Publisher’s Note: This series — “The Adventures of Crawley McPherson, Bug Man” — is a work of fiction. Crawley McPherson and all other characters in this series are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. All names, places, locations and incidents are entirely fictional, and any similarity to places or people living or dead is purely coincidental.
It didn’t seem to matter that it was May, and hadn’t been warm long enough to create large insect populations yet. Bugs were everywhere in the commercial farm’s poultry house. Not thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but millions of them crawled around on the walls. They dropped from the ceiling, into the nesting boxes and on the wooden slats that made up part of the floor of the breeder-broiler house. A worker in charge of taking eggs off the conveyor belt was in tears when the corporate veterinarian, Dr. Christi Anniston, interviewed her about her working conditions.
“They’re everywhere!” she blurted out. “And they get on everything, even my clothes. What kind of bugs are they?”
“I’m not sure,” Dr. Anniston said gently. “I’m not an entomologist, but my best guess is baby cockroaches. I’m going to take samples today and try to get them identified.”
The veterinarian walked outside, where the sunlight temporarily blinded her. She had seen pest problems in poultry houses before, but never like this. Something needed to be done. This was becoming a health hazard that might harm the chickens as well as the farm workers. Surely somebody could get rid of these pesky insects.
Later that day, Jack Blackwell, owner of Peace-of-Mind Pest Services, got the call about the pest problem at the poultry farm. Even though he didn’t do agricultural pest control, he certainly would be glad to help any way he could. Besides, Jack was always looking for new ways to expand his pest control business — and word might get around to the farm owner’s friends that Peace-of-Mind could help with their pest problems.
On the phone, as Dr. Anniston described “millions of tiny bugs” in the poultry house, Jack racked his brain trying to think what they could be. Maybe they were litter beetles, a common problem affecting poultry production, but from what the veterinarian described, these bugs were more soft-shelled than beetles. Either way, by the time he hung up, Jack knew exactly which of his technicians would be perfect for this job: Crawley McPherson. Crawley was a bug fiend who could find and solve any pest problem, anywhere.
“Crawley, we need you to go out there to the Johnson Farm on Old 82 Drive and find out what’s going on,” Jack told Crawley by phone, as the latter was wrapping up a visit on his regular route. “They’ve got a real bad bug problem. Dr. Anniston, the corporate veterinarian, is your point of contact and she’s collected some of the bugs for identification.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “We don’t do poultry house pest control, Jack. Never have before. I think that’s up to the particular chicken company or the Department of Agriculture.”
“I know, Crawley, but this might be different. I think this farmer provides living quarters for his migrant workers. That would be a new account for us, and could lead to others out there in the area.”
Jack waited a few beats before adding, “Besides, isn’t it true that you’re certified in almost every single commercial category except fumigation?”
“Well yeah, but I just did that for the fun of it.”
“Then go out there and talk to that veterinarian and the chicken farmer. We’re not going to charge them anything — we’re just looking around, so to speak, friend-to-friend.”
“You don’t agree?” Jack fought back his irritation. Sure, Crawley was by far the smartest technician he had ever had, but subordination … well … that was a different story.
“Didn’t say that. I like a challenge, but I ain’t understanding why we’re servicing commercial poultry production.”
“Didn’t you hear me? I didn’t say we were servicing poultry production. Look Crawley, just go out there today and see if you can help them figure out what the problem is. That’s all.”
Keep reading… (Part 3)
Crawley drove as quickly as he could to the chicken farm to investigate the bug problem. He fished a banana-flavored snack cake out of his glove box and wolfed it down. Didn’t matter how old the thing was — he needed some quick sugar for this case.
Crawley had studied for state certification in Category 1, Agricultural Pest Control, and knew about litter beetles occurring by the millions in poultry houses. But he had never actually visited a chicken farm to see for himself. Jack’s description of bugs at the chicken farm seemed weird, but to Crawley, weird was cool.
