First, emeritus Cooperative Extension specialist Vernard Lewis of UC Berkeley, highly respected as "The Termite Man," drew widespread attention on Nov. 2 when he delivered the Founders' Memorial Lecture on "The Termite Lady," Margaret James Stickland Collins (1922-1966), at the Entomological Society of America's annual meeting, held in Denver.
Lewis covered the life and legacy of Collins, an African-American entomologist and civil rights advocate whose termite research spanned five decades. Lewis praised her "pioneering studies on the mechanism and evolution of termite desiccation resistance across various habitats provided foundational knowledge for generations of entomologists, field biologists, and ecologists."
Did termites fade into obscurity after Lewis' heralded ESA seminar?
No. Not a chance. "Love" saw to that.
The heavy winter rains in the Bay Area, followed by warm sunny days, resulted in the timely emergence of subterranean termites "looking for love," noted University of California Urban Integrated Pest Management (IPM) advisor and urban entomologist Andrew Sutherland, who serves the San Francisco Bay Area counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara.
"Interestingly, this year's subterranean termite swarms generated way more pop media interest than usual," said Sutherland who holds a doctorate in entomology (2009) from UC Davis. "Perhaps it's because we had more people at home than in previous years (pre-COVID...also, 2019 and 2020 swarms occurred during Thanksgiving weekend, so folks may have been preoccupied or traveling)."
"Since they live underground, they have to have opportunities to meet and fall in love," Sutherland told journalist Leah Worthington of the Redwood City Pulse. "So it's kind of like a big singles bar in the air...The king and queen form what's called a nuptial pair. And that nuptial pair starts a colony, usually in a piece of wood that is partially buried in the soil."
Sutherland's program contributed to three news media pieces; a UC Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (UC ANR) blog; and a LinkedIn post:
- ABC 7 TV spot
- Redwood City Pulse story (also published in Palo Alto Online)
- San Francisco Gate story
- UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) blog post
- LinkedIn post
"Up here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we're continuing evaluations of bait station systems and investigations into the western subterranean termite species complex," Sutherland said.
In his UC ANR blog, published Oct. 21--in the midst of the fall subterranean termite swarm season--Sutherland explained the situation well:
"It's that time of year again: termite swarm season! Western subterranean termites, Reticulitermes hesperus (species complex), produce reproductive swarms during calm sunny periods immediately following the first autumn rains. This is especially pronounced in the San Francisco Bay Area and parts of the Sacramento Valley, where mature termite colonies across a broad region may swarm simultaneously en masse, filling the air with termites fluttering their gossamer wings and filling social media discussions with wonder, horror, confusion, and dread."
A Solano County homeowner witnessed the phenomenon on Oct. 27. She saw hundreds of them exiting the soil by her ailing black walnut tree on Buck Avenue, Vacaville. The insects literally carpeted the ground and sprawled out on fallen leaves. As the sun warmed their flight muscles, the winged termites took off--right into the beaks of swooping birds.
What should you do if you spot a swarm?
As Sutherland wrote in his blog: "If observing a swarm on your property, especially if near your home or other structures, you can hire a professional termite company for a detailed inspection. Make sure to photograph or otherwise note the swarm location so that the inspector can start there. Even if you don't see swarms on your property, regular (every three to five years) inspections will help detect infestations before they cause significant damage and prevent future infestations. There are several proven management strategies for termites; review UC IPM's Pest Notes: Subterranean Termites."
"For now, perhaps we can all appreciate the wonder of this natural spectacle," Sutherland wrote. "Winged termites are great sources of food for birds, lizards, other insects, and spiders. Termites also provide important ecosystem services, such as decomposition of wood and fallen leaves, contribution to soil structure formation, enhancement of water infiltration in soil, and facilitation of nutrient availability to plants. Furthermore, western subterranean termites are native to California and have been here long before we built wooden structures on top of their colonies. (Termite) love is in the air!
The UC IPM Pest Note relates that "Subterranean termites are common throughout California and can be found infesting fallen trees, stumps, or other dead wood in contact with the soil in the forest, landscape, or structural lumber in our houses...The most common subterranean termites, Reticulitermes, can be encountered in nearly all regions of the state, from the sand dunes of the coast to the upper elevations of the mountain ranges and even in some of the desert areas. The species of Reticulitermes are the most destructive termites found in California. They are small in size compared to dampwood and drywood termites, but mature colonies can contain hundreds of thousands of individuals."
