Saturday, December 26, 2009

All Grown Up

I have no idea whether she is the same individual that I introduced in ”The University Roach” back in November, but on Monday, December 14, I finally spotted an adult female brown-banded roach on the floor in my lab. Since the first sighting I have learned a little more about the species, too.

Ok, maybe what I really learned is just how much we collectively don’t know, like exactly where this species came from in the first place. My initial research concluded that Supella longipalpa is probably native to Africa. According to the second edition of How to Know the Grasshoppers, Cockroaches and Their Allies, by Jacques R. Helfer (Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa, 1972), the brown-banded cockroach was known only from Florida from 1903 until at least 1917. The text further states that the species was introduced to Arizona in 1933. An asterisk footnote recognizes that “Supella longipalpa (F.) has been very successful in extending its range and has now turned up in every state.”

The homeland of this species is disputed in Stephen A. Marshall’s tome, Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity (Firefly Books, Richmond Hill, Ontario, 2006). The author states that this species is native to India, and that it is becoming increasingly common in households throughout North America.

David George Gordon, in his highly-readable book The Compleat Cockroach (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, 1996), agrees with the African origin of the species, adding that it wasn’t until troops returned from World War II that brown-bandeds really made inroads in the U.S., and that “By 1967, brownbandeds were reported in forty-seven of the forty-eight contiguous states.”

The Cockroach Combat Manual, by Dr. Austin M. Frishman and Arthur P. Schwartz (William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, New York, 1980) gives a more detailed description of the African scenario, indicating that this species got to Florida via Cuba (1892), arriving in Key West and Miami in 1903. No word on whether it fled Cuba due to political instability. This book also names Vermont as the sole state to be free of this pest as of 1967.

All authorities do seem to agree that this roach is most likely to be found inside furniture and electrical appliances. They have a fondness for starchy materials, too, and will munch on the paste used in bookbinding, and also on wallpaper paste. Body fluids from molting and deceased specimens can sometimes cause short circuits in televisions and other electronic equipment. Maybe there really is a bug in your computer….

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Farewell, UMass

Today was my last day at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Actually, last Friday was my “official” last day, but I wanted to tidy up before I left (and make up for the long lunches I took on the few nice days we had over the summer). I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the many people who made life on campus so pleasant during my stay.

The bureaucracy associated with new employment can be a bit overwhelming, but the ladies in the department office made things go very smoothly. Thank you to Linda, Roxanne, Lori, and Carolyn for expediting everything from my very own mailbox to the installation of a phone in the lab, and rectifying a discrepancy in my wage. You are all so friendly, too.

Ironically, I only met the Chief Investigative Officer for my lab, and the co-originator of the project I worked on, once, when I first arrived. Still, I am deeply indebted to Kevin McGarigal for providing me this employment opportunity when I needed it most. Thank you, Kevin.

Scott Jackson, co-founder of the project and my primary administrative contact, went out of his way to be a good friend as well as colleague. Given his position and responsibilities, he never appears stressed out in the least. Thanks, Scott, for setting such a great example.

The last thing Scott did was to take myself and a few others to lunch as a thank you for the work we did in the field and in the lab. Among those so honored were Charley Eiseman, who I introduced in “The Art of Insect Tracking,” and Kasey Rolih, who has been an amazing field leader for several years. She was exceedingly patient with me when she visited the lab, too. Thanks for helping me conquer the formula for converting 95% ethanol to 70%. Kasey’s husband, Brad Compton, is the guru behind the computer modeling and data evaluation for this project, since its inception. He was always willing to help solve my own computer issues, or just pause to chat about fly fishing or tell an amusing story. You never failed to make my day, Brad.

The people I owe the most to are the three women pictured here. From left to right: Jennifer Connolly, Shelley Raymond, and Theresa Portante.

Theresa, a Graduate Research Assistant, was my first and most constant contact. She hired me, helped me to find housing, and put up with me through the “growing pains” that go with any new job. Her organizational and people-management skills are amazing. She never asks anyone to do anything she wouldn’t do herself, and meets every challenge with enthusiasm and a smile. You are going to go far, Theresa, and I am honored to call you a friend and colleague.

