Tag Archives: State of the Lab

Hindsight: 2020 Trends at the Wisconsin Insect Diagnostic Lab

When the COVID situation reared its head back in March of 2020, I wasn’t sure how it would impact activities at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.  While there was a shift to handling diagnostics mostly remotely, in the end, 2020’s caseload of 2,533 ID requests was just shy of 2019’s all-time record of 2,542 cases.  

With Governor Evers’ Stay-at-Home Order last spring, our attentions were occupied by the unraveling pandemic and caseload at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab was lighter than usual around that time.  However, as Wisconsinites shifted to working from home, it meant spending more time in yards and many Wisconsinites pulled out their green thumbs and established COVID “Victory Gardens”.  As a result, the diagnostic lab saw a record number of cases in July of 2020, with close to 600 ID requests that month alone. 

Monthly caseload at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab in 2020. Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology.

Outreach activities of the lab saw a dramatic shift as well.  With in-person presentations and workshops off the table, virtual events afforded new opportunities—like a Japanese beetle seminar in July which drew nearly 900 participants. Regular events, like my appearances on WPR’s The Larry Meiller Show also continued through 2020, although I fielded calls from my home’s “reading nook” rather than the WPR studio.  

One of the biggest insect stories of 2020 was the Asian giant hornet.  Last May we learned that Asian giant hornets had survived the winter in the Pacific Northwest.  This of course led to a distinct increase of so-called “sightings” of that insect in Wisconsin, although every  “sighting” ended up being common insects from our area.  Last year, I saw dozens of ID requests for insects which ended up being look-alikes such as cicada killer wasps, pigeon horntails, and great golden digger wasps.  To date, the nearest sighting of the Asian giant hornet is well over 1,000 miles from us here in Wisconsin and poses no immediate threat to the upper Midwest.  Further reading: 6 Things to Know about the Asian Giant Hornet.

Some invasive pests had big years as well.  The viburnum leaf beetle, lily leaf beetle, purple carrot seed moth, and brown marmorated stink bug all increased their footholds in the state. Japanese beetle numbers varied a lot depending on where you were located in Wisconsin.  Some areas saw little pressure during droughty periods, while other parts of Wisconsin saw high Japanese beetle activity.  Gypsy moths had been quiet in Wisconsin for several years, but increased their numbers last year.  I saw a distinct increase of gypsy moth cases in 2020, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on that species in 2021.   

Come fall, we saw some stretches of unseasonably pleasant temperatures in October, November, and December.  During those periods, multicolored Asian lady beetles—which had been lurking in the background for several years—returned to the spotlight.  The multicolored Asian lady beetle activity around Wisconsin was some of the highest of the last decade.  Not to be left out of the fun, minute pirate bugs were abundant in some parts of the state and made warm, sunny fall days a little less pleasant due to their biting habits.  Speaking of biting insects, black flies were abundant in 2020 and made outdoor activities more challenging in June and July.  Mosquito activity varied around the state, although we did see a few cases of the Eastern Equine Encephalitis in 2020.

While we won’t see a big emergence of 17-year periodical cicadas in Wisconsin until 2024, small numbers of out-of-sync “stragglers” did emerge in southeastern Wisconsin last summer. 

A female Dryinid wasp. The forelegs are highly modified into scythe-like claws used to grasp other insects. Photo credit: Ty Londo.

No two years are the same at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab and that includes some of the “X-Files” type cases as well.  Some of my favorite cases from 2020 include identifying phorid flies from dead radioactive cats (it’s a long story…), a grim-reaper-esque dryinid wasp, several massive black-witch moths from Central America, and a case involving a black widow spider found in a head of broccoli from the grocery store.  Never a dull moment at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab!

—PJ Liesch
Director, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

Insect Diagnostics in the Age of COVID-19

Update (5/10/21): Visitors are once again welcome to drop off samples at the diagnostic lab.  Please follow all posted signs in Russell Labs regarding campus mask policies.

