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A Day in the Life: Entomology in the Big Apple

NYC roadway median

Elsa Youngsteadt, Ph.D., of North Carolina State University has studied arthropods in urban spaces, such as parks and street medians in New York City. In one study, she and her colleagues found that ants and other arthropods play a significant role in breaking down food waste in urban areas. (Photo credit: Elsa Youngsteadt, Ph.D.)

By Sarah Parsons

Sarah Parsons

Sarah Parsons

Editor’s Note: This is the second post in an ongoing “Day in the Life” series by guest blogger Sarah Parsons, a Ph.D. candidate in entomology at North Carolina State University. Read other posts in the series.

“What’s going on here?!”

Elsa Youngsteadt, Ph.D., research associate in entomology at North Carolina State University, looked up from her work to see a woman approaching in a golf cart. Her face was not what one would call “welcoming.” The golf cart stopped at the edge of the planting bed. Youngsteadt, who had been surveying a park in Lower Manhattan for the perfect spot to install a litter bag, was alarmed but cool. She had a permit from the city, and, thus, this disgruntled park employee’s troubles should be assuaged soon enough.

Elsa Youngsteadt

For many entomologists, field experiments happen in actual “fields”—croplands or prairies, for instance—but urban ecologists like Elsa Youngsteadt, Ph.D., often find themselves in much different spaces, such as the Broadway median in New York City’s Upper West Side. (Photo credit: Lea Shell)

Youngsteadt pulled out the permit, showed it to the woman, and braced for a reaction. The reaction, unfortunately, was not what Youngsteadt had hoped. The park employee told her the permit was not valid in this particular park in the Battery Park City jurisdiction. Youngsteadt was informed that she would have to go to the Battery Park City Authority to request another permit to sample in the area. Youngsteadt and her research partner gathered their backpacks full of leaves with quiet exasperation. In a few hours they would find themselves on the 24th story of the World Financial Center, waiting for yet another permit to sample in New York City.

They would contemplate why they had such a difficult time sampling in Battery Park City when days before they had been sampling in Queens without any trouble. In Queens, they had been frequently greeted by concerned residents, worried about the trees and the landscaping. Queens residents, when encountering Youngsteadt and her research partner in the field, seemed concerned, not with if they should be in their resident space, but why they were there. And so they sat waiting for their permit that day and contemplating.

Youngsteadt’s adventures exploring ants’ role in decomposition in New York City eventually resulted in research published Global Change Biology in 2014, which concluded that ants and other arthropods are responsible for recycling the equivalent of 60,000 hotdogs on just 150 blocks of Manhattan streets per year—an illuminating fact about these are “little beings that rule the world,” even in the places we least expect them, such as our cities.

Youngsteadt has published many studies about insects in urban systems. She has looked at how pollinators are affected by urbanization, how urban habitat elements affect street tree pests and ecosystem services, and how cities can be used as simulators of climate change. It is in this latter area, looking at cities as “hot spots of global change,” that Youngsteadt hopes to continue future work in her new position as assistant professor in applied ecology at NC State, with an urban ecology focus.

As Youngsteadt reflected in an interview, urban ecology will be an important area of future research because “there’s more and more of it.” NC State, like other universities, is starting to invest in urban ecology research, as more than half the world’s population now lives in cities. The study of ecology in urban systems will continue to grow, and people on the research frontier, such as Youngsteadt will help pave the path forward.


In one study of arthropods in urban spaces, Elsa Youngsteadt, Ph.D., and colleagues found that ants and other arthropods are responsible for recycling the equivalent of 60,000 hotdogs in food waste on just 150 blocks of Manhattan streets per year. (Photo credit: Elsa Youngsteadt, Ph.D.)

After her experiences in New York, Youngsteadt realized how precious nature was in highly urban areas. Every street tree had eyes on it, and every planting bed was cherished with an intensity that would be difficult to match outside the city. Love for these small urban pieces of nature were expressed in different ways. Sometimes love looked like a disgruntled and protective park employee, and sometimes love looked like a concerned Queens resident. Either way, genuine concern exists for these spaces, and Youngsteadt and colleagues will be there “more and more” to learn how to protect and improve them. And should they encounter obstacles, whether permitting paperwork or the critical eyes of local law enforcement, they will persevere. Asi es, the work of an urban insect ecologist.

To learn more about Elsa Youngsteadt and her work in urban insect ecology, visit

Sarah Parsons is Ph.D. candidate in entomology at North Carolina State University. Email:

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