[Seminar Blog] Enhancing ecological interactions through vegetation diversification: living mulches in tropical agroecosystems
written by: Leo Kerner & Angela Saenz
Imagine a lush, highly diverse field of papaya that requires limited chemical interference to control insect and weed pests. This is the reality of living mulch. Dr. Robin Gomez, an associate professor of Weed Science at the University of Costa Rica, studies sustainable pest control methods in tropical ecosystems. He suggests that the key to successful implementation of sustainable agricultural practices relies on acquiring specialized knowledge of each system.
When you see a honey bee buzzing around, or while you spread honey on your toast, have you ever wondered how old the honey bees that are visiting flowers or making honey are? The answer is: it depends. Worker honey bees assume different jobs in their life, and that role changes with age. Young workers take care of the colony, nursing and feeding the larvae. Later they become guards, protecting the hive. When the worker bee is even older, they take on the job of exploring the outdoors and foraging nectar and pollen for the colony. So, a bee pollinating a flower is probably older than the bee that made your honey.
written by: Mariom Carvajal
Insects are critical to the function of ecosystems and provide benefits to humans, such as pollination and biological control. Although many insects hold great economic and cultural value to humans and benefit our lives, some reduce agricultural productivity and others pose risks to human health. To find new ways to manage these pests, some Entomologists turn to the study of invisible cellular processes or insect-microbe interactions. Two research in progress talks presented on March 10th 2023 by University of Maryland researchers, Dr. Anastasia Naumenko and Mr. Brendan Randall, focused on how knowledge of these microscopic processes can be used for the benefit of agricultural and public health systems.
By Ben Gregory
These days, most Americans don’t worry too much about malaria, the deadly disease caused by the Plasmodium parasite and spread by Anopheles mosquitoes (Figure 1, left). That wasn’t always the case, however. In fact, during the nineteenth century, malaria was one of the leading causes of death in the United States, affecting nearly every corner of the country, but particularly the south (Hong 2008). Fortunately for those of us living here today, malaria is extremely rare. This is thanks to sweeping control and public health measures taken by the CDC and its predecessor organizations in the early and mid-twentieth centuries. But, more recently, another mosquito-borne disease of concern has spread across the country: West Nile fever.
[Seminar Blog] Caste-switching jumping ants: studies on the plasticity of reproduction and lifespan
By Megan Ma
Dr. Francisco Carmona-Aldana (he/him), a postdoctoral scholar at the New York University School of Medicine, recently presented his research on “Ants: studies on the plasticity of reproduction and lifespan” which focuses on how ants obtain tradeoffs between reproduction and longevity through caste-switching. In the collaborative projects led by Dr. Danny Reinberg and Dr. Claude Desplan, he and his team study ants of the species Harpegnathos saltator as an experimental model to understand how aging can be regulated. H. saltator ants are peculiar in that workers can become pseudo-queens and take reproductive control of their colonies when a queen is absent. A group of 4 to 6 ants will undergo antennal dueling, a behavioral interaction to determine who will become pseudo-queens, or “gamergates.” These gamergates will have active ovaries, lay eggs, and extend their lifespans to accommodate this reproductive caste-switching. They live for 3 years in comparison to their lifespan as a former worker (1 year) and the maximum lifespan found in queens (5 years). In addition to altering the duration of their lifespans, gamergates have the potential to revert back to their worker states (induced in laboratory conditions). They can return to their original, non-reproductive role to perform their worker duties and no longer produce eggs.
