Sarah Wylie is not quite a "bug person" yet

Posted: July 12, 2015

Colgate undergrad (and State College native) Sarah Wylie did not know that she would embrace her summer gig in entomology, but she certainly has, and we are thankful for that!
Sarah assessing corn plants for insect and slug damage

Sarah assessing corn plants for insect and slug damage

In all honesty, I don't consider myself a “bug person,” as I affectionately call my co-workers. I didn’t grow up catching and identifying insects in my backyard, and two months ago I didn’t even like insects more than the average person. You might then wonder why I’m working in this lab at all, and I’ve been asked that a lot this summer. The truth is, I’m interested in environmental science and sustainability, and entomology is more connected to these fields than one might think.

This summer has taught me so much about the scientific process, ecology, and sustainable agriculture. Everyone at the lab has explained their work to me and helped me connect it to the big picture issues that intrigue me, issues like water quality and biodiversity. I help with a lot of projects that focus on neonicotinoids and slugs, and I’ve learned that neonicotinoids are one of the most common insecticides. They are used heavily and preventatively in American agriculture, mostly in the form of seed treatments, to control pests. However, they can cause unintended consequences, like poor water quality, which leads to problems in aquatic ecosystems. These insecticides also move through the food chain, killing ground beetles, which usually act as biological control for slugs. This means slug populations actually increase as a result of this insecticide, and the slugs actually cause more damage to crops. I had no idea plants, animals, and the environment were so interdependent and connected!

In addition to these big picture issues, I’ve realized that insects (and mollusks) are actually pretty enthralling too! Some insects force plants to build little homes for their offspring (i.e., gall insects), slugs have crazy flower-shaped mouths, and dragonfly nymphs breathe out of their rear ends. Of course I’ve also learned some more practical and technical information as well. For example, I recently mastered the difference between wasps and flies, which has proven to be a surprisingly fulfilling milestone.

Wolf spiderlings that Sarah found in a pitfall trap

Wolf spiderlings that I found in a pitfall trap!

Though I cannot say I’ve been converted into an entomologist (yet), I have most definitely learned a lot and enjoyed my time at Tooker lab so far. I have the privilege of spending my time either outside in beautiful corn fields or inside discovering insects on the microscope; what more could a girl want? The first picture above shows me assessing corn damage in one of these gorgeous corn fields. The other picture above shows wolf spider neonates that I found in a pitfall sample. Aren’t they absolutely adorable? I guess you could say I like insects more than the average person after all!

--Sarah Wylie