ANNAPOLIS -- To some folks, a 5 1/2-inch-wide goliath beetle is a big pest. For bug lover Gaye Williams, it is a natural wonder.
"If that were a car, it would be a BMW," said Williams from her office here at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, where she works as an identifier and "bug mortician" in the plant protection section.
Her favorite from the bug world was her pet scorpion. She keeps a colony of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, none less than three inches long, in an aquarium near her desk.
She wears bugs and eats them too. Fried palm weevils, she said, are an excellent source of nutrition.
Williams checks for infestation in the nursery industry. She also prepares bugs for the department's collection and brings displays to schools and museums.
"I'm also a bug mortician. I make them look just like they were in life," she said. "But I don't do gypsy moths. And I don't do mosquitoes."
The biggest bug she has ever worked on was an eight-inch walking stick from New Guinea. The most personal was her pet scorpion, which died after six years.
The remains of the little guy now sit amid Williams's assortment of groundworm-shaped squeaky toys, plastic hanging flies and wind-up ants and ladybugs.
The Agriculture Department has a collection of about 30,000 insects from Maryland and around the world.
To anyone with bug phobia, a walk through Williams's office could be traumatic. The walls are filled with photographs of mites and beetles, their bodies enlarged about 1,000 times. She has a 10-inch fly stuck on the window and countless other bug memorabilia, including a glass beetle paperweight, stink bug letter openers and a bronze black widow spider.
She drew the line at goliath beetles. "Unfortunately, my scruples got the best of me, so I decided not to get one because I heard they were getting killed in the wilds," she said.
As for the hissing cockroaches, "there's no reason to be afraid of them. They can't bite. They don't jump out at you. They're too pretty to step on," Williams said, holding one of the shiny roaches that resemble a piece of oak.
Williams said she has always felt comfortable with vermin, as early as age 4, when she tied string around large beetles and kept them as pets.
"I would just play with the stuff."
Sporting a T-shirt with a fly painted on it and green socks with spider-web designs, she doesn't leave her bugginess at the office.
At home she has a collection of about 2,000 bug specimens that she has collected in the United States, Sri Lanka, India, South America, Trinidad and Japan.
She scouts flea markets and antique stores for bug jewelry, books, clothing with bug designs, and crafts. Her jewelry collection includes a spider-faced watch, spider earrings and a pin made of two metallic green tortoise beetles.
"That's a classic," she said. "In Victorian times, it was quite fashionable to wear bug jewelry." Williams has even gone so far as to wear a live metallic wood borer from Mexico on her lapel.
Williams has acquired a taste for bugs, including chocolate-covered grasshoppers and fried palm weevils. "You cut the little weevils' heads off and eat them like shrimp. They tasted exactly like Jimmy Dean smoked sausage," she said, adding, "It's a perfectly good source of nutrition."
Meal worms, another bug favorite, were served up with garlic, parsley and onions at a dinner at the Smithsonian Institution's Insect Zoo in Washington. "I felt a little funny because meal worms are kind of skinny and silly looking. I have this image of aliens eating bugs, but they were good," Williams said.
Williams admits it's not always easy to be lighthearted about her job. "I have a theory that we're doing just as much destruction here as is going on in the rain forests. The only thing is that we're not burning, we're paving," she said.
"People don't think of our greenery as anything more than greenery. But it's our cleaner. It's like the liver of the planet," she said.
She has a bachelor's degree in wildlife conservation and a master's in entomology. She says she doesn't have a favorite bug, but her job specialty is in cicadas and mites.
"We're very boring. Bugs are just incredible. They're extraordinary feats of nature," she said.