Entomologist Diana Terranova Is Hollywood's Go-To Female 'Bug Wrangler' [Exclusive Interview]

First Posted: Mar 10, 2015 01:33 PM EDT

It takes a special kind of woman to fiddle with bugs for a living but entomologist and Hollywood "bug wrangler" Diana Terranova has been handling insects lovingly since she was a child. 

To hear her talk about this unusual passion, she's working her dream job. In fact, Terranova says she's more comfortable around wildlife than she is humans.

As a child growing up in a military family, she was constantly adapting to new places and environments--making her home in places like San Francisco, Oregon, Los Angeles and even parts of Japan.

All that moving around made it difficult for her to make friends easily but somewhere along the way, she learned that bugs could fill a bit of the void. You don't need friends to explore, she recalls, emphasizing--for instance--her discovery in Japan of neon blue dragonflies the size of human fists and a separate occasion where she came upon thousands of monarch butterflies aligning whole groves of trees just before they took flight off the California coastline.

Science World Report caught up with Terranova--the self-professed lover of bugs--to talk about life in such an unusual career, her experiences working with her insect friends, and getting the actors comfortable with everything from tarantulas to Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

SWR: How did you originally get interested in bugs and what was your favorite bug?

TERRANOVA: I've always had a huge interest in science, and I liked to go to the Exploratorium and see things that you couldn't get at the regular Toys "R" Us. I was always interested in everything science - whether you could blow it up, or watch it crawl or breed it. I love all things science.

I'm the youngest in a family of horror movie loving weirdos. I saw my first Freddy Krueger film while I was still in pre-school, and my fascination with critters started when I realized that bugs had more shock value than slasher films.

I was a terror at school and I used to catch daddy long legs in the dusty corners of the classroom, put them on the teachers desk and giggle when they shrieked. At recess, I'd collect worms from the playground and then chase boys across the yard, brandishing the critters in my tiny fists.

On Sundays, my favorite activity was to catch banana slugs down by the creek and carry them in my plastic purse to church. I'd show it to a nicely dressed lady or two during the service. When they called it disgusting, I'd tell them they were mean for not loving all of God's creatures. 

Can you tell me more about your degree in engineering and your educational background in science? 

Growing up I was a musical theater-loving nerd who could solve math equations in my sleep. I won numerous awards and was a Dupont National Science Scholar but none of those awards nor a degree in Audio Engineering from MI honestly prepared me to work in the real world. Being on set, working with practical SFX and live animals is something they can't train you for in any class.

I believe every one of us in film and TV relies upon an amazing mentor. No college class shows you things like, "Ok it's 50 degrees outside at 9 pm and production has decided they want to do the flying butterfly shot now. How can we make this happen when butterflies only like to fly in sunlight in temperatures of 82 - 102 degrees?"

I have utilized my engineering degree on set though. Insects respond to vibrations in their substrate and environment to avoid predators. Using this premise, I've done many experiments using music of different frequencies to determine which gets the best reaction and movement from tarantulas, mantids and others. 

I read online that you're an animal handler. Does that go in line with working with bugs?

What's really funny is that there is a separate classification for bugs, so we fall under animal handlers. I'm actually a member of the local 399 which is the animal handlers union. It's also the Teamsters. So I'm actually a Teamster. And I pretty much handle all the insects. I handle the occasional rat or reptile that might be part of a crazy, creepy laboratory scene or horror scene. But 99 percent of the time, I'm working with tarantulas, butterflies and the ever popular maggot.

Has being an entomologist impacted your love life at all?

As far as dates go, it has interfered a bit with my personal life. But I tend to only date nerds I meet at Comic-Con conventions. Often my dates are guys that dressed as Darth Vader at Comic-Con or they're more concerned about, you know, Minecraft, Angry Birds, Harry Potter, Cosplay parties and other stuff than they are about normal social activities. So they're usually pretty cool with the fact that I have lots of bugs at my house.

How did you get the bugs in your house? Did you find them naturally?

Well, we have your fall types of bugs. I have my Praying mantis and my stick insect. And those live about a year. They're seasonal. They're usually born in the spring and pass away in the fall. So what we do is breed them off-season, so that we can have full-grown adults year round. We use a variety of heat-lamps and heat sources to trick the insects into thinking that it's spring when it's really fall.

