Well-known entomologist is truly, madly, deeply into bugs.
|Harold Harlan (photo: David Hills)
It might be hard to believe, but Harold Harlan did not grow up dreaming of one day being a highly respected, much sought-after entomologist with a passion for bed bugs.
Growing up in rural Fayette County in southwestern Ohio, Harlan wanted to be a teacher, specializing in agriculture. Not a surprise for the fifth of six sons of a tenant farmer who moved 11 times in 12 years growing up following his father from one field to the next. “My father did all types of farming and seasonal custom sheep shearing at night,” says Harlan. “We had a lot of chores and worked very hard because times were tough.”
Harlan recalls eating pig tails and other assorted odd cuts of meat when his father worked at the local butcher shop in the winter to help make ends meet. “It was hard, but we survived and learned the value of hard work,” he says of that time.
With little discretionary cash for movies and other teenage pursuits, Harlan focused on his studies. An energetic and mischievous student – a high school teacher encouraged young Harlan to use his active mind for peaceful purposes – Harlan was drawn to science.
His high school biology, chemistry and physics teachers made it a point to remind him that there were no short cuts when it came to making grades and learning; it is a lesson that still resonates today with this 67-year-old lifelong learner. “We did not have many books at home so I spent a lot of time in the library at school,” recalls Harlan. “I was curious about a lot of things and the library offered me the chance to satisfy those curiosities.”
Leaving the Farm
Following his high school graduation, Harlan made the 50- (or so) mile trip north to Columbus and enrolled at The Ohio State University to study agriculture. His classes included an entomology course that Harlan found quite interesting, so he asked if he could major in the subject.
Name: Harold Harlan, Ph.D. B.C.E.
Company: Armed Forces Pest Management Board
Location: Silver Spring, Md.
Title: Civilian Entomologist, Senior Scientific Associate
Career Highlights: Graduate of The Ohio State University (B.S., Agriculture/Entomology, M.S. Entomology and Ph.D., Entomology); member of numerous scientific and pest management societies including the Entomological Society of America, Sigma Xi, American Mosquito Control Association, Acarological Society of America, Entomological Society of Washington, Maryland Entomological Society, West Virginia Entomological Society, Georgia Entomological Society, Pi Chi Omega, Ohio Mosquito Control Association and Bat Conservation International.
Personal: Married, Norma; children, Kevin and Jason; active participant in Boy Scouts of America; awarded Boy Scout’s District Adult Service Award in 2008; has participated in Insect Study Merit Badge program at six Boy Scouts of America National Jamborees; was awarded two Meritorious Service Medals, four U.S. Army Commendation Medals, Vietnam Service Ribbon, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Kuwaiti Liberation Medal and Carmack Medal (U.S. Army Medical Department).
When his professor said, yes, it is possible, out went agriculture and in came entomology. “I was fascinated by the diversity of entomology,” Harlan says. When then given an opportunity to work at OSU’s insect museum, he learned how valuable collecting and preserving insects is to research efforts.
After earning a B.S. in entomology in 1967, Harlan stayed on at Ohio State to earn his M.S. as a Buckeye in 1968. During the course of his studies, he learned the value of preparation and different teaching styles, a skill he has carried with him through his career. He credits one of his professors, Dr. Paul Freytag, with instilling in him the discipline to be a good teacher while at the same time remaining open to new ideas and ways to get the job done.
The Army Comes Calling
While Harlan was attending OSU, the United States’ engagement in the Vietnam War deepened. He received his draft notice just after accepting a direct commission in the U.S. Army as an entomologist.
Following 20 months at Ft. Bragg, N.C., Harlan spent a year in Vietnam helping the Army fight off vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria. There were more than 40,000 cases of malaria reported between 1965 and 1970 in the Vietnam theater of operations.
Following his tour in Vietnam, Harlan made stops in various posts stateside and abroad including Ft. Dix (New Jersey), Ft. McPherson (Georgia), Ft. Gulick (Panama) and Ft. Meade (Maryland), as well as in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War.
In Panama, Harlan was in charge of the Atlantic area public health office for the canal zone. He says he came across a plethora of interesting creepy, crawly insects while working there. “We came across everything from mosquitoes to vine snakes and 35 different species of cockroaches,” says Harlan. “The bugs were fantastic.”
In Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, Harlan was executive officer of a preventive medicine unit. Among the pests that Harlan and his team encountered were filth flies, scorpions, camel spiders and snakes. The team’s main jobs were to prevent vector-borne and other potentially harmful diseases carried by these insects from threatening coalition troops, and educate the troops on the insects and diseases. “We stressed personal protective measures, such as repellents, and sanitation in and around camp sites,” says Harlan. Afterward, he returned to a faculty position at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, the Department of Defense medical school.
A Diverse Career
Following his retirement from active duty following a 25-year career, Harlan worked in the private sector, including a nine-year stint as senior entomologist with the National Pest Management Association (NPMA).
“He is passionate about his work and will dig and dig to get the correct identification for an insect,” says Richard Kramer, president of Innovative Pest Management in Brookville, Md., who first met Harlan while the two were stationed at Ft. McPherson in Atlanta in the mid-1970s. “He worked hard for the small PMP while at NPMA.”
Greg Baumann, vice president of training and technical services for Orkin and Harlan’s boss at NPMA, echoed Kramer’s sentiment about Harlan’s dedication to his profession. “Harold is driven by the joy of sharing knowledge and a constant quest for scientific truth,” says Baumann. “It is never about his personal gain; it is about doing what is right for the industry and promotion of learning.”
Today, Harlan works as a civilian entomologist, senior scientific associate, with the Armed Forces Pest Management Board. The board advises on policy, provides guidance, and coordinates the exchange of information on all matters related to pest management throughout the Department of Defense. The group’s mission is to ensure that environmentally sound and effective programs are in place to prevent pests and disease vectors from becoming a problem. And when you consider the geographic territory for which Harlan and his peers are responsible, you quickly realize how big a job it is.