Dr. Krisztina Christmon: Finding answers to the challenges presented by the honey bee parasite Varroa destructor
Written by: Lindsay Barranco
Dr. Krisztina Christmon has measured approximately 100,000 mites during the course of her PhD studies at the University of Maryland, which may very well be a world-record. She recently presented her research exit seminar entitled “Varroa destructor: abiotic and biotic correlates to body size, and the effects of size and host type on mite tolerance to acaricide exposure” and described how her inquiry into mite size variability began in 2016, as a new PhD student in the UMD Bee Lab. The UMD Bee lab administers the National Honeybee Disease Survey (NHDS), and maintains collected data from large and small-scale beekeepers across the United States in order to detect honey bee disease and monitor for invasive species. Invasive species, particularly varroa mites, pose a serious threat to honey bee health which in turn, potentially impacts the important pollination services honey bees provide to fruit and vegetable growers nationwide.
[Seminar Blog] What Influences Your Science? A Case Study on Cultural, Political, and Scientific Entanglement
written by: Amanda Rae Brucchieri and Robert Joseph Salerno
"The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” -Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Can this quote be contested? To answer this question, one must consider the way scientific knowledge is continually evolving. The scientific process is self-correcting, meaning the acceptance of ideas should be based on available data. What is often overlooked are the influences of politics, policy, culture, and community in the process of science and the acceptance of scientific data.
Dr. Fred Gould, a distinguished professor of Entomology at North Carolina State University whose relationship with the University of Maryland extends back over 30 years, addressed a full hall about this shadowed intersection of science and society. In his talk, Gould dove into the 16-year ban of Mendelian genetics in the Soviet Union and the history that resulted in the ban’s conception.
[Seminar Blog] Getting the Help you Need! Accessibility and Disability Service at University of Maryland
written by: Lasair ni Chochlain, Eric Hartel
Addressing the varied needs of graduate students as not only learners but also researchers and teachers is a complex job. The University of Maryland and the Department of Entomology are doing their best to tackle this issue head on in 2023. To learn more about how the disabilities of graduate students are accommodated at UMD, we invited the Director of Accessibility and Disability Service (ADS), Tessa Cahill, to come to the Entomology Dept. colloquium to present “Disability Compliance and Accommodations: A Graduate Student Experience.” Tessa is the inaugural director of ADS, which is currently going through a period of growth and expansion to better serve the campus community. These changes are the result of an an external review by the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and support from UMD’s Administration that has led to ADS hiring more full-time staff and expanding their reach across many departments. By embracing this review and the changes ADS has made, the University of Maryland has been able to provide a significant increase in support. Improved communication between counselors, students, and faculty is also helping to standardize and improve the quality of services offered. Tessa first spoke about “how we got here” on a national level and then about the role and services of ADS on the university level.
Research-In-Progress talks are important opportunities for entomology graduate students to develop the communication skills necessary to become researchers in entomology and related disciplines. At the first research-in-progress talks of the spring 2023 semester, three graduate students presented their research, which cover different subfields of entomology: Theresa Menna, a 2nd-year Biological Sciences-CBBG PhD student in the Fritz Lab, Minh Le, a 2nd-year Entomology PhD student in the Pick Lab, and Max Ferlauto, a 4th-year Entomology PhD candidate in the Burghardt lab.
Every spring, visitors flock to Washington, DC, to see over a thousand Japanese cherry trees in full bloom along the Potomac River. This ephemeral event draws massive numbers of viewers and concludes once the trees have shed their petals, sometimes just a week after blooming. We don’t often think about petals after they’ve fallen, but recent research suggests that these petals are more than just visually pleasing. Dr. Rebecca Hale is an urban ecologist who leads the Watershed Science Lab, a team focused on investigating urban stream dynamics to understand how cities can develop more sustainably. Dr. Hale and her team have recently found evidence that petals from flowering trees can have a tremendous impact on nutrient levels in surrounding water systems. Even in urban settings, these water systems are a foundational component of the ecosystems we rely on.
written by: Ebony Michelle Argaez
Big data is the fuel of the 21st century, it is a part of our everyday lives; we produce and consume it. One example is the use of various types of data acquired from social media apps that are then used to deliver ads to targeted audiences. Yet, big data is also used in academia, health, science, and government for addressing research questions.
