FOR 35 YEARS PHIL PELLITTERI, an entomologist with CALS and UW-Extension, has provided patient counsel to a bug-plagued populace on everything from bedbugs to lice and bird mites to fleas.
Now 62 and set to retire in March, Pellitteri has this sage bit of advice gleaned from a long and accomplished career as an insect diagnostician: The bugs are going to win.
“The insects are in control and we’re not,” says Pellitteri. “They’ve been here since before the dinosaurs. They’ll be here after we go.”
Indeed, the task faced by the affable Pellitteri each day for all these years takes on Sisyphean qualities when the challenge he has faced is fully understood.
This is what Pellitteri is up against: According to the Entomological Society of America, there are nearly 10 quintillion insects in the world. That’s a 10 followed by 18 zeros. Experts say more than one million different species of insects have been identified. And it is estimated that as many as 30 million insect species in the world have yet to be discovered and named.
No less an expert than Edward O. Wilson, the world’s foremost source on ants and curator of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, points out that the world’s other creatures exist in paltry numbers compared to insects. Of the 42,580 vertebrate species that have been scientifically described, Wilson says, 6,300 are reptiles, 9,040 are birds, and 4,000 are mammals. Of the million different species of insects that have been described, 290,000 alone are beetles, Wilson marvels in his book In Search of Nature.
“If humans were not so impressed by size alone,” Wilson writes, “they would consider an ant more wonderful than a rhinoceros.”
Count Pellitteri among those who would side with the ant—that is, when he is not conspiring with a caller on how to get rid of a nest of the pesky insects.
Since May 1978, Pellitteri has built a statewide reputation as the go-to expert on everything insect. In the summer months he fields an average of more than 30 calls a day that run the gamut from somebody being bitten by a mysterious insect to someone accidentally swallowing one.
Pellitteri’s fiefdom is a suite of bug-filled (most of them mounted) rooms in the CALS Department of Entomology on the first floor of Russell Labs. He has worked for years with one foot in academia and the other, through his work with UW-Extension, in the world of gardens, termite-infested homes and insect-riddled farm fields. In the entomology department he is a faculty associate, and he has played an important role over the years as a teacher and an adviser to generations of students. Department chair David Hogg calls Pellitteri “the face of the department.”
But it is Pellitteri’s self-made role with UW-Extension that has allowed him to bring his and the department’s expertise to bear on the challenges of keeping the insect horde at bay. Technically he is called a diagnostician. To the gardeners of the state, he is more fondly known as the “bug guy.”
Whatever he is called, he is beloved by those who run panicked from their gardens to the telephone or computer with news of the latest insect disaster. Lisa Johnson BS’88 MS’99, a Dane County UW-Extension horticulture educator, works with Pellitteri on the Master Gardener program and knows how much people have grown to rely on him. He is, she says, the embodiment of both Extension’s outreach mission and the Wisconsin Idea.
“Phil will go anywhere he’s asked to and talk about insects,” says Johnson. “He’ll take any phone call or e-mail. He’ll take crushed-up, desiccated little samples in envelopes. And he gives everyone his personal attention.”
For all the years he has served as Wisconsin’s insect wizard, for all the thousands of questions he has fielded and happily answered, those who know him best and regularly watch him work say they cannot recall an instance when his patience wore thin or his enthusiasm wavered.
Larry Meiller, a CALS professor of life sciences communication and host of one of the most popular call-in radio shows on Wisconsin Public Radio, counts Pellitteri as one of his most popular regular guests over the last 25 years.
“We’ve grown old together,” says Meiller. “He hasn’t changed a lot in all those years. He has just as much enthusiasm and just as much wonder in his voice as he did 25 years ago. I have never seen him get angry or even get to the point where he says, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’”
Johnson agrees. She also has a long perspective on Pellitteri’s career, having been a student in one of his entomology classes in the mid-1980s. His enthusiasm was evident in his teaching, Johnson says, and in his stories and lectures students learned to appreciate insects as more than just pests but as remarkable, adaptable creatures that play crucial roles in the earth’s ecosystems. Rarely, it seemed, did he come across an insect he didn’t like.
“Once, in his classroom in Russell Labs, a cockroach ran across the floor during his lecture,” Johnson recalls. “He bent over and picked it up and started lecturing about cockroaches.”
Pellitteri’s wife, Terri, has learned to live with her husband’s penchant for bringing his work home. “If you look in our freezer, that’s an easy way to find out if somebody has dropped off a specimen,” Terri says.
