Chicago’s Bug Girl: Janelle Iaccino wants to enlighten the city on the greatness of the creepy, crawly things

When you think of the acronym STEM, you likely know it stands for science, technology, engineering and math. But does it make you think about bugs, rodentia and taxidermy? Janelle Iaccino thinks it should.

Iaccino is marketing director of Rose Pest Solutions, a structural pest control company that ensures nature and the environment stay outside of homes and businesses. The family owned, Northfield-based business has been in operation for hundreds of years and has 13 locations in Illinois and Indiana.

As a spokeswoman for the company in Chicago, Iaccino leads a team of women called the Bug Girls, who use their expertise and knowledge about bugs and rats to inform and educate the next generation of researchers and scientists.

“I’m usually the Bug Girl, but I also am called the Rat Lady from time to time, which is not as endearing,” said Iaccino, a 19-year employee of the company. “I’ve really made it a mission to bring people into that world.”

On a recent March afternoon, she entered the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum carrying a bag full of Madagascar hissing cockroaches — complete with a pineapple-shaped house, like in the show “Spongebob Squarepants” — along with giant African millipedes that are like worms with shells, and a plush cicada to show how it emerges colorful after it sheds its brown shell.

She tells people about an impending bedbug infestation that is looming as more people are now traveling and about a new species of mosquito that bites in the daytime. She informs folks about what subterranean termites look like and how they should not be confused with maggots.

The native Chicagoan also wears a colorful pair of cicada earrings. Iaccino is also an artist who paints; a musician who plays multiple instruments, including jazz flute; a producer; a proprietor of her own apothecary shop; and a nature lover.

Her blog encourages folks to “embrace your weird.” As a 2023 National Pest Management Association award winner for Women in Pest Management and a 2018 Drummer Silty Clay Loam Education winner, an award given to stellar volunteers at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Iaccino does that daily.

When she’s not helping inform people about public health and pests, she’s on a mission to encourage young girls to pursue careers in science.

“I’m bopping all over Chicagoland, up to Milwaukee, down through Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky (with Franklin Pest Solutions),” she said. “I work a lot with the Girl Scouts. I’ve developed some STEM programs with them over the last couple of years. I was a former Girl Scout and as a kid, what opened my mind to things that I didn’t learn in school, that my parents didn’t teach me? It was Scouts. That’s how I became so interested in visual arts. We went on hikes, nature adventures all the time.”

Iaccino coordinates at least two Spark Day programs with Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana per year, events that offer the scouts hands-on activities and exposure to industry professionals to gain skills and knowledge about career spaces they didn’t know about. The next one will be held June 8. She said female professionals will be on hand from different avenues of environmental science, such as wildlife rehabilitators, entomologists, public health experts and park rangers.

“We set up stations and the girls can be hands-on, face-to-face with these female leaders, which is so empowering for them to see,” Iaccino said. “In these industries, it’s so male dominant. That was what forced me to start reaching out to every Girl Scout troop leader I knew. It’s so rewarding when 50 girls come away from that experience, and they remember so many details. … You’re excited to see what they’ll do when they’re older.”

Iaccino’s varied interests also include taxidermy. Because she works with a team that controls the rat population, she often brings the deceased specimens to the museum to mount.

“I’ve prepared 53 specimens for the collection over the years,” Iaccino said. “The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is one of my personal favorites. I learned taxidermy here. It was cool to be able to do something on a different level here – not as a spectator but as an active participant in preserving natural history. It’s scientific, sure, but it’s also an art form.”

Iaccino works closely with Emily Graslie, an artist, science communicator and writer, video host, educational media producer, and creator behind the YouTube channel “The Brain Scoop,” which shares behind-the-scenes work of natural history museums with the world through informative videos.

“I’ve been making YouTube educational videos for 10 years,” Graslie said. “I woke up one day and was like, I want to know more about urban wildlife and what is the nastiest urban wildlife you can find? It’s rats!”

“One thing that I like to try and do is help normalize things,” Graslie said. “Help other people look around at the world around us and realize that nature’s everywhere, not just in parks. Then I came to Peggy Notebaert and was like: Do you guys do anything with this? And they all said ‘Rats? You need to speak with Janelle.’ ”

When Iaccino started volunteering at the nature museum, administration told her that because they had lost a lot of their specimens to the Chicago fire, they didn’t have urban rats from Chicago. So she stepped in to help rebuild the collection. Iaccino calls it a perfect match.

“I just started collecting them and bringing them in and it wasn’t just me working on them, it was other volunteers too. And now we’ve got the collection going,” she said.

With over 600,000 subscribers, Graslie is all about education and curiosity. While she was capturing footage of Iaccino at the museum, Graslie shared stories about the extinct passenger pigeon species in Illinois, how people who study neotropical fish do biological inventories of wildlife for damming projects, and how house sparrows had adapted to less sound pollution from cars during the pandemic lockdown. All of the above was documented over the years.

“I’m just dipping my toe into the rat business in Chicago, but I wouldn’t be here without Janelle, she’s helping me spread the appreciation for these that I wouldn’t have had without knowing her,” Graslie said.

Iaccino said you’d be surprised how many “weirdos” out there now want to know about this kind of information. “I used to post something to Instagram and people would be like, ‘Why are you posting this? No one wants to see this.’ I was like, ‘Hit the unfollow button dude; this is me,’” she said. “But now everyone’s like, ‘How come you haven’t posted pics of this lately?’ There’s a lot of people who want to know now.”

She said taxidermy can get pretty gnarly. But for her, it’s all about teaching people enough that they’re not afraid. She believes education is the best defense against any kind of fear and that’s what she’s doing when she goes to schools and museums.

“I’m opening their minds because it’s a fear factor,” she said. “Everybody’s got their own threshold for what they are afraid of, and what they’ll tolerate. And being in the pest control industry, we know that better than anybody.”

Knowing that Chicago has been the rattiest city in the nation for the past nine years, she’s happy that the city’s budget for rodent abatement is robust. It’s an ongoing battle because rodents are resilient. She always tells Chicago residents to be diligent about reporting seeing rats around the city by calling 311. Iaccino says with the number of alleys in the area, there are a lot more places for them to hide and a lot more dumpsters to go through.

Iaccino’s career path started when she received a tarantula as a gift from a friend when she was in high school. Named Xanadu, after Olivia Newton-John’s 1980 film, the pet Iaccino owned for six years helped her face her fears.

“I was able to be not afraid to hold it and inch my way toward that,” she recalled. “And it’s just been a lifestyle now for many years. I’m the cool auntie who always has a trunk full of weird things.”