Face of Defense: Entomologist Keeps DLA Pest-free

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)