Emily Meineke: Scaling up research on tiny pest

Listen to what N.C. State University Ph.D. student Emily Meineke has to say about her research on scale insects, tiny but abundant plant parasites.

Scale insects are plant parasites. They are pretty small, and they drink plant juices. They are everywhere, and they are on all different kinds of plants. But normally people don’t see them because they just sit on plants and they don’t move around.They occur in urban areas a lot more than they do in rural areas. They are much more abundant in the city, and so far no one has been able to figure out why.

My name is Emily Meineke, and I’m from Pitt County – Winterville, specifically – in North Carolina. I am a Ph.D. student in entomology, and I want to be a professor one day. And I would like to have my own research program that focuses on human ecology and urban ecology.

My research explores how scale insects respond to urban heat. And so the hypothesis is, The reason that scale are so abundant in urban areas is that it is hotter in urban areas due to the heat-island effect — and the scale benefit from that heat.

The urban heat island effect is a phenomenon where urban areas are between … 1 and 11 degrees Celsius warmer than rural areas because of development and impervious surfaces like sidewalks and roads and also vegetation removal.

Insects are ectothermic, so when it’s hotter they benefit by increasing the amount of babies that they can produce and decreasing the amount of time it takes for them to develop. If they are able to benefit from urban heat, they will eventually be able to benefit from heat that results from climate change, which means, over a longer timescale as climate change progresses, we may see the abundance of scale go up — and scale can kill plants.

I hope that by the time I am done with my Ph.D. that I will have contributed to the amount that we know about how the organisms around us are adapting to humans and how we can encourage around us species that are beneficial for us and how we can avoid encouraging species that are not beneficial to us, like pests.

And I hope that my research gives an advance look at how insects are going to respond to climate change so that when that climate change comes we don’t have to spray everything with pesticides in order to control pests; we will know in advance and we will have developed a more ecologically sound method.

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