Share

Student Research Spotlight - Alexandra Duffy

Posted: May 26, 2017

This is the 8th of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

The weevil whisperer: Using chemical communication to promote healthier golf courses
By, Emily Erickson

There exists a beetle, no larger than the top of a pin, that is capable of wiping out an entire golf course in short time. That’s right folks, I’m talking about the Annual Bluegrass Weevil, a prolific pest that makes quick work of our high value, intensively managed putting greens.

Due to high aesthetic standards for golf courses, pest problems have historically been treated with regular, heavy pesticide applications. While this has been the easiest way to deal with cosmetic issues on turf, it poses a threat to the nature that we so enjoy while spending a day at the golf course and exposes us to a suite of unhealthy toxins. What’s more, the beetles have built up resistance to the pesticides and are coming back with a vengeance.

Enter Penn State’s turfgrass researchers, who are developing a more sustainable and effective way of combating this prolific pest. “I want to look at manipulating their behavior” says Alexandra Duffy, a first-year PhD student in Turfgrass Entomology in Ben Mcgraw’s lab. In an effort to disrupt the mating process, she is studying how the beetles use odors to find each other and their food. She will use her knowledge of insect behavior to identify what scents are attractive to the beetles, and then she will alter those signals – effectively tricking the beetles.  This is a method of pest control that has been used in other environments, and can effectively decrease reliance on toxic chemicals.

This research has implications reaching far beyond the driving range. Alexandra is planning to use turfgrass “as a system to study basic ecological questions.” She is quick to say how, despite the manufactured feel, golf courses are in fact rich ecosystems harboring a range of plant and animal species. However, the managed nature of these landscapes makes them ideal models to study, as she can control more factors of her experiment while still working in the field. What’s more, she doesn’t have to work around harvest schedules, so she can test her hypothesis year-round. Thus, she has a unique system to broadly answer complex questions about insect behavior.

While Alexandra is currently focused on tricking weevils, her findings will influence how we see pest management on the whole. The issue of pesticide use extends far beyond the golf course, and it will be integral for the health of our children and our planet that we create sustainable alternatives to dealing with unsavory insect visitors.