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Got Bugs? K-State Lab Knows its Arthropods

Insect Diagnostic Lab helps Kansans identify tiny creatures found in homes, businesses, and farms.

by Mary Lou Peter, K-State Research & Extension News
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Eva ZurekEva ZurekKansas State University via flickr

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Tucked away in a space in Kansas State University’s Waters Hall filled with microscopes and other equipment, Eva Zurek is looking for clues as she tries to identify a perpetrator.

Does he have large eyes? Hair? What sort of body?

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Zurek, who runs the university’s Insect Diagnostic Lab, is checking all of these traits and more in determining what sort of insect has infiltrated a Kansas home.

“Insects are a seasonal issue,” said Zurek, who added that warmer weather means more insects – and an increase in the number of samples that are sent to the lab. “Our season is usually May to November, so most samples come in that time. In winter, maybe 10 a month, but in June and July, we’ll see maybe 16 samples a week.”

The lab, whose services are free of charge to Kansas residents, identifies about 360 bugs a year. About 75 percent will be identified when someone sends in the bug and 25 percent through photos.

“Many times the images are such good quality with high resolution, there’s no need to send a physical sample,” Zurek said, noting that this year’s cool spring means insect emergence is 2-3 weeks later than usual.

Early spring specimens typically come from farmers. As the weather warms, homeowners increasingly send photos or specimens, trying to identify bugs they’ve found in their gardens or homes.

How do they do that?

Along with microscopes that magnify the view down to the tiniest hair on an already-tiny mite, Zurek and other entomologists use dichotomous and photographic “keys” to help identify specimens from their physical characteristics.

With dichotomous keys, a scientist answers yes-no questions, such as, “Creature has eight legs” (yes or no). If yes, you have an arachnid (spider). “Creature has six legs (yes or no). If yes, you have an insect. The questions become increasingly complex.

In an effort to more quickly identify pests, the lab is photographing every species it encounters and has those images online, said Zurek, whose email address is—what else?—

Kansans are welcome to send specimens and photos directly to the lab for identification, she said, although some prefer to take the insect to a local K-State Research and Extension office. An extension agent may be able to identify the bug on the spot, but if not, he or she will send it to the lab for you. Information about sending a specimen directly to the lab in Manhattan is available at Insect Diagnostician.

Most samples are processed within 24 hours, but in busy times it might take up to three days.

“You don’t have to be a private citizen,” Zurek said. “Business owners and managers, pest control companies—they’re all welcome to use our service. We get samples from homeowners, farmers, pest control companies, business owners, building contractors, greenhouses, botanical gardens, health facilities and others. Many of these people want an official identification.”

“Last year I had a case where calves were dying,” she said. “We determined that they had an infestation of flies in their ears, which led to infection. That sample was sent in by a veterinarian.” 

“There are also curiosity samples,” Zurek said, adding that some people like to take photos of insects and want to identify them. Sometimes a student or local resident comes in person with a specimen.

Some of the most challenging cases come when people submit photos of an insect they saw in other parts of the world. Beetles and wasps can be particularly challenging to identify, she said. 

Don’t forget the beneficial ones

“In every order, there are a number of insects that are beneficial,” Zurek said. “No. 1 are the pollinators, such as flies, wasps, and many bees. We know now that we cannot rely on honey bees only to pollinate plants. The public should keep that in mind when they’re destroying insects.”

Parasitic wasps use caterpillar larvae to feed their young. In that way, one insect population helps keep another in check.

Some bugs are aggressive with others. Assassin bugs, for example, attack other pests and big wasps can take out some of the larger insects. Certain species of flies also feed on other insects.

“A lot of people are afraid of spiders. We don’t like them in our homes, but we don’t need to kill them. They are also predators of other insects,” she said.

Public enemy No. 1

Zurek considers termites the No. 1 problem insect: “By the time we see them, the damage is sometimes already done.” That damage can result in thousands of dollars in repairs for homeowners.  

Carpenter bees, which resemble bumble bees can also be damaging to wooden structures.

Beetles, such as the emerald ash borer can be damaging, and even lethal to trees. Firewood can harbor the beetles, so in an effort to keep them from spreading, entomologists and the U.S. Department of Agriculture encourage people to not move firewood from one location to another. More information about the beetle is available at Stop the Beetle.

Stored food pests in kitchens and livestock feed are also a problem and can take months to get rid of.  

“We’ve seen a lot of bed bugs in our lab,” she added, noting that they’ve been identified from all over the state.  “We don’t know if there are more of them now or if people are just more aware of them so they’re being reported and identified more often.”   

Bat bugs are closely related and look similar to bed bugs, but are easier to treat for, Zurek said.

Sometimes the presence of particular insects indicates a larger problem. Certain insects need water to survive, for example, so if those insects are found in abundance it might signal water damage to a home.

Insect Diagnostic Lab has a role as a first responder

“When the public sends in something really unusual, we contact the proper authorities who check to determine if it’s a species not found in the United States. In that role, we’re helping to maintain a safe food supply.”

Currently, there are 25 species on the lookout list, including the Emerald ash borer which has only been detected in two Kansas counties so far. The beetles have killed millions of trees in states to the north and east of Kansas.

Another on the list is the Khapra beetle, which is native to India. “It is capable of destroying our grain supplies,” Zurek said. “Up to 75 percent of a grain silo can be destroyed by this beetle. We need everyone involved in watching for these species -- scientists, extension agents and the public.”

More information about insects is available at K-State Research and Extension offices around the state and in its publications at the KSRE Bookstore.