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Vol. 17, no. 2
April / May 2014


Life at the Top 

Story by A. Kam Napier
Photos by Josh McCullough

Four men move slowly over a field of reddish-black cinder, eyes downcast, with the body language of people searching for a dropped contact lens. Loosely packed gravel extends as far as the four can see— which, on this sometimes rainy, sometimes snowy afternoon on the summit of the Big Island’s Mauna Kea, is all of fifty yards. They keep their eyes peeled for their quarry, which is likely hiding somewhere within the gravel crunching beneath their cautious steps: the wekiu bug.

First discovered a little more than thirty years ago, the flightless wekiu bug is no bigger than a grain of rice —and not much different in shape if a grain of rice had six skinny legs attached to it. The wekiu bug, formally known as Nysius wekiuicola, exists nowhere else in the world but the summit of Mauna Kea, and hence its name: wekiu, which in Hawaiian means the top or summit. The insect has adopted a suite of survival skills for the summit’s harsh, cold climate, the most striking of which is its transformation from vegetarian to carnivore: While its closest Hawai‘i relatives live off seeds, the wekiu bug has become a scavenger that feasts on windborne insects that are blown up to the summit and immobilized by the cold.

One of the men overturns a stone the size of a softball and calls out for the expedition leader—University of Hawai‘i at Hilo entomologist Jesse Eiben—to take a look at what he’s found. Eiben, his slight build encased in a sturdy windbreaker, is gently scooping a hole out of the cinder, looking for a spot where a wekiu bug might be hiding from the cold. He stands, takes a look at the proffered rock and shakes his head. “That’s a Nysius, all right,” he says, pointing to the dried-out bug on the rock that the man has found, “but not a wekiu bug.” Eiben, one of just half a dozen or so people in the world who could be considered an expert on the wekiu bug, points to the pronounced wings of the insect carcass, which, he says, give it away instantly as a non-wekiu bug. “Good ento skills, though!” he says with a consoling chuckle.

That laugh is not unusual. Eiben laughs often, almost as a kind of punctuation. In his emails he laughs with emoticons. After a weekend tagging along with him on the Big Island, I’m convinced it’s the chuckle of a person in love with his work.

Eiben had warned us not to get our hopes up as we trudged from the warmth of the state-owned SUV up the slope in search of the wekiu bug. “They’re usually pretty inactive when it’s really cold,” he’d said. Regardless, even if we weren’t seeing the wekiu bug, we were seeing its entire universe: rolling pu‘u, or hills, of loose cinder thousands of feet above sea level.