Jennifer Connolly was exceptionally busy in the field, but her visits to the lab were always welcome. I wish I had gotten to know you better, Jennifer, but it was always a joy to see you.

Shelley Raymond spent the wet, soggy summer in the field, but I guarantee you she never complained. She spent the bulk of the fall in the lab and I felt very fortunate to have her company there. Shelley is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, and toiled away at some very dirty, redundant, and, well, “fragrant” tasks processing samples taken over the summer. She never has a gripe, is always friendly, and has a great wit and sense of humor. She’ll be leaving soon for new digs in Boston and I wish her the very best. Anybody in Boston would be nuts to pass up the chance to hire this woman. If she, Jennifer, and Theresa are examples of young people today, the collective future of our society looks very bright.

I know there are people I’m leaving out. People like Dr. Paige Warren and her grad students Suzanna and Rachel and Noah Charney….and Meagan down the hall who introduced me to her own circle of friends. I could not have asked for a better situation here. Thank you to all, you are friends for life.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


’Tis the season for sugar plum fairies, but I have been delighted to find the insect equivalent of those mythical figures among the specimens in the emergence trap and pitfall trap samples I’ve been sorting through the last six months.

The so-called “fairyflies” are actually ultra-tiny parasitic wasps in the family Mymaridae. They are among the very smallest of insects. Members of one genus check in at a mere 0.18 mm. As larvae, all mymarids are egg parasites of other insects, including aquatic ones in some cases. That might account for their presence in the emergence traps which were floating on the surface of water in various wetland habitats.

The most amazing feature of these diminutive hymenopterans is their wings.

Paddle-shaped with no veins, they are also fringed with long hairs. The hind wings are stalked, and this is one character used to identify them.

There are 120 species of fairyflies in North America, in twenty-eight genera. Most are well under two millimeters long. I had never seen them before I started looking at the pitfall trap samples. I initially dismissed the specimen below as something other than a mymarid because it was relatively huge for that family, about three millimeters or so.

It has been a joy to learn that the world of microscopic insects and arachnids is just as enchanting and beautiful as the macroscopic world of arthropods that are over five millimeters. Happy holidays, folks; may you, too, find happiness in small packages.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Lost and Found

This morning I was in the mailroom of my building on campus, making a cup of hot cocoa, when another gentleman entered and asked if lost and found was in there. I replied that it was, the box on the windowsill behind the copier, the sign obscured by the many items already piled inside. He dutifully added his own find, then reported that there was a cockroach living among the lost articles.

Naturally, I was intrigued by the prospect of the roach, and went over to investigate, fully expecting that it had long since fled. I figured it would probably be another brown-banded roach if I saw it at all.

Imagine my shock to find an enormous example of an American cockroach, Periplaneta Americana, nonchalantly exploring the terrain of corduroy and denim.

American roaches are anything but, and some speculate that they are the punishment for our collective sin of slavery, having come over from Africa on ships with human cargo. They are at home here mostly in hot, humid situations, conveniently provided by steam heat, sewers, and similar urban niches.

After snapping a few pictures of this one, I found my mind wandering to the Spyro Gyra instrumental “Lost and Found,” from their album Love & Other Obsessions. Not a bad tune to have in your head. Meanwhile, the roach was last seen wearing a scarf, pair of gloves, and a pretty nice corduroy jacket. Someone is going to miss those.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's Raining Opportunities

The good news is that I am not at a loss for continued work, now and after the University of Massachusetts job ends its six-month run in two weeks. The bad news is that none of the new projects by themselves will keep me afloat financially. Still, I am very grateful because they are taking me in directions I have wanted to go for a long time.

Naturally, the project I am most excited about is the one I am basically sworn to secrecy about. Suffice that it involves technology. The caliber of the other individuals involved is first-rate, and I have been warmly received. I will say more when I am able, I assure you.

The other project I just learned about today. Suffice that this one involves commercial television, but is so embryonic that the producer himself cannot guarantee anything. I have been graciously welcomed there, also, and look forward to the possibilities.

Still, I am open to receiving invitations for complementary projects and/or steady work, ideally with healthcare benefits kicking in before allergy season does. Allegra is really expensive!

Best wishes to all of you for continued good health, employment, travel, laughter, and all the other things that make life truly worth living.