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Her job drives her buggy

NORMAN, Okla. (AP)--Larissa Busch always knew she didn't want a normal job. But when she was a little girl, she likely never imagined how unusual her future career would be.

When a new acquaintance asks what she does for a living, Busch proudly answers that she is the collections technician at Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, and leaves it at that. Sounds fairly normal, right? She said she often is asked this question at dinner parties where a true description of her work may not be proper dinner table conversation.

At work, Busch spends most of her time in "The Bug Room," also known as the Dermestid Skeletal Prep Lab, where she feeds dead flesh to hungry hide beetles. She's called "The Bug Lady."

"This is the fun part," she said, plunging her bare hand into a plastic terrarium filled with thousands of creepy crawlers. Inside the terrarium, the bugs eat at skeletons of various rodents: a squirrel, licked clean of flesh, several tiny mice, a shrew, all in various states of cleaning. "They don't do live flesh."

Busch has a love-hate relationship with the museum's bugs. She talks to them, sprays them lovingly with water to keep their environment humid, even prepares snacks of alligator jerky for them to munch on when juicy skeletons are few. If a morsel is too dry or old, she soaks it in cod liver oil or beef bouillon to make it tastier to her beloved beetles.

"Many of our specimens are very small, such as shrews and mice, and to have to pick off the flesh from those tiny bones by hand would be nearly impossible, but the bugs have no trouble getting into every nook and cranny," Busch said. "Basically, they do 99 percent of the work and I just make sure they are happy and fed."

It's Busch's job to facilitate the cleaning of carcasses, and for that process she loves the helpful bugs. But it's also her job to make sure the bugs don't get anywhere near the museum's thousands of preserved mammals, birds, fish and other organic matter.

Integrated pest management is a topic museum experts don't take lightly. "The Bug Room" is in a separate building next to the museum, to keep the active bugs far from the museum's precious specimens. For further protection, a rock "moat" surrounds the museum to keep dirt-loving pests from its perimeter.

"If I see any of these guys inside the (main) building, there's no love," she said. All through the museum, Busch monitors hundreds of white bug traps. Each month, she collects them, catalogues the invaders by species and monitors potential outbreaks. Spring and summer are her busiest trapping seasons.

"My job is very much like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Busch said. "I love our hide beetles when they are in 'The Bug Room' because they do most of the work ... but I hate insects, including the hide beetles, in our building because of the threat they can pose to our collections."

To make doubly sure that no unwanted visitors make their way into the museum, any organic matter that enters the museum's collection spends several weeks in a death chamber. A bubble filled with carbon dioxide kills any microscopic critters that might have made it past inspection.

"The biggest challenge, I think, is the size of the building," Busch said. "It's such a large building and they can get in from the tiniest of cracks or sneak in on our bags, clothes, boxes. Ideally, it would be great to seal up the building to keep the pests out but, of course, we need to use it. Trying to cover and monitor such a large area with tons of hiding spaces and dark corners can be tough."



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