Then, if a shoot calls for caterpillars, my boss, Steven Kutcher - who's the most famous entomologist going back 30 years - has a huge butterfly garden where he raises hundreds of caterpillars (Gulf fritillary and Monarch butterflies). And so we'll just go to the garden, get some caterpillars, and if they want a non-native species, we actually order those from across the country. If they want something non-native to be U.S., sometimes we order it from overseas - if it's possible to even bring it in.

We do have critters that live for years and years. The longest ones are my tarantulas. It's usually the female tarantulas that make it on TV because a female tarantula can live up to 20 years. And the boy tarantulas? Boys aren't so lucky. Boys don't grow as big and they only live about three years old. 

Flies only live a couple of weeks. Believe it or not, there are hatcheries that are hatching millions of flies, rickets, needle worms, wax worms, silk worms mainly for the pet industry; that'd be reptiles and other critters but would you ever think that such an industry existed in Hollywood? So that's where I'm going to go. I'm going to go to a reptile supplier.

How much does CGI technology come into play in a scene with the bugs?

The best example of this is on "Criminal Minds," season 10, episode 4, which is the current season. There's an episode called "The Itch," and it involves a crazy serial killer who believes bugs are crawling under his skin. Several different scenes call for him to cover his victims in live bugs. And so we work with the staff of "Criminal Minds." Steven Kutcher and I to figure out which type of bugs could pour on an actor in a large quantities and have them look really creepy for the camera. We wanted a bug that had a sizable girth to it so that even one would make a statement.

We settled on Madagascar hissing cockroaches. And we literally poured 2,000 live hissing cockroaches onto the actor over and over. They were on standby to do digital for it but decided that what we did looked so amazing that they actually didn't need to do any special effects.

On another episode of "Criminal Minds," a boy dreams about his dead girlfriend. And he keeps seeing her covered in Praying mantises. Logistically, we can only put about six or seven Praying mantises on the actor at any given time. And they wanted them to fly out of her mouth. Insects are not going to fly in a hoard out of an actor's mouth. And they're very large - we're talking a four- to five-inch insect. It's very hard to get even one into an actor's mouth. They have very sharp claws and they have a very sharp beak which is used to rip apart their prey. So that can be very very damaging to an actor, especially if we're putting them in the mouth.

We had the Praying mantis crawling on the actor. Then digital special effects made it look like hundreds upon thousands of Praying mantises were flying out of the actor's mouth. So that's an example where we do a combination.

I have a couple questions based off of that. Are there any sanitation or hygiene issues you have to worry about with bugs?

Oh my goodness--yes--most definitely. The first and most important thing is that we have to make sure the people we're working with do not have a cockroach allergy. That is a real thing. You can be allergic to cockroaches.

When working with bees, you have to make sure that the person's not anaphylactic to any stings or bites.

Also, believe it or not, a lot of people who are allergic to shellfish could actually have a reaction to insects. Sometimes they actually even take that into consideration when casting actprs. If they want an who can't do it, then they have to look into hiring a stunt double. That's the first concern: does the actor have any allergies?

Second, if we're going to be pouring tons of insects onto somebody, we always make sure they wear the proper undergarments. The insects are going to crawl inside the actor's wardrobe. They usually have on full underarmour under their costume. We also protect the face. 

And all of the insects that we're going to be using come from places that are raised on organic substrates. Maggots are not raised on dead fish. They're raised on a granola substrate.

It's not like I go to downtown LA to a garbage pile and just start collecting flies. I don't randomly just collect flies out of the air. You know, you could go tomorrow and you could put a vinegar trap in your backyard with an upside down soda bottle and you could collect a couple thousand flies in a couple weeks. But that is not safe. We never do something like that. Those flies could have been on poop. They could have been on all kinds of disgusting things. Just imagine the most disgusting thing you could find in a sewer in downtown LA. That's where that fly could have been. Because they fly for miles and miles a day. That is why we only use flies that were hand raised by professional breeders.

Before and after each shoot, I actually give each Madagascar hissing cockroach a bubble bath. If we're dealing with our tarantulas and whatnot, we make sure whatever surface they're being put on is free of paint and chemicals - including surfaces that have been painted to look wet or shiny - that could be toxic to the critters. Also, any painting that has been done on the set has to be done a couple of days prior to the insects arrival.

Can you talk a bit about bugs carrying disease? For instance, what's the deal with bed bugs?

You are your biggest defense against roaches and bed bugs infesting your home.

