By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
SARCOXIE, Mo. —
If you are out after dark in Southwest Missouri and see a man with a bedsheet, a black light and a canning jar, don’t be alarmed. It’s Rae Letsinger, looking for insects.
Letsinger has a collection that tops 20,000 species. There are beetles, long-horned insects, crickets, mantids, katydids, grasshoppers, walking sticks, wasps, bees, flies, caddisflies, butterflies and his real passion, moths.
“I try to do it professionally — museum quality — although I really am considered an amateur,” he said.
The collection is organized by genus and species in a custom-built hobby space at the top of a sunlight-filled upstairs landing. There, replicating a small natural history museum, a wall-length cabinet lined with glass-topped drawers speaks to the 40 years Letsinger has been searching.
In other words, he’s serious.
Letsinger said his collection is believed to be the second largest in Missouri. He has species that haven’t been found anywhere else in the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the American Museum of Natural History have taken an interest in the collection.
And — illustrating the diversity of Southwest Missouri — almost all of it was collected from four spots not far from his home.
Letsinger collected much of it in the 100- by 300-foot yard that once was the site of his childhood farmhouse. Today, Letsinger, 74, lives there in a contemporary home that he and his sister, Joan, built in 1985. Surrounded by 100-year-old oaks and heirloom-style garden beds, it’s an insect paradise.
Letsinger also has done much of his collecting at Diamond Grove Prairie in Newton County, at Roaring River State Park near Cassville and at Prairie State Park in Barton County.
“You don’t need a lot of room,” said the man whose name has appeared in numerous journals and websites because of his finds. “You can do it in town in Joplin. Just stick a light out in your backyard and you’ll be surprised by what you’ll draw.”
Letsinger was bitten by the insect collecting bug in 1970, when a not-so-outdoorsy niece asked for help with a high school science project.
“It just grew from there,” he said. “I got a book on butterflies and moths, and started going to streetlights here in Sarcoxie; you’ll find a lot of moths there. I would take a ladder with me and climb up the pole. I was young then.”
He was 33, to be precise.
A year later, he entered his collection in the Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield and won a blue ribbon.
Two years later, he would collect and record what is now thought to have been the last American burying beetle found in Missouri. That beetle has been put on the federal endangered species list and is now the focus of restoration efforts in the state involving the Saint Louis Zoo.
“We found it with a black light three miles south of here at my uncle’s place,” Letsinger said.
That Newton County discovery garnered the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which sent an official to Sarcoxie to examine it.
Letsinger also developed a friendship with J. Richard Heitzman, a noted insect collector in Independence and the author of “Butterflies and Moths of Missouri.” Heitzman is the one person in the state with a collection larger than Letsinger’s; Heitzman has 100,000 species.
“He became my mentor,” Letsinger said.
Heitzman also introduced Letsinger to his most valuable secret weapon: a black light. It emits ultraviolet radiation in the long-wave range but with little visible light, thus attracting moths.
“My gosh, my whole world opened,” Letsinger recalled. “I came home and just went crazy.”
As a day lily foreman at the nearby Gilbert H. Wild & Son Nursery, Letsinger was outside during the day. But he didn’t have much chance to collect during working hours, which meant becoming a night owl.
“When I was younger, midnight was nothing to me,” he said. “I’d stay up every night until midnight. During the warmer months when it gets dark later, you have to wait until at least 11 until they start coming in. And moths come in two waves, with usually the second at about 2 or 3 a.m.”
His collection of moths includes some with wingspans the size of an adult hand, and others that are no bigger than the tiny tags of paper he uses to record the date and location of the find.
“Those are the ones I’m especially proud of, the micro-moths,” he said. “They are very small, harder to catch, harder to mount.”
Letsinger found a moth at Diamond Grove Prairie in the 1990s that has never been collected outside of Canada before or since.
He’s also proud of his Neocymbopteryx heitzmani moth — named for his mentor — that he captured in 1987.
“Richard and I are the only ones who have them,” he said. “I caught mine behind the nature center at Roaring River, and he caught his in northern Arkansas.”
Brown sugar and beer
In the field, Letsinger hangs his white bedsheet over a tripod and suspends the black light on it. As moths and other insects land, he captures them in a canning jar with a few drops of ethyl acetate, which kills the insects. At home, he uses a white sheet mounted to the west side of the house.
Letsinger also devised another secret weapon: a mix of brown sugar and beer smeared on a tree trunk.
“I’m just really proud of what he’s done,” said his sister, Joan. “We’ve had people here from New York from the Natural History Museum.”
He also has made the rounds to area schools, and has invited Boy Scouts and 4-H clubs to see the collection.
Both he and Joan are concerned about where the collection might one day end up, as he has no one to pass it on to. For now, he intends to continue collecting.
“I just like to see what’s out there,” Letsinger said. “You have good years, bad years. The variety is what pulls you in.”
Had his niece not asked for help more than 40 years ago, Letsinger is not sure what path his life would have taken.
“I don’t know what I’d be doing now,” he said. “It has really become my life.”
MOTHS REMAIN Rae Letsinger’s favorite insect to collect. Like butterflies, moths belong to the order Lepidoptera, which is derived from Greek words for “scaled wing.” Moths form the majority of the order; there are thought to be 160,000 species, or nearly 10 times that of butterflies.