Life in Miniature

Hunter works on very small insects, and within those insects, the bacteria that inhabit their bodies. Photo credit: Laura Markowitz.
October 26, 2011

Sometimes the smallest things around us can have the biggest affect on our lives. Take insects, for example. Sure, hornets can have a nasty sting and mosquitoes bite. But without insects, crops wouldn’t grow, our world would pile up with waste, and humanity as we know it probably wouldn’t even exist.

At the University of Arizona, the department of entomology understands that importance and strives for excellence when it comes to making discoveries about the insect world. In 2007, the Chronicle of Higher Education ranked the UA second in the nation for faculty scholarly productivity in the field.

Molly Hunter, Ph.D., UA professor of entomology, is one of those individuals who not only strives for greatness, but has truly made her life around these amazing creatures. Even though the ones she studies are only about the size of a period on a printed page, she has a deep passion for the subjects of her study and describes them as “elaborate and colorful and beautiful.”

Hunter’s current research is focused on the sweet potato whitefly, Bemisia tabaci, and within those whiteflies, bacteria called Rickettsia. To do that work, she uses some seriously high-tech instruments, including electron microscopes, fluorescent microscopes and more.

“The whitefly we study in the laboratory is one of the most invasive species,” she says. “It’s on the top 15 list for invasive pests worldwide.”

Along with being vectors for viruses, the whiteflies Hunter studies are harmful to crops, causing problems like sticky cotton and silver leafing in melons.

One of the important regulators of these whiteflies a species of parasitic wasp, Encarsia inaron, which has captured Hunter’s wonder and is one of the focuses of her research. 

“If you look at these parasitic wasps under the microscope, they’re a little bit chubby, with little gossamer wings,” she says. “I think I work with the most adorable insects, actually.”

The Encarsia inaron wasp lays its eggs in the immature whiteflies, also called nymphs. When the eggs hatch, the nymphs serve as a ready food source for the developing wasps.

“Our hope is that our research will eventually lead to sustainable methods of pest management that rely less on broad spectrum pesticides,” says Hunter, who describes such methods as better for the environment than broad-spectrum chemical pesticides. Since these are methods of pest control that leverage processes already at work in the ecosystem, they are better for the water, the soil, the natural enemies who are providing the control, the pollinators, and of course, the humans.

As a researcher, Hunter’s work is constantly generating new discoveries and knowledge. Not only does she love that moment of discovering something new, but she also has grown to appreciate and enjoy watching her undergraduate and graduate students become engaged in that discovery.

“It’s so powerful and exciting to discover something that no one has ever known before,” she says. “I see that in my graduate students when they find something new, and I see that in undergraduates who are working in the laboratory and get really fired up, and I even see that in my introductory biology class when I tell them a story that they just can’t quite believe because it’s so amazing, about the natural world.”

The 2011 Arizona Insect Festival

On Saturday, September 24, 2011, the University of Arizona Mall was overrun by creepy-crawlies from around the world.

No, it wasn’t some kind of bad b-movie hatching into reality from a nightmarish campus cocoon. On the contrary, the 2011 Arizona Insect Festival, consisting of 25 tents and staffed by undergraduate students, graduate students and professors, transformed the grassy Mall into any young entomologist’s dream.

Geared specifically to families and children, the festival offered activities, exhibits and collections to help teach community members about the importance of insects in our lives, from how they help maintain healthy ecosystems to their roles in crop production and the spread of disease to their impact on urban environments.

Given that the UA is home to one of the largest and most important groups of insect scientists in the world, this was naturally the perfect spot for such an event.

“The University of Arizona is one of the top research universities in the country,” says Hunter, who ran the Life in Miniature booth with her students and fellow researchers. “It’s a privilege to be a researcher here. There’s really no limit to the resources that are available here.”

Check out all the booths and photos of the event at the 2011 Arizona Insect Festival website.
Visit the UA Department of Entomology.

View YouTube- "Life in Miniature"