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Bugging out with Catherine Giles at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

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Kristy Locklin | For the Tribune-Review
Catherine Giles displays some Death Head Hawk moths made famous in “The Silence of the Lambs,” part of which was filmed at the Carnegie Museum.
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Kristy Locklin | For the Tribune-Review
Manticora beetles are just some of the 13.5 million specimens at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
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Kristy Locklin | For the Tribune-Review
Catherine Giles, curatorial assistant for Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Invertebrate Zoology Department, helps organize 30,000 specimen drawers.

While in Honduras in 2017, Catherine Giles spotted an enormous Black Witch Moth and started to cry.

But her tears weren’t caused by fear or repulsion, but pure love. The 27-year-old is a self-confessed “crazy bug lady.”

“I’m into spiders and scorpions, too,” she says. “Ticks are cool as long as they don’t have Lyme.”

Giles is curatorial assistant of Invertebrate Zoology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the perfect job for an obsessive-compulsive entomophile.

As the department’s first full-time hire in 16 years, she’s responsible for cataloging more than 13.5 million specimens, some dating to the late 1800s. She gets help from a small army of volunteers who pin and label everything from tiny fleas to enormous dragonflies.

Students and scientists reference the museum’s collection – the fifth largest in the world – as well as the its extensive library, in their research.

Some of the insects, myriapods, arachnids and crustacea are displayed throughout the museum, including the “butterfly wall” in the grand staircase, but most are tucked away behind the scenes in 30,000 drawers.

Recently, each unit had to be moved into a walk-in freezer and stored for two days to thwart the advances of the invasive dermestid beetle. Cold temperatures kill the hungry little buggers. They feed on organic matter and can decimate a collection like starving gluttons at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The project took 18 months to complete and will be repeated in 2021 as a precautionary measure.

A native of Washington, Pa., Giles spent her childhood digging up worms and grubs in the garden. She presented the creepy crawlies to her appreciative, yet grossed-out, grandma.

The pair raised mail-order caterpillars, watching them grow into beautiful Painted Lady Butterflies. They named each one before letting them go.

Giles studied environmental science at Chatham University, taught schoolchildren about wildlife conservation on a mountain in Honduras and eventually landed an internship at the museum.

During that time, she learned a lot from former curator John Rawlins.

Two characters in the 1992 blockbuster “The Silence of the Lambs” – parts of which were filmed at the museum – are loosely based on Rawlins and soon-to-retire collection manager Bob Davidson.

In the film, Clarice Starling (the FBI agent played by Jodi Foster) observes the pair playing chess using real beetles. She solicits their help in identifying a cocoon gathered as evidence in a murder. The clue turns out to be the Death’s Head Hawk Moth.

Giles gleefully pulls a drawer full of the infamous creatures from an antique cabinet in the museum’s Holland Room, and gazes at them like old friends.

They’re a draw for pop culture fans.

Educating a squeamish public about invertebrates is important to her, which is why she blogs about her experiences on the museum’s website (go to “bugs” at carnegiemnh.org/blog).

She’s the first person in three decades to touch the museum’s arachnid collection. About 930 of the 2,100 specimens are now in the database.

Her friends and family members are slowly warming up to arachnids, thanks to Giles’ pro-spider stance.

“Name the spider in your house and learn to respect it,” she says. “They will kill the mosquitoes that could give you malaria. They’ll kill the fleas on your pet. They’ll get to the bugs before the bugs get to you. They’re your roommates. They just don’t pay rent.”

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