Nothing is as exciting as taking up new challenges. The most difficult challenge for me was to overcome the fear of letting worms crawl all over your hands, and yet not drop them out of fear and injure them. These are the tobacco worms the department has been breeding for decades now. My challenge was to learn the art of doing it rightly in 5 days’ training, and yet not feel sick every time I entered the smelly breeding room.
No worms as a prize to guess that I went ahead and took up the job. The first day, I just followed the guy who was training me. And I had no freaking clue about what was happening. This is the same guy who says bok of inseks and botton (guess what, I think he calls his sexy wife ekki) and who has sternly written instructions all over the place in wrong English (e.g., please do not removed the machine). I was handed a checklist of some 50 things to do while he went around changing worm boxes, putting older ones into newer boxes, and categorizing them based on certain characteristics. If you happen to be in the biosciences or have little interest in insects, you will know that most insects have 4 life stages- egg, larva, pupa, and adult. These were the diagrams in the good old biology textbooks. The larval stage could further be divided into 3rd, 4th, and 5th instar stages.
My trainer has left for “botton” after training me to feed “insek” (he cannot say “S”, poor thing).
I start my job at 8 every morning, first categorizing the larvae into different boxes based on the presence or absence of eyes and the shape of the head (let me spare you the details).
Then, I take the adult worms from the previous days which are no longer feeding and put them in dry wooden blocks. You know that they are ready to go without food when they smack the food all around the cups and a thick black line appears on their back. Here see the difference for yourself.
Once put in blocks, they go without food and in a few days, they all reach the pupae stage with the brown covering that makes them look like cockroaches.
After a few days, when the pupae turn black and soft from being brown, they are left in the cages where they emerge into adult moths.
The adult moths live on sugar water, and lay eggs on the underside of the tobacco plant leaf.
These are attracted to light and hence every time you take the plant out of the cage, you need to switch off the lights and have to know your way in the darkness. Once the plants are taken out, eggs are collected by gentle scraping with the hand without damaging the leaves. There are two varieties of worms, the green ones and the black ones. These are the collected eggs.
Three days later, the eggs are made to hatch on a thin strip of food. The food is a special diet made with calculated amounts of vitamins and antibiotics, and smells ten times more horrible than fermented dosa dough. In the pic, moisture is being wiped off the surface of the food block to be cut into pieces.
When the eggs hatch into thin hairy beings on the strips of food, they look like this.
About 200 of them are put in small cups everyday and allowed to grow.
After a couple of days, they are transferred to a bigger cup, and the cycle is repeated again.
Look how the worms get a grip on the food and dig it out with their pointed jaws.
Sometimes, eggs hatch out into weird looking creatures. Naah, this is nor Surf Ki Safedi Lalita ji. It is just a whiter worm.
First, the sheer number of things intimidated me. There are 3 huge rooms filled with boxes like this and I had to know my way through them.
The second challenge was to put the larva into the dry box. These are extremely soft and the moment you hold them, they start wriggling their heads and butts. Yet you cannot drop them or squish them. This is how they looked.
And this is how you put them into the dry blocks with your hands.
I remember how the guy asked me to use forceps to do that, and I was touched with his compassion for me. My hopes came crashing down when he dutifully informed me that he wants me to use the forceps because he doesn’t want me to injure the worms. When I put the worms into the boxes, they wriggle their heads and crawl out. Soon, I figured out a way to grip them softly by the neck and put their head facing downwards so that it was difficult for them to crawl out.
Learning and knowledge gained
I have learnt how to distinguish between a male and a female pupa looking for a tiny hole somewhere in the male pupa. Imagine the chaos holding a brown pupa which is wriggling itself furiously trying to locate a freaking hole.
It was a challenge to come to the lab every morning (even on the weekends) and not faint out of the smell and the trauma of dealing with these creepy crawly things. The initial few days were so bad that everything I ate smelt of them. I would step onto something and get startled, wondering if I had stepped on an insect. I would rummage through my bag for a pen and then back off immediately wondering if some of those insects have crawled into my bag. I killed so many insects by dropping them abruptly because they wriggled so much and I was too scared to touch them.
But eventually, things got better. Eventually, I stopped using the forceps and started to hold them with my hands. The way they crawl and cling to the skin gives you a very uncomfortable feeling. But at least they do not bite. I mean these are merely insects. Things could have been worse. I could be working in a lab full of white rats or sting rays, getting bitten by them every now and then. I could be working in a lab full of snakes. I could be working with the chimps, the monkeys, crocodiles or whatever. These are just tiny harmless insects.
Like I said, this job isn’t related to what I study. But one of the best things about the US is that one can learn anything one wants to. One could be waiting tables, feeding insects, or working as a car mechanic on the side. Even when you are a student from a different department, you could do so many things. You could work in the library, feed worms, take poetry classes, learn graphics designing, learn or teach languages, and so on. The opportunities are endless. You acquire newer skills, make new contacts, and get to do something different, even if that means dealing with wriggling, crawling green creatures.
I am so glad I didn’t chicken out the day I went to see what the training was like. And if you get my point, go take a break off your hectic work life and learn something new. Not only does it teach you a lot, but it also acquaints you with things you could never think of.
Let me know the next time you learnt something which was totally unrelated to what you are doing now.