Gary Alpert spends a lot of time bringing ants to Harvard. He travels the world to exotic locations, collecting specimens in efforts that draw praise from eminent ant biologist Edward O. Wilson.
On the other hand, Alpert also was the guy who got rid of ants at the University in the early 1980s, eliminating pest ants through the use of a new hormone strategy.
In the years since, Alpert has lived two lives. By day, he is an environmental biologist, specializing in both pest control and compliance with government wastewater standards for Harvard’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety. He handles pest outbreaks, tackling everything from ants to bedbugs to rabid animals, and ensures that Harvard’s wastewater is within allowable limits for certain compounds.
Alpert notes that he has minimized the use of chemical spraying at Harvard to just those cases where health and safety are threatened. He is a proponent of integrated pest management, which entails understanding pests and eliminating the things that attract them.
“We bait for ants, we bait for cockroaches, we eliminate food sources. We’re not in the killing business. We’re in the excluding business,” Alpert said.
When he’s not working his day job, Alpert is working on ants. Wilson called him “an extraordinary scientist” and an “authentic explorer-naturalist” who has journeyed far in search of specimens to enrich Harvard’s already notable ant collection. Wilson and Alpert traveled together a couple of years ago to the mountains of the Dominican Republic to collect ants, getting their car stuck in the mud and having to get it pushed out by a nearby garrison of soldiers.
Alpert has traveled to Nepal, Madagascar, the Philippines, and Cambodia, among other countries, and he plans a floating trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in the spring with the National Park Service and area Indian tribes to collect ants. A Navajo medicine man has blessed him in advance of the trip.
He has cataloged ants as well, and has developed an imaging system that is being used to show clearly the University’s collection of key ant specimens. He also occasionally is a private entomology consultant, and has worked at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and at U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground.
“I love travel,” Alpert said.
Alpert received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Washington State University in 1969 but had a change of heart during graduate study and laboratory work afterward. He received a master’s degree in entomology from Washington State in 1972 and a doctorate in biology from Harvard in 1981.
“I discovered this whole new world of the outdoors where I could stop worrying about theories of personalities and deal with hard facts instead,” Alpert said. “Once I switched, I never looked back.”
Curatorial Assistant Stefan Cover, who works in the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s Entomology Department and who has known Alpert for years, jokingly compared Alpert’s two lives to those of the famous literary character Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
“There’s Dr. Alpert and Mr. Gary,” Cover said, describing “Mr. Gary” as “this [wild] field biologist who would like nothing better than to be plunked down in the middle of nowhere and collect ants.”