Bertone helps solve insect mysteries

You could call Dr. Matt Bertone a pest detective. If a farmer needs to know what kind of unusual caterpillars are munching on his corn crops, if a gardener wants to know what’s taking out her tomatoes or if a doctor wonders whether the spider that bit a patient was a dreaded brown recluse, Bertone is there to help.

Bertone is an entomologist with NC State University’s Plant Disease and Insect Clinic. Each year thousands of North Carolinians turn to the clinic, mainly to find out what’s damaging their crops or gardens, and it’s his job to handle the cases involving insects and related creatures. Getting the proper pest identification, he says, is the key first step to helping clients figure out how best to control the damage.

Bertone has been building his encyclopedic knowledge of insects and arthropods since he was just 5 years old. As a child, he says, he was too busy drawing pictures of scorpions, reading books about insects and looking at puddle water under microscopes to care much about what other kids considered cool. And for as long as he can remember, he wanted to be an entomologist.

“That’s part of the reason why I love my job. To be good at it, you have to have broad experience,” he says. “And I’ve been looking at insects basically my whole life.”

Born in New York and raised in Pennsylvania, Bertone earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Salisbury University in Maryland. Wanting to specialize in entomology, he ended up at NC State for graduate studies.

With Dr. Wes Watson, now interim head of CALS’ Department of Entomology, Bertone collected and counted almost 90,000 dung beetles to determine which times of the year each of the 30 species he encountered were present in cattle pastures.

Then, with Dr. Brian Weigmann, a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of entomology, Bertone looked at the genetic and evolutionary relationships among the most primitive flies – creatures such as the crane fly and the mosquito, which have been around for some 250 million years. The Ph.D. work was part of a National Science Foundation-funded project to map the entire evolutionary tree of life for Diptera, an order of more than 150,000 species.

From there, Bertone took a post-doctoral research position that called for him to learn more about wasps, then another in which he looked at every arthropod he could find in 50 local homes. Through the latter project, he ended up identifying more than 10,000 insect specimens, including what he calls “bits and pieces” of dead arthropods.

Bertone says that having such diverse experiences positioned him well for the job he’s held in the Plant Disease and Insect Clinic for the past two and a half years.

Whether he’s answering questions “for clients with commercial operations needing good answers to keep their businesses afloat or for homeowners who find something weird and interesting in their homes,” he says, Bertone is happy to help.

Bertone also frequently helps out students or other scientists who need insect IDs. “For their research, they want the best identifications possible, so they’ll bring specimens to me, and in maybe 10 seconds I can usually tell them what it might take them hours to determine,” he says.

In addition to identifying arthropods, Bertone serves as a guest lecturer in CALS classes and presents an every-other-month webinar for Master Gardeners and Cooperative Extension agents. He also frequently speaks at workshops and other events. For example, last fall he led a workshop in Washington, D.C., to teach public garden employees to identify pests. And he delivered a presentation titled “The Most Interesting Critters You’ve Never Heard Of” at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ annual BugFest.

In the winters, when work in the clinic typically slows down, Bertone devotes some time to curating specimens, both ones he collected and ones that are part of NC State’s Insect Museum. He also publishes fact sheets and scientific papers, such as one he co-wrote in 2014 in the journal Clinical Pediatrics about the first two reported cases of brown recluse spider bites in North Carolina.

Although those spider bites were nearly fatal, Bertone is quick to calm fears that recluses are spreading. “Brown recluse spiders have a bad rap. They are probably the most feared spiders, but they are also among the ones least likely to be encountered here,” he says. In North Carolina, they are native to only the western tip of the state, and they are, as their name implies, secretive and not aggressive.

Bertone says that getting to dispel misconceptions about spiders and insects is one of the most compelling aspects of his job. This is his photograph of the crab spider.
Bertone says that getting to dispel misconceptions about spiders and insects is one of the most compelling aspects of his job. This is his photograph of the crab spider.

Getting to dispel misconceptions about spiders and insects is one of the most compelling aspects of Bertone’s job. And so, he says, is the variety.

“Every day is different,” he says. “One day someone might want to know how to preserve butterflies for collections, and another day I might be asked where insects that were found in industrial shipping containers came from.”

As if his job didn’t bring him face-to-face with enough insects, Bertone spends a good bit of his free time creating striking, super-close-up photos of some of the most interesting subjects, which for Bertone means most all of them.

“All of these insects and critters are really important to people’s lives, whether they are agricultural or medical pests – or even if they are doing beneficial things like returning nutrition to the soil,” Bertone says. “It’s great to be able to answer people’s questions and help them find ways to manage the ones that are pests. It’s a perfect job.”

– Dee Shore

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