The corpse-colored door hides in plain sight among SoHo’s posh boutiques. I pass by it at first, missing the “107 Spring” address plaque in tarnished brass. Peering at the buzzer to verify the tenants, I spot the name Stevens. Written below in all caps and in Baskerville font, I spot the word entomology.
Through the safety glass, a dark lanky figure appears at the top of a steep staircase. As he comes closer, I can see he’s wearing camouflage cargo shorts, an octopus-emblazoned T-shirt, and strappy hiking sandals. This is Lawrence Forcella, or Lorenzo, who has invited me to this sequestered spot in Lower Manhattan. His stylishly bald head, beard, fat silver earrings, and charisma evoke a modern-day genie—an apropos reference given his daily feats. I say this because after he greets me, we go upstairs to the 400-square-foot room where Lorenzo and a handful of artisans breathe life into dead bugs.
“We process thousands of insects a year,” he says as we walk past giant shadowboxes filled with “alive-ish” specimens in the former apartment. This shrine to biodiversity has an inherent ick factor. Gentle taxidermists—insect morticians who unfurl the insects’ wings and reposition feeble antennae as if to gain clearer radio reception—display butterflies, centipedes, and katydids. In one day they get more intimate with exoskeletal body bits than you and I would in a lifetime.
The department is owned by, and catty-corner to, the Evolution Store—a Victorian naturalist’s Shangri-La. Want to buy a fly’s life cycle suspended in resin? No problem. In need of an African penis gourd? Pick a size. The clientele ranges from magazine photographers and preppy 8-year-olds spending birthday money on a human skull to Japanese businessmen brusquely pointing at bugs and purchasing the entire lot. And if Lorenzo oversees his team well, nature enthusiasts like filmmaker James Cameron will shell out upward of $10,000 for a display of beetles.
Entomology is a profession held by people as strange and diverse as the bugs they study.
The Evolution Store established a stand-alone entomology department thanks to Lorenzo. Six months after beginning at the shop in 1997, he offered to pin insects instead of Evolution continuing to outsource insect displays. Lorenzo and his taxidermy crew operated in-store. Then Damien Hirst began buying thousands of pinned butterflies in 2005 to create kaleidoscope mandalas comprising a smattering of colors. That same year, Hirst ordered around 24,000 for what became compositions of stained-glass window mosaics. This required nearly 16 butterfly morticians working around the clock; instructions, costs, fumigation, and due dates are recorded in a “Bug Log.”
Gradually, taxidermy employees relocated across the street to the store owner’s apartment—where I’m standing now with Lorenzo. At some point Hirst, possibly their biggest client, began outsourcing butterflies elsewhere for cost efficiency; still, Evolution maintained its own separate entomology department for 10 years. But when Lorenzo sent me an email about our planned insect anatomy lesson, he hesitantly alerted me that the room would shut down soon due to budget cuts. So I booked a flight. I wanted to know what exactly a bug was.
A taxidermist grabs her time card and punches out as Lorenzo preps this evening’s specimen for pinning. The floorboards intermittently creak as I tour the dimly lit space. Metal cabinets near the front door contain plastic shoeboxes of unprocessed raw stock, each with a taxonomic label like Orthoptera, Phasmatidae, or Homoptera. The subdivisions and subsets for classification go on and on, and I’d rather not bore you with terms that sound like Hogwarts wizard spells. A rolled yoga mat lies in a shower-stall-turned-supply-closet. Ice in the kitchen’s refrigerator usually has to come from a liquor store so it doesn’t share the freezer occupants’ “dead bug taste.” And Lorenzo hunches over a workstation in a room fingerprinted by years of eclectic employees: a curled alien fetus in a jar, a sealed Insect Warrior action figure by Funtastic, Langstroth beehive frames with lived-in honeycombs, and a late 19th-century “Quick Death” pesticide poster.
“The great irony of insect collecting is that if you don’t properly store your insects, your insects will be eaten by insects.”
Under a cone of table lamp light, Lorenzo removes a giant water bug from a take-out food pan it has been soaking in overnight. Originally dried, packaged, and shipped from a village in Thailand, the brown, ovular thing no larger than a plump kazoo is now limber and ready to be mounted for purchase. Working for almost 20 years at the Evolution Store has imbued Lorenzo with the acumen of a furniture salesman. He knows what you want to buy before you do. Collectors appreciate bug mechanics in wonderfully geeky ways, but your average Evolution customer goes for aesthetics, says Lorenzo. Are you an oak man or do you like walnut? Mahogany? What does your home look like? Someone with a “strong design sense,” he says, might go for the India ink lines drawn on the egg-white wings of a rice paper butterfly. Whereas a customer with tattoos and a nose ring might be interested in a blood-sucking giant water bug.
Should the limbs on tonight’s specimen stiffen, Lorenzo’s pinning toolkit includes a syringe for injecting warm water to loosen said body parts. He’s also equipped with a razor blade to slice underbellies for gut removal and a snuff spoon he finds especially useful for hollowing out goo from tarantula butts. Piped into his computer speakers is riot grrrl band L7, an ’80s grunge precursor better known for throwing a bloody tampon at a rowdy crowd. “I admire their grit,” Lorenzo says casually as he rubs alcohol over the water bug’s back, blotching a paper towel with brown excess grease. Otherwise, the bug would “look like someone put cooking oil on it.”
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting one, a giant water bug resembles a cockroach with flexing biceps. Its forelimbs have a finger-pinching function used to latch onto frogs and other aquatic animals in ponds or streams and occasionally onto human feet, hence their “toe-biter” sobriquet. Lorenzo prepares one now for today’s lesson because New Yorkers tend to refer to cockroaches as water bugs, and it might sell during the summer. “Specifically in New York City they call them water bugs,” Lorenzo clarifies, somewhat agitated. “I think people don’t want to be reminded of the fact that they have gigantic-ass cockroaches living in their apartments.” “Water bug” does sound prettier, I guess. And Floridians call roaches palmetto bugs. “A rose by any other name,” as they say …
My host, like many entomologists, is stereotypically peculiar. It’s a profession held by people as strange and diverse as the bugs they study. Lorenzo stands out because he’s equally brazen and charming, and unlike most in the field, he’s completely self-educated.
“I’m not doing this for scientific purposes,” he tells me. Certified individuals in the field focus on a specific branch of entomology. For example, a medical entomologist might find ways of stopping disease vectors like malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Or an agricultural specialist might find natural pesticides to combat the forest-decimating mountain pine beetle. “My own specialty,” Lorenzo says, “is that I don’t specialize.” His passion goes beyond ecology. The bugs’ intrinsic beauty takes precedence.
Lorenzo’s fascination began at age 4 when he found a dead stag beetle as big as his hand on his friend’s driveway in the Bronx—“one of those things burned into memory.” When he showed his mom later that day, she took out a box that had a rhinoceros beetle his dad collected while stationed at a Virginian military base. “I realized these guys are all around us … From then on I wanted every bug on the planet. Any time I saw bugs I just went crazy over them.”
“In New York City they call them water bugs. I think people don’t want to be reminded of the fact that they have gigantic-ass cockroaches living in their apartments.”
His collection ebbed and flowed for years, eventually falling victim to dermestid beetles. “The great irony of insect collecting,” he laments, “is that if you don’t properly store your insects, your insects will be eaten by insects.” It’s aggravating. A proper collection denotes the date and location of where insects were caught, so, borrowing Frank Krell’s analogy, it’s like finding your diary eaten by moths. (Although destruction of such evidence of the past may be welcomed.) After his bugs disintegrated into dusty mounds, he was discouraged for five years while in art school until he learned about a blow-out sale on bugs by New York–based insect dealer the Butterfly Company. Currently, Lorenzo possesses about 500,000 specimens he keeps in a separate apartment from his own in Hastings-on-Hudson.
Combining his skills as an illustrator and years observing live insects in their natural state, Lorenzo’s pieces now seem to pop off the table—were it not for the meticulous outline of pins around their exoskeletons. You can’t help but admire the symmetry and anatomy.
On the surface, insect bodies share a three–body segment structure, top to bottom: head, thorax, and abdomen. This makes sense, as the word “insect” also means “cut into.” Three pairs of legs attach to the thorax. One pair of antennae perform important tasks like feeling, tasting, smelling, and hearing. And a respiratory system consisting of interconnecting tracheal tubes suck in air through body-segment openings called spiracles. I am not going to go deeper here, but if you did, you’d find a universe of intricacy.