With requests coming in from military, government agencies and diplomatic locations across the globe, Harlan puts his extensive research talents to good use. The Information Services Division where Harlan works reviews more than 60 journals and has amassed more than 200,000 articles dealing with pests and vector-borne threats.
Harlan says he provides information on everything from malaria, dengue fever, tick-borne diseases and hemorrhagic fever to tips on controlling cockroaches, termites, stored product pests and stinging insects. Have a termite infestation in your barracks in Hawaii or a stored product pest issue at a supply depot in Kandahar? Harlan is the go-to guy for advice.
A Scout’s Honor:
Introducing the Wonderful World of Insects to the Boy Scout Jamboree
When Harold Harlan isn’t researching new insect species or assisting military or diplomatic personnel with a pest issue, you can find him devoting time to one of his favorite passions – the Boy Scouts of America.
Harlan has been involved with the Boy Scouts for decades and watched his son, Jason, earn his Eagle Scout rank in 1994. Since 1987, Harlan has served as an Eagle Scout advisor for Troop 768 in Millersville, Md. Under his tenure, 27 young men have earned scouting’s highest attainable rank after completion of an extensive service project and earning a minimum of 21 merit badges.
In addition to helping guide prospective Eagle Scout candidates through the rigorous accreditation process, Harlan found a way to include his passion for insects into the Scouting experience.
Since 1989, Harlan has helped representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Defense, and current and former U.S. Army entomologists plan and run an Insect Study Merit Badge booth at the Boy Scouts of America National Jamboree.
The jamboree is held every four years and attracts more than 40,000 scouts, scout leaders and staff members.
“The late Norm Ehmann, then with Univar, helped get the project off the ground and get other suppliers to help support the effort,” Harlan says. Many people in the pest management industry, including members of Pi Chi Omega, have donated their time and resources to keep the initiative alive.
Harlan says an average of 15 to 20 scouts have earned the badge at each jamboree with more than 100 earning credit for a partial badge. At the most recent jamboree in 2010, badge seekers had to raise and care for a mosquito throughout the event as part of the requirement.
“We always have a lot of specimens and things they can get their hands on,” says Harlan, who has led the effort for six jamborees. “They come in knowing almost nothing about insects and walk away with a lot more knowledge.”
Harlan says that at one jamboree, there was an outbreak of bed bugs in a sub-camp area, and officials thought they were escapees from Harlan’s prized bed-bug collection. (See The Go-To Guy for Bed-Bug Specimens, below.)
As it turned out, the bugs were not from the Harlan’s display, and the scouts who had their encampment invaded by the elusive insect visitors received special patches to commemorate the event.
Over the years, Harlan has been a highly requested speaker and has given talks on vector management issues in Hong Kong, bed bugs and filth flies in Dubai, and many places in between.“My reward after giving a presentation is that everyone learns something and can use some piece of information to improve their work,” he says. “That is very satisfying.” Harlan has also been honored by his research peers by having a leaf hopper and moth ear mite species named after him.
Where is the future of entomology headed, in Harlan’s opinion? He says there will always be new species of ants, mosquitoes or stored product pests to discover but that proper identification will always have a place in the laboratory and in the field. “You can’t effectively deal with a pest until you know what it is,” Harlan says. “That is a skill that will never go out of style.”
Young entomologists and PMPs need to observe and let insects tell them what they (the insects) will do, Harlan added, explaining, “Insects will surprise you. Don’t guess from reference books or the Internet. Trust your observations, because what you see in real life is the truth.”
The ‘Go-To’ Guy for Bed-Bug specimens
With close to 6,000 bed bugs safely nestled away in mason jars in his home, Harold Harlan is the go-to guy for bed bug research and education. He is either that or a candidate for a new reality television show on bed bug hoarding.
Harlan’s affinity for bed bugs started in 1973 during his Army career when he was called to inspect a barracks at Ft. Dix in New Jersey. The barrack’s residents had complained of unusual bug bites, and it was Harlan’s job to find out what was going on. “It was a cinder-block building with one infested room,” says Harlan, who ruled out the usual suspects, including mosquitoes or fleas after an initial inspection. “At the time, bed bugs were a bit of an oddity and not a lot was known about them.”
In the process Harlan discovered that good bed bug specimens were few and far between, and this made the job of researchers and pest management professionals more difficult. “The lack of bed bug specimens made it tougher to come up with proper treatment recommendations, because there was nothing to study and compare to,” Harlan says. “There was not a lot of basic research available at the time.”
It was then that Harlan’s curiosity took over, and he started down the road of becoming a bed bug collector extraordinaire. “I found them fascinating insects to study and be around,” he says. Harlan co-authored a note in a military medical publication to help inform clinicians about bed bugs. Today, his collection of live and preserved (in ethyl rubbing alcohol) bed bugs is internationally recognized as a potential reference specimen source for researchers and PMPs. The 67-year-old entomologist looks after his bed bug brood like a shepherd watches over his flock. He personally feeds each jar of bed bugs for 20 to 30 minutes, letting his blood-sucking friends take their nourishment from his leg or arm.
Harlan’s bed bugs have been provided to dozens of government, university research labs and public health institutions – including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – as well pest management companies. “He is the expert hands down,” says Greg Baumann, vice president of training and technical services at Orkin. “Harold was working with bed bugs before they were fashionable.” What does Harlan say about the uptick in attention for an insect he has studied closely for nearly four decades? “I feel good about being able to provide specimens that allow researchers, public health officials and PMPs to learn more about bed bugs and get the edge on controlling them,” he says.