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Bugs and Beats: Meet the UC Davis Entomology Band

UC David Entomology Band

Graduate students in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of California, Davis, performed original tunes incorporating entomology themes at the 2018 UC Davis Picnic Day.

By Kathy Keatley Garvey

Move over “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” “La Cucaracha,” “Boll Weevil,” and the “The Blue-Tailed Fly.”

Graduate students in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of California, Davis, recently performed original tunes featuring the three-cornered alfalfa hopper (Spissistilus festinus) and the male insect organ, the aedeagus.

For the occasion, graduate student Michael Bollinger of the lab of Frank Zalom (a former president of the Entomological Society of America), composed three tunes, performed by seven insect-attired UC Davis doctoral students during the UC Davis Picnic Day.

The group, all members of the UC Davis Entomology Graduate Student Association (EGSA) performed Bollinger’s compositions, “E Major Homeboy (Spissistilus festinus),” “Tragedy (of the Clocks),” and “Jackson’s Song (Aedeagal Bits),” as well as a cover song, “Island in the Sun” by Weezer.

Bollinger, a veteran guitarist specializing in acoustic, electric, rock and flamenco, researches plant hoppers and other insects in the Zalom lab when he’s not engaged in music.

The band’s name? “The Entomology Band.” (No take-offs of the iconic “Beatles,” “Buddy Holly and the Crickets,” or “Adam and the Ants.”)

Bollinger’s original songs capped a day of insect-related activities that included maggot art, cockroach races, nematode identification, scavenger hunts, and honey tasting.

Meet the septet:

  • Molecular geneticist and drummer Yao “Fruit Fly” Cai of the Joanna Chiu lab dressed in a fruit fly costume (Drosophila melanogaster), which he described as “our favorite model organism in Insecta!”
  • Bark beetle specialist and rhythm guitarist Jackson “Darth Beetle” Audley of the Steve Seybold lab portrayed an Asian longhorned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis).
  • Honey bee researcher and bass guitarist Wei “Silverfish” Lin of the Brian Johnson lab wore a costume that celebrated his moniker (Lepisma saccharina), a small, wingless insect in the order Zygentoma.
  • Ant specialist and keyboard artist Zachary “Leptanilla” Griebenow of the Phil Ward lab dressed as “a generic male leptanilline ant (Formicidae: Leptanillinae).” However, he noted “the yellow color is not anywhere near so vivid in real life.”
  • Systematist and tenor saxophonist Jill “Jillus Saximus” Oberski of the Phil Ward lab dressed as a “generalized heteropteran,” which she described as “most likely a member of the family Acanthosomatidae (shield bug) or Pentatomidae (stink bug). My family and friends have called me Jillybug, so I came to be the band’s representative of Hemiptera.”
  • Molecular geneticist and vocalist Christine “The Clock” Tabuloc of the Joanna Chiu lab wrapped herself in butterfly wings.
  • Ant specialist and bass guitarist Brendon “Hype Man-tis” Boudinot of the Phil Ward lab dressed in a green helmet, a blue and gold EGSA bee shirt, and a UC Davis cow costume to showcase his department and campus-wide love of bovines.

The Entomology Band is the department’s first known band to organize and publicly perform. The department, which traces its beginnings to 1907, began a two-year non-degree program in entomology in 1913 and awarded its first degree in entomology in 1923.

The seven band members share a love of music.

Drummer Yao Cai, who grew up in Southeast China and holds an undergraduate degree in plant protection and a master’s degree from China Agricultural University, has been playing drums since age 17. “We formed as a short-lived band for a show. After that, I realized that I really wanted to keep playing and improved my drum techniques. Thus, we started another band in college and played for six years in college, as an undergrad and graduate student.

“We were all agriculture-related majors and we mainly wrote original songs,” recalled Cai. The campus concerts sometimes drew a thousand spectators. “After we graduated from graduate school, we stopped. I really missed the time playing drums with folks since I came to UC Davis. Fortunately, after a ‘gap year,’ Jackson, Michael and I started jamming in September 2017. Later on, our current talented members joined.”

“It is very interesting that I was in a band that was the first band in Department of Entomology in China Agricultural University and now we started the first band in Department of Entomology at UC Davis,” Cai added.

Rhythm guitarist Jackson Audley said he “started learning to play the guitar when I was about 11 or 12-ish. The first band I joined was a Blink-182 cover band, in which I played the bass guitar, and we played together for most of eighth grade. Then in early high school I joined a Smashing Pumpkins/Radiohead cover band as the second guitarist. Shortly after joining that band, we started making predominantly original music. By the end of high school, we had played a few small shows around the Atlanta area and had recorded a few songs. Unfortunately, the band did not survive the transition into university and we broke up.”

Since then he’s mostly played “for fun, and I like to jam with folks.”

Jill Oberski, a native of Twin Cities, grew up mostly in Chaska, “a sleepy suburb of Minnesota.” She received her bachelor’s degree in Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she double-majored in biology and German studies.

“I started playing the piano in kindergarten and switched to saxophone in fifth grade,” Oberski related. “I played classical and jazz in my school bands from sixth grade through college and pit orchestra, pep band, and marching band in high school as well. I’ve always been better at classical than rock, jazz, or Latin.”

“I probably reached my highest point in late high school, when I served as co-section leader for the saxes in the Minnesota all-state symphonic band,” Oberski said. “We even got to play a concert in Minneapolis’ orchestra hall. These days I’m only involved in the entomology band and some very casual ukulele playing.”

Keyboard artist Zachary Griebenow, a native of Richmond, Kentucky—he grew up in Kentucky and holds a bachelor’s degree in entomology from The Ohio State University—said, “I took piano lessons for a cumulative total of seven years, ages 8 to 17. I performed at least biannually in studio recitals. My primary musical interest is composition, an activity that has not quite received its due on account of my prioritizing systematic entomology. I had never performed in a group prior to joining this band and greatly appreciate the novel experience of doing so.”

Brendon Boudinot, who received his bachelor’s degree in entomology at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, performed on a metallic sky-blue bass and served as emcee. “I just love art,” said Boudinot, president of the UC Davis EGSA. “Music is a family thing for me in a number of different ways. Although I have played instruments alone or in groups for many years, nothing really clicked in me until I heard Michael and Yao play together. They shred.”

Vocalist Christine Anne Tabuloc, who grew up in the Los Angeles area and received her bachelor’s degree from UC Davis in biochemistry and molecular biology, says she does not play an instrument. “I’m far less talented than everyone else in the group,” she quipped. “I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. I’ve been writing lyrics since elementary school. However, I never got around to getting music written for them. I was in choir before and have had solos but that’s pretty much it.”

Bass guitarist Wei Lin, who grew up in Xiamen, “a beautiful island in southern China,” received his bachelor’s and master’s degree at China Agricultural University, majoring in plant protection and entomology. “This was my first experience in a band. I just started to learn bass last year when this band was built.”

Following the four-set gig, Boudinot told the appreciative crowd, “That’s all we know!”

Pending performances? “The band,” he said, “is on hiatus.”

Or diapause.

Kathy Keatley Garvey is a communications specialist for the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of California, Davis. She writes about entomology nearly five days a week on the Bug Squad blog. Email: kegarvey@ucdavis.edu  

All photos by Kathy Keatley Garvey

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