“The first step with mounted specimens is the pin,” Lorenzo says, bare-handedly sticking a pin through the giant water bug’s thorax shield, aka scutellum. The average spring steel pin used for mounting is 0.45 millimeters in diameter, with a black enamel finish to prevent rusting and a rounded nylon head. Pushing said nylon head usually requires meager force, but when handling a tarantula specimen with urticating hairs—needlelike defense bristles—it gets painful. Lorenzo learned the hard way. While drying out tarantulas in a 150-degree oven for prep, he jabbed pins into cardboard without protective gloves, not realizing he was grinding urticating hair splinters into his flesh. He shakes his head. “My thumb itched for two years,” he says. “Two fucking years!” He rubs the spot on his thumb. “It looked like there was pepper under my skin from so many broken hairs.”
More pins decorate the water bug sitting on a porous Styrofoam sheet. It rests atop a piece of paper soaked with a khaki puddle of bug juice.
“It makes me pissed off when people view this as creepy,” he says, encircling the bug with pins like a knife thrower. “I’ll tell ya, the most annoying thing is when I say I’m an entomologist, and people are like, ‘Ooo, like in Silence of the Lambs,’ ” and he starts nodding. “Yeah,” he sarcastically replies, “I skin women.” We laugh, and I can’t help but break into singing the goth keyboard synth from “Goodbye Horses” played during the infamous cross-dress scene.
The conversation transitions to the John Fowles novel and movie The Collector, in which the kidnapper also happens to own a bunch of butterflies. “There’s like a lot of negative stereotypes of entomologists and maybe even taxidermists,” he says. “Right?” I agree as he places the final pins around an unflinching leg. “I think it probably has to start with Norman—” Bates, we say in unison. I tell him about the unhealthy BDSM relationship with an entomologist in The Duke of Burgundy. He fires back with Woman in the Dunes, which is a psychosexual romance, again, with an entomologist as victim. My thought is that society in general is not keen on those who dabble with dead things. “The Brits view this very differently from the Americans,” Lorenzo says.
I’m invited to visit Lorenzo in Hastings-on-Hudson—an hour-and-a-half trip north from where I’m staying with friends in Brooklyn—for a Father’s Day bug excursion he’s leading through the forest. Of course I accept. It may also be an opportunity to meet some budding entomologists.
The no. 22 tunnel exit from Grand Central Station opens to New York’s cityscape. The northbound train chugs along till the view widens to the lush New Jersey Palisades along the Hudson River like a jungle-draped Great Wall of China. Periodically, you pass abandoned factories, the train’s rhythmic sway going ka-link, ka-link like the metallic beat of a robotic heart.
I land on the railway platform in Hastings-on-Hudson. With its sun-plumped wooden houses and shops, cat’s cradle of power lines, and a diaphone horn to alert the volunteer fire department, Hastings is a primed competitor for a Village of the Year award. A hike up a steep hill takes me to Lorenzo’s boxcar apartment where he’s eating a bowl of hot applesauce. His place is a low-lit, uncurated museum, with Luna moths, alien photos, newspaper clippings, caged beetles stripping meat off a deer hoof (for the Evolution Store). I especially like the Post-it note cautioning “bugs in oven.”
“Bugs are more interesting than people,” one of the dads tells me.
Before heading out on today’s bug excursion, we stop at his second apartment. Its Cornell drawers and cardboard boxes house 500,000 or so specimens for his insect-dealing side venture God of Insects. Insect nets lean against the doorway like fishing poles. Lorenzo grabs the one with a time-worn sweep bag and we step outside into the 80 percent humidity afternoon. Sweat beads bunch in the balding cul-de-sacs of my scalp, and I release a guttural noise. “Welcome to Vietnam, right?” Lorenzo says, smiling, his wood-handled insect net doubling as a walking staff. At Hillside Elementary School, our rendezvous point, we find a mix of 22 kids and parents. Lorenzo is surprised by the turnout. An older New England gentleman with neatly combed white hair named Stew Eisenberg tells me how he hasn’t hunted insects since he was a Boy Scout, recalling tips from Boy’s Life magazine. The kid members of this excursion are visibly ecstatic.
“We’re gonna get buuuugs!” revels a boy in a Phillies hat leading the charge. A light breeze bends the tree branches above us as we follow Lorenzo down a wood-planked walkway behind the school and into the forest. He thwacks the tall grass and flowers with his heavy-duty bug catcher. I overhear a dad call him a “net ninja.” After a couple sweeps, he rolls the bag till it’s cuffed near the bottom where all the bugs accumulate. “If you’re going to be looking for insects, it’s more than what you’re going to be looking for with your eyes,” Lorenzo says, explaining how invisible these behind-the-scenes forces are. “Here is an oak tree cricket nymph. Here’s a stink bug. Baby assassin bugs. A spider. A leafhopper.”
