Morning pears with a booklouse

A study in pear.

Advancing technology has indisputably sharpened the tools of scientific inquiry. The most powerful telescope can see 15 billion light years away, particle accelerators can drive a proton to the speed of light in a matter of hours, and the newest microscopes have a resolution that’s more than 20 million times that of human sight.

These incredibly precise instruments are extensions of human faculties: The computer extends our brain, microscopes and telescopes extend our eyes, lasers and accelerators extend our hands. In many cases, we don’t even have to physically observe anymore. Our machines observe for us, and they tell us what we would see if we could see that far, that close, that deep. Scientists connect the dots, draw conclusions, and fit these conclusions into our growing understanding of the world.

Although this rapid technological evolution has given the scientific process a face-lift, it’s still the same underneath. The scientific method (hypothesize, test, analyze, etc.) is the foundation, but, depending on the discipline and the experiment, many of the steps are now digitized.

As a science communicator, this can make my job difficult. It’s tricky to get the general public psyched about an excel file of experiment results.

Is this a bucket of pears or a microscopic ecosystem?

But one of my favorite things about working with the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab is that, although we do stare at computers most of the day, occasionally we get to see science happening. And that people bring snacks to the office. It’s really cool when those two things combine.

Here’s how it happened today:

It was a slow, rainy Friday morning in the Office of International Research, Education, Development. But someone (cough-me) brought in a giant bucket of wild pears for colleagues to munch on and take home. They’re pesticide-free, but, in order to preserve the integrity of the pears, I did not wash them.

Dr. Amer Fayad tracks the booklouse.

Naturally, IPM Director Muni Muniappan snags a pear and pops it, not into his mouth, but under his microscope. I don’t know how long he pored over the puckered surface of the fruit, but before I had finished eating my first one, he found what he was looking for: a tiny insect.

When Muni called me into his office, IPM Associate Director Amer Fayad was peering into a microscope crooning, “I don’t know what it is, but it is so cute!”

It was cute. Even after Muni informed us that it was a wingless psocid, or in laymen’s terms, a booklouse. On my pears. So embarrassing. Good thing it was so darn cute.

In a few minutes, most of us working in the IPM quad had crowded into the office. The insect was difficult to pin down, so to speak. It was too small to be seen by the naked eye, and it could move fast. Muni explained that it probably didn’t like the bright microscope light and was searching for shadows. I thought that perhaps it was a little camera shy. Finally Amer got it in focus, and we snapped a few pictures.

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This booklouse is smaller than the head of a pin and invisible to the naked eye.

Booklice, we learned, are not true lice. While they resemble lice in size and shape, they feed only on fungi or mold. In fact, Muni told us that this little guy was probably eating the fungi growing on the pear skin. If you find them in grain or other stored food products, it is an indication of high humidity, which encourages mold growth. They can also be found under wallpaper, in furniture, along the sides of windows or in — you guessed it — books!

The starchy paste of old books can support mold growth and booklice. But thankfully, outside of annoyance, their damage is insignificant.

And, yes, on fruit, they can be taken care of with a quick rinse in the faucet.

And, after all the lousy excitement, I went back to the kitchen and stuck a post-it note on the pears.

“Help me eat these pears! But, please, wash them first!”

Happy pear-season and have a great weekend!

Booklice information from:

Morning pears with a booklouse