By Richard Levine
I’m in Columbus, Ohio for the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), and during some down-time was able to visit the Entomology Department at Ohio State University. I was a bit surprised to learn that a huge part of the department is actually located in Wooster, about 90 miles away, but they’ve got a lot going on in Columbus as well.
Dr. Carol Anelli, a governing board member of the Entomological Society of America and winner of the ESA Distinguished Achievement Award in Teaching (2009), was gracious enough to arrange visits with an undergraduate class, a trip to the Rothenbuhler Honey Bee Research Laboratory (which has a lot more than just honey bees), and a tour of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.
Columbus is a sports-lover’s paradise. On Friday night they had a professional hockey game, then there was a college football game on Saturday, followed by a marathon on Sunday. That morning I heard loud live music from my sixth-floor hotel room, and it didn’t sound like church music. They were playing Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, and blues songs. Turns out it was a band playing for the marathon runners, and the band’s name was … MOTHMAN! — how’s that for a coincidence?
Really, I’m not making it up. I contacted the band and they gave me permission to use a song of theirs in this video, which features shots from the OSU Entomology Department and interviews with faculty and staff:
My first meeting with the OSU entomologists was at a class taught by Dr. Joe Raczkowski, who happened to be lecturing on entomophagy — the eating of insects. The lecture involved information about the nutritional qualities of various insects, and the insect-eating habits of people in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Australia. Plus, he brought in his brother-in-law Brandon Martin, a chef at the Patty Jewett Golf Course in Colorado Springs, who prepared fried rice and chili, both of them with meal worms.
Next, I was taken to the Rothenbuhler Honey Bee Research Lab, which is located on a farm right in the city. Joshua Bryant, a research associate, was nice enough to show me around. About a half dozen people were at work pinning and sorting insects from traps, while others fed some bed bug colonies via an artificial system consisting of a machine that heated rabbit blood that was contained by a membrane that the bugs could pierce, allowing them to feed. I had fun at last year’s NASW meeting in Gainesville when I had a chance to feed the bed bugs at the University of Florida, but I have to admit that I was kind of glad to not do it this time. Been there, done that.
Besides bed bugs, they do a lot of work on termites, and they had an incubator full of eastern subterranean termites (Reticulitermes flavipes). Some of the colonies were 14 years old.
They also had cages full of brown marmorated stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys), and they showed me some eggs, which I’d never seen before. The tiny, blue eggs were stuck together in clusters, and we could see some very small, newly-hatched nymphs that resembled ticks. Despite being indoors where it was nice and warm, the adult stink bugs were already going into diapause (insect hibernation). The reason why, according to Associate Professor Celeste Welty, is that their diapause is driven by daylight, not temperature, so they’re affected by the shorter days as winter approaches.
My last stop was a visit to the Triplehorn Insect Collection at the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity, where I got to meet Dr. Luciana Musetti. Lu is a curator who specializes in parasitoid wasps. I’ve written about these wasps before, most recently about photographs of them that were taken by Lu’s former colleague, Dr. Elijah Talamas. In fact, she still works with him and others as they photograph and classify the wasps for an open-access, online database.
This is important work for two reasons. First, some of the wasps are incredibly small — just a couple of millimeters long — which makes them very difficult to identify without the use of super-sharp macrophotography. Some are literally the size of a pencil dot, and I would never have imagined that the ones I saw were insects if Lu hadn’t told me they were. The second reason is, many of these wasps can be used to control pest insects. Some lay eggs on or inside insect larvae, pupae, or adults. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat their way out. Other wasps lay their eggs inside of other insect eggs, such as the brown marmorated stink bug eggs that I mentioned earlier.
People from all over the world send wasps to Lu for identification and for the museum’s collection, but she also catches them right here in Ohio. Her secret bait is the Yellow Plastic Party Bowl manufactured by Solo Brand Products, the people who make keg parties possible and who inspire country singers to write love songs about inanimate objects.
Certain insects are attracted to certain colors, and for some reason Lu’s wasps prefer the particular shade of yellow in the yellow Solo bowl. She simply puts water and some soap in a bunch of bowls, puts the bowls on the ground, and later finds drowned wasps ready to be identified. However, as she showed me her secret stash of these bowls, Lu told me that she’s having trouble finding them. I was skeptical when she told me that Solo had stopped making them, but after checking their website and not seeing them there, I think it’s probably true. So if you happen to have some of these yellow plastic bowls, please hold on to them and consider donating them to your local parasitoid-wasp-collecting entomologist. In the meantime, I’ll contact Toby Keith about writing a song called “Yellow Solo Bowl.”
All in all, I spent about six hours with the OSU entomologists, many of whom I haven’t mentioned due to lack of space and time. But there’s a lot more to the department still, including the Acarology Collection and the other campus in Wooster.
I hope to see them both someday. Until then, GO BUCKEYES!
Richard Levine is Communications Program Manager at the Entomological Society of America and editor of the Entomology Today Blog. He is not really an entomologist, he just plays one on YouTube.