Faces of BioSCAN: The Fabulous Betty Defibaugh!

By Lisa Gonzalez

BioSCAN is a unique project because it focuses the excitement of scientific discovery right here in our own bustling city and relies on the dedication of L.A. residents through whom those discoveries are made. Our BioSCAN site hosts provide a crucial service by keeping our large insect traps (called Malaise traps) in their back yards, changing the samples weekly, being our “eyes in the field,” and by sharing photos, stories and the excitement of their own insect observations.  I am thrilled to introduce Betty Defibaugh: world traveler, entomologist, Natural History Museum volunteer extraordinaire for the last 26 years, and proud BioSCAN site host!

Betty with a drawer of her favorite insects: butterflies. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

Betty with a drawer of her favorite insects: butterflies. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

I spent a lovely afternoon with Betty at her home (otherwise affectionately known as BioSCAN Site #15) where she shared memories of her life as a fellow insect lover with me. As a young girl growing up in Missouri, she can remember the first time she became entranced with a swallowtail butterfly as it gracefully fluttered by, a moment that solidified her lifelong passion. Noticing that sense of wonder, her supportive aunt supplied her with 2 insect guide books, which Betty immediately memorized from cover to cover. Other books and natural science catalogues soon followed, such as the quintessential butterfly book by famed lepidopterist  John Henry Comstock, all of which she used to teach herself about the natural history of butterflies and proper insect collection and preparation techniques. I was honored to have the chance to see Betty’s collection from her earlier years and to hold letters of correspondence,  complete with career advice and encouragement, plus a personal copy of the “Torre-Bueno Glossary of Entomology” sent and signed by the author himself! (Trust me; if you’re an entomologist, that’s the sort of thing that makes your day.)

Betty's bug books.  Photo credit: Lisa Gonzalez

Betty’s books. Photo credit: Lisa Gonzalez

She eagerly began her education at Kansas University in 1943 knowing without a doubt that she wanted to become an entomologist and declared her major as a Freshman, causing some academic advisors to scoff at her certainty and “unusual” choice of profession. Betty was unswayed. She started working at the KU Entomology Museum as she obtained her degree and fell in love with the drawers of specimens of insects from all over the world.  Those glimmering exotic butterflies spurred dreams of places that were, well, not Kansas, and inspired by a radio program called “Hawaii Calls,” she accepted a job after graduation at the University of Hawaii where she worked on pest species such as the Mediterranean fruit fly. Two major events occurred during her time there: she made an important discovery of a pest caterpillar that invades commercial orchids, and she met her husband, Francis.  The newlyweds would eventually leave Hawaii for the Canton Islands where they raised their two sons. The stories of her time in the South Pacific are a blog — actually a book! — all to itself; that’s for me to write more about later. It will include many of the photos that Betty herself took that are featured in the book shown above incredibly titled “Tropic Isles and Things: Salt of the Indies: Being a Voluntary and Unpaid for Dissertation on the Turks and Caicos Islands and their Postage Stamps.”

It was such a pleasure to listen to Betty, someone who I admire dearly, talk about her life adventures and to see her eyes light up as we spoke about our mutual love for insects.  When asked what she enjoys most about the BioSCAN Project, she said she was proud to be a part of ongoing museum research and was thrilled about having a fly named after her. We are equally elated to have such an amazing woman be part of the BioSCAN team!

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