Mississippi College | Beacon Magazine

Dr. Stark is one of the world's leading experts on the order of insects known as stoneflies (Latin name: Plecoptera). More than 3,500 species of stoneflies are found worldwide, with new species still being discovered. Dr. Stark has personally identified some 390 new species, as well as another 27 soon to be catalogued, making him the first person on earch to have discovered 400 species of this diminutive, winged insect.

Stoneflies range in size from one-quarter inch to three inches long. They are tiny, but as Dr. Stark puts it, “They’re visible to those of us who spend our lives chasing them.” Dr. Stark’s classroom laboratory at MC is home to an impressive collection of between 75,000 and 100,000 stoneflies, each preserved in its own small vial, each carefully labeled as to species and the location where it was found. 

Dr. Stark has had the privilege of naming several of the species he discovered. Some of the stoneflies have been christened in honor of celebrities who support environmental causes, including Anacroneuria taylori (James Taylor) and Anacroneuria carole (Carole King). He has also named stoneflies after other scientists, the geographic areas where they were collected, and creatures from mythology. His scientific colleagues have recognized Dr. Stark by naming six stoneflies in his honor, including Allocapnia starki, Taeniopteryx starki, Agnetine starki, Neoperla starki, Suwallia starki, and Anacroneuria starki.

Dr. Stark was one of the first biologists to develop and popularize new techniques for studying stonefly eggs, and has recorded some nearly inaudible sounds of male and female stoneflies communicating by tapping their tails. He is the co-editor of the journal Illiesa, the International Journal of Stonefly Research, has authored three books on the species, and has published more than 200 articles on stoneflies in scientific journals. In recognition of his achievements in the field, Dr. Stark received the 2004 International Association of Plecopterologists Lifetime Achievement Award.

THE CLINTON COMMUNITY NATURE CENTER

Dr.Stark has served on the board of directors of the Clinton Community Nature Center since the center’s founding in 1993. The nature center includes 33 acres of woodlands, wildflower gardens, and nature trails open to the public. A volunteer staff offers programs on nature, gardening, and natural history. “I’m very pleased to be a part of the Clinton Community Nature Center,” Dr. Stark says. “Not every city has a nature area that citizens have set up for other citizens to enjoy.” 

So, how did Bill Stark come to catch the stonefly bug?

Stark grew up on a family farm outside a small town in rural Oklahoma. His interest in insects began when he was charged with protecting the family’s crops from the ravages of hungry bugs.

“We grew potatoes, corn, and tomatoes without using any pesticides, not because we were enlightened about their hazards, but because pesticides were so expensive,” Dr. Stark recalls. “Insects were a real danger to the crops, so one of my jobs was collecting bugs from the fields. I would go up and down the rows picking up Colorado potato beetles and other harmful insects, drop them in a Folger’s coffee can, and pour alcohol on them. After awhile, I learned the bugs’ behaviors, and realized I could ‘herd’ them away from the potatoes by tapping on the ground near them.”

When Stark was in high school, he met a group of college students who were earning extra cash by catching rodents for the Southeastern Oklahoma State University research laboratory. Stark saw a way to help pay for his own college education – after all of those years catching bugs, Stark figured he was equally qualified for the rodent-catching job.

“You had to be a biology major to get that job as a college student,” Stark says with a smile. “That’s why I majored in biology – so I could land a job catching mice.”

Stark’s interest in insects, however, never waned. He chose the University of North Texas for his graduate work because the university had a professor on staff that special ized in dragonflies; when that professor moved on to the study of stoneflies, so did Stark. By the time he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Utah, Stark had found his passion.

“I was drawn to the stoneflies in part because they were a more obscure species,” Dr. Stark says. “There are fewer than 100 biologists studying stoneflies today, so there is plenty of room to work and opportunities to make significant discoveries about the species.”

THE WRONG KIND OF STONED

Dr. Bill Stark’s most memorable experience during a field expedition came in 1987, when he was collecting stoneflies near the Hoopa Indian Reservation in California with a professor and two students from Brigham Young University. “My collection vial was full, so I went back to our van to get another one,” Dr. Stark recalls. “Just as I got to the road, this guy came roaring up on a motorcycle and lost control. He laid the motorcycle down on the asphalt and it slid right past me and skidded under our van. Some people from the Indian reservation came out and loaded the driver up and took him away, we assumed to a hospital. “Someone called the California Highway Patrol and when they arrived, they found a bag of marijuana under our van. They asked if this bag of ‘Mendocino gold’ was ours. My only response was, ‘You’ve got a Mississippi College professor and a group from Brigham Young University here. We don’t even know what that stuff is.’” 

Dr. Stark also confesses that the habitat of the stonefly played a role in his choice. Stoneflies are found only in ecosystems surrounding the cleanest possible water supply, including pristine mountain streams and rivers. As a result, most of Dr. Stark’s fieldwork is conducted in unspoiled locations of stunning natural beauty. The tiny insects have little tolerance for pollution, so their presence or absence is a reliable indication whether the area’s water quality is good or bad. Since fish and birds eat the stoneflies, any decline in their population can have an adverse effect on the entire food chain.

While the scenic settings in which Dr. Stark works are lovely, they are not without their hazards. Dr. Stark has faced down his share of rattlesnakes and weathered bouts of giardia, an intestinal infection triggered by drinking water that was clean enough for the stoneflies, but not for human consumption. But a few inconveniences haven’t dampened his enthusiasm.

“I love being outdoors collecting,” Dr. Stark says. “It would be easy for me to spend all my time in the field and never write up the results.”

Dr. Stark balances his fieldwork, laboratory research, and writing with teaching ecology, entomology, and zoology at Mississippi College. One of the accomplishments he prizes most as a professor has been inspiring his students to share his enthusiasm.

“I’ve been pleased that so many students have been interested enough in my work to conduct research with me, and to spend their spring breaks catching bugs,” Dr. Stark says.

At home with his wife, Lida, Dr. Stark works on the “catch and release” program – any bugs caught in the house are set free. The Starks’ adult daughters, René Roberts and Edith Kennedy, both work in banking, although Dr. Stark did take them stonefly hunting when they were younger. But while the bug for stoneflies can be contagious, it is apparently not hereditary.

“Edith’s name is on the labels of some of the vials in my collection,” Stark says. “But I suspect she went because she had a boyfriend at the time who was interested, not because she had inherited a great love of stoneflies.”