Insects swarm campus, create community nuisance

Gillian Frew

The eleventh plague has not descended on campus, but students, staff, and professors alike agree:   we do have a bug problem.   Floating in rays of sunlight like specks of dust, swarming over grass and concrete, and particularly prevalent during the late afternoon hours are the winged source of campus-wide complaints.

“Lately, I have been closing my mouth and looking down… I found two gnats crushed into my eyelids,” said sophomore Jaspreet Gill.   “That was just too much.”

First-year Sam Alden also recalled his recent close encounter with the insects.

“I glanced up at the sky as I was walking in between classes and saw an enormous cloud of gnats circling the clock tower.   My first instinct, which I admit was completely divorced from rational thought, was that there was a plague of locusts,” he said.   “Even after I regained a logical frame of mind, the terror of my brush with biblical catastrophe stayed with me.”

Commonly referred to as gnats, multiple Whitman biology professors confirmed that the swarms are in fact aphids, and that their pesky presence on campus is an annual fall phenomenon primarily associated with breeding.

“What you are seeing in the October late afternoons around Ankeny field are dusky-winged ash aphids,” said Charles Drabek, Professor of Biology Emeritus.   “They are insects in the Order Homoptera, as are cicadas.”

Luckily for the close-mouthed victims of this year’s aphid attacks, their torment will be relatively short lived.

“Aphids are typically only active during the plant growing season, since they drink plant sap for food,” said Biology Professor Tim Parker.

Heidi Dobson, Professor of Biology and Whitman’s insect enthusiast, identified the aphid’s food source as the sap of poplar and cottonwood trees.   They insects also lay their eggs in the tree bark.

“Right now a new generation of winged insects is migrating to cottonwood trees,” said Dobson, adding, “The adult females produce live young asexually, building up the population as food is plentiful.”

These feeding, fornicating fiends are posing a particular inconvenience to joggers on campus.
“After two blocks we had squished gnats all over our legs and in our eyes.   The grossest was to find them on the neck,” said senior Rand Biersdorff, who also noted that she and her friends found “forward windmill” motions and “flailing appendages” to be the most effective defense mechanism against the insects.

“Once I finished my interval workout I thought it would be fun to run through the sprinklers that happened to be on,” said sophomore Geneva Faulkner.   “Bad plan.   The gnats are a nuisance normally, but were even worse on my run back to campus while wet.”

Certain members of the Whitman community are taking a more philosophical view of the insect dilemma.

“Since the swarms of gnats are likely to be ingested or inhaled, I see them symbolizing our need to occasionally close our mouths, slow down and appreciate the world around us, before the cold hits and we’re scurrying to get in warm buildings,” said Heidi Brigham, Music Listening Library Coordinator.   “If I didn’t look at them this way I’d just be annoyed.”

Biology Professor Daniel Vernon, Ph.D. offered a piece of professional advice on how to deal with the insect situation.

“Best thing to do is ride your bike around campus with your mouth open,” Vernon said.

“Enjoy them while they last!”