Chemistry picture of the week: Buggy research


When I talk about bugs in my research, I wish I was talking about software or something. No, the problem we are currently experiencing in my lab is more literal than that.

A couple of weeks ago, I and coworkers in the same section of the lab noticed these black particulates accumulating on our lab bench. We shrugged it off for a week or so, but it soon became a real annoyance. Having to brush little black things off of your precious clean vials, or, worse, having to pick them out from a product you filtered the day before can be, if not detrimental, then irritating at the very least. We observed that the black things were confined to below the large air conditioning vent above our lab benches. We notified the building manager about it. He expressed concern over the situation, saying that it could mean that there is something wrong with the air conditioning. He would have someone look at it.

I turn up to work on the next day, having missed the air conditioning technician who came by earlier that morning. A coworker accosts me: “Hey, have you looked at those black things? Like… really looked at them?” His tone is mischievous and ominous and I’m really not a fan of it. The air conditioning technician had identified the black stuff as thrips — tiny insects that are killed in the air conditioning system but are too small for the filters. As a consequence, our work benches were being rained on by tiny dead insects. I don’t think I really need to qualify that declaration with a record of my reaction. I think that statement — “rain of dead insects” — is graphic enough on its own.

I have to give it to my university: they were very prompt at identifying the issue. The building manager even followed up with the information that Campus Services has agreed to upgrade the filters to stop it.

We are still dealing with the rain of dead bugs, but hopefully not for long — especially since we have recently spotted a few live ones crawling around. And I swear… They’re getting bigger.

You can reach me in the comments, by e-mail on or on Twitter, where I tweet about daily science happenings as @Lady_Beaker.


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