Love Thy Bug

By Jeffrey Kluger|Saturday, May 01, 1993
I can’t imagine that David Kulhavy actually planned to spend a portion of his adult life wearing a giant foam beetle suit. As anyone who has ever tried to dress as a beetle knows, finding a tailor who can measure you for mandibles, fit you with wings, and evenly cuff six legs can be murder. And as for accessorizing the whole outfit? Forget it.

Nevertheless, the first time I met Kulhavy, he was attractively garbed in the absolute latest in ladybird-beetle fashion. Oh sure, to the sharp-eyed bug lover, he fell a little short of perfect anatomical correctness. For one thing, Kulhavy--an entomologist at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas--is close to six feet tall, edging out the average ladybird beetle by 5 feet 11.96 inches. For another thing, he was standing on just two of his sextet of legs, glad-handing friends and visitors with another two.

And there are other problems, he admitted to me. For example, some entomologists have pointed out that all the legs on the outfit have only three tarsi, or joints. In truth, there should be four of them. Of course, who among us hasn’t had that complaint about a new suit?

Had I met Kulhavy anywhere else, his ensemble of choice would have qualified him less for the pages of GQ than Psychology Today. However, we shook forelimbs in the lobby of the Baltimore Convention Center during the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America. The society, which numbers 8,500 entomologists worldwide, has been meeting in annual bug-huddles every year since 1897, using the confab to exchange learned papers and swap late-breaking news from the curious world of tiny critters. At the most recent meeting, society member and entomologist Tom Turpin and his colleagues at Purdue University added a one-day Insect Expo to the convention agenda. The event provided an opportunity for the media, local schools, and the public at large to meet a random sampling of the nation’s leading bug mavens (as well as their multilegged charges) and to learn a little more about an area of science that even the hardiest of us tries to stay as far from as possible.

When I received my invitation to the Insect Expo, I reacted like any well-trained scientific investigator and promptly ran screaming in the other direction. On a list of people comfortable with bugs, I would rank near the bottom, only a little ahead of inch-tall movie actors who spend their careers trapped in giant spider webs screaming Help me! while an arachnid the size of a Winnebago closes in on them. On further reflection, however, I decided it might be a good idea to go to the expo because: a) it’s always wise to confront our worst fears directly, and b) my editor told me to.

Despite my misgivings, when I arrived at the expo I found the environment decidedly unthreatening. While Kulhavy and I spoke, volunteers at a table nearby were assembling one-size-fits-all hats from paper plates and bright orange cardboard butterflies--the height of winged headgear. A few feet away, other convention workers were passing out leaflets reminding visitors that the insect puppet show was about to get under way. Across the room, still other workers were announcing that the cockroach tractor pull and the morning maggot races had already begun.

Fighting the impulse to head straight for the puppet show and then call it a day, I drew a deep breath and decided to make a beeline for the roach room. Like any city dweller, I have long had an adversarial relationship with cockroaches. Over the years I have lived in apartments in which the roach population has been so large and aggressive that only with the help of UN peacekeeping forces have I been able to broker something approaching a truce. Typically, the best deal I can strike is access to the bathroom and kitchen on alternate days, plus occasional use of the car-- provided I fill it with gas. Nevertheless the entomologists at the Insect Expo were determined to demonstrate to people like me the trainability-- and, presumably, lovability--of the roach. To that end they had set up a tabletop racecourse on which giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches ran sprints around a track or scampered down straightaways pulling tiny tractors with pennants that read Notre Dame, Purdue, and Indiana State.

As I approached, one such tractor race was already in progress, and the small crowd that had gathered was lustily cheering, C’mon, Purdue! and Let’s go, Notre Dame! When the race ended (an easy Purdue victory) I took a few minutes to speak to the roach wrangler in charge, a graduate student in entomology named Jorge Frana from--no surprise--Purdue.

Cockroaches are among the most common insects the average person can think of, he told me as he toyed with a two-and-a-half-inch Madagascar roach that might well have qualified for local leash laws. Most people believe they’re very familiar with them, but in fact, barely 5 percent of all cockroaches live near human beings.

