Melissa Fierke’s journey to becoming assistant professor of forest entomology at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York, began when the former loan officer discovered a love of hiking, though she quickly discovered that an entomologist is never able to simply walk in the woods. Today, mind-clearing hikes have evolved into page-turning mysteries. “Everywhere, driving along the interstate, on vacations, I’ll see a thinning crown or flagging branches and wonder, ‘What can that be?’”
On this particular morning, Fierke is en route to the Lafayette Road Experiment Station and Heiberg Forest in central New York, for a weekly check of insect traplines. These traplines are similar to those used for mammals, but rather than catching merchantable pelts or pesky mice, she uses them to determine which bugs are where, and how fast the populations are growing. Today she’s trying to trap longhorned beetles, any kind, to nail down a way to effectively monitor for the exotic Asian longhorned beetle.
Fierke and her collaborators have set “flight intercept” traps across the insects’ suspected range. The trap is coated in fluon to prevent insects from getting a foothold; instead, they slide into a catch basin and are euthanized and preserved in a pet-safe antifreeze. She is careful to use the nontoxic variety, because bears in search of an easy snack can upturn a trap. When she works in bear country, she prefers to hang traps above their reach, with pulleys to lower them for weekly maintenance. And, she says, “I sing really loudly so I don’t sneak up on any.”
At each trap, she removes insects and refreshes the antifreeze. She holds up a scorpion-tailed earwig. “I’ve gotten a lot of these. Just when I think I’ve figured out which lure is attracting them, I’ll find them in another trap. It may be that one lure works early in the emergence period – maybe indicating food – and another later during the insects’ lifetime – as a pheromone for mate-finding.” Between traps, she points out poison ivy, an active beehive, and a freshly fallen tree before heading back to campus with the day’s catch.
Back in the lab, she puts alcohol in each collection vial and stows them safely in a cabinet. Later, she and her research aides will identify every insect and add them to a reference collection. She stops at a work bench strewn with field guides and mounting boards to help a student identify an unusual moth, then moves on to her research on European woodwasp (Sirex noctilio).