Hotels and restaurants get infested with bugs because people like you and me walk them right inside their front door! Bugs hitch a ride on our clothes, hair and even our luggage and purses. For example, if you ride the subway in New York, a roach could crawl into your bag when you put it on the ground. At your final destination - a nice Italian restaurant in Little Italy, for example - you put your bag down again and the roach crawls out.

Another time you could sit next to "that guy" on an airplane who stayed at a nasty bed bug infested dive off Fremont street in Las Vegas. He took a shower but threw his clothes on the floor where the bed bugs crawled on. Now on the airplane they are crawling off his shoulder and onto yours. You get home and take a quick nap without changing your clothes and then your bed is infested.

So what can you do to help stay bug free? A good piece of advice for traveling is never put your bags on the floor or on a bed. Keep your bags high up off the tile, metal or wood surface floors if possible.

Next, if you stay or visit a place that has an infestation of bugs - please - get out!

If you see bugs, demand a refund and leave ASAP. Is a travel discount really worth getting bit? Take all your clothes to the laundry and wash them immediately. If you have to wait until you get home, buy a box of plastic trash bags and wrap your luggage in them, cover your car seat in them. Throw all clothes, socks and even washable shoes into the washing machine. Finally, do not bring any suitcases or purses into your home without first wiping them down with apple cider vinegar or Windex. Do not be afraid to throw things out because throwing out one old suitcase could save you thousands of dollars on pest control in 3 months.

Be clean! That means moving your furniture and vacuuming under the mattress, around furniture legs and sucking up all those dust bunnies. When you vacuum regularly you are sucking up pests and any eggs they may have laid. Change your vacuum filters regularly.

Wipe down your couch cushions and other fabric items with diluted apple cider vinegar. Do this regularly and you will be able to spot the tiny brown and black dots of bug poop that signal a home invasion.

Get rid of your clutter! How many times have you been surprised by a bug crawling out of a dirty clothes pile in the bathroom or had one jump out and land on your head when you opened your food cabinet? Let's not even mention shower spiders.

Is there a way you get movie stars or actors comfortable with having bugs on them?

Believe it or not, the actors are just amazing people who are just taking chances every day. And, oddly enough, most of them are just like, "Yeah, let's do this." They're actually really excited to be doing something they've never ever ever done before.

Now, I will say that my most favorite actor to work with of late was Joe Mantegna. And I nicknamed him the tarantula whisperer. He was doing a scene with some fast moving tarantulas. These were Chilean, Red Dwarf tarantulas. And they're known for their ability to crawl very quickly. He had a gun in one hand and had to scoop the tarantulas, one-by-one, off the actress and put them into a box while he was saying his lines and keeping his gun trained on a suspect. It was pretty awesome. 

Are there a lot of other Live Insect Handlers in Hollywood?

Tons of people love working with Instagram favorites like fuzzy sloths and cuddly puppies so there are tons of Live Animal Handlers in Hollywood. Oddly enough, my boss (Steven Kutcher) is the only one who is an Entomologist specializing in live insects.

I mean, most people would rather work with a  fluffball like Grumpy Cat than hatch ten thousand stinking maggots into live flies. Does it ever get to be too much?

My job is something out of most people's nightmares. For example, on "Criminal Minds" I had to sort 7,000 live Madagascar hissing cockroaches by hand to be sure the 2,000 we used were boys and non-pregnant females. Could Hollywood be any more glamorous than sorting through the wet poop of thousands of roaches? Even the Count from Sesame Street would quit my job. One hissing roach.. Two hissing roaches... ah-ahhh-ahhhh.

What do you think causes our revulsion of bugs, particularly spiders?

Well today I just had to go to a meeting for a project with "Funny or Die," and I brought along a Chilean rose hair tarantula. They're very sweet and docile. I call them the teddy bears of the tarantula world. This tarantula is so sweet that three-year-olds have handled her when I've run educational events. You have never seen grown people jump across a room to get away faster. I might as well have yelled out earthquake.

Why is this? It's because there's this misnomer that spiders are scary. Because almost every single person out there has had a spider drop on them. And that's where that fear comes from. Because spiders. House spiders, usually, like Kukulcania, are very good at surprising us and freaking us out.

But spiders are our friends. Believe it or not, the average house spider eats about 2,000 insects every year - Misquotes, silver fish, flies and all the other things that are going to come crawling into your house.

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