What is big data? Big data can be measured by its volume, variety, and velocity. Big data contains high volume in the form of many individual observations. Variety refers to many attributes associated with these observations. Velocity is the repetition of that volume and variety across some other dimension (e.g., time or populations). When preexisting big data sets are used in ecological studies, it is called ecoinformatics . Dr. Michael Crossley, an Assistant Professor and Agricultural Entomologist in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, uses ecoinformatics to understand how insect ecology is affected by changes in agricultural landscapes.
written by: Taís Ribeiro and Brendan Randall
It is crucial for graduate students to learn how to design and execute scientific research. Using this research as an informative tool that affects both the livelihoods of people and addresses public needs is essential to communicating science. The ongoing educational partnership between the public and scientists is known as extension and it is one of the pillars of the Department of Entomology.
At the first Entomology Research in Progress Seminars, we heard about the work of two researchers that not only perform scientific research but are actively involved in the dissemination and application of their research to solve problems faced by growers and the public. The postdoc Dr. Nathalie Steinhauer and her work in extension in Beekeeping operations, and the PhD Candidate Maria Cramer, who works in agricultural environments. Both of these researchers are passionate about teaching and learning from stakeholders by showing their scientific results and seeing how applied science affects people’s lives.
[Seminar Blog] Arthropod-Disease Vectors: Remote Sensing Data Resolution and Entomological Indicators for Better Understanding micro- and macrohabitats (Dr. Mohamed Sallam)
written by: Megan Ma
This week’s colloquium speaker, Dr. Mohamed Sallam, is a disease and arthropod vector ecologist who has worked in a variety of positions. His previous appointments include working as a research scientist for developing integrated pest management programs, senior analyst at USEPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency), and entomologist for the U.S. Navy. His background has led him to a position in Bethesda, MD as an Assistant Professor at Uniformed Services University (USU), where he is mentoring students and facilitating safer conditions in deployed military environments and U.S. military bases. Specifically, he is seeking ways of preventing disease transmission by developing models to reduce arthropod-disease vector-host contact. This can include efficiently treating uniforms – identifying regions of the body that are more likely to be targeted by mosquitoes minimizes the cost of treating full uniforms while maximizing the protection of high-risk areas of vector-host contact. To consider the full range of environmental and public health hazards, Dr. Sallam emphasizes the importance of understanding micro- and macrohabitats. This begins with research that can link models with the biology of your organism of interest.
Effects of floral diversification on beneficial arthropods and ecosystem services in an edamame agroecosystem
written by Leo Kerner
We know that pollinators play a vital role in the health of every agroecosystem, but how can the agroecosystem benefit pollinators? Kathleen Evans, a PhD student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Maryland, is attempting to figure this out. Working in the EspíndolaLab, Katy is focused on plant-pollinator interactions and loves to engage with the public informing them of the importance of insects. She came to speak at our colloquium about her most recent project on floral diversification and its effects on beneficial arthropods and ecosystem services among edamame. Previously, Katy has worked on pollinator health in agroecosystems and sustainable honeybee management practices, and now her work takes a closer look at understanding plant-insect interaction in agroecosystems.
[Seminar Blog] Serving the Public as a Government Scientist: Career tracks and opportunities
written by: Amanda Brucchieri and Robert Salerno
Have you ever thought of pursuing a career within the federal government? Do you know what opportunities exist for research, extension, and policy/regulation? During this week’s colloquium talk, Dr. Chris Peterson, an International Food Security, and Pest Management Professional working for the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, passed on his knowledge and wisdom about career paths within the federal government. He wanted to bring a personal perspective to the field of government employment and help students navigate their next steps as future scientists so he came on his own time and was not speaking as a representative of the USDA. Dr. Peterson holds a Ph.D. in Entomology and Toxicology from Iowa State University and has held several positions within the Forest Service, Peace Corps, and currently, the Foreign Agricultural Service.
