: the crest. Little jingle bells, inspired by richly adorned buses in Pakistan, dangled from chains screwed into the rear bumper. Droege still had designs for neon undercarriage lights, and a mosaic of mirror shards to line the car's ceiling—"but why stop there?" he wondered. It was a work in progress.
Droege, 56, is a biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, in Maryland. He's an expert on both birds and pollinator species, though he doesn't fit the mold of a government scientist. His spectacular macro portraits of bees, shot using a camera rig he devised by modifying one used by the U.S. Army, have several hundred thousand online admirers, yet he doesn't consider himself a photographer. Relentlessly creative, he has produced a spate of grassroots programs with names like Bioblitz, Frogwatch USA, and Cricket Crawl that enlist volunteers to inventory local flora and fauna. Droege is the Johnny Appleseed of citizen science.
Four years ago Droege launched a pilot program that, if funded, would become the first survey of North America's wild bee population. It's another volunteer effort, supercharged by an army of biologists from the U.S. Forest Service and other land protection agencies who send Droege little plastic baggies filled with bees plucked from the deserts, dunes, sagebrush plains, and prairies where they work. Honey-bee decline is now a well-documented phenomenon, even if its precise cause remains uncertain, but data are scant about the relative status of the 4,000 known species of native bees. Droege aims to change that, although "when you have these extensive surveys all based on volunteers, if I get 50 percent [participation], that's really high."
On the day we met, Droege was doing his rounds, checking up on volunteers and constantly netting bees. He parked the pterodactyl by a trail that meandered into the arboretum's native plant collection. He wore black Levi's, hiking boots, and a vintage cardigan ski sweater. His graying blond hair lay in a skinny braid at the back of his neck.
Ever upbeat, Droege grabbed a few vials and his butterfly net from the car, and began creeping slowly down the trail. "You're looking for a motion that's not in sync with blowing leaves," he said. Upon reaching a cluster of wild geraniums, he stopped. A bee darted busily among the flowers. Droege hovered closely with the net poised—the "swing ready" position. Giving it a quick snap, he scooped up the bee and cradled the net rapidly back and forth like a lacrosse stick. He then continued on. The most efficient method of bee collecting, he explained, was to accumulate several bees before transferring them into the vials. "I talk about this a lot in my lab: How does doing something increase your 'bees per hour'?"
Droege has been obsessively counting and collecting since he was a young boy traipsing through the woods near his childhood home in suburban Maryland. He started off gathering rocks. He and a friend would crack them open with their dads' hammers, pronouncing each one to be as valuable as the rose amethyst they'd seen in a book. He had various other hobbies—stamps, old bottles—but his first true love was birds. There weren't any ornithology role models in the blue-collar neighborhood where he grew up, so he equipped himself with Boy Scout binoculars and set off into the forest. Because his father wouldn't let him take his grandfather's dated bird guide out of the house, Droege was forced to assign identification to memory.
Eventually he discovered the Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia at the local library. The book was coauthored by Chandler Robbins, a USGS biologist in Patuxent. Using the phonebook, Droege tracked down Robbins, who invited the teenager into his bird club. "It was over then," Droege recalled. "I was surrounded by my people."
While his high school peers smoked pot under the bleachers, Droege cut class to find birds with the grown-ups. Even then he could deftly switch between animal families. His idea of spring break in Florida during college was hunting elusive Zoraptera insects in the Everglades; he compiled the second-largest collection of insects at the University of Maryland-College Park. Droege was a regular on Audubon's annual Christmas Bird Counts, often alongside his mentor Robbins, once clocking 12 counts in a single season.
"There's a certain component of people I completely resonate with," Droege said, "people who obsess with the details, who don't have off switches. They walk outside, hear the pink of the bobolink, and wonder, 'Why is there a flock at this time of day? The 'birdhead' brain hears this obscure sound, and the whole database thing clicks in. It's almost drug-like. It's not the way the average person floats through the universe."
