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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.Bobby Brown

"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."

Mark MayfieldFor 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."


How to submit insect or plant samples to K-State

The services of the Insect Diagnostic Laboratory for insect identification, and those of the herbarium for plant identification, are open to any Kansas resident through their local county extension office. In many cases the county extension agent will be able to identify the insect and provide you with the appropriate management information. Or they can mail the insects to the Insect Diagnostic Laboratory for you.

Bobby Brown, director of the Insect Diagnostic Laboratory, said if you prefer, you may send a digital photograph by e-mail to gotbugs@k-state.edu, or a hard copy photo by postal mail.

"Depending on the insect, getting an image of the top of the insect, especially the wings is critical," Brown said. "If it's a beetle, the top is important. If it's a caterpillar, we need to see both top and bottom views. A lot of caterpillar identification is based on counting the false legs on the bottom. For a critical identification, we need to have them sent in. With spiders, we need to get a top view and a front view to see the pattern of the eyes.

How to Submit Insect Samples for Identification:

Small insect specimens should be placed in a vial of alcohol (rubbing alcohol is adequate) for preservation purposes. Send duplicate specimens, if they are available.

To kill large specimens, such as butterflies, place them in a freezer for 24 hours. Then carefully place the specimen in a crush-proof-box cushioned with tissue paper. Never send such a sample in cotton since the legs and antennae get tangled in the cotton and will easily break. NEVER MAIL LIVE INSECTS -- it is illegal!

Often it is helpful to submit samples of damage along with the insects. When submitting plant samples, place them in a mailing canister or a cardboard box. Plants should be placed in an unsealed bag. Never place water or moist towels with such a sample. Submit only representative samples and mail them early in the week to guarantee the sample will arrive by Friday in good condition. Your county extension office should be able to supply you with vials and mailing tubes, if it is necessary to mail the sample to the diagnostic laboratory.

The information form is another important aspect of any submittal. These forms should be filled out accurately and thoroughly. Always include your name, the county and your telephone. It is also very important to indicate where an insect was found. Many times such information helps in making an accurate identification. Specific information regarding the exact location of an insect, i.e. near a drain in the basement, is also very beneficial. It is also helpful to know how many insects are occurring. Additional information on collection sites, insect habits and any other pertinent information is also beneficial when making identifications.

Photos of plants may be sent to herbariu@k-state.edu, or mailed to Herbarium, Division of Biology, Ackert Hall, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506-4901.

A directory of insect information is on the Web at http://www.entomology.ksu.edu/desktopDefault.aspx?tabid=375

Common plant problems in Kansas: http://www.oznet.ksu.edu/dp_hfrr/extensn/hortprob.htm


Winter 2003