Some work of the IDL continues to be done remotely.  A sample drop-box has been installed on the IDL lab door, if the lab happens to be closed when you stop by.


Original Post Date: 3/20/2020

Since early 2020,  COVID-19 has changed the ways that Americans go about their everyday lives. Here in Madison, WI, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has taken a number of steps in response to the COVID-19 situation such as switching to online classes and having most employees work remotely. The full details of UW-Madison’s response can be found here: covid19.wisc.edu.

Despite the disruptions, part of the Wisconsin Idea is that the activities of institutions like UW-Madison should provide benefits to residents in all reaches of the state. To that end, the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab remains open to provide insect/arthropod identification and outreach services to residents of Wisconsin, with some notable changes. Bookmark this page for updates which will be posted as they arise.

General Diagnostics & Questions:
Many of the services of the IDL, such as email photo submissions, remain unchanged. Important points are noted below:

  • Arthropod ID requests (insects, spiders, etc.) can still be submitted to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab
  • Digital photographs are the best way to submit an ID request in the time of COVID-19. See this webpage for required information and tips on submitting insect images.
  • Visitors are still not allowed in the diagnostic lab at this time, but can drop off samples in the drop box on the lab door.  Samples are picked up multiple times per week.
  • Physical samples  are still accepted by mail, UPS, FedEx or other couriers.  Please see this webpage for instructions on how to submit physical samples by mail.
  • General insect questions can still be submitted by email to pliesch@wisc.edu (best option) or by phone. I will continue to have regular email access while working remotely, but phone responses will likely be delayed.  Email is the best way to reach me.

Outreach:
The UW Insect Diagnostic Lab regularly provides outreach around Wisconsin via public radio, workshops, public seminars, and other venues. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 situation is impacting in-person delivery of this outreach. See below for additional details:

  • In-person presentations provided by the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab have been cancelled until further notice.
  • If interested in distance education (via Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.), feel free to reach out to me by email (pliesch@wisc.edu).

In the meantime, stay safe and feel free to check out the many insect-related blog posts over the last few years to take your mind off of COVID-19: https://insectlab.russell.wisc.edu/blog/

Current auxiliary location of the UW-Insect Diagnostic Lab.

State of the Lab Address 2016

What’s been “crawling” in the UW-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab this past year?   Find out in this three part series.

The State of the IDL in 2016

Caseload
It was another busy year around the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. By the end of 2016, the lab had identified 2,444 specimens, slightly up from 2015’s record number of 2,423 specimens. As in 2015, ~95% of these cases came from within Wisconsin, with just over 4% of samples coming from other states and ~1% coming from other countries.

1-Wisconsin Cases-2016
2-USA Submissions-2016
3-World Map-2016

 

Sample Submission
Overall, lab statistics were very similar to other years in the recent past, with roughly half of the lab samples coming in during the months of June, July, and August. The majority of samples consisted of digital images coming in from the general public. County Extension offices and agents accounted for the next largest number of samples, having submitted over a quarter of all samples processed in the lab. Other sources of samples included the green industry, medical and public health professionals, pest control professionals, farmers and agricultural consultants, and other colleagues in the UW system and state or federal agencies.

4-Monthly Chart-2016
5-Types of Samples-2016
6-Who Submits Samples-2016
7-Sample Source-2016

 

Sample Identity
Very similar to 2015, over 90% of the specimens came from five major groups of insects:

  • Coleoptera: beetles, such as Japanese beetles and carpet beetles
  • Hemiptera: “true Bugs”, such as aphids, and boxelder bugs
  • Hymenoptera: ants, bees, wasps, and yellowjackets
  • Lepidoptera: moths, butterflies, and their young (caterpillars)
  • Diptera: “true flies”, such as house flies and mosquitoes
Click for larger view

Outreach efforts of the IDL in 2016 included over 90 public talks at a variety of events throughout the state, over 30 media interviews, and regular appearances on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Larry Meiller Show”.  Numerous articles and other publications came out of the lab in 2016, including a Wisconsin Bee Identification Guide and an urban pollinator conservation guide to help increase awareness of pollinators and pollinator conservation. The services provided to Wisconsin residents by the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab and its outreach efforts are one of the many examples of the Wisconsin Idea.

