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News : Bugs don't bug Kathy Heinsohn (PhD '98)

Bugs don't bug Kathy Heinsohn (PhD '98)
By Connor Adams Sheets The Gazette
Kathy Heinsohn
Photo courtesy of Bill Ryan/The Gazette

Kathy Heinsohn gets jars and envelopes full of bugs in the mail — cockroaches, bedbugs, ants, head lice. She has hives full of bees in her backyard in Brunswick.

Anyone else might call an exterminator, but not Heinsohn. She has arranged her professional and home lives in a way that keeps her surrounded by insects, arachnids and pests.

An entomologist by day, and a budding beekeeper in her free time, Heinsohn, 47, has had a special affinity for invertebrates ever since her childhood on Folly Island, S.C.

"Growing up on the island, anytime we saw any kind of creature I was always interested and asked questions. If my parents didn't know what they were they would point me to the Peterson Field Guide or something," she explained while relaxing on a bench in the shade 15 feet from her beehives. "We had some interesting pets growing up: two seahorses we found off the dock, baby turtles, a Florida langosta lobster called Ms. Winnie ... so I was really familiar with invertebrates."

She took that knowledge — and though she originally sought out a career in marine biology, earning a bachelor's and master's in the subject — went on to earn a PhD from Purdue University in its entomology program.

After working several years at a pest control firm, where she trained pest control technicians in basic biology and insect behavior, three years ago, she became staff entomologist at the National Pest Management Association. She is the lone entomologist at the trade association, which represents 6,000 pest management companies worldwide.

She is responsible for creating educational materials for pest management technicians, consulting on difficult pest control issues and identifying pest specimens, hence the bugs she receives in the mail.

She was hired as staff entomologist because of her background and her personality, said, Rob Lederer, chief executive officer of the association. "… She's a born educator, she likes to talk to people, she likes to train people, she likes to give TV interviews, and she's just a people person ...."

Heinsohn's love of bugs and insects does not end when she gets home. On weekends, and sometimes after work, she tends to thousands of bees. When Heinsohn leads visitors through the gate and down the stairs from her white Victorian into her backyard, they enter an area that she has dubbed the "A Street Apiary."

Under a canopy of small trees shaded on one side by a row of bushes to keep them from flying into a neighbor's yard, Heinsohn keeps a collection of pastel-colored English garden beehives. They are the only ones in the city, as far as she knows.

She has been caring for European honeybees since August 2005, when she signed up for a six-week course through the Loudoun County (Va.) Beekeeping Association, of which she is now vice president.

At the end of the course, she was given two packages of bees with which she began her colonies. Now she is comfortable in her beekeeping skin, and often opens the hives to without protective gear.

"I was scared to death at first … and, sure, you get stung occasionally, but I'm an entomologist and I still learn new things all the times with these guys. Also, you kind of get into this zone when you're working with them and it's monastic, it's meditative," she said. "And once you get into them once or twice, they get to know you, and they're not aggressive. It's very relaxing."

Neighbors don't mind the bees. Maybe they just enjoy the fruits of her labor — she offers homemade honey to visitors, and twice won third place for black locust honey at The Great Frederick Fair.

One more reason for her hobby is the plight of bees in recent years. Colony collapse disorder, a mysterious calamity that has struck the insects countrywide, started causing the losses of whole communities of bees several years ago. "Bees are having a hard time," she said. "And the more we can help them the better."