All told, Frana explained to me, there are about 3,500 species of cockroaches, most of which still make their homes in jungles. The species we know best are the German cockroach, the American cockroach, the brown- banded cockroach, and the Pennsylvania Woods cockroach. Of these, it is the German roach that turns up most often in the average apartment--a good thing, since these modest-size models are about half the length of the other common species. While I was pleased to learn that the Bavarian bugs that share my home are never likely to grow much past an inch, I confessed to Frana that I still wished they’d go looking for Lebensraum in someone else’s Lebens room. Sadly, he told me, this was unlikely.

Once a cockroach is in your home, it can survive on nearly anything, he said. A little grease around the stove or on the floor is plenty for a roach. What’s more, it can live with you for about a year, and in that time each female will produce up to eight oothecas--or egg cases-- each of which will have up to 40 nymphs.

The idea that I was becoming a Fred MacMurray-style paterfamilias to a household full of thousands of young cockroaches (My Eight Oothecas) was more than a little horrifying. Before I could be hit with any insect paternity suits, I left Frana and went looking for a less disturbing display. Unfortunately, at an Insect Expo there are no less disturbing displays, so I had to settle for the Africanized Honeybee exhibit. Africanized honeybee, as you may know, is the term entomologists use when they really mean killer bee. Saying you work with killer bees, of course, gets you a lot more media attention, but it also makes it hard to rent lab space in any place more centrally located than Irkutsk.

The Insect Expo’s killer bee expert was David Heilman, an apiarist from Ohio State. Heilman has been a fancier of Africanized honeybees for years and makes it his business to correct the bad rap the bees have gotten in the popular press.

Africanized honeybees are not really as big a problem as the public has been led to believe, Heilman insisted. In fact, they’re a lot less dangerous than some animals we think of as friendly. In 1990, 17 people died in the United States of honeybee stings while 108 died in horse-riding accidents.

The Africanized bees’ ill humor, Heilman said, is not a natural part of their personality but was bred into them by gene-mingling scientists. Killer bees were first created, he explained, by an entomologist who crossed the relatively calm European bee with more- aggressive African bees. The Africans live in an environment where there are more predators, so they have to be meaner; however, they’re also a lot hardier. Unfortunately, while the offspring from the cross indeed picked up the African bee’s desirable traits, they also inherited its temperament.

Perhaps I would have found Heilman’s arguments more persuasive if he had actually brought a few of the unfairly maligned insects with him. He confessed, however, that the city fathers of Baltimore and other burgs generally object when you try to import any animal with the first name Killer, and so the only representatives of the Africanized strain he had on hand were a few dead bees glued inside petri dishes.

Heilman did have some other, live bees with him--but they did little to inspire confidence in the personality of any member of their extended family. Within a sealed Plexiglas box, approximately 1.2 jillion European honeybees crawled over one another and buzzed ominously at any nose pressed too close to the glass. Heilman produced a length of plastic tubing, placed one end up to a mesh-covered air hole in the bees’ Plexiglas prison, and offered the other end to me, suggesting I stick it in my ear. I could have recommended another option to Heilman, but wanting to be sporting, I played along. Instantly, I was sorry I had. The buzzing I heard through the tube sounded exactly as if a thousand or so of the bees had escaped from the hive, flown directly into my eustachian tube, and begun constructing a large housing development. The noise, Heilman explained blandly, was caused partially by the bees’ beating their wings and partially--I’m not kidding--by their trying to chew through the mesh. This caused me just a little consternation, and I made a quick exit, hoping to be long gone before any of the bees could fire up tiny acetylene torches, take Heilman hostage, and demand an audience with the governor.

Anxious to find some insects with more easygoing personalities-- or at least without arrest records--I next visited the display for the New Guinea walking stick. These five-inch insects, as their name implies, became one of nature’s most dramatic examples of protective camouflage--and one of its most boring houseguests--when they evolved to look exactly like a stick. The walking stick achieves this feat with a bumpy, brown, barklike skin and an ability to stand absolutely still. Or almost absolutely still.