The farmer, Ben Johnson, was standing just outside the poultry house when Crawley pulled in the driveway. He was a burly man with a deep tan and with muscles in places Crawley didn’t have. Crawley emerged from his truck and donned his service belt, which contained a flashlight, screwdriver, moisture meter, and several small cans of aerosol pesticide.
“Uh, I’m Crawley,” he introduced himself. “I’m here to help with the bug problem — uh, I mean to look at it for you.”
“I certainly hope so,” Mr. Johnson said. “There’s a bazillion of them in there.”
“Then they won’t be hard to find,” Crawley said with a smile. “What kind a’ harm they doing?”
“They’re bothering the chickens, ‘cause I’ve seen them on ’em. And my egg production is down.”
He looked at Crawley in a condescending manner. “But that’s not something you would know about, I suppose.”
Crawley was used to people thinking he was stupid because of his looks and lack of social skills, so it wasn’t hard to ignore the insult. “Where’re they at? Let’s take a look at ’em.”
The man pointed at the entrance to the football-field-long white poultry house. “You can go in right there and see them all you want. But first, you’ve got to put on coveralls, booties and gloves. Can’t have you infecting my chickens with anything, you know.”
Entering the building was like walking into a huge department store, except with nothing on the floor but two rows of metal chicken nesting boxes in the middle. A conveyor belt connected them all, heading back toward a front office. The rest of the entire building contained thousands of chickens crowded into the open floor area. They scattered in front of Crawley and the farmer like a living wave as the pair walked through the birds. Within 10 ft. inside the huge chicken house, Crawley spotted bugs about the size of apple seeds all over the walls and ceilings.
He made his way through a big wad of birds to get a closer look at the wall where the bugs were.
“Uh oh!” Crawley now knew what they were. Bed bugs!
He pinched one between his index finger and thumb, then made his way back to Mr. Johnson in the middle of the room. “Look here at this.” He released the bug from between his fingers and showed the man. “I think it’s a bed bug, but I’ve got to check them back at the lab to make sure.”
Mr. Johnson was astonished. “Bed bugs? I’ve never heard of them getting inside poultry houses.”
“Yep, I’ve read about it.” Crawley nodded. “Especially in organic poultry operations and breeder-broiler houses like this here one.”
“So they’re sucking blood outta’ my chickens.”
“Yes sir, probably so, every night. Suckin’ ’em dry.”
Mr. Johnson fell silent, and there they were, two grown men staring at each other, standing dead-still in the middle of thousands of gyrating, clucking chickens. It was as if Crawley had just told the man that the moon was made of cheese.
“No wonder my egg production is down.” He shook his head. “What can we do about it?”
Crawley looked up at Mr. Johnson, his eyes like large ovals roaming around behind his thick glasses. “That’s the problem, sir, there ain’t much can be done, as long as these here chickens are around. You might can get someone to spray the bugs when the birds are sold off and the house is empty.”
“That might be Thanksgiving!” The big man shook with frustration. “What am I supposed to do until then?”
Crawley didn’t have an answer to that, so he headed back toward the wall to collect specimens to confirm the identification back at the office. He knew there was a slim chance they could be bat bugs instead of bed bugs. Then, he would discuss the problem with MJ and Jack.
Keep reading… (Part 4)
Back at the office in the examination room, Crawley looked through a microscope at the bed bug specimens he had collected. He carefully checked the pronotum area immediately behind their tiny heads to see how long the setae were. He knew the main identifying characteristic of bed bugs was the length of the pronotal setae. The setae were twice as long in bat bugs as they were in true bed bugs. In this case, there was no mistake: The setae were short, characteristic of true bed bugs.
Crawley pushed his chair back and sighed. “Bed bugs. It would of been better if they were bat bugs.” He paused a long time. “Much easier to explain … and for sure, easier to treat.”
Just then, Jack walked in, followed soon by MJ. Jack drilled him with his eyes. “Crawley, what do you think about the bugs in Mr. Johnson’s poultry house?”
