FORT BELVOIR, Va. — Army Lt. Col. Van Sherwood carries a colony of bed bugs everywhere he goes. Sometimes he feeds them, placing the nylon mesh side of their permanently sealed plastic case against the inside of his arm.
“Your skin starts to tingle when they begin feeding. Here, would you like to try?” he asked, pointing to a tiny, red dot in the corner of the case. “This one is still plump from its last feeding.”
Bugs are Sherwood’s job, as are rodents and any other unwanted pests that invade the workspace of Defense Logistics Agency activities and employees. As DLA’s pest management consultant, he works with the agency’s primary-level field activities to control pests using methods that don’t damage the environment or cause employee health problems. And while bed bugs aren’t a problem at DLA’s facilities, he also educates employees on public health concerns that may affect them as they travel on temporary duty assignments. Each DLA facility has its own pest management plan tailored to address the setting, region, and life cycle of local pests and their interaction with the environment. Pest control is administered by local contractors, and the common goal is to minimize the application of pesticides.
“We learned after decades of pesticide use that the wholesale distribution of chemicals although it does kill bugs can have serious ramifications on the environment,” said Sherwood, who is one of only about 50 Army entomologists.
Pesticide use at DLA facilities has steadily decreased in the past three years, he said, because the agency has adopted “integrated pest management,” a preventive approach considered effective and safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Before spraying pesticides, we now look at cultural practices and less toxic alternatives that we can implement, such as better sanitation,” he said. “In some cases, we can limit how often we spray pesticide by bricking up holes in a building’s infrastructure and using gel baits.”
Another preventive approach includes the use of an “air curtain” at doors that are frequently open. These curtains keep flies and other insects from entering by sending a high-velocity stream of air across the door opening.
Sherwood said prevention is a painstaking, never-ending process that varies from location to location. New facilities usually don’t have rodent problems, but World War II-era warehouses such as those that DLA occupies around the world, are a magnet for rodents and bugs.
Sherwood said he doesn’t like calling attention to the pest concerns at specific DLA locations, but noted that mice were found nesting among the wires and cables of one DLA office complex last year.
“It’s extremely problematic when rodents get established in an office environment and they’re running along the conduits. You can’t just fumigate the building; you have to take a long-term approach and be very disciplined with sanitation and other improvements,” he said.
Pest controllers used a variety of traps to eliminate the mice, but Sherwood said the animals are so persistent and resourceful that they could infest almost any location.
“It comes down to the behaviors of the inhabitants. And make no mistake about it, we’re feeding them by eating at our desks, leaving out candy dishes and throwing away things like banana peels that sit in the garbage overnight.”
Ants are a perennial problem at a child development center operated by one of the agency’s primary-level field activities. The insects are relentless in the summer, he said, when they crawl through buildings’ cracks and crevices in search of food.
“We especially don’t want to use pesticides around children. It’s one thing to spray pesticides in our own house, but if you’re charged with the health and welfare of your employees’ dependents, you have to be extremely careful of what you use, when you use it and how often you use it,” he said.
Ant gel baits have helped limit the problem, but they must be placed behind cupboards and in areas children can’t reach.
Sherwood also has worked to control feral cats, wild dogs, raccoons and birds at DLA facilities. And roosting pigeons and sparrows like to nest in the rafters at truck transfer points on several installations, he said.
“They leave droppings, and it becomes a major sanitation issue, as well as a morale issue,” he said. “It’s easier to control in an installation setting like we are at in here in the United States, but overseas in Iraq and other places where we operate, the infrastructure might have suffered so much combat damage that roofs and walls are open. Yet, our troops are living there, so pest management is even more important. It’s a major health issue.”
Sherwood joined the army as a preventive medicine officer, but a shortage of entomologists throughout the military encouraged him to specialize in medical entomology. The field is so small that preventive medicine experts at Fort Belvoir sometimes seek Sherwood’s help. He helped identify bugs found at Dewitt Army Hospital and determined their entry source, for example. He has also helped local Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials develop a pest-control plan to eliminate mice.
In September, Sherwood will give a presentation on insects at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. Like the exhibits he does during Earth Day observations and DLA Headquarters Complex’s Family Day, his bed bugs will be on prominent display.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)