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Get A Job!

Adults say this to kids all the time: “Just wait until you get a job!”

Insects must be saying the same thing to their larvae—because insects are some of the hardest-working creatures on the planet.

At the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), scientists know that many insects earn their keep—and when they do, we call them “beneficial insects.” But their job descriptions sure can vary!

Everyone knows that there are some days when your job is a balancing act. This Colorado potato beetle is participating in a lab test to see if it prefers the smell of a chemical attractant—or a potato leaf. These crop-damaging insects keep developing new ways to protect themselves against pesticides, so ARS scientists want to find ways to lure them away from potato plants.

Sometimes at work there are no good choices, as these black imported fire ants know all too well. At the ARS laboratory in Starkville, Mississippi, they are living in a nursery where tiny phorid flies—their natural enemy—are reared for releasing into the wild. ARS researchers designed this ramp, which the ants use to try and escape from the flies. But it actually leaves them even more exposed to their foes—and more vulnerable to attack!

Do you ever feel like you’re going around in circles? That’s probably how these beet armyworm moths felt during their stint on a flight mill at the ARS lab in Weslaco, Texas. Scientists were trying to find out how far the moths would fly to lay eggs on their favorite plants. They used fishing line to attach females to rotatable arms on the flight mill. The moths traveled about one meter every time they flew in a complete circle. 

You’ve probably heard stories about the “office pest.” But these mosquitoes—part of a study at ARS labs in Gainesville, Florida, to develop new lures to trap the insects—take annoying behavior to a whole new level. Fortunately, they couldn’t get at entomologist Donald Barnard, because a screen kept a barrier between him and the bugs.  (A lot of kids wish they could find the same kind of protection against other pests—like maybe their brothers and sisters!)

This screwworm fly isn’t “just a number” to scientists—it’s part of an effort to protect livestock from hungry screwworm larvae. These wriggly worms can make a cow’s life miserable by chewing on its flesh (eeewwww!). Cattle become infected when a female screwworm fly lays her eggs in an open wound. ARS scientists have spent over 50 years finding successful ways to control this pest—such as tracking individual flies—to study where it goes, how it behaves, and how long it will live.

There’s no getting away from the boss, especially when you’re a Mormon cricket wearing a micro-radio transmitter. ARS entomologists gather data about how far flightless Mormon crickets—which sometimes form groups of millions—can travel in their treks across Colorado and other western states.

One cricket walked more than 1 ¼ miles in a day, including stints across steep hills and valleys! Scientists hope to use this information to predict where swarms of crickets—which eat their way over the landscape—will head when they hit the road.

Scientists have identified around 900 thousand different kinds of living insects, and some entomologists estimate that there are 10 quintillion—that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000—individual insects alive at any given moment. But even when ARS scientists aren’t putting insects to work, the six-legged lab wonders find plenty to do on their own! You can find out lots more about all kinds of insects here.

And if you see a praying mantis, don’t bother it—it might be on its lunch break!

—By Ann Perry, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff


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