Environment

The Man to Bug About Bugs

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Even if you’ve never met Chris Conlan, you still might recognize him.

That’s because Conlan, the County’s supervising vector ecologist, has been the County’s most visible “bug and critter guy,” for the last 14 ½ years, doing hundreds of media interviews and appearing on your TV and in your newspapers.

You name a bug-, critter-, or vector -related topic, and he’s probably talked about it, explained it, warned about it or allayed fears about it. (Vectors, by the way, are animals like mosquitoes and rats that can transmit disease to people.)

“It’s all I know, man!” Conlan said with a laugh, “I enjoy it. You know how most kids go through a phase where they think bugs are kind of cool? I never pulled out of it!”

He’s kept the public up to speed on mosquitoes, West Nile virus and Zika. He educates people about squirrels and bubonic plague, ticks and Lyme disease, wild rodents and hantavirus.  And he shares his expertise on mosquitofishcrane fliesbrown widow spiders, gnats, fleas, midges and rats.

And that’s just in front of the cameras. Over the years, he’s also answered hundreds of questions and identified bugs galore for members of the public who regularly call the Department of Environmental Health’s Vector Control Program for help.

You know how most kids go through a phase where they think bugs are kind of cool? I never pulled out of it!

Chris Conlan, Supervising Vector Ecologist

Conlan spends his days as part of the County Vector Control team that helps protect the public from vector-borne diseases by trapping pests to monitor their populations, surveying the diseases they carry and reducing those populations when they become a threat to people.

For Conlan, that sometimes means studying pest-trapping data at his desk computer to set trapping strategies. Other times he can be found sifting through batches of mosquitoes, in a dish under a microscope, in the Vector Control laboratory to help ferret out West Nile virus and other diseases.

Conlan earned a degree from the University of California at Davis in entomology, the science that studies insects. But the truth is, Conlan has always been a bug and critter guy — he was fascinated even before he can remember.

“The story my mom tells me is that I was always pointing out butterflies,” Conlan said with a laugh. “She made me a butterfly net when I was probably about four, to get me out of her hair. So I started collecting butterflies as a hobby.

When he discovered it was hard to collect “perfect” specimens for his collections — butterflies that had undamaged wings, or weren’t missing legs or antennae — he became a bug farmer, growing them from caterpillars.

And when he found that the beautiful colors of even those perfect specimens could naturally fade over time, he became a bug photographer, to capture their perfect images forever. These days, his photographs are regularly featured in the Entomological Society of America’s annual calendar, and they’ve been exhibited in books, journals, Internet sites and annual Insect Festival at the San Diego Botanic Garden.

After years in the private sector, Conlan applied to work for County Vector Control, just as the West Nile virus was arriving in San Diego County.

Before West Nile virus arrived in 2004, San Diegans didn’t have to worry a lot of about mosquito-borne illnesses. The new threat forced the Vector Control Program to grow to be able to protect local residents. Conlan said that has turned out to be a good thing, particularly since the County now also has to deal with two new invasive Aedes mosquitoes and new mosquito-borne threats, including the Zika virus.

West Nile virus also brought media interest, and requests for interviews to keep the public informed. Pretty soon, he found himself in the spotlight, where’s he remained. The secret to being a good interview, he said, was simple.

“Number one, keep it in plain English,” Conlan said. “You start talking Ph.D. and you’re going to have a bunch of glazed-over eyeballs. Number two, just be yourself!”

But the truth is, you should probably add passion into that equation. After all these years, Conlan is still passionate about bugs — even when he’s not working.

“One of my favorite things to do, still, in my off time, is to go travel to places where there’s different, cool insect life to see,” Conlan said. “If I’m not here, I’m probably looking to see which jungle I can go to next!”

Gig Conaughton is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact