SARAH SMILEY

Bedbugs as pets? How dinner with an entomologist earthed up some insect truths

Sarah and Lindell Smiley during a recent visit with James &quotJim" Dill, pest management specialist at the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension.
Andrea Hand
Sarah and Lindell Smiley during a recent visit with James "Jim" Dill, pest management specialist at the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension.
Posted May 18, 2014, at 11:54 a.m.
Last modified May 18, 2014, at 1:38 p.m.

Entomologist James “Jim” Dill and I serve on a board together at United Technologies Center in Bangor. Jim also is a state representative. That much I knew. However, when Jim casually mentioned during a meeting that he used to keep bedbugs as pets, I was curious. OK, I was stunned. I was curious and stunned in the way that I am when I watch a scary movie: with one hand ready to cover my eyes or ears — or both.

Bedbugs as pets? How did he feed them? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. And that’s when I knew — we needed to invite Dr. Dill to a Dinner with the Smileys.

Even though my husband is home from deployment, which was the original setup for Dinner with the Smileys (our weekly dinner guests filled Dustin’s empty seat at the dinner table), the boys and I grew so accustomed to getting to know someone over a shared meal that the tradition has continued. In the past few months, we’ve had dinner with a Djiboutian that Dustin worked with overseas; Maj. David Cote, who spearheads The Summit Project to honor fallen soldiers; and a brother and sister who are both blind.

Whenever the boys meet someone interesting, they ask, “Can we have that person to dinner?” Currently on their bucket list of invitees are: someone from L.L. Bean, a farmer (because Lindell, 7, wants to be one), and Will Ferrell (naturally).

The boys had not met Jim yet, but once he started talking about snakes, turtles and chinchillas, I knew they had to.

We met at The Family Dog in Orono first, because, as Ford, 13, pointed out, “if we’re going to look at bugs, I need to eat beforehand.”

Over baskets of hotdogs and French fries, Jim told the boys about his job. Through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Jim and his co-workers help farmers identify and control pests that might destroy crops. Even the smallest of insects — the teeny ones we’d see in vials in Jim’s office later — can cost farmers thousands of dollars.

But Owen, 11, wanted to know about something else, something that can cause grown men to cry: those spiders found on docks that are so big, they look like they need to be shot, not squished. According to Jim, those are Fisher spiders. The name is not a misnomer. They actually eat fish. If you’ve ever seen one, you believe this. ( Go to this photo album on my Facebook page to see a great picture of Jim imitating a Fisher spider.)

After dinner, we followed Jim to his office. Almost immediately, my skin began to crawl. The boys delighted in tickling my arm and making me jump. Near the door, we met resident turtles, handed over by people who once kept them as pets. The Cooperative Extension gets many surrendered insects and reptiles, some of them coming from the Maine Warden Service.

Next we met Lola the chinchilla.

So far, so good. Everything seemed relatively normal.

Then Jim took us into the insect room, which I smelled before the door opened. Later, when Jim put a hissing cockroach under my nose, I learned the odor was roach feces. (I hope you weren’t eating breakfast.) But don’t get too excited — I was not going to hold a cockroach. I did make Dustin do it, though. And at one point, the cockroach flew out of Jim’s hand and onto photographer Andrea Hand’s back. There’s a great picture of that online, too.

Owen held a stick insect, and all the boys got to pet a lizard. Ford, however, made frequent trips to the hallway, where he doused his hands in antibacterial gel. Ford does not want to be a farmer.

We also saw preserved butterflies that date back to the 1800s, and we got to look at ticks under a microscope.

Wait, what about Jim’s “pets”? Well, they are dead now, saved in a regular tupperware dish with “DO NOT OPEN — BEDBUGS” written on the outside. When they were alive, the bedbugs stayed in vials with a mesh screen on one end. Jim put the mesh against his skin to let them feed on his blood. He never got “bites.” But how do you get someone to, um, bug sit when you go on vacation? Turns out no one else wanted to feed Jim’s bedbugs, so he had to let the colony die. I can’t say I was disappointed.

I had survived the insect room and the lab where preserved tarantulas float in bottles of liquid, but before we said goodbye to Jim, the boys had one more fun surprise. They put a plastic spider on my head and let it fall into the back of my shirt. If you heard screams echoing from Orono, it was me.

I hope my boys will always remember Jim’s message about saving crops and preventing tick bites. So far, however, their take-home is this: Dr. Dill is a really fun and smart guy with the most unusual pets. Also, roach poo smells.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.

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