by Phil Cable and Brian Clark,
WSU CAHNRS and Extension Marketing, News, and Educational Communications
A diverse crowd of students and friends swarmed Ensminger Pavilion. Their purpose? To eat bugs at the annual Bug Buffet.
Most of the students were from associate professor and entomology department chair Rich Zack’s entomology 101 class. While many students in the class refused to try to the mealworm tacos and cricket chili, they brought friends whose express purpose was exactly that.
“I’d eat a chocolate-covered ant,” said ento 101 student Grady Maxwell, “but not mealy worm tacos.” Calder Brauchla, on the other hand, thought the tacos tasted great, “though they have a kind of earthy aftertaste.” Eric Alvarez concurred, saying the cricket chili tasted, well, like chili except “a little crunchy.” Classmates Karleen Caples and Molly Hennessy were both adamant: “No bugs!” Their friend, Ryan Clifton, came along because although he isn’t in Zack’s class, he wanted to try some food made with insects.
The annual event is sponsored by the WSU Entomology Club. The Club has a food-handling permit and its graduate student members do all the serving. At this year’s Bug Buffet, the Club served, in addition to both bug and non-bug version of chili and tacos, a wide variety of pastries and beverages containing honey.
Graduate student Melissa Gaver was serving chili with a smile. “Bugs are in everything we eat,” she said. “There’s no way to avoid it.” Although the Food and Drug Administration regulates the amount of bug bits in our food, zero tolerance just isn’t possible. “We all eat bugs,” she said, gesturing at the bowl of chili she was enjoying, “though I don’t eat insects on a regular basis.”
Rich Zack agreed. Over the years he’s been teaching the class, he’s garnered a reputation as a bug eater. “But let’s be clear, I just do it once a year. It’s a novelty, something that’s different from lecture and something that the students will talk about years later.” He says he has mellowed over the years and shifted the Bug Buffet more toward foods that contain honey in order to increase participation.
Grad student Judy Wu is researching the residual effects of pesticides on bees. As she served up a splash of mead, a wine made from honey, she explained her love of entomology. “The field is full of fun, colorful people. We’re kind of the underdogs and so we’re always doing thing to promote awareness of the science.”
That awareness-building effort is paying off. Rylie Sedustine, a hospitality major who hopes to work in the restaurant industry, said the class is so much fun “it makes it easier than other classes.” She added that she doesn’t plan to serve insects in her restaurant. While munching on a mealy worm taco, theatre major Kirsten Smith said she was enjoying the class and that the Bug Buffet was a fun idea. Meghan Converse said, “I love it!” Smith’s friend Ali Kissinger reinforced the message, adding, “You have to. Professor Zack has such a great sense of humor.”
It’s easy to understand the popularity of the class. Students get a solid grounding in general entomology and insect management, and also delve into insects in art, religion, mythology, literature, and, yes, food. Paralleling the popularity of the CSI TV series, forensic entomology is a hot topic as bugs can help investigators determine time of death.
Zack’s ultimate objective is to get students to learn about insects and to be able to appreciate them outside of the class. “Science is all around us,” he says, “insects are all around us.”
Grad Students Serve Up Tasty Research
WSU’s graduate program in entomology attracts students from all over the world to research a wide range of topics. Doctoral student Melissa Gaver might be a chili server at the Bug Buffet, but in real life she studies the biology and ecology of the hobo spider. “They don’t deserve their reputation,” she said, pointing out that analysis of the spider’s venom has not turned up any necrotic properties.Garver’s fellow chili server, Andrew Rodstrom, is researching arthropod communities in hybrid poplar forests. The phylum arthropod includes insects and spiders, and Rodstrom wants to know what happens to populations of these creatures when poplar forests are harvested. Poplar is a fast-growing tree with many uses, including paper making, and companies like Greenwood, which helps fund Rodstrom’s research, want to take a sustainable approach to wood production.Tobin Northfield is working on a master’s degree and focusing on controlling aphids on pea plants using the aphid’s natural predators, such as a tiny wasp. Diverse and thriving populations of predators, Northfield suspects, will control the aphid pest better than a single predator. Likewise, Shawn Steffan is also studying predator diversity, or what he calls “the ecology of fear.”Ricardo Ramirez is working on biological controls of pests, as well. His research focuses on using a microscopic nematode to deliver a deadly toxin to the Colorado potato beetle, a major pest that costs spud producers lots of money. The nematode, Ramirez said, “is like a torpedo” aimed at the beetle, and “the bacterium is the killing agent.”WSU entomologists are known the world over for coming up with effective alternatives to pesticides and ways of reducing pesticide use. Biological controls developed at WSU, such as pheromones to control coddling moth, a major pest of apples, are now used all over the world. Teams of integrated pest management researchers regularly win major awards for saving forests of poplars from devastation and increasing the productivity of vineyards by developing innovative ways of applying minimal amounts of pesticides in such a way that the chemical never actually touches the grapes.You may not be able to eat the results of this research, but for farmers and orchardists all over the world, entomological science from WSU is money in the bank. And that puts food