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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Title of story superimposed on graphic of nightscape and musical notes

Photo of a little girl eating cerealARS researchers are on a hunt for some hungry bugs. What's unusual about these bugs is what they like to eat: the same things you and I do!

Most people think about insects munching on grass, leaves and other bugs. However, not all bugs are satisfied with that. Pests like the red flour beetle and lesser grain borer eat grains. That's right! If given the chance, they'll readily gobble up yummy, good-for-you grains like wheat, rice, and corn.

Enlarged photo of a lesser grain borer

  The lesser grain borer develops and feeds inside wheat kernels.

Worse still, these bugs often steal our grains before we ever get to take a bite of them. They sneak into warehouses where the grains are stored or crushed into meal for making our foods. Each year, insects ruin about $1 billion worth of U.S. grains!

Every morning you probably have a serving of these grains. Think about cereal, oatmeal or breakfast bars; what's your favorite? Whole grains found in these foods make us healthy and strong.

Because these foods are an important part of the human diet and because some bugs are eating them, scientists with ARS have come up with a way to help.

Wide-eyed rollover bug caricature
Click Bugsy
to go to a music-making page!

That Wheat Is Singing!Graphic musical notes

One thing they've done is develop a special tool that can help grain inspectors know which boxes of grain have been invaded by insects. Grain inspectors are specially trained to help make sure the grains we eat don't contain bugs or dirt.

Right now, these inspectors have to study the small bits of grains--one at a time--to find out if they're being chewed by insects.  Imagine sifting through thousands of grains of rice, looking for a bug that's no bigger than the tip of your pencil!

ARS researcher Tom Pearson has come up with an easier way to find out if bugs are nibbling on the grains.  Plus, his tool makes its own kind of music!

Photo of red flour beetles
On the left, red flour beetles failed to grow to adulthood. Healthy adults on the right.

Pearson discovered that wheat kernels that have been nibbled on by insects make a different sound than unchewed kernels when colliding with a metal plate.

These grains are so small that they don't make a very loud "ping" when they hit the metal plate.  But a special microphone picks up the soft sounds and sends them to Pearson's computer.  The computer reads this "music."  It tells the sorting tool whether or not the grains are "good" (with no insects) or "bad" (crawling with them).

Then the special sorting tool puts all the insect-chewed kernels in one bunch, away from the other ones.   

Thanks to Pearson, inspectors will have a much easier time making sure our grains are safe enough to eat.  Get lost, bugs!

--By Erin Peabody, formerly Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

Last Modified: 8/12/2016
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