What’s bugging you?

What’s bugging you?

Aug 3
Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

by Matthew Mote

“Why spiders? Why couldn't it be ‘follow the butterflies?’”

― Ron Weasley, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

It’s been two years running, and I still love my internship. I work for Kelly Estes in the Illinois Cooperative Agriculture Pest Survey (CAPS) program at the Illinois Natural History Survey, and it’s been a wonderful experience.

How exactly did I score this great opportunity? I actually found this internship by chance. I didn’t know Kelly before I started working, but one of my ABE peers, Emma Sementi, worked for Kelly between her senior year of high school and her freshmen year of college. She mentioned it offhand when we first met at orientation, and it stuck in my head.

As a freshman in college, finding an engineering internship can be challenging, and by challenging, I mean almost impossible. Around February of my freshman year, I asked Emma how I could get in contact with her summer boss to see if there was still a position available. Lo and behold, there was! After email and a subsequent interview, I had my first internship set up for the summer after my freshmen year of college. I couldn’t have been happier! 

To be completely honest, I had no clue what I would be doing until about a week in. I just knew it involved bugs and driving, and I was happy I had the opportunity to stay on campus and do research for the summer instead of going home and working at Dairy King. (Yes, I spelled that right. It’s a hometown specialty restaurant with great food, and I recommend you check out one of their two locations if you’re ever passing through southwestern Illinois).

The pest survey covers multiple regions across Illinois and several agriculture industries including forests, orchards, vineyards, and corn and soybean fields. And how do we catch these illusive pests? What would you say if I told you we run into fields with comically large butterfly nets and beat long grass and bushes hoping for the best? Because, in fact, that’s how we do field and ditch sweeps. Of course, it’s more technical than that; there is proper form and number of sweeps to accomplish per field along the exterior and within the interior, but that’s the gist of it.

The nets are then emptied into sample collection bags, brought back to the lab, frozen, and the number and type of bugs are recorded. Based on those numbers, we can estimate population density across the state. While we’re in the fields, we also look for corn and soybean diseases and even a few nematodes. The soil samples and plant diseases are not quite within our scope of expertise, so we send suspect samples to experts in their fields (ahh, see what I did there?) to verify our diagnoses. The process is roughly the same for the traps set in fields, forests, vineyards, and orchards, though instead of running around with nets, we set the traps and check back every two weeks.

If you have any questions about a position like this (or ABE or U of I in general) feel free to email me at mfmote2@illinois.edu. I will be happy to get back to you to tell you what I can.

Matthew Mote is a junior in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.