Droege first began hanging around Patuxent in college, working there as a part-time lab tech. He then pursued a drawn-out master's degree in wildlife management at SUNY Syracuse. It was the Reagan era, which Droege says caused his student stipend to evaporate, consigning him to a life of ad hoc survivalism: One year, he lived in an attic and later in his office, sleeping on cardboard under an old Army blanket. He worked out a deal with the crew team to use its showers, raided undergrad parties for beer, and made lists of school functions where there might be leftover food. His office abutted an old cemetery that had maple trees; Droege convinced the caretaker to let him tap the trees, then boiled down the sap in pans in his lab, using Bunsen burners to make his own syrup. He became notorious for trapping squirrels outside his office window; one year he ate a hundred of them. He also acquired the nickname "Roadkill Droege" (raccoon was his favorite). "It was a Turkey Vulture lifestyle," Droege told me. "Whatever was dead and free was mine."
After graduate school, in 1985, he was floating around Northern California, doing fieldwork, but found the area way too mellow. He was seeking more of an "eastern edge." One of the researchers from Patuxent called to ask if he'd like to take over the Breeding Bird Survey, a model citizen science program that Robbins himself had initiated at Patuxent in the 1960s. Droege coordinated the survey for six years, during which time he reversed its flagging participation rates, recruited state coordinators, and "schmoozed people into running more [survey] routes," before moving on to fill a new post at the USGS, unofficially titled the Nongame Bird Czar.
"He's not the usual image of a federal lab scientist," his supervisor, John French, said. "Sam is a very imaginative guy, and he's got all sorts of excellent ideas. For someone like that, you want to allow those ideas to come up and be explored and find out which ones work and which ones don't."
Meanwhile, Droege also took over what became the agency's Bird Phenology Program. Phenology is the study of periodic biological phenomena, such as plant flowering. Droege hired a young biologist named Jessica Zelt to mine a century-old collection of bird migration data that had been gathering dust. She has since recruited several thousand volunteers to digitize the archive, and those data are now being analyzed for links between climate change and bird migration.
Many of Droege's citizen science projects are designed to dive into the kind of habitats—backyards, regional parks, wetlands—that the average research scientist would pass over for, say, Papua New Guinea or Madagascar. "If you're a university person, this isn't going to give you tenure," he said. Monitoring long-term population trends with an eye for impending crisis is Bureau of Census stuff—"dreadfully boring." The North American Amphibian Monitoring Program, for example, another Droege endeavor, involves volunteers counting the frog and toad calls that they hear at designated survey locations across the country three times each spring.
Yet Droege seems inclined to database work, to counting and taking stock. He often leaves the analysis to others. "What characterizes Sam is that he's not at all proprietary about his data," French says. Droege explains that he enjoys setting up projects and troubleshooting the kinks. "Then I'm looking for someone to pick it up so I can work on the thousand million other cool things sitting out there as ideas waiting to be implemented. I'm always attracted to over-the-horizon, and thinking about how I can make this better, bigger, faster."
Though Droege considers himself a good generalist naturalist, he currently wears the hat of a bee specialist—and he collects them every chance he gets. "I love the minutiae of learning how to identify things," he said. "I'll go to weddings, do my face time, and then go off" gathering specimens. He's attracted to the urban margins, which harbor pockets of feral habitat. "If you want to have safe passage in a nasty part of a city," he said, "just carry a butterfly net. You're considered to be completely harmless. Kind of pathetic, but clearly not a threat."
Above his desk droege keeps a photo of George Washington Carver, who was an early childhood hero and remains his scientific role model. Droege read his biography several times in grade school. He relates to Carver's connection to plants and nature despite a hardscrabble upbringing, how he bootstrapped his way to a Ph.D. while pursuing art, and how he created a science program at Tuskegee University from scratch, with whatever equipment he had available. "He was his own man, remained quirky, worked his entire life, and died at his job," Droege said.
