By Andrew Santella
May Berenbaum is one of the nation’s top entomologists, a department chair at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. But the one credential she carries on her is an X-Files trading card picturing government entomologist Bambi Berenbaum. A writer for the TV series, researching an episode on cockroaches, came across May Berenbaum’s name in so many citations that he named the character after her. “I don’t disdain popular culture,” she says. “I’m immersed in it. For better or worse, it’s how people define what’s relevant.”
Many academics frown on the idea of popularizing the sciences. But Berenbaum is an evangelist for insects, and if she has to wade into the mainstream to get her message across, so be it. She does radio call-in shows, fields questions from reporters looking for a crisp quote, gives talks to Kiwanis clubs and herb societies, and publishes books like Ninety-nine Gnats, Nits and Nibblers. Not every scientist can get away with stuff like this, but Berenbaum’s vita is so strong that she can popularize without soiling her reputation. Because she’s written “Furanocoumarin Metabolism in Papilio Polyxenes” she can also write Ninety-nine More Maggots, Mites and Munchers. “The criticism comes when you have not-so-good scientists out there,” says Deane Bowers, an entomologist at the University of Colorado. “May is great at bringing science to lay people, but she also does stellar research to back it up.”
For the last 15 years Berenbaum has organized the Insect Fear Film Festival, the Sundance of monstrous bug movies. Every year in February entomologists, B-movie fans, and curiosity seekers swarm to Champaign to eat stir-fried moth pupae and watch films like Beginning of the End (1957), in which insects grow huge from feeding on irradiated vegetables. Berenbaum loves the film, partly because it’s set in Chicago and downstate Illinois and shows a giant locust climbing the Wrigley Building. After the film she might give a brief lecture or invite the audience to visit the cockroach petting zoo.
When Berenbaum first thought up the film festival, as a grad student at Cornell, her department head shot it down, calling it undignified. Another colleague, searching for middle ground, suggested showing nature documentaries about insects, which Berenbaum says missed the point entirely. Her chairman at Urbana-Champaign was more encouraging, but when she approached the film studies program the director handed her off to an assistant director, who tried to explain that bad sci-fi didn’t match the program’s scholarly interests. Berenbaum wouldn’t take no for an answer, and the festival was born. Berenbaum and the assistant, Richard Leskosky, were married; they spent their honeymoon at the International Congress of Entomology.
Berenbaum dislikes elevators–she calls herself “generally phobic”–and she climbs the stairs to her second-floor office in Morrill Hall. Outside her door stands a tall glass chest containing rows of vials with specimens floating in alcohol and a bug toy from a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Morrill Hall is the buggiest building on campus: just down the hall is a locked room that holds the department’s store of insects, including a row of buckets filled with giant cockroaches that hiss when you touch them. The university can’t spray Morrill for pests because of the research subjects, but according to Berenbaum it’s one of the most pest-free buildings on campus. Biological controls have asserted themselves, and wasps keep the cockroaches in line. But a housefly lazily circles the office as we speak.
Her research focuses on the chemical defenses that plants erect to ward off insects and the ways insects skirt those defenses. These elegant defense systems, Berenbaum argues, make ours look particularly ham-handed: “Plants have a better strategy than we do. We want to kill insects. Plants just want to make them go away. One thing that invariably happens with our chemical defenses is that they become useless after a while because insects develop resistance. They develop resistance because we’re so intent on killing them, and the harder you hit them, the more rapidly resistance will evolve.”
“The idea behind coevolution had been around since the 1960s,” says Bowers, “but May was really the first to test it.” This arms race between plants and insects is remarkably intricate. For example, wild parsnips defend themselves with toxic chemicals called furanocoumarins; the most desirable parts of the plant, such as the nutritious, seed-producing flower heads, tend to emit the highest dosages. Yet some highly specialized insects have developed responses that allow them to feed on even the most poisonous parts. The parsnip webworm can consume huge quantities of the toxin; it secretes the poison, producing the silk it uses to nest in the flower heads.
Such strategies, Berenbaum argues, offer a lesson in long-term defensive planning that humans too often ignore. In one of her classes she described how a synthetic-chemical attack on fire ants along the eastern seaboard a few decades ago nearly despoiled Chesapeake Bay and severely injured its crab-fishing industry. Introducing sterile males into fire ant populations offers a more organic approach. Since female fire ants breed only once in a lifetime, this technique can help control populations without necessarily wiping them out. It worked for Hank and Peggy Hill on King of the Hill, Berenbaum told her undergraduates.
There’s almost always a waiting list for Berenbaum’s classes. The university requires all undergraduates to take at least one biology class, and the word is out that Berenbaum’s courses are more engaging than most. Most research-minded professors hate teaching general education courses, but Berenbaum enjoys it. She’s been known to use Gary Larson’s bug-heavy Far Side cartoons to drill freshmen on insect anatomy. (It’s not easy to catch Larson, a onetime biology major, in a mistake.) To hear her explain it, teaching is a moral obligation. “We have to recognize that so much of our funding comes from the people,” she says. “They support us. That’s why I’ll talk to almost anyone.”
One can’t visit Berenbaum for long without becoming aware of the welter of commitments that is her professional life: E-mail to be answered, lectures to be prepared, ringing telephones to pick up. “I don’t think it’s hurt me,” she says of her pop-culture career. “My scholarly record is impressive enough, and I do this in my spare time. It’s why I have no life.” If anything, her common touch has helped her academic career. Recently she was asked to chair a committee of the National Academy of Sciences to fund science programming on television, a committee that includes a Nobel laureate in chemistry. “I think it’s because I’m the only member of the National Academy of Sciences who knows the entire prime-time lineup.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): May Berenbaum photo by Nathan Mandell.