Terri, an occupational therapist who works as a training coordinator for Journey Mental Health Center, has also learned that living with a bug diagnostician requires some special adjustments and a certain level of wariness. “It’s better now that we have digital pictures,” Terri says. “But I still do have the habit of looking before I put my hand in the mailbox.”
Sometimes, Terri says, the work that Pellitteri brings home gets loose—mostly, it seems, in the car. “Once he lost a giant slug,” Terri recalls. “I was going somewhere and went out to the car and the slug had slimed the seat and he realized he had probably lost it in the car.”
Or there was an incident involving a cockroach of large proportions. “He told me he had lost a giant cockroach in the car. He assured me that it was winter and the cockroach wouldn’t be laying eggs or anything like that. I told him that if I found a giant cockroach crawling up my leg, it could be a relationship issue,” she says.
But there are benefits to living with an insect expert. The Pellitteris’ two children, Molly and Nicholas, are grown now, but Terri has very fond memories of all the time the family spent outdoors and the rather unique hikes they enjoyed.
“Phil was always stopping every five minutes to look at insects,” Terri says. “It has certainly been a part of our lives.”
And now there is a grandson who, at two and a half, pays rapt attention as his grandfather shows off an insect, patiently explaining what kind it is and identifying all of its various parts.
Where does such passion—especially for the multi-legged, creepy-crawly inhabitants of other people’s nightmares—come from?
Surprisingly, Pellitteri, who grew up in Madison, doesn’t recall being particularly fascinated by insects as a child, though he does remember collecting butterflies. He grew up in a family that had made a living in waste disposal. In fact, in Wisconsin, when people hear the name “Pellitteri” they probably think first of a big garbage truck with that name in giant letters on the side.
So, Pellitteri likes to joke, he could easily have ended up driving a garbage truck and running the family business for a living instead of identifying insects. Even after entering college, he would return to driving garbage trucks to earn money.
“I will argue that was the best education I had in my life for two reasons. One, you get to see what hard work is like. But then you also sit back and say, ‘You know, driving a garbage truck at 20 below zero in January is not my idea of fun.’”
Even so, it was a powerful and early introduction to the ubiquitous nature of insects. He particularly recalls hauling what he politely calls “monkey waste” from UW–Madison laboratories and how, especially on hot days, that particular cargo became a magnet for some very unsavory insect hitchhikers.
When he first started his studies at UW–Madison, he was contemplating a career in wildlife ecology. Then he turned to pre-med. But a fateful—and for thousands of Wisconsin gardeners, fortuitous—decision to take an entomology class set him on a career path that he has made uniquely his own.
He would settle into the Department of Entomology, carve out the previously nonexistent diagnostician post with UW-Extension and, eventually, settle into the offices into which so many have traipsed bearing bugs.
A visit to those offices is revealing of Pellitteri’s enthusiasms, his hybrid approach to entomology that involves both lab work and field study, and, finally, his sense of humor.
Most noticeable of the many curiosities on his office walls is a giant item labeled a “Texas fly swatter.” From a corner of the ceiling hangs a hornet nest. On disorderly lab benches, microscopes are surrounded by slides and assorted bugs in various stages of disassembly. There are model bugs that come apart, charts of ants, and small containers everywhere bearing insects and festooned with sticky note labels with names and phone numbers and e-mails. There are mounted insects everywhere, from butterflies to one large winged creature labeled “Day flying moth—African.”
In a prominent spot on one wall is a note written in a child’s scrawl: “Dear Mr. Pellitteri, Thank you for visiting our class. I enjoyed looking at your collections. I liked touching things, too.”
From a back office comes Pellitteri’s voice. He’s speaking to someone on the telephone, engaging in a conversation probably very similar to thousands of others that have unfolded in these rooms over more than three decades. Pellitteri is leaning back in his chair, his legs crossed, listening intently. He wears jeans and tennis shoes, an open-necked knit shirt. Slight and fit, he looks considerably younger than his age, though his hair has thinned and turned silvery gray.
The subject is bedbugs, specifically a home infestation that apparently had the poor caller at wit’s end.
Pellitteri’s voice is animated but calm, soothing, understanding. He listens patiently, the caller’s voice rising and falling on the other end of the line.
