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Catch a bug

By Marc Abrahams
March 27 2007;  The Guardian

Hopes are safer than aspirations, as regards small insects keeping their proper place. Hopes do not by themselves cause an infestation, in the head of a human being, of gnats, midges, anthomid flies, Collembola and wasps parasitic upon the flies. Aspirations can, and sometimes do. This fact dawns on anyone who reads a report called Myiasis Resulting from the Use of the Aspirator Method in the Collection of Insects, published in the journal Science in June 1954.

The author, Paul D Hurd Jr, of the University of California, Berkeley, begins with two paragraphs of impersonal description. There we learn that "the aspirator, an apparatus generally designed to collect insects by suction, consists of a vial into which is fitted, by means of a stopper, two pieces of copper tubing, one of which is directed toward the insect and the other is attached to a length of rubber tubing, which during use is placed in the operator's mouth. Across the end of the copper tubing leading to the operator's mouth a fine mesh brass screen is secured. This, of course, is to prevent the aspirated insects being drawn out of the vial and yet provide a free airway between the insect being aspirated and the operator."

In the third paragraph things perk up. It says: "Approximately two months after the completion of the past summer's work at Point Barrow [Alaska], I became ill. During the week following the onset of illness four major groups of insects (Coleoptera, Collembola, Diptera, Hymernoptera) were passed alive from the left antrum of the sinus."

"Myiasis" means infestation. This particular infestation had plenty of time to get a start, and then to fulfil its potential. Hurd aspirated insects for four to six hours every day over the course of an entire summer. "I would like to suggest," Hurd writes, "that those persons who utilise this apparatus so modify it that the flow of air will not be toward the operator's mouth."

In the final paragraph, Hurd drops his restraint, hinting that the tale - and his emotions - are deeper than he's let on.

"It is almost unbelievable," he writes in the final paragraph, "that the insects should have undergone several stages of metamorphosis within the sinuses."

(Thanks to Lauradel Collins and Sally Shelton for bringing this to my attention.)

Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly magazine Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel Prize