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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

What's bugging scientists?

big bugWhat's bugging scientists?Graphic of a copper bug.


Graphic of a bug on the letter "K."eeping insects from feasting on farm crops will become easier than ever. That's because Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are developing an easy-to-use, hand-held gizmo as the newest weapon in the war against insect pests.

a jumping bugDr. Richard Mankin is a research entomologist with the Center for Medical, Agricultural and Veterinary Entomology (CMAVE) in Gainesville, Florida. Entomology means "the study of insects." He and other scientists are developing new ways to find harmful bugs with listening devices.


Animated gif of a crawling ant.
Photo with caption that reads: A researcher uses a recorder and amplifier to monitor an orange tree for insect infestation.

Mankin's latest research uses acoustics (sound) to detect insects in plant crops. Researchers recently built acoustic systems that successfully detect insects hidden from view in crop stalks or underneath the soil surface. The scientists can't see the bugs, but the equipment helps them hear the bugs. This equipment can tell the difference between insect noises made by crawling or chewing and background noises such as wind or vehicle traffic.

Graphic of an insect larva eating a leaf.The researchers created computer programs that record different sounds they hear when searching for infestations.They use microphones, sensors, clamps and computer software to find out if a crop is being attacked by bugs.

A researcher uses a recorder and amplifier to monitor an orange tree for insect infestation. The device under the tree is called an accelerometer. (Photo courtesy of Richard Mankin)


Often, scientists can determine what type of insect is in a field by the sounds it produces when moving or feeding. (Listen to this!)

Graphic of a mad ant shaking his fist.Animated graphic of a lady bug.With some changes to the equipment, they can hear inside food packages, such as cereal boxes and bags of dog food.

Mankin is cooperating with industry researchers to develop a new invention that takes all this equipment Graphic of a bug reading from a page.and puts it in one device. All a person will have to do is push some buttons and look at a read-out. This means less work and will replace destructive sampling methods currently used to find insects on plants, such as digging, removing the roots or flushing it out with water.

Animated graphic of pesticide spraying on bugs.The new device will be designed to help growers and warehouse managers pinpoint unwanted creepy crawlers so they can reduce the amounts of pesticide (bug spray) used.

Insects often hamper farms, nurseries and golf courses, but this device will provide an early warning system by locating larvae before they can do too much damage.

Graphic of a bug sticking its tongue out.Not all insects are bad for agriculture. Some bugs are "beneficial" (good). Some insects pollinate our crops and flowers. We even use some insects to control other insects. These bugs like to eat the bugs that like to eat our crops. They also allow us to use less pesticides. So, next time you get the urge to crush a creepy crawler, make sure you're not stepping on a "good bug."

Animated graphic of a jumping bug.




By Jim Core, formerly, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

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Last Modified: 2/14/2011
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