The Big Blue Bug benevolently surveys his domain from the roof of the New England Pest Control building.

Rhode Island's favorite wood-boring pest.

New England Pest Control, 161 O'Connell Street, Providence
(401) 941-5700
www.bluebug.com

Most states are deservedly proud of their spectacular natural landmarks, their delicious agricultural products, their heroic native sons. Us, we love our bug.

The bug we're talking about is a big blue termite. He's 9 feet tall, 58 feet long, and exactly 928 times the size of an actual termite (do the math). Each of his four wings is 40 feet long, his six legs are 11 feet long, and his antennae are seven feet long. He weighs 4,000 pounds. He's undeniably the biggest termite in the world, and his location on the roof of New England Pest Control next to I-95 places him unavoidably in view of goggle-eyed tourists and jaded commuters.

When New England Pest Control bought their building between Allen's Avenue and Eddy Street in 1979, they wanted to make sure their potential customers knew they were there. The enormous termite, suggested by owner Leonard Yale Goldman and created by the Avenia Sign Company of Providence, certainly did that. The bug was assembled out of wire mesh and fiberglass over four days in late October 1980. Total cost: $30,000. Not only is he visually striking, but the creepy-crawly is the only hurricane-proof giant swarming termite in the world. "The whole roof would have to blow off before Nibbles would blow off," boasts NEPC's General Manager, Dave Pontes, on the Roadside America website.

We asked the current owner, Stephan Goldman, if the bug would be replaced in the unlikely event it was destroyed by a hurricane, lightning, tidal wave, or other such natural or manmade disaster. He replied with an emphatic, "Yes!" and added, "There will always be a Big Blue Bug." The bug is currently covered by NEPC's business insurance policy, but when we inquired about the possibility of insuring it with Lloyd's of London, Mr. Goldman seemed interested. "I may have to look into that," he mused.

Originally painted purple (the true color of a swarming termite under a microscope), the sun soon bleached the bug blue, and so he has remained. Before long he became known popularly as the Big Blue Bug, and was used as a landmark by traffic reporters. In 1990 a radio contest challenged listeners to give the bug an official name for the prize of a Florida vacation. The winning entry, "Nibbles Woodaway," was submitted by Tiverton resident Geraldine Perry.

Since receiving his name, Nibbles has seldom been out of the news. In July 1995, New England Pest Control began a tradition of dressing its mascot for the holidays with a 300-pound Uncle Sam hat and white Styrofoam beard. At Halloween you can see him with a witch's hat and broom, and at Christmas, antlers and a blinking red nose decorate his head. The Providence Journal once reported that designers were working on a lighting plan to make Nibbles appear to be moving. We think that would be pretty cool, but a staffer we spoke to told us the project has been abandoned as too complicated. Instead, for the past couple of winter seasons, the bug has been wrapped in hundreds of feet of Christmas tree lights.

Nibbles has appeared on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and in the movie Dumb & Dumber, and he proudly represents his home state at the new Denver International Airport, where he appears in one of two large murals by Gary Sweeney called America, Why I Love Her that feature odd attractions from each of the fifty states. (The second mural includes Adamsville's Rhode Island Red Commemorative Monument). Another painting, by a former Rhode Island School of Design professor, is on display in a five-star hotel in Switzerland. On February 4, 2001, Nibbles even appeared in a Zippy the Pinhead comic strip.

How far will Rhode Islanders go to show their affection for the big blue hunk of insectizoid pulchritude? Most people are happy enough to settle for an eight by ten photo of the landmark (available on request from New England Pest Control), or to purchase a plush toy replica from Benny's. But there have been a few individuals who are notable for having gone that extra distance.

On October 26, 1998, 26-year-old Pawtucket resident Deb Bettencourt had a three-inch Nibbles Woodaway tattooed on her left shin. Sensibly, she contacted New England Pest Control first to make sure there wouldn't be any trademark problems—she didn't want to have to carve the tattoo off later. Far from being litigious, the company was thrilled with the idea, and even offered to pay for it. Deb and her tattoo have since been profiled in numerous publications, including the Wall Street Journal.