One of the walking stick’s most remarkable traits, says Purdue entomologist Linda Mason, is its ability to sway slightly in the breeze. Twigs growing from a rigid branch will typically move in the wind. If one of them didn’t, it would immediately catch the eye of predators. The walking sticks seem to know this and can rock constantly from side to side, varying their speed to keep up with the strength of the breeze.

Mason seemed utterly taken with this ability, but I wasn’t exactly bowled over. Since the convention hall had no breeze, the walking sticks I saw just stood there, giving them less personality than the average charcoal briquette. I suppose an ability to sense the prevailing winds counts for something in nature, but when your entire résumé reads Current employment: looking like stick, it would be hard not to do a good job.

Without question, the lowlight of the day for me (though the highlight for the people around me) came when I visited a display called-- ominously--Crispy Critters. If the sign above the booth had not made it abundantly clear what was going on here, the sizzling wok at the front of the display and the tantalizing cooking smells I suddenly caught definitely did.

How about a sautéed mealworm? Purdue entomology grad student Kathy Heinsohn asked me as I approached and she proffered a plate of what looked like . . . like . . . well, like cooked worms. They’re fresh, they’re good for you, and they’re absolutely delicious.

Mealworms weren’t the only goodies Heinsohn was serving. As I watched horrified, she and her colleagues helped themselves to heaping handfuls of what they called Caterpillar Crunch--a ghastly trail mix of almonds, sunflower seeds, ginger, cinnamon, curry, and fried wax worms. (If you’re fresh out of wax worms, the recipe says you can substitute roasted mealworms or roasted crickets.) Insects are just like any other food, Heinsohn told me through a mouthful of cooked invertebrate. People are squeamish about them, but they’re perfectly harmless and full of protein.

Full of protein, as anyone knows, is the fallback argument people always use when they’re trying to get you to eat anything from chopped liver to carpet tacks. No fool, I protested that insects are also full of other things--like legs, antennae, and cooties. Heinsohn wasn’t impressed.

Whether you know it or not, you eat insects all the time. See this peanut butter? she asked, holding up a jar. Did you know the government actually permits a certain amount of insect parts in processed foods like this? Bugs get in the peanut or vegetable crops and they’re impossible to get out. They can’t do you any harm, so inspectors just let them through.

Heinsohn suggested that, in the interests of research, I try one- -just one--wax worm. Scanning the plate, I selected the smallest possible grub I could find, popped it in my mouth, chewed quickly, and swallowed. Heinsohn had told me that the little critter would taste like a peanut, but near as I could tell, it tasted almost exactly like Pepsi. This, however, was due less to some property of the worm itself than to the fact that I immediately consumed a wading pool’s worth of soda, trying to make sure there wasn’t so much as an iota of insect left in my teeth.

Not surprisingly, none of the expo’s other offerings were as dramatic as the Crispy Critters booth--but none required me to floss afterward either, so I counted that as a net plus. I was briefly drawn to the booth marked Bio Quip, but I passed it by when it turned out not to be the sampling of bug-related humor I had hoped but merely a display of entomological lab equipment. The maggot races were a bit of a disappointment, consisting of little more than three tilted glass tubes in which three luckless maggots were inserted and then forced to half-crawl, half-roll out the other end. And the puppet show wound up being a complete bust--but only because I finished touring the expo late and missed the performances altogether. I did see someone hurrying across the convention center carrying a giant stuffed caterpillar, but for all I knew that was a dinner date for Kulhavy, the six-foot beetle.

Happily, I’ll have a chance to catch the puppet show and any other events I missed when the next expo convenes in Indianapolis late this year. (The city should be roundly applauded as an especially good choice; it has served as home to the National Football League’s Colts since 1984 and is thus already familiar with hard-shelled life-forms with itsy-bitsy brainpans--though real insects would probably have a slightly better won- lost record.) Despite my general bug loathing, I might actually attend this expo too. After all, I still don’t have any answers to a couple of pressing insect questions, such as why mosquitoes, which could land anywhere on your body they want when you’re asleep, seem interested only in barnstorming your ear canal, or where houseflies went to die before there were ceiling light fixtures. If the next convention can provide insight into these issues, it might well be worth a visit. Remind me, however, to pack a lunch.
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