Leafhoppers, Ground Beetles and Slugs, Oh My...

Posted: June 14, 2013

The curiosity of our group of undergraduate assistants is catching...
Katie found a little friend!

Katie found a little friend!

In the few minutes I have between sampling research plots, reconciling purchases, teaching undergraduates how to sort through samples, or identify insects, I often think about the various arthropods and insects that we encounter. Alfalfa, corn, and soybean fields can appear lifeless, and only when one kneels down and looks closer does a dynamic, ever-changing world appear.

The ability to provide a larger understanding of this often-overlooked world begins with some of the most important people in our lab, our undergrad research assistants. Having our undergrads connect to the research we are pursuing provides them with an excitement that can carry them through their many tasks, and even encourages them to share their enthusiasm with their family and friends.

We are more than a month into the summer field season, and it has been one of the more exciting field seasons for me as each day I notice just how interested our undergrads are in what our lab is exploring.  The first evidence of this interest begins with all the questions they ask, "What is this?", "Can I keep it?", later evolving to "What type of ground beetle is this?", " Why does this aphid look so different than others?", or "Is this the correct identity of this ant species?".  Their inquisitiveness is quite contagious, and often makes me consider more carefully the creatures we are sampling, sorting, and identifying. This interest continues in the wonder and respect they have for the invertebrates we study. To the dismay of many a farmer, slugs are considered cute by our undergrads, and are often picked up from the ground to be appreciated as such! Spiders are kept as pets, and watched over as they eat helpless caterpillars. I had never really considered that our sampling plays well to the child-like excitement of discovering something new. This is no better seen than in the shingles we use to sample slugs; we often find anything but slugs under shingles, including garter snakes, house mice, or even the random tiger beetle that only appeared under only the last of sixty-four shingles!

Just like potato leafhoppers, who despite their small size can ravage entire alfalfa fields, so too can a small group of undergrads influence the cause of sustainable agriculture, the many beneficial arthropods it sustains, and the agroecosystems it creates through a curiosity to look into a world beyond rows of corn or soybean and into one where ground beetles are on the prowl, perhaps for slugs are dining on young shoots just emerging from the soil.

--Andrew Aschwanden, Tooker Lab manager