Of Termites, Bed Bugs and Cockroaches

Jul 13, 2017

We're all going to miss him. The termites, bed bugs and cockroaches--not so much.

"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."

Said Zalom: "I first met Vernard when he was a MS (master of science) student at Berkeley and I was a postdoc there. 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. I always got the feeling that he genuinely liked what he did, and it showed."

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."

"Built at the UC Richmond Field Station in 1993, the 400-square-foot, wooden structure has been fumigated, x-rayed and featured on the cover of Popular Mechanics. It nearly burned when six test boards were scorched by a microwave device that was supposed to kill termites; Lewis observed termites living in the wood despite the microwaves and fire.  Fortunately, the damage was minor."

"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.