Bugs have been very, very good to Eugene Gerberg, who makes a healthy living raising and studying creatures most people would just as soon step on.
There's even a bug named for him, a rare tropical mosquito called toxorhynchites gerbergi, which assures him of immortality.
"It's in the literature," said Gerberg happily. "Even if it becomes extinct, it will always be in the literature."
Immortality is not bad for a fellow who made his way from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall Public High School to Cornell University and the University of Maryland for master's and doctoral degrees. He also struck out in 1946 on a path uncharted for entomologists, passing up a job in government or at some university in favor of starting his own exterminating business.
It was called then, and remains, Insect Control & Research Inc., a fancy name for an operation Gerberg and his wife initially ran from the kitchen table.
"I would put on my jacket in the morning and go out selling," he said. "Then I'd come home and go back out in the afternoon with the sprayer."
That was before government research contracts and consulting jobs with pesticide manufacturers began rolling in, and he could put away the sprayer for good and start growing bugs for research.
Before long, Insect Control & Research was one of the largest bug farms in the world, a place where so many pestilential critters are raised that the lice and cockroaches, malaria and yellow fever mosquitoes, tarantulas, fleas and flies battle for space in the unimposing brick-and-block headquarters within earshot of the Baltimore Beltway.
"We are the only private firm like this in the world," said Gerberg as he led a tour through a series of small rooms he calls "the rain forest," where he and 10 employes raise mosquitoes in screened enclosures. "Normally, this kind of research is done by governments, universities or the chemical companies."
So how many bugs does he produce here? A million?
"Oh, sure, a million," Gerberg said.
A million a year? A million a month?
"Sure," he agreed, "however you want to put it."
Whatever the number, the company grosses about $500,000 a year, he said, mostly for testing on home-grown victims the bug control products that must win U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval before being marketed.
While much of the work is dull, there are challenges. Gerberg once was called upon to produce 70 pounds of droppings from virgin, female American cockroaches so the government could experiment with sex lures to attract male roaches. That was a hard job.
"First we had to sex them," he said. "Then we kept them on a screen so the droppings would fall through. We checked them frequently. Then one day, when the experiment was almost done, I found a female with an egg sac. I thought, 'My God, a male got in there.' "
Luckily, a quick check of the literature revealed that female cockroaches occasionally produce fertile eggs without the intercession of a male, and the work was not ruined. Good thing. It was a lucrative contract, Gerberg said.
More recently he delivered $7,000 worth of two-inch-long cockroaches to a movie company for use in a made-for-television horror film. That was 10,000 roaches at 70 cents apiece, which seemed like a good deal until he made the mistake of watching the film. It was horrible, he said.
Gerberg is a natty, cosmopolitan man, now 65, who dresses in style, right down to the malaria mosquito design on his necktie and the yellow fever mosquito sketched on his belt buckle.
On the far wall of his office is a map of the world showing the places he's been on bug missions: Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, Africa, Europe, the Far East, the Caribbean, Central America, South America. His most recent trip was to Grenada, where he captured a specimen of toxorhynchi (National Caucus of Labor Committees photo) years ago.
"If I had worked for the government," Gerberg said, "I never would have been able to travel so much. And of course, I made a lot more money."
But even a satisfying life falls short of perfection. One mission Gerberg has been unable to see to completion is application of toxorhynchites mosquitoes in the wild to control yellow fever mosquitoes. Toxorhynchites eat the larvae of yellow fever mosquitoes, and Gerberg is convinced that extensive applications could eliminate yellow fever mosquitoes from island habitats.
He even flew to St. Martin a few years back with thousands of toxorhynchites he'd hatched here and conducted his own experiment "for the benefit of mankind." It worked on a small scale, but so far no government has seen fit to expand on his work, Gerberg said.
And, alas, none of his five children has chosen to follow him in the bug propagation trade. One son is a television news anchorman in Colorado, another is a pilot, a third is a subsistence farmer in Canada and the fourth is experimenting with underwater habitations in Hawaii.
His daughter, Gail, does run a small spinoff company, American Biological Supply Co., which sells bug collection devices.
But when Gerberg retires, his principal dynasty will fall into new hands. An heir apparent, British entomologist Robin Todd, is already on the payroll.
Gerberg has no immediate plans to leave, however. "I love what I do," he said. "What should I do, retire and go sit on a porch somewhere?"