“They’s bed bugs.”
Shocked, Jack shook his head. “That’s really bad, but I should have known. I’ve seen presentations on this kind of thing at the national pest control meetings.”
MJ chimed in. “What’re our options for treatment?”
“Heat is often used for hotels and apartments,” Jack said. “I guess we could try to find someone with a special license for agriculture who could do a heat treatment for them.”
“No matter who you find licensed in whatever category, it ain’t gonna work.” Crawley looked down. “Poultry houses are way too big to heat up to the proper temperature and hold it for hours. Besides, the chickens are still in there for a few more months.”
“We can get someone to spray the houses — all cracks and crevices — with pesticides,” Jack was undeterred. “That might do the trick.”
Crawley stood up and started walking around the room. “Might help, but won’t eliminate them. They’re everywhere in there. I saw lots of them way up high on the ceiling. I think you would need some kind of liquid spray to douse the inside of the house that wouldn’t hurt gettin’ on the chickens. That might buy the farmer some time.”
MJ rubbed her chin. “We can’t make chemical applications in there, and especially not to animals, Crawley. You know that.”
“No, we can’t,” Crawley smiled, “but somebody can. I think the chicken companies have licensed people that spray the houses, and there are certain products labeled for sprayin’, even with birds in there.”
Jack shook his head in amazement. “How would you know things like that, Crawley?”
No response. He sat back down at the microscope and began looking at the bed bugs again.
“How would you know such things?” MJ asked in a tone much gentler than Jack’s. “It’s not in any of our training manuals, not even the Truman’s Guide.”
He raised up, eyes hovering slightly above the microscope eyepieces. “Stuff like that’s on the Extension Service website under ‘poultry pests.’ Haven’t y’all read it?”
MJ and Jack glanced at each other, then Jack issued instructions. “OK, then, Crawley, I want you to type up for me a list of options, pesticides and subcontractors we might could give Dr. Anniston. And find out who can spray inside the house with live birds present. Get it to me by tomorrow, close of business.”
“Mmm.” Crawley returned to looking through the microscope. “There ain’t nothing will work until the birds go out in the fall. You’ll see.”
Keep reading… (Part 5)
Three days later, Crawley and MJ met Mr. Johnson, Dr. Anniston, and other representatives from the Service King Poultry Co. at the farm. While they talked, two men in a white truck loaded with spray equipment and jugs of pesticide pulled up and began suiting up to spray the chicken house for bed bugs.
“This is my first time to encounter bed bugs in one of our houses,” Dr. Anniston said, “but I spoke with some of the other corporate vets and found out it’s happening more and more lately.”
She turned her attention to MJ and Crawley. “And we really appreciate you getting us headed in the right direction as to controlling the pests. We found a company with a special license for agriculture operations. I’m confident this treatment will take care of it.”
“Ain’t gonna work,” Crawley said flatly. “Too many places for the bug to hide.”
Dr. Anniston’s eyebrows went up.
“I think what he’s trying to say is that bed bugs are very difficult pests to control,” MJ intervened hastily.
“It might not be quite as simple as you think.”
After an awkward silence, Dr. Anniston turned toward the men loading up their spraying equipment. “Let’s see what happens.”
A week later, there was a safety meeting at the Peace-of-Mind headquarters. “Have you heard anything from the chicken people?” Jack asked Crawley during the meeting. “Did their spraying get rid of the bed bugs?”
“The corporate woman claims they’re gone, but Mr. Johnson thinks they’s just as bad as before.”
“Maybe corporate just doesn’t want to face the ugly truth,” MJ offered. “Should we go back out there and look around?”
Jack paused. “No, I guess not. Not unless they invite us. I had once thought this was an opportunity to expand our business — maybe even try for that special license myself — but now I’m not so sure.”
“Maybe give it another week or so and we’ll reassess?” MJ asked.