written by: Ben Burgunder & Eric Hartel
How can modeling and mathematics inform our research of macroevolution? Towson University professor Dr. Daniel Caetano visited the University of Maryland's entomology department to deliver a lecture on his many research interests. Dr. Caetano explores evolution through mathematical modeling and novel approaches to phylogenetic comparative methods. Phylogeny is the scientific approach to understanding the evolutionary relationships between groups of organisms and phylogenomics is the application of genomics to phylogenetics research. Dr. Caetano explained that his research is supported by two pillars: trait evolution and species diversification. He discussed two examples of developing novel methodology from published, publicly available datasets.
written by: Minh Le
Not many people have heard of the sorghum plant, so you might be surprised to know that it is grown in 21 states (Figure 1)! The “Sorghum Belt”, or area comprising states that have abundant sorghum production, stretches from South Dakota all the way down to southern Texas (National Sorghum Producers). The sorghum plant produces nutritious grain, which is an important ingredient for livestock feeds as well as a whole grain alternative to people with low gluten tolerance or who suffer from celiac disease. Besides its nutritional benefits, sorghum production can have a positive impact on the environment and sustainability efforts, as the sorghum bushels can be extracted for ethanol, a renewable source of fuel, and require one-third less water to grow compared to other feedstocks (National Sorghum Producers). Despite its agricultural and environmental importance, as with other widely cultivated agricultural crops, these plants are a buffet for pest insects whose voracious appetite cause significant economic damage every year. A prominent invasive pest feeding on sorghum in the US is the sorghum aphid (Melanaphis sorghi). These insects use their syringe-like mouthparts to pierce and suck juices from plant tissues, damaging them. In 2013 and 2014, it is estimated that these aphids caused 50 to 100% of crop loss, and in 2015, sorghum producers in the Rio Grande Valley lost approximately 31 million dollars. The entomology colloquium welcomes Dr. Jocelyn Holt, a researcher at Rice University, Texas, who provided insight into her research on the population genetics of sorghum aphids across the US and the symbiotic microbiota that is associated with them.
written by: Darsy Smith and Benjamin P. Gregory
How do insects that live in dry environments like deserts keep from drying out, and how might these adaptations help them adjust to our constantly changing world? For our first colloquium of October, the Entomology Department welcomed Dr. Henry Chung, an assistant professor at Michigan State. Dr. Chung’s research investigates the genetic mechanisms underlying insect adaptations to different environmental conditions, particularly dry ones. Just like humans, insects need water to live their lives, so making sure they don’t dry out–or desiccate–is vital to their survival. So how do insects that live in hot and dry conditions prevent desiccation? One of the most important pieces of an insect’s defense against desiccation is its epicuticle, the waxy top layer of its exoskeleton, and the chemical pieces that make up this epicuticle, called cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs).
writen by: Demian A. Nuñez and Darsy Smith
The end of the semester is here! For the last weekly seminar series, the Entomology Department welcomed Dr. Jason Rasgon to speak about his research and experience with new molecular tools for gene editing in arthropods. Dr. Rasgon completed his Ph.D. at the Entomology Department of the University of California, Davis. There he had the opportunity to conduct research on Wolbachia infection dynamics, a naturally occurring bacteria that lives within several insect taxa and is passed from one generation to the next through their eggs. Since early in his career, he has successfully answered research questions in various systems, which has given him the experience to lead projects across a wide range of biology-subdisciplines. Currently, he is a professor of Entomology and Disease Epidemiology at Pennsylvania State University, where he integrates population biology, ecology, molecular tools, and theory to answer both fundamental and applied questions in genetics. The main goal of Dr. Rasgon’s lab is the development of new methods that can be used to introduce transgenes into natural disease vector populations.
