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Students Intrigued Enough to 'Worm' Their Way into Ag Science

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

The goal of USDA’s Hispanic-Serving Institutions National Program (HSINP) Future Scientists Program is to enhance the scientific knowledge of teachers, helping them to become more effective in encouraging student interest and progress in science. Teachers in the program attend two-day summer institutes at Agricultural Research Service (ARS) labs nationwide, where scientists introduce them to various research projects. ARS researchers share scientific knowledge with the teachers, who then share it with their students to encourage them to become future scientists.

One of the catalysts for this lofty goal is a tiny, inconspicuous and innocuous caterpillar—the corn earworm that wreaks havoc in corn fields nationwide as an agricultural pest.  This program began in 2003.  I brought 10 teachers into the ARS Southern Plains Agricultural Research Center (SPARC) in College Station, Texas, for a summer institute that included teachers studying in corn research plots searching for corn earworm caterpillars in 100-degree heat! It was the first time I made caterpillars the focus of this program.

O Halloween, Arachnophobia, Entomophobia, and Why Insects Exist

They squirm, crawl, scurry and swarm … and they’re all around us.

More than 900,000 species of insects and arachnids are found around the world, and some people would rather not come into contact with even one of the often misunderstood critters.

The fear for me came when I was 7 years old during the summer of 1990.

Evening Primrose by any Other Name is a Moth Plant

Plants provide us with many things that we use on a daily basis – from the buildings in which we live and work, to our clothing and food. For flowering plants to thrive and reproduce, they often rely on pollinators to transport pollen between flowers.

Pollination ultimately results in fruits and seeds, ranging from the strawberries and almonds in your breakfast to the tomatoes in your pasta sauce. While scientists know a lot about honeybees, very little is known about many other pollinators – bats, birds, bees, butterflies, moths, flies, etc. – that are essential to pollinating wildflowers and native plants.

Moths Aflutter in Honor of National Moth Week

Imagine wandering through your favorite botanic garden in the early evening and catching a glimpse of the moon reflected off of something lime green that moves from flower to flower while closer to the ground the yellow glow of fireflies help illuminate the night.

It’s enough to make you feel like you’re in a Shakespearean forest.

But the lime green is really the wings that belong to what some consider the most beautiful insect – the Luna moth. Those who do catch a glimpse of this unique moth are lucky – as they are rarely seen due to their short life span.

New International Wood Packaging Standard Stops Bugs Dead in their Tracks

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Wood makes great packaging material—it’s inexpensive, abundant and versatile—but there’s one drawback: destructive forest pests stowaway in the pallets, crates and dunnage (wood used to brace cargo) used in international shipping. Over many years, international trade has resulted in the inadvertent introduction of many non-native wood-feeding pests and plant pathogens in the U.S. and throughout the world. Some of these non-native insects, including the emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorned beetle, have become highly invasive and caused serious environmental and economic impacts.

But an international standard for wood packaging material is slowing the inadvertent export of invasive bark- and wood-boring insects, according to a study conducted by Robert Haack, a research entomologist with the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Lansing, Mich., and a team of scientists. Researchers found as much as a 52 percent drop in infestation rates in the U.S., where the standard was implemented in three phases between 2005 and 2006. The study was published May 14 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Insects for Dinner? Potential Tool in the Toolkit to Achieve Global Food Security

As an entomologist, the notion of eating insects isn’t new to me. However, for most Americans, the thought can make their stomachs churn. And yet, maybe seeing insects on their dinner plates is something Americans should get used to seeing.

Yesterday, I delivered the keynote address at the Insects as Food Conference, which was hosted by the FAO and Wageningen University in the Netherlands. As director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), my goal is to ensure that the science we invest in leads to solutions to today’s most pressing challenges. One of those challenges relates to our world’s growing population, which is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. We need to find new ways to feed all people while minimally impacting the environment. This “9 Billion Problem” has implications for how we grow and view food now and in the future.

Getting Geeky at the 3rd Annual USA Science and Engineering Festival

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

When you think of agriculture do you think of science and engineering? You should! Farmers are some of our original scientists, tinkering with plant varieties and farming techniques to find ways to reliably grow food. At USDA, we still do that kind of research in a never-ending effort to find better ways to produce food, fuel, and fiber. We also do a lot of research you might not think of when you think about agriculture: from forensic genetic analysis to track down unwanted pests to figuring out how to turn spent grain from distilleries into biodegradable kitty litter.

On April 26-27, the 3rd Annual USA Science and Engineering Festival took over the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. Over 325,000 people came out to celebrate discovery and innovation through over 3,000 hands-on activities and 150 performances and lectures.  USDA pulled all of the stops to show our geeky side and hopefully convince a few young booth visitors to consider agriculture when they think about careers in science.

U.S. Forest Service: Responding and Adapting to Wildland Fire

The loss of property and firefighters during wildfires are a reminder of the challenges we face in reducing the risks associated with large, unpredictable wildfires. Climate change, drought, insect infestations, changing land-use patterns, and other factors have contributed to increases in the complexity and in the numbers of wildfires across the United States.

Over the past four decades, some states such as Arizona and Idaho have seen the number of large fires burning each year more than triple. In many other western states, including California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wyoming, the number of large fires has doubled, according to a report by Climate Central. Average spring and summer temperatures across 11 Western states have increased by more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, contributing to higher wildfire risks. In Arizona, spring temperatures have warmed faster than any other state in the U.S., rising nearly 1 degree per decade since 1970, which likely played a role in the increasing number of fires in the state.

Stopping a Winged Purveyor of Disease and Death

During the month of April we will take a closer look at USDA’s Groundbreaking Research for a Revitalized Rural America, highlighting ways USDA researchers are improving the lives of Americans in ways you might never imagine.  For example, researching mosquitoes that spread diseases that threaten human health worldwide.

Today is World Health Day, and this year’s theme is vector-borne diseases—those diseases spread by organisms like insects, ticks and snails.  Significant vector-borne diseases in the Americas include dengue fever, malaria, leishmaniasis, lymphatic filariasis and schistosomiasis.

One of the most egregious offenders is the mosquito, and the scientists of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) are taking aim at this winged attacker with weapons ranging from traditional remedies to computer modeling and satellite images.

A Thorough Discussion about Protecting America's Forests

Agroforestry.  When you think of a forest, you don’t think of it in terms of a crop, but in many cases that’s what it is.  The house you live in, the nuts and fruit you eat all comes from trees.  Trees, with their root systems protect soils and soften the effects of wind.  They help hold water.

The Forest Products industry contributes 4.5 percent of U.S. manufacturing’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), produces $200 billion in products a year, provides jobs for nearly 900,000 people and is one of the top ten manufacturers in 47 states. No forests, no nuts, no windbreaks, no topsoil.