Feeling bugged? Gnat a problem

In a plot right out of “The Little Shop of Horrors,” an IUPUC lecturer is making a serious dent in the gnat and fruit fly population on campus.

When Barbara Hass-Jacobus heard that IUPUC faculty and staff members were being annoyed by those insects, she decided to help by offering offices a chance to have every gnat and fruit fly’s worst nightmare — insect-eating plants.

Campus employees may obtain cape sundew plants from IUPUC’s Division of Science and let these bug-eaters go to work.

Hass-Jacobus, who is the biology program coordinator and lecturer for the division, started the effort by sending out an email to about 100 IUPUC faculty and staff with the offer of bug-eating plants, which has been popular so far all over campus.

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Cape sundew plants are native to the Cape of South Africa, part of a group of predatory flowering plants that kill to get nutrition into their bodies, according to the International Carnivorous Plant Society website. The cape sundews that are loaned out stay around 5 to 7 inches tall and wide at maturity eat small bugs such as gnats, fruit flies and other insects of similar sizes and tend to attract insects that like sugar, Hass-Jacobus said.

Hass-Jacobus said she became interested in carnivorous plants when learning about them in grade school. She added that her interest grew in college once she learned about their biology and the ecology of the bogs in which many of the species tend to be found.

All of the carnivorous plants found at IUPUC with the exception of one are kept in a terrarium. A few plants were gifts from a colleague at Purdue University, while the majority of them were ordered online, Hass-Jacobus said.

The leaves on sundew plants are covered with stalked glands known as tentacles that produce a tiny drop of a sticky clear and glue-like substance that traps insects when they land on the leaves. The plant then rolls the insect into its leaves while digesting it.

Julie David, admissions and advising coordinator with IUPUC’s Division of Business, said before the cape sundew plants arrived, she was often swatting the air to keep gnats away when meeting with students in her office.

The plant has been effective in resolving her issue with gnats, David said.

Becca Prater, senior administrative assistant in the Division of Nursing, also said the department benefited by having a cape sundew plant to deal with gnats after the head of the nursing division, Beth Sharer, suggested getting one.

Prater said she had never seen such a plant before and went on YouTube to see how the plants work. She said she wasn’t hesitant about having a plant that eats bugs in her office, adding that the department hasn’t had anymore issues with bugs.

“It seemed to work,” Prater said.

Offering the plants has allowed Hass-Jacobus to educate her coworkers about how to care for the plants.

Cape sundew plants require distilled water and a grow light or a bright humid windowsill in order to stay healthy, Hass-Jacobus said.

There is no cost for individuals who are interested in obtaining a plant, which is typically kept for a week or until issues with insects are resolved, she said. However, she does have one request for people who want one of the plants temporarily in their office.

“You have to agree to learn about biology and tell two or three other people about the plant,” she said.

Hass-Jacobus said the plants have also sparked some curiosity that leads to more questions and a greater understanding of plant biology.

Some IUPUC staff have said they might want to try growing the plants at their own homes after using the plants on campus.

However, Hass-Jacobus warns that while a cape sundew plant can get rid of a few bugs, they aren’t really the “magic answer” to large, chronic infestations.

“If you have an infestation of insects, especially one that’s chronic, it’s important to track down and eliminate the source of the infestation,” she said. “The plants are just treating the symptom by catching a few adults, not curing the problem by eliminating eggs, larvae or larger numbers of adults.”

When the plants are loaned out, Hass-Jacobus said her colleagues return them to the terrarium after about a week, which allows the plants to return to their optimum growing conditions before the plant’s health is affected to any great extent by a lack of light or low humidity.

Still, Hass-Jacobus hopes to expand her effort beyond carnivorous plants so individuals can learn about different types of plants that they may want to try growing at home.

“I would like to see the program expand beyond the immediate issue of trying to rid their offices of a couple of annoying gnats and allow people to rent other species of plants in order to experience the diversity of these magnificent plants and to bring a bit of nature into their work environment,” she said.

She also said plants can help with the overall working atmosphere, noting that research shows that experiencing nature and bringing aspects of nature such as plants into the work environment can reduce stress. She added that many species of plants are good at improving air quality in buildings as well.

Hass-Jacobus also hopes to provide more education on a much larger scale to the community in the future.

“Especially if I can get a greenhouse, I’d love to expand outreach programs to the community to better educate people about these and other types of plants, perhaps in partnership with organizations such as Bartholomew County extension and the schools,” she said.

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Members of the public can purchase carnivorous and non-carnivorous plants by visiting the California Carnivores website at californiacarnivores.com.

Books on carnivorous plants and how to care for them include:

  • “The Savage Garden” by Peter D’Amato
  • “Growing Carnivorous Plants” by Barry Rice