Expert Knows What Bugs Residents


Trapped in jars, entombed in film canisters, stuck to tape, sealed in envelopes--the bugs find their way to county entomologist David Kellum by one means or another.

"People will send me an insect after they've taken a good whack at it," Kellum says. "I can't do much with a squashed bug."

Every day, San Diego County residents send insects to Kellum and ask him to identify the strange critters they have found creeping up their walls or buzzing in their gardens. They want to know if it's poisonous, if it will hurt their dog, or why it's devouring their tomato patch. Sometimes it takes a while, but Kellum responds to each request. He identifies about 400 insects a month, sometimes as many as 600.

The numerous identification requests often confine him to his lab--a space cluttered with jars and test tubes filled with specimens such as the red imported fire ant, the banded garden spider and the Africanized honeybee.

But when it comes to insects, spending long hours at the microscope isn't really a chore, Kellum says.

He owes a lot to insects, the 41-year-old entomologist says. In addition to providing him with a livelihood, insects taught him how to walk. As an infant, Kellum says, he once crawled into a stream of biting ants.

"My mother says that got me up and going," he says.

As a young boy growing up in Alabama, Kellum recalls spending lazy afternoons chasing the multi-colored lubber grasshopper.

"They were beautiful . . . green and yellow and red," says Kellum of his childhood fascination. "They looked like little toys."

Quelling entomological fears is just one responsibility of the bug man of San Diego County.

Foremost, Kellum responds to the needs of the region's farmers and growers, helping them get rid of pests that could destroy crops and ravage fields. He is one of the county's leading advocates for biological control--employing "good bugs" instead of pesticides to kill pests.

He also serves as a state inspector when he makes rounds at Lindbergh Field to make sure that imported agricultural goods are pest-free.

These days, Kellum is busy preparing the county's policy on how to deal with the much-publicized arrival of the Africanized honeybee, commonly known as the "killer bee."

Although the Africanized honeybee, which is migrating northward to the U.S.-Mexico border, is easily agitated, its sting is no worse than that of a typical bee, Kellum says. But the Africanized honeybee's tendency to pursue prey over longer distances and to strike in hordes has earned the insect its nickname.

While their threat to humans is limited, experts believe that the bee may endanger livestock and fear that, through mating, it will eventually take over domestic bees' hives. That concerns beekeepers because, although the Africanized honeybee produces about the same amount of honey as its domestic counterpart, it consumes more of the honey.

Dealing with these potential problems is a major concern for Kellum, as is the need to create a public awareness campaign on the so-called killer bee.

"I've had people call and say they're allergic to bee stings and want to know whether they should move from San Diego (to avoid the Africanized honeybee)" Kellum says. He receives several calls a week from residents worried about their safety and their loved ones, including pets.

Although the Africanized honeybee is not expected to arrive in San Diego County until the mid-1990s, Kellum says he receives frequent calls from residents who swear they have spotted the insect.

" 'I saw this humongous bee kill and eat another bee! It's the killer bee!'--I've heard that from time to time," Kellum says.

He soothes callers with the information that the bug they see is not a killer bee, but a "bee killer" that preys on honeybees. The Africanized honeybee is smaller than both the honeybee and the bumblebee, and, because it looks so much like its domestic counterpart, can be identified only by experts.

But, by now, Kellum says he is accustomed to problems that arise from mistaken identities.

About a year ago, Kellum received a call from one of the county jails, where inmates had told deputies that the facility was infested with the poisonous brown recluse spider. Indeed, one inmate was bitten by an insect, assumed to be the deadly spider, and became ill. The inmates panicked until Kellum examined the spider.

"It wasn't poisonous," Kellum says. "It turned out to be just a cockroach predator. The spiders were just feeding on the cockroaches. There's a lot of them in the jail, you know."

As the jail trip demonstrates, Kellum serves clients other than farmers and growers. Occasionally, he even makes house calls.

Recently, Kellum received a phone call from a distraught elderly woman who complained that her house was infested with tiny insects that "were practically invisible."

"She said that she had put up a screen on her door but that they were still getting in," Kellum said. "She said she called the exterminators, but they told her that they couldn't find anything." According to Kellum, the exterminators speculated that the house contained "no-see-ums," gnats that are difficult to see.

"Well that didn't make her feel any better," Kellum said. "She pleaded that I come out to her house. She seemed like a nice old lady, so I went."

Upon his arrival, the woman showed Kellum her glasses, which were speckled with white dots--proof of the insects' presence.

The dots, however, weren't bugs, and after a bit of sleuthing, Kellum discovered the source: pollen from a nearby palm tree.

"All in a day's work," said Kellum as he pushed back his chair to the microscope and picked up a jar with a note attached to it: "I've never seen anything like this before. Can you tell me what it is?"

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