The company was also receptive when a couple once asked to hold their wedding next to the bug, but insurance red tape put the kibosh on their plans. Still, romance is not lacking where the bug is concerned; in 2001 Nibbles was chosen as the venue for a marriage proposal. A man took his girlfriend in a limo to the breakdown lane of Route 95 where she could read the message presented by the blue one on a big banner. Of course she said yes.

Nibbles has also seen his share of controversy. In 1989 a WPRO radio broadcast originating from between the bug's front legs caused two injurious car pileups as afternoon commuters slowed to gape at the spectacle of barechested host Geoff Charles hamming it up with a belly dancer and a very attractive woman in a green bikini. The stunt sent six people to the hospital.

Nibbles has been mistaken for big game on at least one occasion. Small holes in the underside of his face are evidence that someone took pot-shots at him from the highway with a BB gun.

1997 was especially contentious: in June a joint promotion with Del's Lemonade almost came to a halt when city building officials decided that the huge cup of lemonade gripped by Big Blue was technically a billboard, because the product it advertised was not actually sold on the premises. Intervention by Mayor Buddy Cianci allowed the gargantuan drink to remain on the roof until an appeal could reach the Zoning Board, by which time the promotion was over anyway. "We're not pardoning Jack the Ripper here," Cianci is reported to have said, "It's a bug, and it's been our friend for years." Only a few months later, in October, competing exterminators cried foul when Nibbles was featured on 1.25 million scratch tickets issued by the Rhode Island State Lottery Commission. Lottery Executive Director Gerald S. Aubin countered by claiming that no one really associates the Bug Blue Bug with any particular pest control company (who did he think he was kidding?), and that he would continue to consider any suggestions for images on lottery tickets, as long as they were quintessentially Rhode Island, recognizable, and humorous.

In 1999 someone suggested that Rhode Island's contribution to the Fifty States Commemorative Coin Program should be "a picture of Nibbles Woodaway wearing his Pawtucket Red Sox hat and sucking down a Del's Lemonade." The suggestion was not taken, and we ended up with a lame sailboat instead.

Nibbles left his perch for the first time in 22 years on June 20, 2002, to embark on a five-stop tour prior to being repainted and refurbished. Riding a flatbed truck with his legs and wings folded in, he made appearances at Bristol's 4th of July Parade, the Warwick Benny's at 2574 West Shore Road (July 13), Roger Williams Park Zoo (July 19), the Wakefield Mall (July 20), and Cardi's Superstore in Swansea, Massachusetts (July 27). During the bug's absence from his customary position next to Route 95, New England Pest Control logged over 500 calls from motorists wondering where he had gone. When he returned to the roof on August 15, he did so coated with an additional 60 gallons of acrylic enamel, and painted a deeper blue to match his company's logo.

Does Nibbles have a second home in Utica?

In December 2003 we spotted a small truck sporting the "Home of the Big Blue Bug" slogan on the New York Thruway, east of Utica. Was it possible that New England Pest Control was making a house call two states away? No, the truck belonged to another pest control business that uses a blue termite as a logo. We wonder if they know about each other?

You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat

Once upon a time, Nibbles was joined on this stretch of I-95 by a chrome horse (sans diplomat) that stood on the roof of the Astro Bumper Sales Company building at 147 Rhodes Street. It was created out of auto parts by Chicago artist John Kearney around 1978. Long before Nibbles ever made it on the scene the horse was annually decorated with a Yuletide red nose and antlers.

When Astro Bumper Sales went out of business in 1991, the horse disappeared, but was replaced by a new one when NuChrome, a company specializing in car restoration, bought the building. The new horse was assembled by NuChrome employee Manny Ferreira from 1,000 pounds of bumpers and bumper parts taken from a Cadillac, a Chevy, a Fiat, a Ford, a Lincoln, a Mercedes, and an MG. This horse didn't stay around long, as NuChrome's building was torn down to make a parking lot for Rhode Island Hospital. The horse, and NuChrome, now resides at 161 Graham Road in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Information

Cost: free

Time required: allow several seconds while whizzing by on Interstate 95 or several minutes from the city streets

Hours: Nibbles is always available.

Finding it: from Route 95 South take exit 19; follow the ramp around to the right, then bang a left on Eddy Street; turn left onto O'Connell Street; New England Pest Control is ahead on the left.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to bridges or flag-burning demons. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited February 11, 2004

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