Urban entomologist Thomas Chouvenc of the University of Florida wrote about controlling termites in his article, "Killing It in the Eggs: A Termite Bait Story," published Dec. 7 in ESA's Entomology Today. "Subterranean termites represent a legitimate concern for many homeowners in the United States because of their potential damage to wood structures," he began and went on to discuss chitin synthesis inhibitor (CSI) bait formulations.
CSI is something that termites looking for love want no part of.
Tuesday, Nov. 2 will be a special day of celebration at the annual Entomological Society of America (ESA) meeting, being held in the Colorado Convention Center, Denver.
Tuesday is when ESA will honor scores of award winners at its Founders' Memorial Lecture breakfast meeting. The theme of the Oct. 31-Nov. 3 meeting focuses on "Adapt. Advance. Transform."
A tip of the insect net to our UC Davis-affiliated award winners who will be honored Tuesday:
- Honorary Member: Distinguished professor and entomological giant Frank Zalom, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, will receive the prestigious Honorary Member award, the highest ESA honor. A past president of ESA (2014) and a 47-year ESA member, he directed the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Program for 16 years, from 1986 to 2002. He is currently the Journal of Economic Entomology editor-in-chief, a position held since 2018. Zalom is the fifth UC Davis scientist to be selected ESA Honorary Member. W. Harry Lange (1912-2004) received the award in 1990; Donald MacLean (1928-2014), the 1984 ESA president, won the award in 1993; Bruce Eldridge in 1996, and John Edman in 2001. “Honorary membership acknowledges those who have served ESA for at least 20 years through significant involvement in the affairs of the society that has reached an extraordinary level,” an ESA spokesperson said. “Candidates for this honor are selected by the ESA Governing Board and then voted on by the ESA membership." (See more on Bug Squad blog)
- Fellow Award: UC Davis alumnus Kelli Hoover, a professor in the Department of Entomology at Pennsylvania State University (PSU), is internationally recognized for her research on invasive species biology and ecology, especially for the discovery of mechanisms underlying multitrophic interactions between host plants, insects, and insect pathogens or symbionts, ESA announced. She is a member of the Centers for Chemical Ecology and Pollinator Research as well as the Insect Biodiversity Center. Hoover received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in 1997. Fellows of ESA are individuals who have made outstanding contributions to entomology— via research, teaching, extension, administration, military service, and public engagement and science policy —and whose career accomplishments serve to inspire all entomologists, according to the ESA. (See more on Bug Squad blog.)
- Nan-Yao Su Award for Innovation and Creativity in Entomology: UC Davis affiliate Thomas C. Sparks, a retired research fellow at Corteva Agriscience, was the first graduate student of then UC Riverside faculty member Bruce Hammock, who joined the UC Davis faculty in 1980. Hammock is now a distinguished professor who holds a joint appointment with the Department of Entomology and Nematology and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. Sparks holds a doctorate in entomology (1978) from UC Riverside, focusing on insect physiology and toxicology. He is the first scientist from the crop protection industry to receive the Nan-Yao Su Award and the second Hammock lab alumnus to do so.ESA selected Bryony Bonning, a former postdoctoral researcher in the Hammock lab and now a professor at Iowa State University, for the award in 2013. Walter Leal, former chair of the entomology department and now a UC Davis distinguished professor with the UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, won the award in 2011.(See more on Bug Squad blog)
In other news, 12 UC Davis entomology graduate students presented either a speech or a poster in student competitions today (Monday). Winners will be announced soon. A shout-out to the students: Jill Oberski, Zachary Griebenow, Lacie Newton. Lindsey Mack, Danielle Rutkowski, Maureen Page, Xavier Zahnle, Erin Taylor. Kelly, Jasmin Ramirez Bonila, Madison Hendrick, Mia Lippey and Gabe Foote (See news story--and read their abstracts--at https://bit.ly/3CAOh22.)
The 7000-member ESA, founded in 1889, is the world's largest organization serving the professional and scientific needs of entomologists and those in related disciplines. Its members are researchers, teachers, extension service personnel, administrators, marketing representatives, research technicians, consultants, students, pest management professionals, and hobbyists. They represent educational institutions, health agencies, private industry, and government.
Lewis will cover the life and legacy of African-American entomologist and civil rights advocate Margaret Collins (1922-1996) at his presentation on Tuesday morning, Nov. 2. The long-awaited conference will be hybrid, that is, both virtual and in-person.
Collins will be "the fourth woman and second Black entomologist to be the subject of the Founders' Memorial lecture in the award's 64-year history," according to an ESA news release. (See list of previous recipients.)