A toddler has a handful of saliva-soaked shirt in her mouth as she gazes at the catch.
“Which one’s the assassin bug?” asks one dad, igniting a chain of questions for Lorenzo.
“The green one?”
“What does that mean?” a mom asks. “Do they hurt you?”
“Well, assassin bugs feed on other insects,” he answers. “You’ll see they have a little proboscis. That’s what they use to suck either plant juice or animal fluids. They’re one of the richest forms of insect life within the plants here.”
Another dad asks his son’s question: “What makes a stink bug smell?”
“Um, there’s toxins in it for protection. When something eats it, they taste really foul.” (Darwin could attest to that.) This inquisitive focus permeates the group. I wonder when kids lose that rubbernecked, enraptured joy. Purdue University professor Daniel Shepardson sought to find out more about human-insect interactions by investigating how 120 elementary school children understood bugs. Students across multiple grade levels were asked to draw an insect and explain what it was. In terms of adorableness, you have images with human attributes: “the caterpillar forms a cocoon because it needs a home.” And then by the fifth grade, the 2002 research paper notes, physical characteristics (three body segments, six legs) were consistently correct. What Shepardson also found was that children began “to emphasize the negative aspects of insects (e.g. biting, stinging, eating flowers)” as early as the first grade. By age 9, that contention was engrained. Though it might vary culture to culture, it’s clear the beneficial attributes of insects weren’t stressed early enough.
Out of all the kids trailing Lorenzo, one in particular sticks out. Una is 5 at most. Her dad, Ken, hands her a plastic magnifying glass as she kneels down to inspect flowers along the trek. Una’s level of intrigue can be felt from a distance.
We reach a clearing at Sugar Pond. Lorenzo gathers the crowd around a waterside log with holes made by wood-boring beetles. “This bench is a habitat,” he says. “Here’s a predatory ground beetle hunting on the face of this log. They could spend their entire life in this log. That’s their world. Think of things in a smaller universe.” Lorenzo places the beetle in a plastic vial and passes it around. Una folds her hands around it, leaning her face in closely to observe the thing clawing around inside. Next she offers the beetle up to Stew’s wife. She takes it from Una, and holds it at arm’s length. The juxtaposition of our different attitudes toward bugs simplified to its core. Stew the ex–Boy Scout nudges her. “Give it a kiss.”
We’re nearing the end of the trip. Unless you were to, as our bug expert says, “Stop. Stare. And look,” you’d miss the elusive wheels shaping the plants and overall global ecology. As a demonstration, Lorenzo leads us to a dead tree trunk. Fresh rainwater seeps through the dirt, intoxicating us with a rich forest-y aroma. The group has tapered off to a select few including a couple boys dragging each other by the ankle and climbing dead trees. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” Lorenzo says to the boys, “I have to lift this log. You’re standing on someone’s house.” He unmasks the life below. Seconds later kids are shouting out “worm!” “centipede!” “slug!” “pillbug, pillbug!” Una quietly plays with a leopard slug, laughing as it slimes across her finger. I collect a red, plush-toy-looking mite with a Poland Spring bottle cap. “Bugs are more interesting than people,” one of the dads tells me.
“Look! Look! Your foot’s near another one,” a kid points out. There’s a ruckus of elations, ooos and aahs as more bugs are unearthed from the loose soil and decaying wood. This grotesque high pervades the science. Before everyone gets on with their day, Lorenzo concludes the afternoon’s excursion. “Insects are kinda suicidal,” he says. “They’ll just throw themselves at the world and hope to survive.” Maybe that’s my answer to what a bug is: suicidal. It’s a design preprogrammed into their DNA; they’ve evolved for nearly half a billion years to be ubiquitous micro-machines pulling off colossal feats like shaping the world’s flora. Some believe this in turn helped Homo sapiens evolve. After all, sociologically, we have much in common.
David MacNeal is a journalist exploring the fringes of science, technology, and culture. His articles have appeared in Wired, Ars Technica, and Vice, among others.
From Bugged by David MacNeal. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.