In Praise of the Bug Man


For years I've enjoyed Richard Fagerlund's "Ask the Bugman" column, which runs in the San Francisco Chronicle and in Albuquerque where he lives. It strikes me as the sort of old-fashioned newspaper column we won't see much more of:  I can just imagine an editor adjusting his green visor, chomping on his cigar, and considering whether to run the bugman alongside the knitting columnist, the chess columnist, the marriage advice columnist, or the carpenter who walks his readers through a home improvement project every week. It definitely fits in there somewhere.

Anyway, Mr. Fagerlund has survived the Chronicle's many redesigns, and I'm glad to see that he's still there, answering questions about (and I quote from his website) "Worms in the Toilet," "How Big Can Ticks Get?" and "Black Widows Everywhere." (In case you're wondering:  they're just maggots, probably crawling in through a break in the sewer line that you really should get checked out; depends on the species but an inch long is not unheard-of; and spray them with pyrethrin if you find them near the house.)

An entomologist by training, Mr. Fagerlund works as a pest management consultant, advocates for the use of non-toxic pesticides, and runs an animal sanctuary for which he accepts donations. He also offers a bug identification service (lower right side of the screen) for which he charges $20 per species. (He wants them shipped in alcohol or on a piece of cotton in a film canister.)

Usually his newspaper column follows a familiar narrative:  a homeowner has been advised to have their home sprayed with (insert name of chemical here), and in fact, the company recommends routine preventative spraying.  The homeowner is writing in to make absolutely sure there isn't some better alternative.  And there always is:  as Mr. Fagerlund must routinely point out to his readers, there is always a better alternative to filling your home with carcinogens.  Besides, the bug in question is really a fascinating creature and you just might want to consider letting it live.

Many of the letters do have the feel of a relationship advice column; people write in and say, "I am trying to love spiders, but am having a hard time with it" or "my uncle had a pepper mite burrowed into his hand" or "this was supposed to be our 'forever house,' but now it has termites."  Such drama bugs bring into our lives!  The Bugman solves them all.

He also takes on the pest control industry for selling people on the idea of useless, and possibly harmful, routine sprayings.  "Those are two fellows who are in the wrong business. They are clueless
about spiders. They could form a team and call it Dumb and Dumber Pest
Control," he recently wrote about one reader's encounter with a pest control company. He advocates for the use of orange oil over fumigation for termites, and this week even went after UC Berkeley for a study on orange oil funded by Dow Chemical that he said "was conducted and managed by pesticide industry people who
would like to see orange oil eliminated as the competition." And he was an early critic of our silly overreaction to the light brown apple moth.

But the amazing thing about The Bugman is not so much that he gets to take up space in my rapidly-shrinking newspaper to talk about bugs and bug spray, but that he manages to work in something like this once in a while, as he did last month just before Christmas: 

We celebrate the holiday season as the beginning of love, of kindness, of respect and of honor in our hearts. We should love all the animals we exist with and not kill them out
of hate or fear or to hang their body parts on our walls for
decorations. We were all put on this planet to share its wonders, not
kill each other.

We should show kindness to all those who need it, including hungry
children, homeless people and other folks less fortunate than we are as
well as all the animals left unloved in animal shelters around the
country and those discarded on the streets.

We should abolish all aspects of animal and human cruelty,
particularly those practiced in the name of tradition or entertainment.
We should demonstrate respect for our planet by not polluting it with
unnecessary toxins, including pesticides.

Go, Bugman!  Really, if you've never checked him out, dive into the full archive and enjoy yourself.


  1. Thank you for highlighting the Bug Man. I’m not familiar with his column but will now check it out. The excerpt you quoted above about showing kindness and being humane was touching.

  2. Wow, great stuff.
    And in the “I can top that” category, ya know what’s worse than worms in the toilet? RATS! Believe, it, folks. I came home one night to the sound of water sloshing in my bathroom and yep – there was a huge city rat in there trying to leap out. They live in and come up through the plumbing, just like those worms.

    So what did I do? Oh, you’ll be proud of me, I predict. Scooped it up with a big spoon into a bucket and released it outdoors. And kept the light on in the bathroom for months.

  3. Amy, Hooray for the Bugman! He is an inspiration to all of us garden columnists who try our best to educate our readers about the dangers of so many poisons routinely prescribed for garden pests, and the much less toxic alternatives.

  4. Long Live Bug Man!

    Actually I believe, that talking more about less harmfull alternatives of pest control is more beneficial, that talking about not using toxins.
    We get things we concentrate on, whether it is toxins or being unhappy.
    Glass is always either half empty of half full – we decide on what to concentrate and what abundancy to get.
    best to you,

  5. Bless the Bug Man and his sage advice. And the orange oil study by U.C. Berkeley is exactly why even the most “reputable” studies should be taken with a grain of salt. I strongly recommend the book, “Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science.” It gives great examples of studies where numbers and statistics were made up and skewed tests set up just for the sole purpose of promoting a particular agenda. You’ll never read about another “scientific study” without thinking “was it real or fudged?”

  6. In my professional experience, I’ve noticed properties using “routine pest control” services spraying insecticides all the time have much less balance in the landscape environment and are more prone to uncontrollable outbreaks of aphids, whitefly, scale and the like. This is either due to the predator/parasitic species (that normally could control the problem insects) being wiped out by the relentless spraying, or bad karma, or both. Thank you, Bugman for your work to get people to think before spraying.

  7. JT that is exactly my experience in twenty years of doing landscape work. Not only did routine spraying cause more large scale outbreaks of pests, the plants themselves were often less vigorous. That was probably the result of killing off much of the soil micro flora and fauna as well as direct chemical burn.

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