Berkeley’s first African American entomologist retires

vernard lewis and his termite vila

Vernard Lewis, an urban entomologist whose work has had a lasting impact on insect pests around the world, has retired. UC Berkeley’s first African American entomologist, Lewis published about 150 papers and delivered more than 700 presentations on termites, bed bugs and cockroaches during his 35-year-career. Yet Lewis is probably best known for the termite-infested house he built in the name of research.

In the early 1990s, Lewis needed a place to test drywood termite detection and control methods, and the College of Natural Resources wasn’t keen on setting the destructive pests loose anywhere near UC Berkeley’s historic buildings. So he looked north, to the UC Richmond Field Station, and in 1993 constructed Villa Termiti, a 400-square-foot, wooden structure that over the years has been fumigated, X-rayed and even featured on the cover of Popular Mechanics. Villa Termiti has since hosted ants, subterranean termites, wood-boring beetles and bed bugs for subsequent research projects. 

While Lewis’s work has focused on California, his career has had a lasting impact around the world. In 2000, the United Nations selected him as the leader and founding member of its Global Termite Expert Group. He chaired the 20-member group, which presented lower-risk alternatives than the toxic insecticide DDT for termite management, and negotiated with pest control professionals in different countries to change their practices. 

“We couldn’t stop the use of DDT on mosquitoes, but we can stop its use on termites,” Lewis said. “That was one of the most rewarding projects,” he added, noting that China significantly reduced its use of the insecticide.

An advocate for diversity, Lewis is one of 20 entomologists featured in the book Memoirs of Black Entomologists, published by the Entomological Society of America in 2015 to encourage black students to pursue careers in the life sciences and providing practical advice on how to become successful in science. Of ESA’s 7,000 members, only about 100 are African or African American.

In 2016, Vernard Lewis was inducted into the Pest Management Professionals’ Hall of Fame.

Read the full story at the UC Agriculture & Natural Resources website.