Monday, April 24, 2017

Something bugging you?

I’m neither a bug-lover nor a bug-hater.

Other than bedbugs – toward which I harbor both fear and loathing – most bugs don’t bother me all that much. Not that I’m St. Francis of Assisi all over them, mind you. No reverence for all living creatures and all that. I crush any silverfish I see in the bathroom and flush the remains down the toilet. I own (and know how to use) a flyswatter. I step on ants that I see indoors. If I spotted a cockroach, I would be setting off Raid bombs. But I don’t go nuts at the sight of an insect. Nonetheless, in terms of animal sympathy, mine lies with those further up the sentience scale. I would not, for instance, step on a dog or a bonobo. Instead, I would engage with them.

And, hey, I actively like fireflies and ladybugs.

Anyway, even if I had been a STEM type of gal, I wouldn’t have been drawn to a career in entomology. Fortunately, there are people who are drawn to the profession which, if you’re a public entomologist like Gale Ridge, who works for the state of Connecticut, is a lot more varied a job than collecting insects and labeling the jars you house them in.

Her clients enter [her lab] brandishing pill bottles, jam jars, and Tupperware containing roaches and weevils, meal moths and fabric moths, bedbugs and stinkbugs. Tiny mangled spiders come in on bits of Scotch tape; gypsy moth caterpillars by the wriggling bucketful. Some people even send in live beetles by mail: The envelopes arrive empty, with chew marks in the corner.

She has helped gardeners identify the scourges of their crops, she’s guided homeowners through the treacherous terrain of bedbug control, and she’s helped police investigate a murder by examining the maggots found writhing in the victim’s flesh.(Source: Bloomberg)

RIdge has definitely found the right profession. She even has empathy for bedbugs, allowing those from her lab an occasional feed on her blood by sucking on her thigh.

“There is nothing worse or more sad to see than a frustrated bedbug who can’t feed,” she told me when describing one of her experiments.

Well, I can think of just a few things that are worse and sadder than a frustrated bedbug, but I’m perhaps insufficiently kind and empathetic.

In addition to her regular bug-related duties, Ridge spends time as some type of hybrid physician-shrink for those coming her way who believe that their bodies have been invaded, and that they’re being eaten alive, by bugs:

She labels these cases DP, short for delusional parasitosis. Some entomologists prefer Ekbom syndrome, because it carries less stigma. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which most psychiatrists use, the condition is listed as one kind of delusional disorder, defined as an unshakeable belief that you are being attacked by bugs or parasites even when there is no evidence of infestation.

“Patients” Ridge has seen have gone to extremes to get rid of what’s bugging them. One fellow bathed in insecticide.

The folks who come to Ridge have already seen their doctor and a dermatologist. When they’re told that they need a psychiatrist, they take exception.

The patients believe that the proper medication is not an antipsychotic but an antiparasitic, that the correct expert is not a psychiatrist but an insect specialist.

For her own part, Ridge sees up to 200 cases a year, which seems really incredible to me. And she’s not alone.

“Every state has somebody like Gale or me,” said Nancy Hinkle, a professor of veterinary entomology at the University of Georgia, in Athens. She estimates that these inquiries take up about 20 percent of her time. “I tend to stay a couple of hours every day to deal with the invisible bugs.”

Countrywide, the number of cases is growing, and Ridge is collaborating on an initiative to come up diagnostic guidelines. Most, she’s trying “to prevent people’s lives from unraveling.”

I have a tiny bit of an idea what that unraveling might be like.

On a trip to NYC about five years ago, my husband and I both got what looked like a bedbug bite, which is distinguished by a three red dots pattern. We were pretty sure we were bitten at a weirdly charming but rundown little French bistro that we went to on each NYC trip. Not only were the menu and décor completely old school, they had a pianist playing Broadway show tunes, and the average age of the diners made us look like kids. (I just googled, and it closed about a year ago. Maybe the last regular patron passed on to the great French bistro in the sky.)

Anyway, for weeks after we returned home – with no signs of bedbugs in our luggage or on our clothing – I lived in complete fear that we were being infested. I bought some sort of natural anti-bedbug treatment. I bought a bedbug detector. I tossed and turned and regularly got out of bed in the wee small hours to toss and turn the mattress for signs that we had bedbugs. The fear of bedbug infestation didn’t bug my husband. What bugged him was my obsession. I finally went out and bought new pillows, anti-bedbug pillow cases, and an anti-bedbug mattress cover. Only then could I sleep.

So while I don’t exactly have DP, I do get the obsession with bugs.

Fortunately, there are entomologists out there to help DP sufferers, even if they can’t do much for them except get them to start taking anti-psychotics. Fortunately, there’s an anti-psychotic that one study shows is also an anti-parasitic. This gets some of the DP-ers to take a drug for what’s bugging them without having to acknowledge that they have a psychiatric disorder.

Me, I bet that there’s a reasonably good chance that at some point they’ll find that there really are teenie tiny parasites that are too miniscule to be identified with today’s microscopes.

Meanwhile, how’s entomologist for an interesting occupation?

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