“I say wait until the birds are sold and then check the place,” Crawley offered. “That’s the only way to know for sure if the spraying worked.”
Four months later, the chickens at the Johnson farm were sold to a soup company, so Crawley decided to check out the empty house. His curiosity was piqued; he couldn’t stand not knowing what all those millions of bugs would do now that the chickens were gone. Would they crawl around inside the place, frantically looking for their animal hosts, or just hunker down and wait for a new set of laying hens? He remembered he had read somewhere that bed bugs don’t actively disperse much, they were mostly just passively transferred around in personal belongings like suitcases, boxes, bags and things like that.
It was almost 9 p.m. by the time he made the drive into the country to check the poultry house. The moon above was only a tiny crescent, and since there were no streetlights, the farm lay eerily dark. When Crawley turned into the driveway at the facility, his headlights illuminated the outside walls and grounds surrounding the poultry house. He was horrified at what he saw!
“Oh, my gosh! It can’t be!”
Crawley frantically fumbled for the gear stick and threw the truck into reverse as quickly as he could, speeding away. There was no way he was going to get near that!
He had a difficult time getting the image out of his mind.
Keep reading… (Part 8)
The next morning, MJ found Crawley sitting in the office’s examination room, staring out the window, deep in thought. He seemed nervous and fidgety, like something was bothering him.
“Hey Crawley, I’ve been looking for you.” She pulled up a chair and eased down beside him. “I was wondering how things worked out with the bed bugs at the Johnson chicken farm.”
“I’ve been readin’ up on bed bugs.” He paused, not meeting her eyes. “Oh MJ, you just don’t know what I saw …”
“What? What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
“Oh MJ …”
Then Jack entered the room, and MJ stood up, straightening her uniform. “Hi Jack, Crawley was trying to tell me about the bed bug treatment at the Johnson farm.”
Jack pulled up a chair and straddled it. “That’s what I want to know, too, so I can plan your schedules. Are we totally done out there or not?” He looked down. “Not that we did actually did anything but hook them up with somebody else. Should we make contact with the veterinarian again?”
Crawley stood up and began nervously pacing the floor. Jack watched him from the chair, while MJ stood back, arms across her chest. She didn’t like Jack pressuring him like that.
“What?” Jack said to Crawley. “It couldn’t be that bad. You’re acting like a school kid in the principal’s office.”
“It was awful. Positively awful.” His big eyes bounced around behind his glasses.
Jack stood up. “Did you accidentally burn the chicken house down or something?”
“Jack, don’t do him like that,” MJ chided. “Give him a chance to speak.”
Crawley stopped pacing and turned toward them. His face showed both fear and confusion. “I went out there last night to check on things after the birds were sold.” He stopped short.
“And?” Jack was losing patience.
“Well, bed bugs was coming out of the poultry house by the millions. In waves, just waves and waves of them coming out of the ceiling and walls, and crawling down the outer walls, and then out across the yard.”
That stopped Jack cold. MJ’s eyes were stark ovals by now.
“It was like a horror movie. The bugs were moving across the grass like a mighty army outward in all directions from the chicken house.”
“Where? Where were they headed?” Jack asked.
“Don’t know.” Crawley shrugged. “Out across the land toward those little houses on the east side.”
“You mean where the migrant workers live?”
“Yup. And I can’t stand to think about it. Some of ’em have little kids.”
Jack looked at MJ. “Did you know they can do that? I mean, disperse across land to another location?”
“Never heard of it, but I’m with Crawley. What’ll happen if they make it to those houses? It’s my understanding that two of the families are relocating to new farms out-of-state next week.”
“Uh oh,” Crawley said.
“Uh oh, indeed,” Jack said.
“Lord help us all,” MJ said solemnly
Dr. Goddard is an extension medical/veterinary entomologist at Mississippi State University. He is also a PMP Hall of Famer (Class of 2012). He may be reached at email@example.com.