Don't go buggy wondering what that insect or plant might be: Ask K-State
By Cheryl May
Got bugs? Got bugs on your plants or in your house?
If you can photograph it or capture it, Kansas State University experts can help you find out what the insect invader might be.
With plants, touching it to see if you develop a rash is not the best way to tell if something growing in your yard is poison ivy. There's a better way to find out which plant is which -- and it doesn't involve your skin and buckets of calamine lotion.
K-State offers both bug and plant identification services free to Kansas residents.
"Most insects are not harmful, but some insects are, or have the potential of being harmful in some manner," said Bobby Brown, who runs the entomology department's Insect Diagnostic Laboratory. He said that in order to control a pest it is imperative to accurately identify the insect causing the problem.
"We must first know what we are dealing with before we can determine how to deal with it."
The goal of K-State's Insect Diagnostic Laboratory is to provide a prompt yet accurate diagnosis of insects and insect related problems. Control methods may also be provided upon request. The Insect Diagnostic Laboratory can also provide assistance with identification of non-insect arthropods, such as spiders, ticks, mites, centipedes, etc. In the photo at right, Brown looks at a caterpillar on a screen connected to a microscope in the lab.
Brown said he's seen some unusual specimens come through the lab.
"The most unusual was a venomous spider from South America," Brown said. "It arrived in a bunch of bananas shipped to campus. The person who found the spider just picked it up and brought it in for identification. It was amazing that no one was bitten or injured -- it was a nasty spider."
Also unusual were the leeches found in a Kansas farm pond.
Brown said he enjoys the variety in his job. "Every day is almost like Christmas. You open a package and you don't know what you'll see."
The most common pest sent in for identification varies by year.
"Some years a population explodes and we see a lot of a specific insect," Brown said. "We always see a lot of springtails, which are little jumping insects; and we see many termites from homeowners who want to verify that's what they've got. We see a lot of ticks of various kinds, but we rarely get lice and fleas. If someone has an insect question, we encourage them to send it in. Our services are open and free to people who are curious about a pest -- they don't need to be noxious or causing harm."
For more than a century, the K-State herbarium has served as a statewide resource for plant identifications. Mark H. Mayfield, plant identification expert for K-State's herbarium, advises Kansas residents to submit a sample -- preferably with flowers and/or fruits attached -- to your county extension agent, or contact the K-State herbarium directly if the county office cannot be reached. If you think the plant might be poison ivy or poison oak, try sending a photograph instead. In the photo at left, Mayfield is shown identifying a sample sent in to the herbarium.
"It is helpful to record notes regarding where the plant was growing, whether it was cultivated, and so on," Mayfield said. "Herbarium staff will report the plant's identity and related information. If the plant is considered undesirable, the identification will be forwarded to a weed scientist for recommendations on control."