Most children have a bug period. — E.O. Wilson, Harvard entomologist and biodiversity expert
I love insects, which is probably why I became a scientist focusing on these extraordinary critters and their relation to plants in the forest canopy. But insects also love me. Working in Ethiopia recently proved no exception. After one short hour traipsing in tiny fragments of vegetation called church forests, I had 26 (and counting!) chigger bites. (To note, my Ethiopian colleague had zero!)
Chiggers adore me. They didn’t bite me immediately, but — true to their behavior — prowled my surfaces until they found all the cozy spots such as underwear lines, creases, and other hotspots. Even worse, a colleague who had the audacity to study chiggers informed me they can bite multiple times. So maybe I have cultivated a small tribe of chiggers who just adore exploring my exterior.
In any case, my resident chiggers provided three nights of torture. They behaved as night owls, with a majority of bites inflicted in the dark of my bedcovers. I lay in bed for hours experiencing that “do not scratch at any cost” martyrdom, but then suffered further mental debilitation because of the enormous itch-factor.
The only cure seemed to be wearing very few (if any) clothes, which was not possible as a visiting Fulbright scholar and also a minority scientist at Jimma University, Ethiopia. (The proportion of Caucasians on this campus was fewer than 1 percent, and women faculty only slightly higher.) So I discreetly scratched my way through meetings with the university vice president, provost, faculty and students, and through multiple seminar presentations.
My tube of cortisone cream was long gone, but the love and affection of my chigger population stayed with me throughout my time in Ethiopia. Adorable, my entomology colleagues would exclaim!
On the topic of insects in field work, chiggers are relatively benign compared with other notable tropical creatures that enjoy human substrates.
The “candiru” or vampire fish is a parasitic catfish native to the Amazon Basin. Legend has it that these sneaky critters infect male body parts while swimming in neotropical rivers, and its sharp, toothed protrusions allow it to enter the urethra but not easily exit.
Perhaps the most notorious tropical legend in the insect world is the “botfly,” an aggressive Diptera that manages to locate the bare flesh of perspiring, naïve biologists and lay its egg under the skin. The larva hatches in this safe, warm location — it wriggles (painful!), eats, breathes, and grows for several weeks of uncomfortable (to the host, that is) gestation before emerging as an adult.
The human host has two choices — to let it develop and escape via natural means (which requires endurance of the wriggling under your skin), or to entice it out as a juvenile for which there are many fabled methodologies — put raw meat atop its breathing hole, suffocate the critter with nail polish, or simply gouge it out with a Swiss army knife (only for the bravest!).
Again, most of these pests are not life-threatening, just obnoxious. The true threats are those insects carrying diseases — mosquitoes that transmit malaria, or insect vectors of diseases such as river blindness or leishmaniasis. In contrast, my African colleagues were amazed that American scientists dare to work amid grizzly bears or rattlesnakes. And they are horrified about getting a tick in America that could bestow Lyme disease — so we all have our anxieties while working in remote regions as field biologists. With a warming climate, Florida may become part of the expanded range for some of these tropical critters that currently reside closer to the equator.
Welcome to the tropics! Why do some of us still love working here? It is not for those obnoxious insects, believe me, but instead for their millions of close cousins representing unknown species who possibly carry chemicals that cure other diseases, or are important economically such as pollinators. If we can better understand the complexities of biodiversity, then the survival of all life on earth goes up a hundredfold. So, for the sake of my kids, I will endure a few more chigger bites — and hopefully contribute a few threads of new knowledge to demystifying the sustainability of life on Earth.
Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.
Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.