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In pest war, the bug stops here

When he shows up for work, David Nickle usually finds jewelry box-size packages scattered on his office floor, shipped from all over the world.

The contents aren't particularly exotic - at least to the untrained eye.

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They're dead bugs, and they are what makes up the working life of Nickle, an entomologist at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.

Termites from France. Katydids from Afghanistan. Thrips from South America.

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Nickle is one of the nation's foremost experts at identifying pests, insects that can cost farmers, gardeners and homeowners billions if left unchecked. His job is to keep as many pests as possible out of the country and to spot potential plagues before they begin.

He does this by identifying whatever is sent - by federal port inspectors, university researchers, farmers and anyone else who finds an unusual bug at home or in an office.

Nickle's tools are his dozens of reference books, a microscope, a storeroom filled with dead bugs and the inventory he keeps in his head from 29 years of studying insects. He specializes in three types: termites, katydids and thrips, mite-sized insects that feed on fruits, vegetables and other plants.

If you think it's easy, consider this: There are 2,500 species of termites in the world, 4,000 species of thrips and 6,377 species of katydids, a cricket-like insect named for the sound it makes.

"Learning a fauna of insects takes time, and that's why there's so few experts able to do it," said James L. Castner, an entomologist and consultant who recruited Nickle in the 1980s to help collect and identify rare katydids in Peru's Amazon rain forest.

Nickle, a soft-spoken man, said he entered entomology because he has been fascinated since his youth by the variety of katydid colors and sizes.

A tour of Nickle's storeroom of bugs confirms this. Here, Nickle shows off a drawer filled with bright-green katydids as big as a man's fist that he collected in the Amazon. Another drawer holds jet-black ones the size of teardrops that were shipped from Africa.

"It's amazing the variety nature can offer when you look," said Nickle, 59.

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Identifying a pest helps federal inspectors determine whether the ship where the bug was found should be quarantined and fumigated. It also helps federal officials determine whether a new type of pest is making its way into a farmer's field or is slipping through on airport baggage.

At stake is protection of the foods and fibers produced by U.S. farmers, many of the products that are imported to the United States, and many wild plants and trees. Billions of dollars can be lost.

The Formosan termite, an import from China believed to have arrived in wooden packing crates after World War II, causes $1 billion a year in damage to buildings and wood products.

The boll weevil, a pest intensively studied by other scientists, has cost U.S. cotton growers $22 billion since its arrival in 1892.

A lot on the line

Nickle's job is pressure-packed, say experts.

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"Museums have a week or two weeks to identify an insect; he'll have to do it in a day," said Theodore Cohn, a katydid expert at the University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology. "His job is really sort of nerve-wracking."

Nickle acknowledges the pressure. On his desk is a nameplate given by a friend that reads: The Bug Stops Here.

"You have all this traffic all over the world, all these goods moving from one country to another, you're going to have problems," he said.

Insects are dumped on Nickle's desk each morning, marked with the date they were found and the location.

Nickle gives shipments from federal port inspectors top priority. They must be identified within 24 hours so that ships where the bugs were found can be fumigated or sent on their way.

Specimens from homeowners with infestation problems or from professors doing research papers get second priority and are completed in two to six weeks, he said. Identifications for long-term research projects will sometimes take a few months, he said.

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Termites, with their wood-munching ways, might be the most vilified pest that Nickle studies. But Nickle said the greatest threat to U.S. crops and vegetation of the insects he studies are thrips, which damage orange groves, commercially grown flowers and grains such as wheat and barley.

Thrips reproduce quickly, live in a variety of habitats and are small enough to go undetected in a shipment of flowers or vegetables, he said. A single flower can contain dozens of thrips - and three or four species on a single flower - visible only as tiny black dots on the edges of a petal.

"When something is that small, it's easier for it to sneak through," he said.

Last week, a typical day began with about 20 packages of bugs on the floor near Nickle's desk. The bugs arrive packed in pencil-size glass vials, floating in alcohol to preserve them. The vials are shipped by FedEx in plastic foam cubes to keep them from breaking.

In one day's shipment, termites from France arrived alongside katydids from Afghanistan.

The katydids were shipped from Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey and were sent by the Air Force, the first such shipment since the conflict in Afghanistan began, Nickle said.

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The French termites are part of a project by the Agricultural Research Service to try to find a biological control agent - a bug - that will attack and wipe out the Formosan termite.

"They want to know where these termites exist and what insects or fungi might serve as a natural predator to fight it," Nickle said.

Identification

Sometimes, Nickle can make an identification with the naked eye. Sometimes he uses his reference books and microscope.

Occasionally, he has been stumped. When that happens, he often takes his sample for a comparison with specimens in the collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences Museum in Philadelphia.

"Definitely, I've been stumped once in a while," he said. "It goes with the job."


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