A well-curated collection is an efficient way to identify potential pests
By Carroll Smith
As a rice farmer, if you’ve seen one rice water weevil, you’ve probably seen them all. However, when an insect shows up that farmers, consultants, Extension personnel, USDA or other industry folks don’t recognize, then it’s time to solicit the identification and diagnostic services of an entomology museum.
These museums house millions of specimens that have been collected over a long period of time and are still being collected today. This resource is much like a big library. The individual specimens represent pages in a giant library of books. The data associated with those pages is the “text” that goes along with them.
“A specimen may sit in the museum for years without anyone looking at it,” says Dr. Chris Carlton, Director of the Louisiana State Arthropod Museum located on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. “But on the occasion that millions of dollars worth of agricultural products may be involved, depending on what an insect is and whether it is harming us, then the museum becomes a very relevant resource.
“The identification of a pest or a potential pest is the first and one of the most important steps in understanding what to do about it,” he adds. “We also use the museum to house representatives of natural habitats throughout the region.”
Correct ID Of The MRB
Consider the situation in which the Mexican rice borer (MRB) moved from Texas into Louisiana, first attacking sugarcane, then rice. This is a classic example of how an entomology museum is a unique resource for agriculture.
“The MRB is part of a fairly large complex of small gray and brown moths that, to most people, would look exactly alike,” Carlton says. “But they have very different habits and management strategies that go into controlling them. When the MRB began making its way across the Rio Grande Valley and into east Texas, the problem that we ran into is that they were very difficult to distinguish from similar small tan moths.”
At that time, Carlton came into the picture because of his extensive experience in dissecting insect private parts, which he does routinely in his research.
“The moths were brought in, and we looked at the male genitalia, which distinguishes these species,” Carlton explains. “This allowed us to determine, for example, if we were looking at a sugarcane borer moth or a Mexican rice borer moth. Once a positive identification is made, the specimen is preserved and then placed in the museum and our large database.”
Carlton notes that the LSU AgCenter also has a graduate student program in insect taxonomy and systematics.
“Our graduate student training includes a healthy dose of understanding that insect identification and diagnosis is an important part of their work even if it is not their research specialty,” he explains.
Getting Down To Economics
In California, Dr. Lynn Kimsey is the Director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology located on the campus of UC Davis. This museum has many components, some of which include insect identification and diagnostic services for agricultural and non-agricultural entities, an educational outreach program for the public and criminal forensic entomology.
Like Carlton’s experience with the Mexican rice borer in Louisiana, Kimsey was able to assist the California rice industry a few years ago when the rice panicle mite appeared and no one knew what it was. “When a new insect comes in, we have to figure out if it is native to the area and if it is something that farmers need to worry about,” she says. “We take the insect down to species, and, if we can’t, we call on our international network of systematists and taxonomists who can. With the number of exotic insect species moving around the world, it’s good to have this network of people who do identifications and know their local fauna.”
In addition to correctly identifying an insect, it’s also important to know the biology connected to it, Kimsey adds. This information helps answer questions about whether the insect is going to be a pest, a predator, or, perhaps, a natural enemy. Is it something farmers need to worry about? The bottom line for farmers comes down to economics. If a new insect is just “assumed” to be a problem, they may be investing a lot of money in control measures when it is not necessary. On the other hand, if a new insect is diagnosed as being a potential pest, then farmers can get ahead of the game and be on the lookout for it.
In addition to insects found in the field, Kimsey has worked with stored product pests. For example, she examined some stored product pests in a load of rice in which the warehouse owner had been accused of being the source of contamination. After examining the pests, she determined that they were too advanced to have originated in the warehouse and must have come from wherever the rice had been prior to the warehouse.
Tremendous Resource For Agriculture
Although the existence of these museums may not be well known, Kimsey points out that they are invaluable resources to both the agricultural and the non-agricultural communities.
“Most people aren’t aware of the diversity and the actual numbers of insects in the world because we typically focus on birds, plants and animals, which visually are more obvious,” Kimsey says. “But there can be a family of insects that has as many species as all of those things put together. Insects are very small, typically oneeighth inch long, but they can cause a lot of damage. They are there, and our job is to help people understand what they are dealing with in order for other entities to figure out the best way to control them.”
Entomology museums throughout the United States and the world operate in a similar fashion to the two that are featured here. And, although the tiny specimens that are lined up in neat rows and stored in drawer-lined cabinets may look unassuming enough, each has the ability, at the time when it is needed, to make a tremendous contribution to the viability of U.S. agriculture.
Contact Carroll Smith at (901) 767-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bohart & Chapin Initiate Unified Collections
The Bohart Museum of Entomology was founded in 1946 with two wooden boxes – one filled with blowflies and the other with bumblebees. The museum was officially named after Dr. Richard Bohart, who was a professor and well-known taxonomist with UC Davis at the time. Today, this museum houses a worldwide collection of more than seven million specimens.
The University of California funds three full-time staff – Dr. Lynn Kimsey, Director; Steve Heyden, Collection Manager; and Tabatha Yang, Outreach Coordinator, plus 10 graduate and undergraduate student employees. However, for the most part, the museum is self-supporting. To help pay the bills, Director Kimsey says they charge for-profit entities for insect identification and a written report, tours for large groups who visit the museum or for off-site programs. The museum also has a gift shop filled with T-shirts and other souvenirs.
“Today, we essentially are a private institution,” Kimsey notes.
In the early to mid- 1960s, Dr. Joan Chapin initiated The Louisiana State Arthropod Museum. Because she understood the need for a unified collection, as did Dr. Bohart, Chapin built the Louisiana museum and gathered individual faculty members’ personal collections, consolidated those and built them into the core of what was going to become the Louisiana State Arthropod Museum.
“The museum experienced rapid growth in the ‘70s mainly through contributions from agricultural interests,” says Dr. Chris Carlton. “Also, graduate students who conducted experiments in the field were required to deposit specimens from those studies into the museum as a permanent record of the species. Today, this practice has become routine.”
The Louisiana State Arthropod Museum also has full-time staff: Dr. Carlton, Director; Victoria Bayless, Curator; and Stephanie Gil, database management. A one-half time graduate assistant, Jong- Seok Park, performs research on beetles in the systematics training program. Funding for the museum primarily comes from the LSU AgCenter and is supplemented by other research-funding sources such as grants.