Up Next: Wisconsin’s Top Insect Trends of 2016 (Numbers 10-6)

State of the Lab Address 2015

What’s been “crawling” in the UW-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab this past year?   Find out in this three part series.

The State of the IDL in 2015

Caseload
While it wasn’t exceptionally “buggy” in Wisconsin this past year, 2015 ended up seeing the highest annual caseload ever handled by the UW-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab. The previous annual caseload record belonged to 2013, with 2,207 specimens. In 2015, the lab identified a whopping 2,423 specimens from 71 of the 72 Wisconsin counties. The vast majority of cases, (>94%; 2,287 specimens) originated from within the state of Wisconsin, 93 samples (digital images) came from other U.S. states, and 43 international samples (digital images) were handled by the IDL in 2015*. As expected, the bulk of the submissions came during the warmer months when insects are most active as illustrated below:

2015 IDL Caseload
Click for larger view

 

Sample Submission
Overall, roughly half of the samples processed by the lab in 2015 consisted of digital images, which is similar to other recent years; the remainder of the cases involved physical specimens or verbal descriptions of the insects.  Approximately half of the processed samples were submitted by the general public, over a quarter came from UW-Extension county agents/support staff, and smaller quantities came in from pest control professionals, agricultural producers and consultants, members of the green industry (lawn care, arborists, nursery), medical and public health professionals, and colleagues in academia and government agencies such as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection.

2015 Sample Submission by Group
Click for larger view

 

Sample Identity
In 2015, the Insect Diagnostic Lab’s database was upgraded to include real-time statistics on the identity of specimens submitted to the lab. Overall, >80% of the samples handled by the lab were Hexapods (insects and close relatives, such as springtails), >10% were arachnids (spiders, mites, ticks) and myriapods (centipedes and millipedes), and the remainder of the cases involved other animals (slugs, crustaceans, vertebrates, etc.) or other factors (plant disease, physiological plant stress, and non-living or unidentifiable specimens). Of the insect specimens processed in 2015, 21 different major insect groups (orders) were represented as shown in the chart below. Of these groups, 5 orders in particular made up 92% of the specimens handled by the IDL last year:

  • Coleoptera: beetles, such as Japanese beetles and carpet beetles
  • Hemiptera: “true Bugs”, such as aphids, and boxelder bugs
  • Hymenoptera: ants, bees, wasps, and yellowjackets
  • Lepidoptera: moths, butterflies, and their young (caterpillars)
  • Diptera: “true flies”, such as house flies and mosquitoes
2015 Samples by Taxa
Click for larger view

Interestingly, submissions can vary quite a bit throughout the year as illustrated by the prevalence of caterpillars seen this past spring as described in an earlier blog post.

Other Lab Activities
In addition to providing diagnostic services and pest management advice, another major function of the Insect Diagnostic Lab is to provide insect-related outreach for UW-Extension and the UW-Madison Entomology Department. To that end, IDL staff delivered 105 presentations at workshops, field days, seminar series, and other events and participated in dozens of Extension and outreach events throughout Wisconsin in 2015 (State Fair, Garden Expo, summer children’s programs, etc.). IDL staff also conducted 36 radio, TV, and newspaper interviews in 2015, including 7 (1.5 hour) episodes on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Larry Meiller Show”. Eight Extension factsheets and other publications were authored or co-authored by IDL staff in 2015 and the Insect Diagnostic Lab and associated “Insect ID” website were viewed over 400,000 times in 2015.

Up Next, Part II: Wisconsin’s Top Insect Trends of 2015 (Numbers 10-6)

* In case you’re curious, international cases in 2015 came from 11 different countries on four continents: Mexico, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom, Italy, Greece, Nigeria, Zambia, India, Bhutan, the Philippines, and Japan.