Insects, both beneficial and disruptive, have always been front-of-mind for the people growing our food. Of particular interest in today’s world are invasives: insects that are not native to a region and whose introduction (whether intentional or accidental) is likely to cause harm to our environment, our economy or human health. Or already has.
A 2016 report in Nature Communication estimates that the annual economic impact of invasive insects on goods and services in North America is at least $27.3 billion. And this, say the authors, is likely an underestimation because determining the economic impact of invasives can be particularly difficult. “Most cost estimates are disparate, regionally focused, cover variable periods and are not always grounded in verifiable data,” write the authors. Additionally, the spread and the impact of invasive insects is likely to increase in coming years due to climate change, rising human population densities and intensifying international trade. But, say the authors, there is a way to minimize the impact: increased surveillance, containment and public awareness. In other words: To protect our local farmers, food systems and economies, we - the general public - need to pay attention to the bugs around us.
The Insect Collection at Cornell University may be the greatest resource we have at our disposal. It is a seven million-specimen collection that has been serving the public for more than 140 years.
“Entomology was started at Cornell in 1873 as a department,” says Jim Liebherr, curator of the Insect Collection. That’s just five years after the university opened its doors for the first time. “People were pretty much collecting insects from the beginning.”
The entomology department and the collection were effectively started by John Henry Comstock who, in his second year at Cornell, was made a professor at the request of his peers because of his extensive interest and knowledge about the world of bugs. The original purpose of the Collection was to serve as a means to identify insects of agricultural interest. Which meant filling the drawers of the Collection with examples of species that were both endemic and completely foreign to New York.
“Comstock bought specimens of European species so that they would be here if we saw something in our area that didn’t look right or was somewhat different,” says Liebherr. “He could then compare it to things from Europe. Even back then they had invasives coming in.”
There is a map in the hallway of the Collection that shows the intensity of pest species per county across the United States. And one thing is clear in the color-coding: New York and other surrounding states are fertile ground for invasive insects.
The ports of New York and along the east coast are key points of entry for goods and materials being brought in from Europe and even Asia; it’s these shipments that bring in little hitchhikers from around the world. And the diverse environments and ecosystems in a state like New York provide invasive species with a broad range of opportunities to get established once they arrive.
“We have the ability to identify insects from pretty much everywhere in the world,” says Liebherr.
The identification process begins in Cornell’s Insect Diagnostic Lab: a small, square, very plain room that looks like a stereotypical high school science lab room.
Jason Dombroskie is the collection manager and in charge of the lab team responsible for identifying specimens sent in by port inspectors, cooperative extension personnel, and (more often than not) the public.
“You usually get a lot of the same things over and over again,” says Dombroskie. For example, people will send specimens of bed bugs - or other common household insects that they think are bed bugs - for identification. These are the simple cases; they only take a moment to identify. “But when you get a little brown beetle from a warehouse that ships internationally, there’s not a field guide to the insects of the world. There’s just too many species,” he says.
Seeing insects that are completely new is a common occurrence for Dombroskie. But just because an insect is new to him doesn’t mean that it has never been seen before. There are roughly 950,000 species of insects in the world; 91,000 species in the United States; 15,000 species in New York State alone. And these are just the insect species we’ve identified and described.
“You have to go out to the literature and find everything it possibly could be,” says Dombroskie. He has to look at specimens in other collections and museums around the country. These are the identification cases that are not so simple. Dombroskie has some unknown insects that he’s been working on for five years. “That’s normal,” he says.
But none of this identification would be possible without people sending specimens to the Lab.
“Every time the Asian Longhorned Beetle has been detected, it’s been by a member of the general public,” says Liebherr.
The Asian Longhorned Beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis) is an invasive species that was first discovered in Brooklyn, NY in 1996. It’s a large black-bodied, white-spotted, wood-boring beetle believed to have been introduced into the United States on wood packing material used for shipping cargo from Asia.
“We were the first ones to identify it in North America because we had three specimens from China,” says Liebherr. The Cornell Collection team was able to identify the native habitat of the Asian Longhorned Beetle and see that it favored cottonwood trees. “The Chinese used cottonwood to build crates and they didn’t kiln-dry them. The Asian Longhorned Beetle came in on packing material that wasn’t inspected. Or wasn’t inspected for this.”
The Asian Longhorned Beetle spread, continuing to be identified by citizens who had their eyes open. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, additional infestations were found in Long Island, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island in New York; in Jersey City, Middlesex and Union counties in New Jersey; and in Toronto, Canada. The beetle’s larvae bore into hardwood trees, preferring maples, elm, horsechestnut, willow, sycamore and birch. The boring weakens the physical structure of the trees and disrupts sap flow. Because damaged and dead trees create a public safety hazard, New York City was forced to remove affected trees at considerable cost. It’s thought that if the Asian Longhorned Beetle continues to spread beyond its current range, it could destroy millions of acres of hardwood trees.
And this could seriously - perhaps irrevocably - impact New York’s maple syrup industry. Our state is the nation’s second biggest producer of maple syrup. In 2012, sales totaled about $13.5 million. 1,425 farms could be impacted.
But this might be minor harm compared to the potential agricultural and economic damage that could be done by the Spotted Lanternfly.
A native of Asia and first identified in Pennsylvania in 2014, Lycorma delicatula seems confined to the southern part of the Keystone at present. The Spotted Lanternfly prefers to feed on plants such as grapes, apples, cherries, peaches, pears, plums, maple trees and lilacs. With no known natural predators or competitors in our region, it could become incredibly destructive to New York agriculture if it were to spread into the state.
There are about a dozen specimens of the Spotted Lanternfly in the Cornell Collection. The team is prepared to identify this insect should it make an appearance in New York. But only if we - the general public - keep them informed.
“We’ve tried to have a very diverse collection. From the beginning we’ve focused on agricultural crops and commodities pests,” says Liebherr. “Or if you have a beneficial insect that attacks one of these pests, you have to know what that is too. You have to be able to tell friend from foe.”
For anyone interested in having an insect of concern identified by Cornell’s Insect Diagnostic Lab, visit the lab’s website and follow the directions for submitting samples or photos [http://idl.entomology.cornell.edu/sample-directions/].