Published on 12/18/14

UGA entomologist's pioneering work with “invisible bugs” wins her national recognition

By Merritt Melancon

University of Georgia entomologist Nancy Hinkle has built a career as a well-respected veterinary entomologist, but it’s her work with invisible insects that gained her notoriety outside academia.

This fall the Entomological Society of America presented Hinkle with its 2014 Recognition Award in Urban Entomology for her work studying insects that are considered pests in the human environment — including pests that are sometimes imagined.

“It is always gratifying to be recognized by one’s peers,” said Hinkle, who won the society’s regional Recognition Award for Urban Entomology in spring 2014. “My advantage is working on pests everyone dislikes — fleas, ticks, lice, mites, spiders and such.”

Hinkle, who works in the Department of Entomology in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environemntal Sciences, traveled to the society’s national conference in Portland this November to receive her award.

Hinkle, who has worked as a medical-veterinary entomologist at UGA since 2001, primarily works with insect pests that affect the poultry industry. Over her career she also has researched various insects that affect humans — from fleas to head lice to mosquitoes.

“Dr. Hinkle’s primary responsibility is working with the poultry industry and with veterinary or medical entomology (research), but in this work she encounters a number of problems that affect our urban clientele,” said Wayne Gardner, a fellow UGA professor of entomology with the college.

“Even though it’s not her primary responsibility, Dr. Hinkle works to address each of those problems brought to her, and she addresses them quite effectively,” continued Gardner, who nominated Hinkle for the award.

Because of her interest in blood-sucking insects, Hinkle has become one of the nation’s leading experts on delusional parasitosis, a psychological condition in which the individual believes himself to be infested with insects despite the fact that there is no evidence of infestation.

Her interest in the subject started in the 1980s when her doctoral advisor at the University of Florida — flea researcher Philip Koehler — received a sample he did not have time to identify. He handed it off to Hinkle, who spent hours trying to identify the insect only to realize later that there was nothing in the sample to identify.

With funding from the Florida Entomological Society, Hinkle found that it wasn’t uncommon for pest control operators and labs to be asked to solve imaginary pest infestations.

As an Extension entomologist, she often received — and still receives — calls from worried individuals who believe they are infested with an unknown skin parasite. This condition is sometimes found in people with no other signs of mental illness or substance abuse.

She summarized her experience with “invisible bugs” in the 2010 Annual Review of Entomology article, “Ekbom Syndrome: The Challenge of ‘Invisible Bug’ Infestations.” In 2011, Current Psychiatry Reports included her article, “Ekbom Syndrome: A Delusional Condition of ‘Bugs in the Skin’,” to help mental health professionals understand the condition.

“She’s kind of a focal point for professionals who work with people affected by this condition,” Gardner said. “She broke it down and talked about the different issues that can cause it.”

In addition to her work with human and animal ectoparasites and delusory ectoparasites, Hinkle maps the geographic range of brown recluse spiders in Georgia and illustrates how rare the feared spiders are in the state.

Hinkle is currently working on control methods for avian mites, pest flies and darkling beetles that carry salmonella and can transmit the bacteria among poultry flocks. In 2012, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Livestock Insect Workers Conference for her work with poultry and cattle parasites and pests.

Since her interests span the worlds of veterinary, agricultural and urban pest problems, Hinkle frequently addresses pest management conferences around the country. She has made more than 300 presentations to pest control groups, including 22 state associations, the National Conference on Urban Entomology, the Purdue Pest Management Conference and the National Pest Management Association.

Hinkle received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in medical entomology from Auburn University and a doctorate from the University of Florida. She taught at the University of California, Riverside, for nine years before joining the UGA Department of Entomology.

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