Nature’s Secrets

Entomologists swarm to bug conference

October 14, 2012 

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

Most children have a bug period.

E.O. Wilson, distinguished ant expert from Harvard University

The 2012 International Congress of Entomology was held in Daegu, Korea, in August. The meeting, affectionately nicknamed “the Big Bug Swarm,” brought together insect experts from around the world to discuss important scientific issues pertaining to the billions of arthropods that inhabit our planet.

Thousands of entomologists convened in one place, almost simulating the antics of an ant colony. Termite experts from China met with fire-ant specialists from Florida and figured out ways to control pests. Fly experts (called dipterists) were excited to collaborate on a family tree that traces the evolution of the 150,000 known species of diptera, from mosquitoes to sheep blowflies to the pesky house fly. Conservation biologists came together seeking solutions for the disappearance of important insect pollinators, in decline due to habitat loss.

Many American entomologists had admittedly never heard of Daegu, but this city of 2.5 million is Korea’s third-largest metropolis.

Korea is a fast-paced, high-tech country with modern bullet trains and cityscapes dominated by high-rise condos. Korea’s upscale urban landscapes contrast vividly with thousand-year-old Buddhas and religious temples nestled throughout the countryside.

Korea is verdant – “green” – having conserved 70 percent of its original forested landscape. In autumn, when the maple and oak leaves change color, it visually rivals the hillsides of Vermont.

Despite the amazing landscapes of South Korea, most scientists remained confined within the walls of the conference center, talking passionately into the wee hours about global insect issues. Titles of some of the talks lend a flavor to the technical nature of a scientific conference:

• “Phylogenomic Distribution and Functions of DNA Methylation in Insect Genomes.”

• “Epigenetic Control of Locust Phase Polymorphism.”

• “Microbial Endophytes as Source of Genes Related to Biological Control.”

• “A Preliminary Study on the Behavior Mechanism of Phototactic Response of Rice Planthoppers.”

• “Genomics of the Fig Wasp.”

Although these scientific presentations may sound like Greek to most of the public, such technical conversations lead to global solutions of many expensive and critical problems – pest outbreaks, disease vectors, invasive species and the relatively simple challenge of removing bedbugs. So the next time you hear about a scientific conference convening halfway around the world, rest assured that bringing international experts together to share data will ultimately jump-start solutions that enhance our quality of life.

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

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