The Sleuths Will See You Now

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Photo by Victor Kang.

Like the décor of my old pediatrician’s waiting room, the design of the Insect Inquiry Office at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) kindly informs you of everything you could have done to avoid making the visit in the first place. Flyers on the front desk begging “DON’T MOVE FIREWOOD” lie adjacent to a file holder stuffed with chirpy self-help brochures, which make up a rogues gallery of the most recent pests to plague the state. In apoplectic red, a poster urging “KEEP CALM and BED BUGS BEGONE” hangs beside a pink bed bug plushie nailed to the wall.

The morning’s first client was an elderly man dressed in black, clutching a Ziploc bag in his right fist. Like most visitors, he had arrived without an appointment. Dr. Gale Ridge, a slender redheaded Brit who became the director of the Insect Inquiry Office in 2008, rose to greet him and motioned to the lone seat across from the front desk. The man sat gingerly, eyeing the holiday tinsel on the table – festooned not with Christmas baubles, but shimmering, plastic dragonflies.

He’d been bitten, he said, rubbing a rosy patch on his neck. Ridge pushed the bag under a microscope. A brown mash filled the nearby computer screen. Ridge fiddled with the knobs, and a tangle of legs came into focus.

“Yeah — you crushed it, but it’s just a small spider,” she said cheerfully, peering at the mash. She handed him a clipboard and pen to write up a report.

“It really hung on there,” the man added weakly, his hand still anchored to his neck.

“Well, most of these critters have claws, and they hang on in a state of total terror,” she said, ” You would, too. It’s like you have a boat, sinking — well, what do you do? You hang onto the boat!” Ridge laughed, pretending to grip some imaginary vessel for dear life.

She inspected the spider bite. “Have you got any red? Mm, just a little irritated,” she pronounced. “Given our size, spiders are only going to bite in situations of dire peril.” Sheepishly, the man replied he might have grabbed it a tad hard. Standing up straighter and looking relieved, he left the office. Ridge turned to me with her hands on her lap, smiling — another case closed.

The office came into existence in 1901, after an increase in reports of the gypsy moth and other pests across Connecticut prompted the governor to fund a state entomology department. It is the only government office in the state that will, free of charge, identify the many-legged, pincered, and hairy arthropods brought in by befuddled civilians. Yale Pest Elimination brings students’ pest reports to the office for analysis, and residents, farmers, and business owners all
rely on the office for bug-related advice.

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From 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, there are at most three people at work in the office: Ridge, and lab assistants Katherine Dugas and Rose Hiskes.  During certain months, the sleuthing is easier. Sometimes the office can predict when they’ll receive reports of one bug or another, like the cicadas this past July and August or the termites after the first rain of spring.

But the team can’t predict everything. Ridge recalled a man who had trapped a beetle in his cup of iced coffee. The bug, after taking a few sips, scrabbled against the plastic in a sugar-fueled frenzy before falling to the bottom, twitching as though exorcised. Ridge had to run the beetle under cold water before it calmed down enough for her to view it properly.

“Remember the photocopy?” Dugas chimed in, referring to a couple who had smashed the insect under the glass of a photocopier, hit “print,” and emailed her an image of the monster mash for her to puzzle over. Once, in the mail, Ridge even received an insect squished to a pulp, the legs of which she had to reconstruct before issuing a call. Because certain species lose characteristic colors and features when they die, Ridge also occasionally performs insect CPR — warming the insects up, then blowing vigorously from tail to head — to revive specimens that are near death.

This summer will mark Ridge’s 15th year with the CAES, and she says the office hasn’t been wrong about an insect since she’s been in charge. Among Dugas, Hiskes, and herself, Ridge said, the three have a working knowledge of every living arthropod, so there’s slim chance citizens’ inquiries won’t be answered. The problem for the office isn’t figuring those answers out. In recent years, the problem has been dealing with the people who wish they’d never asked for the bugs
in the first place.

***

The word “bug” shares the etymology of the word “bogeyman.” Both derive from the Middle English word bugge or bogge, for something that provokes fright.

An adult human, on average, is 70 times the height of a spider, yet the human is usually the one who shrieks when his two eyes meet the spider’s eight. Ridge discourages her clients from killing the insects outright: If your sympathies aren’t swayed by their crispy shells and bulbous eyes, then consider that our longtime attitude of “what should I spray?” has unintentionally generated large populations of hyper-resistant superbugs. To civilians who contemplate more creative methods of pest elimination — pouring gasoline into yellow jacket hives and lighting them on fire, for instance — Dugas responds with an emphatic “no.”

We are a society of swatters, giants that crumble before bodies the size of our fingernails. These days, the bug arousing the most abject panic for the office’s clients is about the size of an apple seed. It is Cimex lectularius — the bed bug.

Scientists aren’t sure why the bed bug returned in the late 1990s after 40 years of dormancy. However the critters got here, they’re settling in just fine: Today, bed bugs comprise 25 percent of the office’s caseload, and reports are on the rise.

For all the species’ prosperity, Ridge said the bugs could scarcely have picked a worse choice of host than the flighty, nervous human. Bed bugs, reclusive and shy by nature, are constantly on the lookout for a blood meal before they can scuttle into a crevasse for safety. Humans, huge and fidgety, seem like poor choices for a leisurely nosh.