Almost as though he’s talking someone off a ledge, Pellitteri walks
the caller through a number of inexpensive, common sense solutions. One of them involves using cheap commercial hand warmers, such as those used by hunters, and combining them with sticky insect traps.
“The reason it works,” Pellitteri tells the caller, “is because bedbugs are attracted to carbon dioxide and that’s what those hand warmers use. You can buy an $80 trap, but I just don’t see the need. There’s also a place called ‘Bedbug TV’ on YouTube that you might want to check out.”
After hanging up, Pellitteri spends several moments commiserating with the caller, shaking his head and saying how the man was so bothered by the bedbugs that he had considered spending $1,200 on an exterminator.
Seeing Pellitteri in action, it is easy to understand why so many who have worked with him shake their heads at his retirement and wonder how his knowledge and personal style can ever be replaced.
Meiller attributes Pellitteri’s success and popularity to the depth of his knowledge, his sense of humor and his ability to tell a story. Pellitteri, Meiller says, is one guest on his radio show who keeps the telephone lines filled with callers from beginning to end.
“He’s just so down to earth. And he’s good with the language. He’s got a story for every insect that people call about. He’ll take a call and lean back in his chair and look out the window and start telling a story. He makes my job easy. I’m really going to miss him and I know our listeners will miss him,” Meiller says.
Pellitteri has a rich store of tales about his adventures and about his dealings with a public that never ceases to surprise. He’s reluctant to share too many of them because he’s in the midst of writing a book. But he’s enough of a storyteller that he couldn’t help himself.
There was the time, he remembered, when tales of earthworms showing up in bologna started spreading.
“There was a rumor that they were putting earthworms in bologna,” Pellitteri says. “Apparently it was a Michigan rumor. A quality control person comes in and said, ‘We got a bunch of very cold, dead earthworms that a client suggested they found in a bologna pack.’ Well, the earthworms were not cooked, they were not chopped. These were just a bunch of cold earthworms. And so it was very obvious. But the best part of it is that worms are going for about $4.50 a pound and bologna is going for 89 cents a pound so I said to the guy, ‘You guys would be losing money!’‘’
But Pellitteri has also learned that insects, small though they might be, can have a societal impact that far surpasses their size.
On his watch, for example, the emerald ash borer, a brilliant green insect smaller than a penny, has destroyed entire ash forests across the upper Midwest. Pellitteri has found himself advising communities across Wisconsin that face the loss of much of their urban forests. The invasive insect—believed to have entered the country by hitching rides on shipping pallets—will end up costing millions of dollars as cities and towns struggle to dispose of dead trees and replace them with hardier alternatives.
It is difficult to predict the next such scourge, Pellitteri says. The one
certainty is that it is out there somewhere in the insect world and headed our way.
Ironically, Pellitteri is leaving at a moment of upheaval in not only the insect world but in all of nature.
Insect populations, he notes, are beginning to reflect ominous changes wrought by what is likely the world’s most pressing environmental issue—
a changing climate.
Pellitteri knows something is afoot, based on his observations in the summer of 2012 when Wisconsin was besieged by record heat and drought. “I saw things I’ve never seen in my career,” he says. “Some of the cutworm plagues we had were biblical.”
One problem, Pellitteri says, is that a shifting climate makes Wisconsin warmer on average and brings insects that are normally seen in southern states, leaving farmers and gardeners to deal with pests they know little about and for which we may have no defenses. Also, warmer winters and less snow cover mean some insects that don’t usually survive now thrive and multiply.
It’s not all necessarily bad, Pellitteri points out. The warming climate can also gift us with insects such as the giant swallowtail, a large and beautiful butterfly that is now surviving milder winters and becoming more common.
But the vagaries of climate change will, on balance, bring challenges to a state that is so reliant on agriculture and outdoor pursuits. And Lisa Johnson, Pellitteri’s colleague at UW-Extension, says the problems posed by growing seasons turned topsy-turvy will only serve to make his absence more noticeable.
Not that his absence will be complete. Pellitteri has been doing this job too long and remains too enthusiastic to quit cold turkey. He plans to keep his hand in the business by doing some consulting, and he’ll probably still be making public appearances now and then.
But the long summer days marked by 30 or more phone calls will be over. Instead, more of his time will be spent working on the aforementioned book, which will recount his adventures as well as provide some insect education.
And he intends to indulge in his favorite hobby—archery. He loves using a bow for both hunting and target shooting. “My zen is shooting a bow,” he says.