written by: Mintong Nan and Lindsay Barranco
Let’s face it. Graduate school can be a wonderful experience, but there are stressors aplenty - from financial worry to time management, coping with expectations of yourself and others, all in a field of scientific research - where the nature of the work involves a high degree of uncertainty and uncharted territory1, 2. These cumulative pressures can all lead to a great deal of stress for the graduate student, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully, skilled and caring professionals like Ms. Simone Warrick-Bell are there if needed. Ms. Warrick-Bell has been a graduate student academic counselor for the University of Maryland (UMD) Graduate School since early 2020, and prior to 2020 she was a care manager with the UMD counseling center. She holds a Master’s in Counseling Psychology and is a licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. Her works include individual consultation sessions and leading graduate student circle sessions, which were created solely to support UMD graduate students. The entomology department was happy to welcome Ms. Warrick-Bell to our Friday seminar series and to hear more about the services she provides through the Graduate School.
written by: Ebony Argaez and Minh Le
The natural world is teeming with gorgeous and awe-inspiring biological structures, patterns, and colors that cannot be described via mere words alone. During the digital age, accurate and realistic imagery of these specimens can be obtained through the lens of a camera. However, the camera can only capture what is, not what could have been. Exquisite imagery requires the gentle and imaginative hand of an artist like Taina R. Litwak a scientific illustrator with the US Department of Agriculture’s Systematic Entomology Lab and the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History who joins this week’s entomology colloquium at the University of Maryland to talk about entomological art in the digital age.
written by: Eric Hartel
Combining different schools of thought or discipline can lead to more meaningful discovery and understanding. The work of Dr. Chris Hamilton addresses this by studying Aphonopelma, a group of tarantulas that are found in the incredible and unique biome of sky islands in the southwestern United States and Mexico. This group of tarantulas are important as a marker for understanding the region, and hold a place of cultural significance in the San Carlos Apache creation story. What is a sky island you ask? They are made of mountain ranges that are surrounded by desert valleys. These mountains create interesting temperature and humidity gradients that play host to various stratified environments. These environments are similar to ocean islands because the deserts take the role of the impassable ocean, isolating organisms to specific islands if they can not cross the desert. The tarantulas in this area have no way to cross the large deserts and are partitioned into their niches across this area. The speciation and diversity of these tarantulas can shed light on the geologic history, evolution, and current state of this understudied diversity hot spot.
[Seminar blog] The end of spray and pray? Alternative ways to control spotted wing drosophila
written by: Maria Cramer and Huiyu Sheng
Spotted wing drosophila (SWD) is a pest that causes backyard berry growers and commercial farmers alike a lot of grief. Native to Eastern Asia, this fruit fly (closely related to the famous Drosophila melanogaster) first appeared in the mainland U.S. in 2008. Like other fruit flies, SWD lays eggs in fruit, but unlike others, it has a sharp ovipositor that allows it to cut through fruit skin and lay eggs inside (Figure 1). Because of this, SWD larvae aren’t restricted to rotting or damaged fruit– they can infest otherwise perfect produce. Their favorite fruits include raspberries, blackberries, grapes, and cherries.
Besides the ick-factor, the wounds from cutting into fruit can introduce microorganisms that cause the fruit to rot. To make things worse, because they’re inside fruit, the larvae are protected from insecticide sprays (Figure 2). This means farmers have to instead target the adult flies, which requires frequent insecticide applications. Spraying insecticides over and over has many downsides; it’s expensive for farmers, it could hurt other insects, and it could even put pressure on SWD to develop resistance to the chemicals themselves, making them less effective.
Dr. Torsten Schöneberg would love to see an end to this “spray and pray” approach for managing SWD. Currently a researcher at Agroscope in Switzerland, Dr. Schöneberg recently completed a postdoc in the Hamby Lab at the University of Maryland. He returned to the Entomology Department’s weekly seminar series to give an update on the research he did during this time.
[Seminar Blog] Mitey talk: Dr. Zachary Lamas' exit seminar on honey bee's disease transmission
[Seminar Blog] Exploring the Role of Sunflower Pollen in Mediating Disease in the Common Eastern Bumblebee