Science

This Scientist Is Letting an Insect Grow In Him as a Rite Of Passage

"It's kinda weird – you can feel it moving around, so I joke to my wife that 'it's kicking, it's kicking', like it's a baby inside of me."

by Mack Lamoureux
22 March 2019, 3:14pm

The back and the botfly. Photos via Phil Torres.

This article originally appeared on VICE CA.

For most people, a larva burrowing ever deeper into your back would not be a cause for celebration.

But most people aren’t entomologists (people who study bugs), and apparently some entomologists live for this shit. According to Phil Torres, a tropical biologist and entomologist, it’s a rite of passage for some of those who study bugs.

We’ll have to take his word for it—he’s the one letting a botfly (a parasitic fly that plants it’s young in the sweet, sweet meat of humans) slowly eat the inside of this back.

"I know some older entomologists that have done this exact same thing, and they used to tell me stories when I was an undergrad about the time they got a botfly and they waited to see how long they could last with it,” Torres told VICE. “It's kind of this rite of passage, you could say."

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Torres says he must have been bitten by a mosquito with a botfly in early March—just a few days before his 33rd birthday. It makes sense he got the little nightmare creature in his back, the man spends a good chunk of time in the rainforest. He's lived for two years in the Amazon where he was working in research and conservation—making a few big discoveries—and has worked on a ton of educational television shows, and routinely spends time in the rainforest. His current project is the YouTube channel The Jungle Diaries and he’s planning on making a video of his experience with the botfly for it.

After all that time in the forest, this is the first time he’s gotten a botfly—it’s quite rare, so don’t go cancelling your trip to the Amazon because of this story. And he is, for lack of a better term, stoked about it.

Once he realized it wasn’t “some strange pimple,” he excitedly tweeted about it and, as he puts it, received “many a tweet from fellow entomologists saying they're jealous.” He’s not lying, one tweeted a congratulations and asked if he’s “planning a baby shower.” Another replied “they’ve been trying to get one for years,” and yet another said “lucky!!!! I've been wanting one for over a decade now!”

I decided to call up Torres to ask what the heck is going on in the entomology community, what it’s like to have a small creature slowly eating your back, and whether he’s going to carry his little one to term.

VICE: So... to start, what’s a botfly?
Phil Torres: So a botfly is a pretty large-sized fly that has a really interesting natural history. We get a version in America that is equally gross—that type doesn't in general affect humans. In the tropics you get this species known as the human botfly, and working in the tropics, it's something that you see all the time if you're working with monkeys. Sometimes the monkeys will have these little volcano-like pustules on them, that's usually where they're encountered, but they're called the human botfly for a reason because it can get into humans.

So, now that we know a bit about a botfly, can you tell me about how you ended up with? I think the term you used was, the 'baby in your back?'
The botfly is interesting because the creature itself doesn't actually lay their eggs on people, the mother actually tackles a female mosquito and pins them and lays eggs on that mosquito. Now one of those mosquitos landed on my back and the heat from my skin triggered those eggs to hatch, and when they do that they land on my skin, a dozen or so, they crawl around to try and find an entry point. It looks like one of them did find that hole the mosquito bit.

So it digs in there and just starts to eat. So that's basically how I ended up with one. It's not really a secret that entomologists openly are looking for an opportunity to have a botfly in them. We almost see it as a badge of honour. In the new world tropics there are two: one is getting stung by a bullet ant and the other is getting a botfly. I got the bullet ant a few years ago. It's the most painful sting, so it hurt quite a bit and is an interesting experience—you get to learn about the nature you study on a very intimate basis you could say. I always wondered about getting a botfly though. I, of course, hoped I would get it on my arm, somewhere more convenient to look at, but this one is on my shoulder blade on my back, so it's tricky to look at, but I got a tripod and a camera so I've been documenting it.

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A human botfly larva (what is in Phil’s back.) Photo via Wikimedia commons.

I'm just hoping to stick with it as long as I can. I've heard that's easier said than done because it does get pretty painful and there are sometimes where the pain just ratchets up. It's probably two or three times a day where it just feels like you're getting a bee sting in your back. That'll last about a minute. It's kinda weird, you can feel it moving around so I joke to my wife that 'it's kicking, it's kicking,' like it's a baby inside of me.