Droege is proudly carrying on that spirit. Much of the equipment in his lab, in an 80-year-old brick building on the USDA's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center campus, is hacked together from disused labs on the property. "If other people are not doing something, it becomes attractive to me," Droege told me. "I tell the interns: In this lab, we're all about failure. If you're not failing, you're not really doing anything."
In that low-tech, citizen-friendly way, Droege has developed all manner of one-offs and oddball techniques. He's found that you can obtain "beautifully coiffed hair" on even the longest-haired bumblebees if you shake them around in a paper towel. Or you can use a hair dryer. (He'd previously tried drying bees using a hotdog turner, but "it was mostly a failure.") Lately Droege has been experimenting with digital photography, which led to another inspired bit of technological improvisation: By suspending his bees in a cuvette (the transparent vessel chemists use for spectroscopic analysis) filled with hand sanitizer, he could obtain fine-art-worthy close-ups. In fact, one day after posting the portraits on Flickr, his daughter said, "Dad, I think these are your pictures on Reddit." The bee images had made their way to a Reddit forum called WoahDude ("The BEST links to click while you're STONED!")—not exactly the intended target, but they received 200,000 views in two days. "None of these people would ever go to one of my lectures," Droege told me. "This is a completely new doorway to engage people in bugs."
Droege is also leveraging digital photography and social networks to crowdsource images taken from designated "photo stations" around the country in order to monitor long-term changes in landscapes. "We have satellites collecting broad information, but we're lacking detailed information," he explained. "Like, what's going on in terms of this dune that's in front of my house? Lichens have a relationship with air quality: Take regular pictures of the same rock and you can measure the colonies." He figures the Fish and Wildlife Service might want a camera station in a refuge to document how the land is changing. A national park might be interested in the status of a remote trail. As with all of his initiatives, Droege intends to incubate the idea, develop techniques and protocols, build a database, and then hand the program over to someone else, such as a nonprofit group, to administer. For now, though, Droege is too indispensable to walk away from the bee survey. "I can't really extract from the bee community until there are more like me out there," he said.
That evening, I drove with Droege back to his house in Maryland, which sits on an acre of land beside state woods. Droege often runs in the area—for years barefoot, after reading about its benefits in a Science Daily article, but now wearing modified sandals for skin protection ("something Jesus might wear if he were modern"). A pickup was parked on the grass; it had been stippled all over with sponge paint. Droege built his turquoise home out of straw bales; a smaller annex nearby, which had originally been constructed as a natural-building demonstration on the Washington Mall, housed his friend Eric—"a vagabond"—and served as a therapy room for his wife, Kappy, a breathwork practitioner. The inside of the main home had uneven plaster walls, unmilled timbers, a composting toilet, and tiered rooms, giving it the look of an insect dwelling. "I really like flowy things," Droege explained. "All of this in a way is a reaction against uniform anything. I won't put drywall in my house. I don't like the whole mentality that even likes drywall."
Droege has two college-age daughters from his first marriage. His wife had permitted him to name the older Wren but felt another bird name would scar the second child, who instead grew up lamenting that she'd been given a boring name (Anna). For years Droege told her the lie that she'd been named after Calypte anna—Anna's Hummingbird.
"Most of what my wives have done is tempered my extravagances," Droege told me over grilled cheese sandwiches that night. "Which is a good thing, because then I'd have even fewer boundaries." He gave me a partial tour of his extravagances, such as they were. Over his front porch dangled a surplus government CO2 cylinder with the base cut off—a wind chime! After dark he took me out to the back of the house, where moths had gathered around a black light and fluorescent bulbs he'd set up to attract them. He snapped photos, which he would later send to a colleague conducting a moth survey.
Nearby, I noticed dozens of bullet-hole-sized chinks bored into the plaster wall. Droege explained that two species of Anthophora bees had taken up residence. We walked around to the side of the house, where a sliced-up tire lay on the ground. Droege was experimenting with ways to use recycled tires as a construction material. Eventually he hoped to build a rubber bridge that could span the Patuxent River. It was another work in progress, he said. "That'll be on my tombstone."