Look, I’m going to keep this simple. Thousands of species of pests threaten our crops, and our forests and grasslands too. We do a pretty good job of, once these pests arrive, frantically scurrying to understand them so that we might kill them (or mitigate their effects). But until they arrive, or until they begin to really pose a threat, we mostly ignore them. More than that, we tend to ignore one of the things that I have come to believe is most important to really managing the ecological and evolutionary world, their natural history. What they eat, how they mate, where they live, which microbes they depend upon (or are assailed by), and even how the biology of these species has changed over evolutionary time. These are all questions of natural history and mostly we ignore them. I’ll give you one concrete example. When we store our grain many insects crawl into the grain and eat it, but one group of these insects, species of Sitophilus beetles, are real specialists. They lay one baby, one egg, in each grain. The baby hatches and becomes a larva and eats the grain from the inside until it is full. It then crawls out and mates. But for as much as we know this, we don’t know when these beetles lost their wings (they did), when they picked up the mutualistic bacteria upon which they depend to digest our crappy grain, or even where these beetles are native in the first place and what they did there before they started eating our grain. We don’t even have good guesses. Yet, all of these questions are things we know how to study. Someone could study them. YOU should study them.
In the meantime, if you have published a paper in which you have studied the natural history of a pest, a paper you think is elegant, transformative, or just cool, you can enter it here to win a prize of $500. This money is for students only, though if you are a faculty member and have done interesting work on the natural history of pests we want to hear from you too (you just won’t get any money). And, if you have some money you want to donate, in order to support students doing this important work, work that has so long gone undone, you can donate here.
In the meantime, pay attention when you see an insect eating a crop, or your bushes, or a tree behind your house. You may well be the only one doing so, paying attention that is, in the entire world.