Letting go is suicide

As I was sorting through some pictures for a lecture I’m giving (brownfield ecology, no lice there), I came across several close-ups of head lice I’d taken when we had an infestation some years ago. The nymphs were really too tiny, even for a macro lens, so I’d kept an adult alive in a small glass tube. A twist of damp tissue prevented it drying out, and I kept it in my trouser pocket to keep it safe and warm.

Plonking it down onto a piece of art paper made the right background in terms of colour balance, but the louse was lost against the flatness and struggled to move. It did not look right. Then I remembered the clippings from the kids’ haircuts a few days earlier. We’d thrown them out into the garden. I don’t know, something to do with improving the tilth of the soil maybe. Anyway, the cuttings were still there and I rescued some sprigs, scattered them on the paper and released the louse.

The louse was very nimble on its claws.

It was remarkably active, considering it had not eaten for several hours; but I put this down to the fact that I had been keeping it in safe and humane conditions. It shot off across the strands at top speed. From memory, I’m guessing it moved at about 2 cm/sec. This was enough to make it quite interesting trying to get the thing in focus as I chased it back and forth across the jumbled strands. It also reminded me why head lice are so difficult to spot on a cursory examination of the dry scalp, and how easily they can scramble over from one victim to another.

What I had in my favour, though, was the fact that the head louse never once let go of the hairs. It ran backwards and forwards, up and down, left and right, exploring every inch of its manufactured backdrop, but it had nowhere else to go; it was trapped. Because, of course, for a louse, letting go is suicide.

Head lice are tiny compared to humans, they are perhaps one hundred millionth the size of their host. If they let go for an instant, they will get injured, or they will get lost. Either way, they will be dead. Head lice do not wander off across the pillow looking for another head to invade, nor do they sit on chair backs, or shoulders, hoping for another hairy human to stroll past so that they can scramble aboard. Within minutes they will start to cool down, and dehydrate. Their body movements will slow, their internal metabolism will start to fail and all the complex physiological workings of their bodies will start to corrupt. After a couple of hours away from its warm moist scalp home, the louse is beyond recovery; its legs may still twitch, but they are its last desperate gropings. No, if a louse lets go, it is as good as dead.

How to write a book about nits

Some while back I was interviewed for a magazine article. You know the sort of thing…strange man, studies insects, weird huh! Actually, it was a brilliant article, witty, subtle and kind. And, guess what, it was written by my arch-partner in nit crime, that Justine Crow. [It’s here, by the way, if you’re inclined, pages 16–18.]

In it, Justine asked how I study insects, expecting some state-of-the-art high-tech CSI-style equipment maybe; instead she found the answer pleasingly Victorian — basically, it’s just me and a big net. Don’t be surprised, therefore, to find that this is also our approach to writing a book.

We specifically had the kitchen floor done to cope with spread sheets.

Despite the prevalence of desktop publishing, email, spreadsheets and the supposedly paperless office, when writing a complicated book you just can’t beat the spread-it-out-on-the-floor technique. So this was us, just over a month ago, getting the pages in order.

They’ve been tweaked a tiny bit since then, but this was the decisive editing point that dictated the layout, the flow and, indeed, the overall style of the book. No on-screen cutting and pasting, no excel charts, no algorithmic jiggery-pokery; just jostling, shuffling and paper-pushing. Less is more.

Knit a Nit

Knits. By Kirsty Gordon

To me knitting is alchemy – coloured twine bewitched by clicking sticks into miraculous garments, blankets and toys. My mother was a fine knitter, my crusty sister Lummo knits too (albeit always from the same wool in a hedgerow brown that she bought as a job lot), as do the women in my partner’s family. In fact, the Arran cardi the mother-in-law made me actually stopped the traffic as I crossed the road on foot when one driver hung out of the window to ask me where it came from. But me? I just never got the hang of it.

But I’m genius at nit-checking. I don’t have talent for much – apart from drinking too much, completing 30 lengths frontcrawl without stopping and poaching an egg perfectly – but I can sweep a head of lice in, well, a trice. The secret is not to trust your eyes. Which is just as well in my case because after 40 something years with 20/20 vision, my near sight has crumbled. I told the amused, though slightly wincing optician that I could tell something was wrong when I had to hold my son’s head under a spotlight at arm’s length to see what I was doing with the nit comb and tissues.

The thing is, if you rely on the evidence of your eyes alone, it is unlikely that you will spot any nits (empty eggs that is) until the head in question has got a head full. And as for seeing a live louse? Well, they move darned quick, are fiendishly camouflaged and they have no intention of being caught. Which is exactly why they are so successful. The only times I have  clearly identified live lice roaming on a scalp was when I worked in a nursery and one or two children from ‘chaotic homes’ had serious infestations and I was picking the things off with my fingers.

