Tick Doc

Maggots, crickets, worms and beetles. Most of us recoil at the thought of encountering insects, let alone handling them. Bugs are something we squash or spray with poison. Thanks to Hollywood, our nightmares are often filled with jumbo jet-sized ants and building crushing roaches.An insect-free world would be just fine. But for a cadre of professors, insects offer excitement and earn respect."Bugs are fascinating in terms of diversity. They are the dominate animal on the planet," says Ken Holscher, associate professor of extension entomology at Iowa State University. "Three quarters of all animals are insects."The mite shall inherit the earth.Holscher remembers his first favorite bug -- the tick. He has a fondness and admiration for the tiny blood sucker that others have for a puppy."They are interesting little creatures. You work with a creature for five years and you gain a respect for it."Ticks are survivors. They need a warm-blooded host and not just any host, but three different ones throughout their lives. They climb up a blade of grass and wait, patiently, for a host to brush up against them. And some do this blind, Holscher says."I can't make anyone like insects, but I hope people appreciate them," Holscher says.His appreciation, however, does have limits. As a graduate student in college, Holscher developed an allergic reaction to red harvester ants.While he avoids the red ants, he blames most people's aversion to bugs on Hollywood, which he says places insects in situations they wouldn't exist in the wild."Read and study spiders and then watch 'Arachnaphobia.' You'd have a list of mistakes a mile long." Mistakes like unprovoked spiders attacking people. But Holscher says he's not highly critical of films.Every October, entomology faculty and students hold an insect horror film festival at ISU. But for all the fun entomologists have, they take their work seriously. By studying and researching insects, entomologists can offer assistance to farmers who need to learn how to control or eliminate bugs to avoid crop damage; companies like Monsanto and du Pont hire entomologists to develop insecticides; universities need professors to teach future bug enthusiasts; the military relies on the science to protect soldiers from disease.Insects are also used to solve murders.Forensic entomology is a relatively new area, and while insects have always been found on dead carcasses, only recently has science used bugs to determine the time of death."It's fascinating, but it's a highly specialized field," Holscher says. "It's neat to think an individual can be convicted because of insects."For forensic entomologists flies are their best friends. They are an indicator of how long someone has been dead. Within minutes of death, flies are on the scene. By knowing the life span of a fly, entomologists can determine when the first eggs were laid on the deceased, thus leading to an approximate time of death.But less than 1 percent of homicides require an insect specialist, says Professor Robert D. Hall of the University of Missouri Department of Entomology and a forensic specialist. He says there are only 10 or 12 entomologists in North America who are active in this field.If you can't stomp them and don't believe in using pesticides, there's one other way to deal with bugs -- eat them."In some cultures bugs are an important part of their diet," Holscher says. "We're not suggesting people chase down bugs and cook them. You want them raised in a sterile environment."Bugs can be purchased from mail-order pet supply houses. Dale Cochran, owner of Grubco in Cincinnati, says he probably gets more calls from people buying bugs to eat than he knows.There are plenty of bug cook books with recipes for everything from Chocolate Chirpie Chip Cookies (made with crickets) to Rootworm Beetle Dip."Insect cook books are a big seller. Publishers couldn't keep them in stock," Cochran says.For now, only entomologists seem willing to dine on bugs. "If it's an entomological society calling, we know why they are ordering," Cochran says. "They are having dinners and ordering hors d'oeuvres."


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