Oh my god.
Yeah! It moves! If you look at the photos of the larvae it has all these backwards facing spines. So that's the trouble, you can't pull it out because they dig in those spines. So as they move around the spines kinda push into your nerves and doing all these things. It's kinda painful at times.

So I'm not going to say I fully understand this, but it's kinda like a badge of honour? Like if you go for a really crazy cabin weekend and come back with a tattoo or something?
Exactly! It's just one of those things. Like entomologists who spend a lot of time in the tropics eventually get one. So if somebody has a botfly, you just look at them and you're like 'respect.' That means they've spent enough years down there, and have done enough wild things that eventually they were in a crazy enough area that they got a botfly. It's almost unheard of to get it on your first trip down. It's possible, but generally you got to put in the time to randomly get that mosquito that randomly has eggs on it to bite you and those larvae to make their way in.

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It's disgusting, but a deep primal part of me understands it.
I know, right? My wife gives me a hard time of me because literally every time I talk about it I have this grin, I just can't help it. I'm just excited! It's a really interesting experience that I get to go through about the animals I study. It's cool that I have this thing from the tropics living in my back walking around Brooklyn.

Ideally I'm going to grow it til it eventually pops out. So usually around four or five weeks it's matured enough as a larva that it needs to pupate—like a butterfly needs a chrysalis. They don't do that inside you. What they do is they climb there way out and they dig their way into the ground pupate there. It'll be pretty painful when it's climbing its way out so I'll know it's happening and ideally I can catch it, stick it in some dirt and then wait for my baby to grow into an adult.

Have you had insects before? And if so, do you think this one you'll have more of a connection to it? Like, are you going to look at it and be like 'that came from me?'
Yeah, oh for sure. I've raised bugs since I was a kid, beetles, butterflies. I had a pet tarantula, all those things. This one is different though. I was talking to a woman who is pregnant and I got her to agree I was experiencing 0.1% of the feeling what is having a child—that might be on the high end—but I told her 'listen, I feel it kicking sometimes, it reacts to different activities I'm doing, it's made literally of my flesh and blood and she said, 'Ok, I'll give you that tiny percent.' I think it's arguable that I get that much credit but still it's the only time that as a man I'll get to experience giving some sort of birth.

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Are there any negative side effects that could come from this or is it just pain?
Pain is the biggest thing. There has been rare cases where it can turn into a worse infection. I guess people say they have trouble sleeping, so it may become kind of a psychological challenge as much of a pain challenge if I'm not able to sleep or if it's constantly bugging me. I'm being smart about it. If it looks like it's getting infected or it's getting worse, I'll go to a dermatologist down the street and see if they'd be willing to surgically get it out.

There are a lot of bush remedies that people have done over time. So some people will talk about blowing cigarette smoke on it because nicotine is an insecticide essentially so they say that will make it try to crawl out. Some people cover it with vaseline or duct tape for 24 hours before removing it, and the thing will stick it's back end out with these spherical it breaths from. So when it sticks those out you can grab it and try to remove it. There are some remedies that people talk about that I don't recommend like putting meat on your back. The idea being it ends up crawling through meat but I've heard of people getting really bad staph infections from putting raw meat on their open wounds.

Most likely I'm just going to let it go and if it gets to painful I'm going to go to a doctor and get it removed the right way. But ideally, four weeks from now I'll have a little botfly pupa in my home and the pain will be over.

Do you think botflies are misunderstood? Because most people are going to look at it and say 'kill it with fire.' What's your take on the botfly?
I see it as being a really fascinating animal, it has a really interesting natural history. The fact it doesn't lay an egg on you but it tackles a mosquito and then the heat from your skin triggers it to hatch, it's fascinating. I just think it's really cool and that's kinda why I'm going to let it stick around and make a little video about it because I want people to hear its story.

It's not like this thing is going to go for a ride through my body and end up in my brain like some other parasites can do. This thing is just staying in place, when it needs to take a breath, it just sticks its little spherical out. Like say when I'm taking a shower and water goes over the hole, it can't breath right? So that's when I'll feel a little more pain because it's sticking its back end, it's breathing sphericals, to take a breath.

It's this cool little animal living inside me... it's my little one.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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