Why I Study Insects and Who I Am

Welcome to my first ever blog! My name is Dalton Ludwick. I am currently working on a Ph.D. in entomology. I thought I would start this blog by telling you about a big part of my life. Insects, insects, and more insects.

As a child, I would pick up worms and place them in my pockets. My mom hated finding these after the clothes were washed. My brother and I also competed to collect the most cicada shells (exuviae) each summer. I also chased and caught fireflies. When I mowed our yard, I saw so many little flying things. It was much later that I found out that these small insects were mostly leafhoppers. In short, there were many experiences with insects, but never with any real scientific curiosity.

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A firefly (lightningbug) crawling across a window screen on the outside of my house.

Let’s fast forward to high school. I became involved with FFA my freshman year. With encouragement from my ag advisors, I competed in several Career Development Events (CDEs). Thanks to FFA (formerly known as the Future Farmers of America), I found out about entomology and was even able to compete in the entomology CDE my junior year. As part of the CDE, we learned about important agricultural pests, beneficial insects, and many other insects. Between the joy in FFA and strong interest in entomology, I realized my passion was to help agriculture through entomology. After we competed in the Missouri State FFA competition, I shifted my attention from a career in architecture to a career in entomology. My ag advisors helped me find entomology and related degrees (e.g. plant sciences) so that I could apply to the right degree programs.

I went to the University of Missouri-Columbia (Mizzou) and enrolled in Plant Sciences with an emphasis in Plant Protection. If I had any hope to improve agriculture, then I felt I needed to know how plants respond to insects. Fortunately, my first entomological job was in the Wilbur R. Enns Entomology Museum and not in a laboratory studying pests. This expanded my knowledge of insects so very much. Having never left the United States, I could barely imagine the incredibly diversity of insects across the world. Every chance I got, I’d peek into random drawers of butterflies from South America, grasshoppers from Africa, beetles from Asia. There are even fascinating insects in backyards and forests in the United States. Visually, insects are simply remarkable.

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An owlet moth (Leuconycta diptheroides) stands still on a mirrored glass. The photo was taken in my backyard at night.

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A plume moth (Pterophoridae) found resting on the side of my house after being attracted by light.

As a side note, you should definitely visit an entomological museum at least once in your life.

The manager at the museum dragged me to a monthly C.V. Riley Entomological Society meeting. It was there I met others with a deep fascination of insects. Thanks to the graduate students and other undergraduates in the group, I was welcomed and got to participate in collecting trips. I had no clue how much fun I was missing out on until my first collecting trip. It’s one thing to see dead insects from all over the world, but it’s another thing entirely to see these hopping, crawling, and flying.

Because insects are so cool, I check for insects everywhere I go. I look in my backyard all the time. I check the same parks I’ve searched hundreds of times. I’ve posted some pictures of these insects here. Still, I find new insects almost every single day. It’s not just me. Other researchers and insect enthusiasts experience this.

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A leafhopper (Graphocephala sp.) found in Missouri. You don’t have to travel far to see such wonders.

After a couple years in the museum, I landed a job in a lab studying western corn rootworm and left the museum. Finally, I found a job which combined agriculture and entomology. I got to become involved with research an insect which impacts corn growers most years. Western corn rootworm is known as a “billion dollar bug” because it costs corn growers approximately one billion dollars (USD) each year through yield losses and the amount it costs to reduce damage. This insect impacts corn growers across the corn growing areas of United States. This same insect even causes problems in Europe where it is an invasive pest.

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A female western corn rootworm (Diabrotica virgifera virgifera LeConte) feeding on corn leaves.

This lab is where I now study and conduct my dissertation research as part of my doctoral degree. This lab has documented different ways we (industry, academia, and growers) can control western corn rootworm or better conduct research. Ultimately, I hope my research helps at least one farmer. It would fulfill my goal set by my high school self.

Want to learn more about insects? You should follow these amazing people and many other entomologists on Twitter: Catherine Scott, Sean McCann, Gil Wizen, Gwen Pearson, Creepy Crawlies with Christy, Alex Wild, Ainsley S, and Phil Torres.

Have a great day!

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