Monday, November 20, 2017

Entomologists Ignite in Denver: Part I.

One of the hottest exhibits at ESA was the BioQuip booth.
At what other meeting could you see people lined up to
buy pinned insects or live tarantulas and scorpions?
Ignite. Inspire. Innovate. Three motivational words greeted entomologists swarming to the 2017 annual conference of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) in Denver, Colorado. Between November 5th and 8th, the mile high city welcomed 3,700 insect scientists to present over 1,000 scientific papers and 800 poster displays.

It's hard to describe the typical entomologist you see at these meetings. Some are old, many are young (some very young). Some are geeky, some cool. Some seem more comfortable working in a quiet museum surrounded by dried insects, and some happiest with beer in hand and at the center of a crowd. But all share an unusual enthusiasm for insects. After all, at what other meeting can you find long lines waiting to purchase live scorpions, pet tarantulas, pinned insects, insect t-shirts, and insect jewelry?

There is something for nearly everyone at these meetings. To that end, this year I determined to sample a variety of papers and meetings and speakers. My schedule started off with a Lunch and Learn event entitled "How to talk to a Nine-year-old about climate change (And other tough subjects)." Hosts for this session were employees of the Butterfly Pavilion, an "invertebrate museum" located 15 minutes from downtown Denver.

The Butterfly Pavilion uses an informal education approach, which means "a wise, respectful and spontaneous [learning] process... through conversation, exploration and enlargement of experience." In other words, informal education is learning outside a formal classroom.

Instead of lecturing with graphs and statistics to teach about climate change, Butterfly Pavilion staff show people live corals and follow up with questions: Did you know coral is a living animal? And even though coral reefs make up a tiny portion of the ocean floor they provide food shelter and breeding grounds to more than a quarter of all ocean life?

This approach is fruitful because we humans will only protect the things we love. By creating a connection with, and love for, corals (or insects), kids are open to caring about these organisms. All of a sudden scientific data showing that pollution, climate change, and disease are killing off many corals, becomes important. Using events like "Bugs and Beer" and "Tarantulas and Tequila" the museum also reaches out to adults to raise pollinator awareness and understanding of other environmental issues affecting the invertebrate tree of life.


Industrial hemp is an outdoor crop grown for fiber
and the medicinal compound cannabidiol. Suggested
benefits of cannibidiol are controversial, but include
pain relief for multiple sclerosis, reduction of
certain epileptic seizures, and addiction
treatment. Photo by ShareAlike, Wikipedia
Since we were in Colorado, I wanted to check out the "buzz" over the symposium "Industrial Hemp and Entomology." Even with recreational marijuana now legal in Colorado and seven other states, it's still illegal federally. Hence, the EPA will not register pesticides for the purpose of protecting this plant. This is a big problem because lots of insects, I learned, like to eat marijuana (have you heard of the cannabis aphid?).  Given that a single marijuana plant can be valued at $700 or more, and two plants can be worth as much as an acre of corn, it should come as no surprise that growers will use insecticides (legal or illegal) to protect their plants. And without labeled insecticides that have been tasted for safety, purchasers of legal marijuana literally don't know what they're smoking...

In an interesting twist, the 2014 Farm Bill gave authority to state legislatures to decide how to regulate "industrial hemp," a variety of Cannabis sativa, the same plant species as marijuana, but without the buzz.  However, to be classified as industrial hemp the plant must contain less than 0.3% THC (marijuana's psychoactive ingredient).  Industrial hemp has been illegal in the U.S. since 1937; but as a result of the Farm Bill, many states have or are considering making outdoor culture of industrial hemp legal, as it is in Colorado.  The bill also allowed Colorado State University to develop guidelines for research and extension activities for the low THC crop. Hence now we have the first extension website on insect management in hemp. Check it out.

The Environment

Even though entomologists are, by and large, a happy group, we worry. We worry about the environment and the effects of climate change and pollution and invasive species and lots of things. One of the big concerns circulating the paper sessions this year was new data suggesting an international, general decline in the numbers of insects. Now people (perhaps many of your customers) might say, "I don't see a problem here." But think about it. Without insects there would be few birds, no frogs and toads, no trout to fish, and no "lot of things." You get the picture. Insects help hold the world together.

David Wagner, from the University of Connecticut, is a well-respected moth expert. He presented his own data, and data from Britain, Iceland, and Germany that seem to indicate a slow, but alarming decline in many insects over the past 60 years. In one German study, the overall weight of collected flying insects in parks went down 80% since 1989. In Britain, 54% of studied butterflies have declined in the past 10 years. No one really knows what this is doing to the health of the planet, but the consensus is that it's not good.

Other environmental papers focused on pollinator insects, especially bees. Because they pollinate crops and native plants alike, honey bees and the 4,000+ species of native bees in North America provide irreplaceable services to our ecosystem. Yet many species appear to be in decline. Katie Lamke, of the University of Nebraska reported on her work with the USGS to manage a pollinator library, a collection of information about what plants different pollinator bees are found on. This information can be used to help farmers and gardeners know how to select plants to help these important insects.

In tomorrow's post I'll cover some of the ESA sessions that relate more directly to urban pest control.

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