When Kevin Rice started his job as University of Missouri Extension state entomologist two and a half years ago, his first goal was to learn more about the key pest challenges farmers were facing in his new state.
“One of the first things I did when I arrived was get a survey out to growers on the top pest concerns,” he says.
Rice came to Missouri after doing post-doctorate work at Penn State University and the USDA Appalachian Fruit Research Center in Kearneysville, West Virginia. He attended the University of North Carolina at Asheville for his undergraduate degree, then got his master’s in entomology at Auburn and his Ph.D. in entomology from the Ohio State University.
That initial survey sent out to farmers was largely as expected: Japanese beetles topped the list, and he says stink bugs were also a highly ranked concern.
“There weren’t any surprises on that list,” he says. “The surprises always come from year to year.”
Rice says the main insect threats change from year to year depending on weather conditions, and the weather in one year can determine how big of a pest certain insects are the following year.
“Last year, it was the thistle caterpillar,” he says. “No one would have predicted that. That sort of came out of the blue. There’s sort of a moving target with insects.”
That was one of the first things Rice noticed about Missouri — how unpredictable its weather can be.
“It’s hard to predict the weather here,” he says. “With climate change, we’re seeing more weather extremes. I’ve been in Missouri less than three years. The first year we had extreme drought. The second year we had extreme flooding. Those type of weather events have a major impact on insect issues.”
The changes in insect challenges does mean Rice’s job can have a lot of variety, and there are also times when creative solutions are required. He and student researchers are working with insecticidal nets to control Japanese beetles. The nets are placed at the edge of fields, draw the beetles away from crops, and kill the beetles when they land on the nets. Rice says they provide equivalent protection to spraying insecticide, but do less damage to seeds.
In particular, these invasive species are a challenge that requires a lot of study and creativity. Rice says Japanese beetles are not usually a major pest where they come from, because they have natural predators there to keep them in check.
Because of that, there is often not a lot of research on how to control them.
Rice and other researchers work to learn about these new and emerging pest concerns, including how they move and where they feed. He says sometimes this involves marking insects with fluorescent colors and watching their patterns. Rice says he enjoys the challenge of trying to learn more and solve the ever-changing insect problems growers face.
“It’s kind of fun,” he says.