“They’re our No. 1 competitor and they’re winning, for the most part.” – Jeff Whitworth on insects
By TIFFANY RONEY
Bug spray and pesticides may feel like armor against the onslaught of summer insects, but a bug expert from Abilene said no matter what products people use, insects are here to stay.
Despite this reality, Jeff Whitworth, Abilene resident, professor of entomology at K-State and co-author of the book, “Crop Insects of Kansas,” has dedicated much of his working hours to helping Kansans decide which sprays to buy to ward away their peskiest pests.
“Insects have the ability to develop resistance, and all of the bug sprays that we have developed up to this point in time, insects have developed a resistance to,” Whitworth said. “Because they reproduce so quickly, and they reproduce very quickly, for the most part, and they generally produce lots and lots and lots of offspring. When you get a resistant gene, it flourishes.”
Whitworth said this resistance problem is not only to be blamed on the little critters. Human attempts have worsened the issue.
“We overuse the antibiotics. We overuse pesticides. We always think, ‘If a little bit’s good, a lot’s better,’ and that’s not necessarily the case from a biological standpoint,” Whitworth said. “So, insects are going to be able to develop resistance a lot faster than we can develop any management tools for them.”
“My favorite thing about insects is they are our chief competitors,” Whitworth said. “I like competition, so I like figuring out better ways to protect our crops, our foodstuffs and our households against insects.”
Competitors or teammates?
Holly Davis, graduate student in entomology and Abilene resident, said bugs are not all bad.
“They’re just beautiful and they do a lot of beneficial things for us, too, that, maybe we don’t realize but it makes a big difference,” Holly said.
Even though Davis said she enjoys going outside with sweep nets to collect insects and study their diverse world, she said there are times she does not want them around.
“Biologists say, ‘What is a pest insect? It’s anything that bothers an individual person,’” Davis said. “How many days have you been outside trying to have a nice picnic when you’ve been bit by mosquitoes or you can’t keep the flies out of the potato salad? You know, I think every day we interact with insects.”
Many times, though, people think they are spraying pests, but, because of misidentification of the insect at hand, they are actually receiving no benefit from the pesticide and are even causing damage to other animals, Kiffnie Holt, coordinator of KSU Insect Zoo, said.
“There’s all kinds of beneficial insects that are out there trying their best to control the pest, and if you’re spraying something without knowing if the pest is actually there, then you might be knocking out all those good little bugs that are out there trying to do their job,” Holt said.
Holt said she believes almost every insect has a purpose and a place and is an important part of the food chain. In her work at the zoo, Holt said she aims to expose children to insects at an early age to teach them that insects are not scary.
She said a major part of her work at the zoo is to expose children to insects and teach children that insects are not scary. She said zoo visitors in kindergarten through 2nd grade ask the most interesting questions about insects.
“They’re things we don’t even think to ask about; we just gloss over them,” Holt said. “Like, ‘Do bugs sleep?’ Well, they can’t close their eyelids. They might rest, but they don’t really sleep like we do.”
Collin Sexton, junior in pre-journalism and mass communications at K-State and native of Abilene, works part-time for Whitworth when Sexton has time away from studying journalism and playing football for the K-State Wildcats. Sexton said he stopped into the entomology department because his dad was friends with Whitworth. Though Sexton was seeking employment, he did not enter the job with excitement.
“At first, I thought it would be pretty boring,” Sexton said. “I think a lot of people would be in the same boat I was because, I mean, it doesn’t seem interesting at all.”
Sexton said what changed his mind was working with Whitworth.
“He’s really fun to work with, and then, the stuff we’ve been doing – it’s all pretty interesting,” Sexton said. “You learn every day.”
Sexton said there is never a dull moment with Whitworth.
“He secretly makes all of the employees have a little battle against each other in a fun way,” Sexton said. “He sent two of the (students) out to look for insects in the wheat. When they came back, he said they did a better job than me and another guy. Just little stuff like that, trying to get us riled up.”
Giving farmers a hand
Whitworth said there are hundreds of thousands of insects. There are more insect species than all other animals put together.
“The reason I wrote the book is because there’s been a book out since the ‘40s called ‘Insects of Kansas,’” Whitworth said. “It’s been a really good book, and it’s still a really good book, but it’s a big old thick thing, and, as you can imagine, has a lot of the insects of Kansas. So, what we wanted to do was narrow the focus down to just the insects that affect the crops in Kansas.”
Holt said the book is separated out by crop so growers can look through a short list of “usual suspects” for the crop in need. Whitworth said the book saves phone calls and emails between himself and people who want to know what insect could be causing damage to their crops. Sometimes, consultants send Whitworth photos of insects they saw and ask for identification, but now, they can open the book.
“We’re trying to help people from misidentifying insects because there have been several instances of five or six years of people spraying fields for beneficial insects,” Whitworth said. “They killed the beneficials because they’ve misidentified it, thinking it’s a pest. We’re just trying to make things easier for the growers in the state and the consultants.”
Whitworth tries not only to help farmers eliminate harmful insects, but also to preserve beneficial insects living on cropland. He said the beneficial insects partner with growers by pollinating crops and controlling the populations of harmful insects.
Holt said she recommends people do not spray for anything unless they know what specie of insect they are trying to control. She said identification is the most important part of any pest control program, not only for the welfare of beneficial insects, but also for the welfare of farmers’ funds.
“If you’re going to grow a crop for profit, it doesn’t make sense to spray and incur an extra expense unless you know it’s going to pay off in benefit to decreased losses or increased yield, so it’s all math,” Holt said.
Additionally, Holt said time is of the essence when aiming to eradicate pests.
“By the time you see the damage, the pest might be long gone,” Holt said. “If you’re reactively spraying because you see damage on the plant, you’re probably not taking care of the problem. If you see the damage, then you need to either use the damage or find a specimen and identify the problem. Once you know what the pest is you’re dealing with, then you know its life cycle – when it’s going to cause damage.”
Holt said identification – like the kind “Crop Insects of Kansas” provides – is key because chemicals can bring so much help or so much harm.
“Chemical use can have so many bad effects on the environment, on people, on crops, on beneficials and on groundwater,” Holt said. “There’s drift, there’s technique and there’s ways you can do it wrong. When it comes to chemical recommendations, Jeff is the kind of person that knows everything.”
Despite the dangers of pesticides, Whitworth said they are crucial for agricultural production.
“We cannot produce crops on the scale that we need to feed our people and to make the profit that we do, without pesticides,” Whitworth said. “And when I say pesticides, I’m talking about herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. They are a necessary tool, and guys like me hope that we’re educating our growers on how to use that tool judiciously, and how to use it well.”’