'The Termite Man'
Vernard Lewis, who holds a doctorate in entomology (1989) from UC Berkeley, is a recognized national and international authority on drywood termites. He is known for his pioneering research on detection innovations and nonchemical methods of control. Lewis joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1990 and was the university's first African-American faculty-member hired in the 150-year history of the Rausser College of Natural Resources. He retired July 1, 2017 from a 35-year career as an urban entomologist, the last 26 years as a Cooperative Extension specialist. As Lynn Kimsey, director of the UC Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology told us in a Bug Squad blog in July 2017: "He was the best; knowledgeable, personable and engaged. I'm really annoyed that he retired."
"He was always the go-to person in Extension when it came to termites, and he had that special personality which enabled him to immediately engage with people," related UC Davis distinguished professor Frank Zalom, a past president of the 7000-member ESA. "I always got the feeling that he genuinely liked what he did, and it showed."
During his career, Lewis focused his research on a variety of urban pests, including not only termites, but ants, bed bugs, cockroaches and wood-boring insects. He authored more than 150 refereed and trade magazine articles and book chapters on termites and other household insect pests. He delivered more than 700 presentations to widespread audiences. Lewis was inducted into the National Pest Management Association Hall of Fame in 2016. Since achieving emeritus, he has been spending his time on university and industry committees and public boards dedicated to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion for underrepresented minorities and women into STEM careers.
In June 2020, Brite Energy Innovators paid tribute to Lewis as one of the world's Amazing Black Scientists. An excerpt: "At UC Berkeley, Lewis famously constructed a 400-square-foot (37-square-meter) wooden building near the campus for investigating pest insect detection and control; The structure was affectionately known as 'Villa Termiti.' Built in 1993, the building temporarily housed rotating communities of bedbugs, termites, beetles and ants, while Lewis and other scientists studied the insects' habits and tested their resistance to different methods of extermination. These included exposure to X-rays, microwaves, liquid nitrogen and fumigation, according to UC Berkeley."
Another excerpt from Amazing Black Scientists: "Lewis also worked to promote diversity in entomology, and participated in outreach programs to introduce underserved youth to life sciences, insects and biodiversity." He was one of 20 researchers featured in ESA's 2015 book “Memoirs of Black Entomologists,” designed to encourage minority students to pursue careers in science.
Margaret James Strickland Collins was known as "The Termite Lady" during her entomological career that spanned five decades. She engaged in extensive research on termites that included identifying a new species, Neotermes luykxi. "Her pioneering studies on the mechanism and evolution of termite desiccation resistance across various habitats provided foundational knowledge for generations of entomologists, field biologists, and ecologists," said Lewis, who wrote about her in a piece published June 1, 2016 in BioOne journal.
His abstract: "Often legends go unrecognized for their achievements in science and the betterment of society. In the case of Margaret Collins, it has been almost 20 years since her passing, and except for appreciation by a small cadre of termite experts, her contributions to entomology have received scant notice. However, her work and legacy have stood the test of time, and even today, she is considered, and often cited as, the definitive source for differences in toleration and resistance to drying among species of termites. At her core, Margaret was a field biologist, and she demonstrated it through her travels and termite collection trips to a dozen countries. Her long and illustrious career included publishing of scientific papers, tenured faculty positions, and service as a curator of the termite collection at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, District of Columbia. Margaret achieved many firsts during her life. She was the first African American female to be awarded a Ph.D. involving entomology at a major university. In addition, she was the first woman graduate student for the legendary isopterist and Professor of Zoology, Alfred E. Emerson. Her passion for termites remains highly visible in her published works. Her passion for her family and her strong support of civil rights for women and African Americans were less visible except to those she knew personally."'
Born in Institute, W.Va., on Sept. 4, 1922, Margaret was recognized as a child prodigy at age 6, "as evidenced by her being awarded the privilege to check out books at the West Virginia State College Library," Lewis wrote in the journal article. Following her high school graduation at age 14, she went on to receive her bachelor's degree in biology from West Virginia State College in 1943, and her doctorate in zoology in 1949 from the University of Chicago. Her thesis: Differences in Toleration of Drying among Species of Termites (Reticulitermes).
Collins was one of the first African-American women to receive an advanced degree related to zoology/entomology. "Those of us with collegiate degrees are well aware of the challenges and obstacles that can drain enthusiasm and delay completion, which include lack of funding, being away from home, and difficult and demanding courses and class loads," Lewis wrote. "Margaret had all of these, plus more."
"Upon receiving her Ph.D. in 1950 at the University of Chicago, Collins became the first African-American female entomologist," Lewis noted. "In the mid-'50s while on the faculty of Florida A&M, her invitation to speak at a local predominantly white university on biology and equity was cancelled due to a bomb threat. During the Florida A&M Student Council bus boycott of 1955 to protest racial inequality, Dr. Collins volunteered to drive people to work. These activities led to her being closely watched by the police and FBI."
