A Day in the Life of a Bedbug Collector
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if you’ve got a bed, chances are you’ve got a bug.
By Sushmita Pathak
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Rye Brook, New York
I began my day packaging some specimens — spiders, scorpions and some other arachnids suspended in alcohol — that needed to be shipped. Then I got a call from a man who had found some strange insects biting him after he’d gone to a park on the Upper West Side. He was really surprised because he’d been going to this park for the past 10 years and had never had this problem. So he called and asked if he could come over.
Calls like that are very common. I get three inquiries a week on average, from pest control companies or just regular people finding a strange insect in their house. There are more calls during the summer. The insect that was biting this man turned out to be a predaceous little bug, an adult — the immature one is pink in color.
I’m 64 and I live in Rye Brook in Westchester County, where I grew up. I’ve been working as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History for 39 years. Each day is different. Sometimes I’m outside the city doing fieldwork, sometimes I have to go to a site with pest control people, sometimes it’s a day in court as an expert witness to help figure out where the bedbugs in a house or establishment came from. Sometimes I feel like a bedbug sleuth.
I spend a lot of time answering questions about bedbugs in online forums. I also go to businesses and hospitals to present talks on bedbugs: how to recognize them, what to do when you find an infestation, best practices, and so on. But what I enjoy most is going to schools and interacting with kids, especially the younger ones, showing them insects, watching them hold specimens with curiosity, teaching them that insects aren’t always something to be afraid of. That not everything is a pest.
It might seem like I’ve grown attached to them, but in reality, they’re more attached to me.
Childhood was when my fascination with insects began. When I was premed at the University of Connecticut, I took a field entomology course during my first summer. We collected different types of insects, identified them and observed them under the microscope. That’s when I got hooked on insects’ morphology, their body structures. That’s still what fascinates me the most. After that, I stayed with entomology.
One day in the late ’80s, I got a call from a man about what he thought was a strange little bug. He brought it to my office to show it to me. It turned out to be a bedbug, the first live one I’d seen. The man’s friend, who was visiting from Canada, had probably picked up the bugs there and unknowingly carried them across the border and into the man’s apartment. That was around the time bedbugs were starting to crop up everywhere. Since people didn’t have bedbugs on their mind, no one really paid attention when they entered a hotel or motel. No one knew much about them; there were so many questions. That’s what got me interested in bedbugs.
Today, I have about a thousand bedbugs in little jars and vials in my house. Their ancestors originally belonged to a researcher who, in the ’70s, had collected bedbugs from Fort Dix, in New Jersey. He was a medical entomologist in the army and there was a bedbug issue in the barracks. He had collected some 200 specimens and, later, when bedbugs became a big issue, his population was very useful to scientists trying to learn more about them. The bedbugs that I’ve collected have become my pets in some ways. I feed them my own blood — I just open the lid of the vial and place it upside down on my thumb and they scuttle down for a meal. I’ve never worried that they would escape and take over my house. I don’t plan to get rid of them anytime soon. It might seem like I’ve grown attached to them, but in reality, they’re more attached to me.
Besides studying insects, I love eating them and that sometimes confuses people. They say, “If you have a work animal that you love, why would you eat it?” Well, I mostly do it to educate people that there’s nothing wrong with eating insects. Some are pretty tasty! Crickets are my favorite. You can get them dried and ground into a powder that can be mixed with flour and used in baking. There’s even cricket-flavored pasta.
I wonder sometimes about what I’d be if I weren’t an entomologist. I might have stayed in premed and gone into medicine. Probably research, not so much working with patients. Although I do work with psychiatrists to help patients get over arachnophobia [the fear of spiders] or entomophobia, the fear of insects. Sometimes we convince patients to handle the spiders and we videotape them and observe them.
Watching people get over their fear is really good.
- Sushmita Pathak, OZY Author Contact Sushmita Pathak