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Biology Prof Gets Bit by the Bug...Bug

April 2004

Now that insects are under professor Sarah Vordtriede's skin, one of her jobs is to ensure they don't get under other's skin. In fact, the U.S. Army Reserve unit she commands as a captain could be called any time to the Middle East. The entomology detachment's job is preventative medicine: fighting insect-borne diseases, mostly mosquitoes and sand flies.

So what other "bugs" does she deal with?

Mi larvae es su larvae

Vordtriede has a special affinity for social insects like ants, who cultivate the fungus that forms on the leaves of plants for food. Most insects are out for themselves or just to mate, she says, but social insects like bees take care of each other’s young. “They depend on each other."

Cute as a bug

When pressed, Vordtriede admits to having a favorite insect: the weevil.

"Their antennae come off of their proboscis, sort of like Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus," she says with obvious fondness. Functionally, she’ll take a tick over a mosquito. "You can tell where ticks are and, since they take a longer time to transmit disease because they have to attach, you have more of a fighting chance with them."

A "Fear Factor" moment

Vordtriede has even eaten a few insects, such as ants sprinkled on a piece of cake.

"They’re lemony tasting," she reveals. As a rule, she prefers exoskeleton over insides—“crunchy, not chewy”—especially after once biting into a cricket-topped chocolate, unaware that it had a caramel center.

"The chocolate, that is," she says on a shudder. "It was very disconcerting."

Scratching an itch

As commander of her unit, it’s her responsibility to put the mission of the unit into practice, and Vordtriede sees a lot of parallels between her unit and teaching.

"Making sure the water supply is safe, inspecting the dining facility, testing soil and sampling it to send back stateside so that later, if someone becomes ill, there’s a way to know what the person was exposed to. It’s like solving a crime. There are so many different factors that have to be present—the right temperature, the right insect, the right host—for an insect-borne disease to spread."

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