But the quick-moving bugs are diligent feeders, so they adapt to our behavior, waiting until we are the most vulnerable and least suspecting before they bite, leaving welts and irritation but causing no medical harm. They might cling to our clothes, or latch onto the elderly and sedentary when they’re dozing in their chairs. Like unwanted lovers, they sneak into our beds when we are resting. This is, perhaps, the bugs’ most terrifying attribute: For everything humans are capable of knowing, something so bold as to infiltrate our very person could still escape our detection.

“There’s a social stigma,” Ridge continued, “that you’re a dirty person if you have the bugs, that it’s your fault for bringing them in. So people don’t communicate, and they don’t cooperate. By our inaction and lack of reporting, we are actually aiding the bed bug. The human conversation regarding bed bugs must change if there is to be any progress.”

“Most people who come to me are in a complete state of panic, crying over the phone, crying here,” Ridge added. “People take it very personally.” One young woman, momentarily triumphant when Ridge confirmed that her bagged specimen was indeed a bed bug, suddenly became catatonic with fear. She sat at the front desk for nearly an hour before coming to her wits. “She was gone, completely brain fried,” Ridge recalled. “Shame, disgust, depression, stress — all the negative aspects of our existence show up when this insect shows up.”

Children brought along to the office stare as their parents bawl and shake over the news of bed bugs. Ridge, a single mother to three children, often acts like a parent at the office. “You’re the
authority, but you have to bring yourself down to their level,” Ridge said. The staff avoids the word “bed bug” — they’ll speak in code, calling out “Cimex!” instead, which gives them a chance to prepare the Kleenex if the client seems particularly unwieldy.

The office sleuths give clients a few minutes to collect themselves before offering advice. Dugas likens a patient’s recovery from the news of bed bugs to the five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before muted acceptance of the facts. It’s knowledge — a few calmly delivered methods of recourse — that finally makes people simmer down.

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Dugas isn’t free of fear herself. She’s an arachnophobe, she admits, who will yelp if presented with a spider. “We’re all human here,” she says, without a trace of defensiveness. But she’s trained her intellect to kick in faster than most. “I’ll start referring to [the spider] as a he or she, which gets people really disarmed, and then they’re curious as opposed to afraid.”

But some civilians won’t — and can’t — calm down. On an almost weekly basis, the office receives clients with Ekbom syndrome, or delusory parasitosis (DP): the belief that one is being inhabited by arthropods or other organisms. DP sufferers often report unremitting itchiness or the sensation of being bitten on their hands, in their throats, and all over their bodies, terrified that they have become the site of an insect siege. Some clients bring in slight wounds and scars inflicted by bona fide bugs, but DP sufferers have been known to wound themselves, clawing mercilessly at their own skin to expunge the swarms from their bodies. A DP client once approached the office staff convinced her hair had become home to head lice. On another day, a client arrived with stories of insects he had unconsciously invented, delivering a panicked, elaborate description of these fictive insects’ biology and behavior. DP clients come to the office from all over the state in search of validation, Ridge said, hoping for assurance that the sensations that plague them are genuine and not indications of afraying mind.

“We’ll never use the ‘c-word’ on them — ‘crazy,’” Dugas said. “We’re never going to say they’re not really itchy. They assume you’ve passed judgment on them, and then there’s no way we can help.” Dugas joked that Ridge should have a degree in psychology by now, but the office staff is licensed to work with bugs only. Lacking the proper training, they are obligated to suggest, gently but firmly, that the client see a medical doctor. Interacting with DP clients is “draining,” according to Dugas. “Once we go out the door, we try not to take it home,” she said. “But my roommates can tell how busy of a day it’s been based on how stupid I am off duty.”

Currently, Ridge leads the effort to get people calm-and-carrying-on about bed bugs. As the chair of the Connecticut Coalition Against Bed Bugs, the state’s hub for bed bug-related issues, she publishes fact sheets and travels around the state delivering lectures and holding forums on bed bug management. Her latest project is legislation to foster cooperation between tenants and landlords when reporting and exterminating pests. She hopes that, given time, the bugs will be less of a problem as humans are more willing to work together in search of solutions.

“With the bed bugs, that’s social work right there,” she said.

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Ridge has a picture of a bed bug set as her computer wallpaper. Hidden behind the front desk is the terrarium, which, upon first glance, seems to only contain a few rolls of toilet paper tubes. Dugas, grinning mischievously, shows me later that the tubes are teeming with termites.

“I have to carry two masters,” Ridge explained: her fascination with bugs, and the necessity of advising clients on how best to dispose of them. Health Department officials think they hear reverence in her tone when she discusses bugs, but it’s more of a healthy respect: Life, after all, wouldn’t exist without the stunningly adaptable arthropod, who in diversity outranks any other living fauna. They comprise about 80 percent of all creatures on the planet. For aid in feeding, pollination, organic decomposition, everything alive owes arthropods a well-deserved thanks — or, in the case of more troublesome pests, at least a grudging acknowledgement.

The office sleuths speak, said Dugas, on the bugs’ behalf. But the sleuths are really there for us, as biped allies who will hear us out when the polypeds teem irascibly at our doors.

“We want to see people walking away feeling ‘I know what I need to do,’” Dugas said. “Some people send donations and thank-you notes. That’s not our goal, but to me that says we did a good job. For me
that’s definitely brownie points.”

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