Many a Bayou City resident lost something irreplaceable when Tropical Storm Allison took Houston by surprise in 2001, flooding the city. Nancy Greig, for instance, lost a hissing cockroach.
“My house flooded, and one of them got out, and I figured it was gone,” recalls Greig, who runs the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. She still remembers the joy she experienced when, a few months later, a contractor she’d hired uttered six magic words: My God, you have big cockroaches.
“He had sucked it up in his Shop-Vac!” she tells us, clearly still elated more than a decade later. Greig dug into the vacuum bag and there it was, her roach, dazed and covered in dust but still alive. She brought it back to the Butterfly Center. “The poor cockroach,” she says, ever sympathetic to the misunderstood insect.
Greig, a botanist and entomologist who specializes in the interaction between insects and plants, has been with the Butterfly Center since it was a “hard hat area,” which is to say almost 20 years. She’s also an adjunct professor at Rice. In her spare time, she enjoys doing pro bono PR work for the insect world.
This is in fact why Greig has come to the West Alabama Ice House, a place she hasn’t visited since her early days at the Center, although the patrons haven’t changed a bit, she says. “They’re not a pest,” Greig informs us, referring not to the patrons but hissing cockroaches, which are native to Africa. She takes a sip of Bohemia. “They’re not associated with humans; they eat detritus; they don’t have wings, so they can’t fly. You can smoosh them easily.”
We give her a little push-back. Roaches are indeed pests, we say, speaking of the local variant. That would be the American cockroach, about which Greig engages in a bit of spin, telling us that it too has a role to play.
So… she doesn’t kill them? “Sometimes I used to indicate it to my dog, and she would eat it or catch it,” she says. “Sometimes I catch it in a paper towel and take it outside.”
Seriously, she doesn’t kill them? “Once in a while, if I’m in a hurry, I’ll smash it. But I always feel guilty.”
It’s a difficult admission for a woman so devoted to the cause of saving bugs from the smoosh, an effort that requires equal parts education and rebranding. At the center, for instance, her goal is to teach the public not to see caterpillars as worms (and therefore squishable) but baby butterflies (un-squishable). “Our mission is to make people realize that insects are really cool, and take care of them and not squish them. I actually get kind of emotional about it.”
Is there any kind of bug Greig doesn’t like? “The Rasberry crazy ant is scary to me because we don’t have any control for it yet,” she says of the news-making creatures with a fondness for chomping electrical equipment. And fire ants, she adds, can be extremely destructive too.
But for every bug that deserves its bad reputation, there are hundreds of others who suffer by association.
“People are so prejudiced against insects, it’s terrible. Very few are bad … most are good, and some are so fantastic and beautiful.”