When Kadie Britt (E&H ’13) tells people she’s studying entomology, she gets mixed reactions. “I know they think I’m at home alone playing with cockroaches, but I promise I’m one of the coolest people you’ll ever meet!”
She really never intended to study insects. She was taking two summer classes at Wingate University and took human biology which sounded fun (she was bored stiff) and entomology because she didn’t have a choice (she was captivated and hooked). “I didn’t want to learn about ants! But now look at what I’m doing!” Kadie will finish a master’s degree in entomology at the University of Tennessee in August 2016.
She is getting some real acclaim for her work with the kudzu bug. Classified as a “true bug” (because it has piercing and sucking mouth parts) it feeds primarily on the juices found in the stems of kudzu plants. If it only ate kudzu, we might give the insect a trophy and call it our best friend. Unfortunately, it loves other legumes and is a particular problem for soybean growers.
The tiny but problematic bug has only been in the U.S. since fall of 2009, starting around northeast Georgia. Now it can be found all across the south, as far west as Arkansas and Louisiana and as far north as parts of Delaware. Kadie’s research has forced her to spend arduous hours in patches of kudzu where she netted the bugs, brought them back to the lab, counted them, and divided them into categories of maturation levels (there are five nymph stages before they reach adulthood). She averaged just under 200 bugs per kudzu patch per week.
In its natural environment in Asia, the bug would have natural predators that keep its numbers in check. Here, it is invasive because there is nothing in nature that will kill or eat it, giving it the potential to spread very far.
Well, that’s what they thought until recently.
There are two hopes for controlling this pest. Ironically, for the E&H grad, one of those things is a wasp. There are literally thousands of different wasps in the ecosystem, and each one has a pretty specific job. The Paratelenomus saccharalis wasp lays its eggs in with the kudzu bug eggs, and her hatched babies will eat the kudzu bug eggs for nourishment. Part of Kadie’s research involved looking for evidence of these wasps but her work revealed no evidence of the helpful wasps.
However, she did accidentally run across evidence of the second great hope. There is also a fungus that kills adult and nymph kudzu bugs, and she was gleeful to find this fungus in all of her research sites. “I didn’t know what it was at first, and the person with me told me it was spider eggs. But a closer look showed it was kudzu bugs covered in fungus. I was so happy!” Continued research shows the fungus is having good success in spreading to other kudzu patches, and good success in dramatically reducing the kudzu bug population. Kadie and her team are now working on a paper about the discovery.
Truthfully, not many people in the United States are studying kudzu bugs. So this young E&H grad is a leader in her kudzu-covered field. And you can hear her enthusiasm when she discusses her work. “People ask why study insects, and I say ‘WHY NOT study insects!?’”
She wants people to understand that not all bugs are bad. Some, for example, are pollinators and are responsible for the food we eat. “We need to be more aware of how much insects impact our lives.”