American Museum Visit

I took the train to New York on Friday to visit Louis Sorkin in the entomology department.  Lou has been at the AMNH since 1978 and is PASSIONATE about his bedbug colony.  I asked him if he might be able to give me a couple of engorged bedbugs since my model is to be engorged and the morphology is difficult to see on unfed bugs.  He collected all of his jars and glass trays and led me to a laboratory where he would cull out the bugs for me.  As we walked through the halls, there were terrariums against the walls, one-after-another with huge tarantulas.  I can imagine the janitors love working in those halls!  Lou said that there were also African hissing cockroaches scattered among the tarantulas.  One striking thing about the American Museum is that most of the researchers keep live animals.  When I first started working there in 1980, I worked for a paleontologist, Gene Gaffney.  Dr. Gaffney is a fossil turtle specialist and he had three live turtles walking around in his office.  He told me he wanted to be around living turtles while he wrote about fossil turtles.  He studied the living ones to have a better sense of what he was writing about.

So here’s Lou:

Louis Sorkin with one of his bedbug colonies

Note: He tries to keep his hands in the glass container because the bugs don’t have pads on their feet and can’t crawl up the sides of the glass.   He showed me how they aren’t supposed to be able to crawl up the metal part of his paint brush either, but they were successfully doing it anyway!  I watched closely to make sure they weren’t crawling up the sides of the glass, but Lou is very careful and he seems to know where any bugs that fall out of his containers are-mostly!

The bugs have 3 or 4 different stages, from the small (head of a pin-sized) nymphs all the way up to full size adults at 4-5 mm.  Lou pulled out a couple of adults and set them on his hand to feed.  Bedbugs are absolutely hard-wired to feed.  They take two steps and plant themselves.    They are drawn to body heat and to the carbon dioxide of our breath.  Lou was able to stir the colony into a frenzy by warming the jar and breathing on them.  They also let off a not unpleasant, but distinctive smell when aroused.  I guess this is why bedbug-smelling dogs can sniff them out.  I think if we humans knew what we were smelling, we might be able to do so ourselves.  It is a powerful odor.

Feeding time!

The tiny nymphs are hard to see and locate, but they have the same feeding impulse, so Lou found a few between his fingers that he had not been able to see until they had gotten some blood in them.  He picked them off with his brush and dropped them back into the colony.  The adults will stay attached until they look like they are going to explode and then they drop off.  Lou was interested in trying to answer my questions about the shape of the abdomen engorged by looking at an attached bug while it was feeding.  I was, again watching closely because I noticed his hands weren’t always over the glass tray  and I wanted to make sure none of the other bugs decided to choose this time to fall off.

Lou Sorkin studying a bedbug

Then Lou filled a vial with about a dozen bedbugs of both sexes, varying sizes, and engorgement and put it into a ziplock bag and handed them to me.  As far as I could tell, Lou had all bugs accounted for.  I didn’t know where to put the vial, so I put them in my pants pocket.  I trailed after Lou as he met someone at the front desk with a quart container of live African millipedes which he took back up to entomology.  There he kidded a colleague that he was going to put them in the cage with the pet guinea pig (because the millipedes love to eat rodent poop)  Instead, Lou picked out some choice morsels and put them in the quart container for a millipede treat.  He noticed the ziplock bag in my pants pocket and told me that my body heat would make them crazy and they would digest their meals faster.  Lou suggested I keep them in my computer case where it would be cooler.  (I froze them when I got back to New Haven) He would later take me to a storage room with the giant insect models.  The next blog will cover that.

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