A Trio of Entomologists Fields Insect Questions From the Commonplace
(Termites) to the Bizarre (The Case of the Bagpipe Crawlies)
by Kathleen Scalise
A little known campus service called the Insect Hotline is fast making Berkeley the Dear Abby of the bug world.
The hotline answers questions people have about their relationships--good and bad--with their tiny neighbors. Letters and phone calls to the three entomologists who man the hotline flood in from all over the world.
Many queries are routine, but some are as exotic as the bugs in question.
"Enclosed please find the 'bagpipe bugs' that are currently infesting my bagpipes," wrote one pestered musician. She wanted to know just what creatures inhabit her instrument and how to eradicate them before they're inhaled.
Another fellow wanted Berkeley's professional opinion on whether it would be wise to eat his pests on purpose.
"We answer everybody," said Eddie Dunbar, an outgoing undergraduate with a flashy smile who helps staff the hotline. Dunbar pulls out a thank-you letter he wrote last October after accepting a donation.
"Thank you very much for the black widow spider you donated to the University of California," the letter says. "Last Tuesday we hosted 30 second graders from the Seven Hills School in Walnut Creek and the spider was a hit!"
Dunbar, graduate student Steve Suoja, and assistant extension entomologist Vernard Lewis run the hotline as part of Berkeley's Cooperative Extension Program, a public service arm of the university.
From their rooms full of bugs and books in a battered portable at Oxford tract, just northwest of campus, they dispense advice.
"We're an information and resource facility, not a treatment facility," said Lewis. "We're here to assist consumers in the information process."
Being entomologists, their perspective on life is a little different from most folk. For instance, the only spot earthquake-proofed in their quarters is where their bug collection lives.
Some of their collection was donated by people who brought creatures in to be identified and didn't want them back. Some are living, some dead. And bugs aren't all the group receives.
"Feces have been mailed to me. So has hair...skin, candy. People have brought their bodies in and tried to disrobe," said Lewis. "We've had three calls from the county coroner."
Yes, said Lewis, bugs, murder and mayhem go hand in hand. That's because at the scene of the crime, what bugs are present can be used to date the time of death.
Lewis has a manual on the subject. "Forensically significant conclusions can often be drawn by identifying the developmental stage of dead-flesh eating insects collected in, on or near the body," the book notes. Maggots haven't entered into the O.J. case, they note, because the bodies were discovered too quickly.
Along with the coroner, Kaiser Permanente is a frequent client of the hotline. The health care concern usually calls for one of two reasons.
They might call on behalf of a clinic they run to cure those with a morbid and debilitating fear of various types of insects. They treat sufferers by exposing them repeatedly to the very creatures they fear. "They come and borrow my cockroaches," said Lewis. "They want little ones, medium ones and very big ones."
Secondly, mentally disturbed patients sometimes believe themselves infested with parasites too elusive for doctors to catch. Kaiser could call to check symptoms against known parasites. Or patients themselves might call to self-diagnose or get a second opinion.
"One guy thought he had bugs in his ears," said Lewis. "He blows garlic in his ears to repel them. He uses ear plugs. He has delusions of parasitosis, not uncommon at all."
For these callers, the hotline lends a sympathetic ear. Suoja said he has spent hours listening to their stories.
"Usually there's been a real arthropod infestation on the person or in their house," said Suoja, "and usually they relive it. There are some clues, like if they want to talk and have no shame even when it's intimately personal where they've had the infestation. Sometimes it goes along with having experienced a major stress: a death in the family, loss of job, divorce. And let's face it, the infestation could be real."
The most common call to the hotline is, well, common: termites. Runner-up is dust mites causing allergies. For these callers, Suoja, Dunbar and Lewis try to track down why the bugs are present as well as suggest strategies for relief.
But it's the oddball questions that make legend. It's the silver embossed ram's skull brought back from Tibet with beetles emerging from it because the brain was never removed. Or the cat sculpture, once treasured art, now standing on its head in a plastic vat, home to a beetle colony.
"Just everyday something strange comes in that door," said Lewis. "Sometimes I feel like hiding under my desk, it gets so crazy."