In 1979, Collins coordinated an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium on "Science and the Question of Human Equality," and later that year, published a book with the same title. The book is "an interdisciplinary look at racism and science, investigating the biological and social realities of individual and group differences," according to the publisher.
Love of Science
Just like Margaret Collins, Lewis shares a love of termites, a love of science, and a love of public service. In the ESA news release, ESA President Michelle S. Smith praised Lewis for his "remarkable career in both research and extension" and as "a role model for current and future generations of insect scientists. His pioneering spirit echoes that of Dr. Margaret Collins, and her story of determination, curiosity, and perseverance will be a perfect complement to our annual meeting showcasing adaptation and transformation in insect science."
The ESA meeting is appropriately themed "Adapt. Advance. Transform."
Yes! "Adapt. Advance. Transform." And let's add one more: "Recognize!"
We're delighted to see this much deserved recognition for two legendary entomologists.
"Him" is Vernard Lewis, who terminated termites, bugged bed bugs, and controlled cockroaches.
As Pamela Kan Rice, assistant director of News and Information Outreach, University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) wrote in her wonderful feature story this week on his retirement:
"He built a villa for termites, delighted school children with giant cockroaches, did “time” at San Quentin State Prison, traveled the world looking at insects and, in 2016, Vernard Lewis was inducted into the Pest Management Professionals' Hall of Fame. On July 1, UC Berkeley's first African American entomologist retired from a 35-year career as an urban entomologist, the last 26 years as a UC Cooperative Extension specialist."
We asked Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis professor of entomology, and integrated pest management specialist Frank Zalom, UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology and a past president of the 7000-member Entomological Society of America (ESA), for their comments:
"Vernard was The Expert for anything termite in California," Kimsey said. "He was the best; knowledgeable, personable and engaged. I'm really annoyed that he retired."
Can you imagine anyone building a home, Villa Termiti, just for termites? Or, rather, to do research?
Wrote Pam Kan-Rice:
"In the early 1990s, the UC Cooperative Extension specialist needed a place to test drywood termite detection and control methods. The College of Natural Resources wasn't keen on infesting a building with destructive pests near UC Berkeley's historic buildings, but ultimately allowed Lewis to construct the Villa Termiti in Richmond, about six miles north of campus."
"Villa Termiti has since hosted ants, subterranean termites, wood-boring beetles, and bed bugs for subsequent research projects."
Lewis, born in Minnesota and the oldest of 10 children, gleefully recalled his fascination with bugs when he moved from Minnesota to Fresno to live with his grandparents for six years. “California has a lot more bugs because Minnesota is frozen six months out of the year,” he said wryly. “During recess, while other kids were kicking balls, I was catching grasshoppers and feeding them to harvester ants.”
Lewis was also known for mentoring young scientists at UC Berkeley and stimulating children's interest in science. He joined the Oakland Unified School District's City Bugs project to educate K-12 school teachers and students about insects, life sciences and biodiversity.
He liked to bring live props and engage his audience. He recalled the time in 1993 when he brought a Madagascar hissing cockroach to show to 300 students at Claremont Middle School, Oakland. You guessed it. The center of attention escaped and both the cockroach and the kids ran for cover. (Well, they ought to visit the Madagascar hissing cockroaches in the Bohart Museum of Entomology. The roaches are part of the insect museum's live "petting zoo.")
Vernard Lewis led a fascinating and productive life. Be sure to read Kan-Rice's entire piece on Vernard Lewis on the UC ANR blog.
You'll note that:
- He showed his can-do attitude with: “My high school counselor said I wasn't bright enough to go to college. I took offense to that,” said Lewis, recalling his high scores on IQ tests administered in the 1950s and 1960s. “I asked him what was the best university in the country. He said, ‘UC Berkeley,' so I decided to go there.”
- He went on to receive three degrees from UC Berkeley: his bachelor of science degree in agricultural sciences in 1975; his master's degree in entomology in 1979; and his doctorate in entomology in 1989.
- He was fondly known as "Killer" at San Quentin Prison because as head of vector control (contract work), he exterminated bed bugs and cockroaches there from 1986 through 1988.
- The ESA featured him in its book “Memoirs of Black Entomologists,” published to spotlight African-American entomologists and to encourage black students to pursue careers in the life sciences.
Bottom line: UC ANR has lost a great scientist, researcher, collaborator, colleague and friend to retirement. Lynn Kimsey is still annoyed that he retired, but the termites, bedbugs and cockroaches--not so much.