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In Managing Invasive Species, Entomologists Are “The Front Line of Defense”

Helen Spafford, Ph.D.

Helen Spafford, Ph.D., chaired the writing committee for ESA’s position statement on invasive species in 2016. She calls entomologists “the front line of defense” against invasive insects. (Photo credit: University of Hawaii Mānoa, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources)

Today kicks off National Invasive Species Awareness Week, organized by the Reduce Risks from Invasive Species Coalition. A great number of invasive species of concern in the United States are insects, and in 2016 the Entomological Society of America developed and issued a formal position statement on invasive species, titled “The Not-So-Hidden Dangers of Invasive Species” [PDF].

Helen Spafford, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and an ESA Science Policy Fellow, was the chair of the writing committee for the ESA position statement, and she recently spoke with Entomology Today about the subject and what entomologists can do to reduce the negative impact of invasive species.

Entomology Today: It’s National Invasive Species Awareness Week. So, what’s the most important thing for the public to know about invasive insect species?

Spafford: Invasive insects are a very real problem and not only have direct impact on human life, such as disease vectors, but they also reduce food production and quality and impact the health of forests and natural systems. We need better biosecurity to prevent the spread of species.

What roles do entomologists play in fighting against the negative effects of invasive species?

Entomologists are the front line of defense because they have the taxonomic skills to correctly identify species that might pose a risk, and they are essential in developing methods for monitoring and detecting new species. Entomologists are also crucial in developing pest-management strategies and tools to reduce the impact of invasive species. From insecticides, biological controls, and newer genetic based methods of population suppression, entomologists are key in understanding the biology of the organism but also assessing the non-target risks of the management approach.

Invasive species seem to be in the news often. What makes fighting invasives so difficult?

Many invasive species are well-adapted to reproduce and spread rapidly and have biological traits that make new incursions difficult to detect and established populations difficult to manage. Most people don’t understand how invasive insects impact their lives yet, and public support and cooperation is necessary to set up good invasive species management. Thus, sometimes generating public and policy support can be challenging but necessary.

From your experience in forming ESA’s position statement and hearing from members on the subject, what do entomologists feel is their biggest need in fighting invasive species?

There are some critical gaps in our understanding of processes of invasion, and we need more effective and specialized tools for managing pest populations. Good scientific research and creative innovation are key foundations to develop solutions. We not only need funding and organizational support to conduct the research, but we also need our best and brightest minds focused on this challenge.

Hawaii has its own share of invasive species to deal with. What is the most exciting or promising new tactic for fighting invasives you’ve seen recently, either in your area or elsewhere?

Mosquitoes are not native to the Hawaiian islands, and we have several species of mosquitoes that are known vectors of diseases of both humans and native birds. The newer genetic-based technologies for management of mosquitoes have incredible potential to aid the recovery of these bird species as well as reduce the probability of epidemics of human disease, with little to no non-target impact. I think this is very exciting. There are also some wonderful technologies that are being developed here in the U.S. and globally that will make early detection and population monitoring more efficient and accurate both for border detection and for in-crop management.

Any final thoughts or comments?

Investment of financial and organizational support for invasive species could mean less for schools, infrastructure, or other societal needs. So, we have to be able to answer the question, “Why is this important?” or “Why should I care?” While the answer may seem very clear to entomologists and others working on these problems, it is less clear to others. Entomologists need to engage with the community and policy makers to help them understand why this is important.

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  1. I really do hope we can can make use of biologique natural remedies and develop better applications, along with natural predators. Insecticides are not working. They are poisoning mankind, and everything that is good, while insects become more resistant. Billions of gallons of toxic pesticides and insecticides are sprayed every year. Has it gotten rid of the insects yet? Since the 1950’s chemical companies have done nothing but bring forth more super bugs. Global economy has brought us new dangers. We have to do better.

    • Absolute nonsense. Insecticides have done a fine job. Ask the folks who don’t get malaria. Ask the farmers who harvest marketable crops. Try realizing that insecticides are pesticides. That said Hopefully the GE methods developed by companies like Oxitec will succeed.

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