And as for freshly laid eggs, well they too blend in very well and are usually quietly deposited and glued onto the hair shaft very close to the scalp thereby increasing their invisibility.

As far as I’m concerned, the secret to population control is regular combing, whether or not the beloved bonce in question shows any sign of habitation or not. And combing close to the skull, right at the follicle. And remember, scratching is not a reliable indicator, especially as kids quickly learn not to do it if it means a cross mum and a lengthy session covered in chemicals and conditioner in front of Antiques Roadshow.

So, comb weekly and don’t just leave it to the odd fish through your offspring’s hair at the bus stop during an idle moment to check what is going on in there. A quick sweep once a week should quickly keep the critters in check. Meanwhile, a little light diversion technique might be in order. So, how about getting them to knit their own nit while you comb? (technically, a cuddly louse). They could knit a head full!

With thanks to my dear chum, clever Kirsty Gordon, who showed me how it can be done….

Not available in all toy shops

All those Star Wars Lego sets came in real handy after all

We are a Lego-enthusiast household and the brick box, already full to bursting, has just received a new injection of Christmas model sets. After the success of the spawn-of-the-Devil-maggot-child baby Jesus, three wise arms dealers and Bethlehem’s famous zombie carol singers, a Lego head louse seemed the obvious choice for a father/6-year-old bonding session.

And I have to say, I’m thrilled with the results. There is a certain pleasing anatomical correctness in its proportions, although perhaps the antennae could do with being a fraction longer. I particularly like the contrasting sclerotization of the thoracic and abdominal segments, and the translucent body showing the meandering blood-filled intestinal tract.

Oh, and it’s a female, you can tell by the prehensile nit-glue-manipulating gonopods at her tail end.

Next up…? A cat flea? Or a bed-bug maybe.

A new skill-set for the advanced nit-picker

How things have changed, or not

Researching various old texts for Little Book of Nits has thrown up some though-provoking comments from yesteryear.

1806: “It is affirmed by Leewenhoek that the male is furnished at the extremity of the abdomen with a sting; and that it is this instrument which causes the chief irritation suffered from these animals; the suction of the proboscis hardly seeming to have caused any perceptible pain on the skin on his hand.” Still, today, people confuse biting and stinging.

1806: “…there can be little doubt but that such cases, wherever they occur would be effectively removed by a proper application of mercury sublimate. Also called corrosive sublimate, mercuric chloride is thankfully no longer available for medical treatment, but people still think nothing of slapping poison on their own (and their children’s) heads.

1842: “The Head Louse is not like its congeners the companion of disease, or at least, ill health, produced from some temporary accident. On the contrary…it is well known, [the head louse] is common upon the most healthy children, as well as upon adults at particular periods, whose habits are not the least uncleanly.” It really is about time we bashed the squeamish idea of dirt and disease on the head.

1939: “Acetic acid or vinegar is still popular, owing to the belief that it loosens the cement attaching the egg to the hair. It has been known for years that this is not so, and that even after several days exposure…the cement is not dissolved.” In fact it has been known for over 100 years now that vinegar has no effect on nits. But it is still popularly touted as a solution.

1954 (after discussion of available insecticides): “DDT and BHC [benzene hexachloride] are slightly poisonous and, of course, should not be left in unlabelled jars or packets in the kitchen, where they might be mistaken for baking powder.” I suspect there is someone, somewhere in the world, promoting baking powder as a cure for head lice.

1954 (in the heady days of nylon and rayon appreciation): “No confidence should be placed in fabrics said to repel lice.” In fact, no confidence should be placed in anything said to repel lice.

The louse decides

Head-louse engraving (1842)

I recently came across a curious louse-related anecdote. It seems that in the “Middle Ages”, the election of the local burgomaster in Hurdenburg, Sweden, was governed by the wanderings of a louse. Candidates for this mayor-type position sat down and rested their beards on a table. A louse was released into the centre of the table and the owner of the beard first honoured by the louse’s occupancy, was elected.

But I’m left wondering about this. It all seems just a little odd (and for an entomologist to say this, it really must be VERY ODD INDEED). My main concern is that this ‘fact’ arose from a second-hand report in a book published in 1865. It has been parroted, almost word-for-word, ever since. With the ease of cutting and pasting on the internet, it has spread to such an extent that this is now the only fact known about the town or city of Hurdenburg.

I don’t even know where Hurdenburg is. It does not exist on modern maps, and none of the numerous louse-led internet or book articles offer any explanation. It may be Hedberg,in the Arvidsjaur Kommun, near Norrbottens. Wherever, it’s too similar-sounding to headberg, surely. Or maybe that’s how the place got its name!?

And what could possibly be the rationale behind such a bizarre protocol? Was the elder with the longest beard (probably the oldest person there) reasoned to have the greatest experience and lore? Did he keep the louse during his stint in office?

I can see there is still a lot more research to do before I can accept this ridiculous piece of history.