Some might call them bugs. For Millersville University alumni and students in the field of Entomology, they are insects and these creatures are their life's work.
“Many people think of insects as pests, and many of them can be dangerous, like mosquitoes, which kill as many as a million people a year carrying diseases,” says Dr. John Wallace, Millersville biology professor and director of Millersville’s Center for Environmental Sciences — known to many as the “Bug Guy” at MU.
Wallace came to the University in 1998 to pick up the entomological torch that Dr. Syd Radinovsky, aka "Dr. Rad," passed to him. In addition to the many entomological courses he teaches, Wallace has been advisor to the Entomology Club that “Dr. Rad” started 52 years ago.
As Wallace points out, insects have an important role in the earth’s ecosystem. Those pesky mosquitoes are part of the food chain. Without them other creatures like bats would have nothing to eat.
“Sure, from a medical entomological perspective, mosquitoes are the most important insect in terms of the medical and economic costs annually to humans and livestock. So when you have a mosquito buzzing around you, it might seem like a good idea to just get rid of them, but that can have a catastrophic effect,” says Wallace. “The diversity of the earth depends on insects. Everything is interrelated. While it might be hard to believe, human survival depends on insects.”
Busy as bees
Take the honey bee. It may sting, but it provides honey, the one food that never spoils. Honey bees are the pollinators of the earth, responsible for pollinating just about every crop there is from cherries to peaches to oranges. Quite simply, we would all die without honey bees to pollinate our food sources.
Wallace and two students, Rob Parkes and Dorian Seibel, started an on-campus apiary last summer. The pair received two grants to cover the cost of the bees, their hives and related beekeeping gear like smokers, beekeeping suits, netting and gloves. MU alum and local beekeeper, Dan Bleeker, provided two hives with between 6,000 and 10,000 honey bees to the University.
“This is very exciting news for Millersville, as far as I know, we may have the first apiary among the State System universities,” says Wallace.
The goal is to increase the number of hives to at least eight in the coming years. Each hive can house as many as 15,000 bees and produce up to 60 pounds of honey each year.
"The apiary project we started will allow students to gain valuable entomological, service and potentially research experiences long after we have graduated,” says Parkes. “It is exciting to leave a mark and provide opportunities for future students to learn.”
Mosquitos, black flies and more
The University’s insect population extends beyond bees to include a variety of insects like black flies and mosquitos for students who hope to pursue entomology as a career.
Recently, MU students have been doing research on the deadly mosquito, specifically the mosquito species of concern in the transmission of the Zika virus. The main culprit is the Aedes aegypti, also called the yellow fever mosquito, while the up-and-coming potential Zika spreader is the Aedes albopitus, known as the Asian tiger mosquito.
Wallace and students like seniors Kayli Thomas, '17 and Phil Hutchinson, ’17, are hard at work raising mosquitos that will be used in a study of a new mosquito trap being developed by Novelty Manufacturing Co., a Lancaster area company. The Aedes aegypti larvae have been allowed to grow into adult mosquitos, focusing on the females, which are the carriers of disease.
Recent alum Ryan Walker, ’16, worked with Wallace to develop a dichotomous key for larval mosquito identification for the Hunterdon County Department of Public Health West Nile Control Program.
Alumna Calen Wylie, ’15, researched the effects of Ailanthus altissima plant extract from the Tree of Heaven to target adult mosquito control.
Molecular biology major Frank Herr, ’17, is examining microbial community structure in black fly larvae in response to bacterial control agents used to eliminate black fly larvae in rivers and streams.
Jenn Houtz, ’18, is working on a novel micro biome project focused on microbial community shifts in nestling birds from birth to fledging as they experience a dietary shift from insectivory to granivory. The primary objectives of the study are to characterize fecal bacterial diversity of three developmental periods for the house sparrow and to compare parent to offspring bacterial diversity.
“This project demonstrates that insects are connected to all forms of life, including birds,” says Houtz, who plans to enter a doctorate program in zoology and study the impact of hormones and the environment on avian life history events.
Wallace has a favorite quote that sums up the interrelationship of insects on this earth. It comes from the famous naturalist John Muir and says simply: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, one finds it attached to the rest of the world.”