They arrive in jars, bags, boxes and envelopes. Alive and dead. All considered a nuisance at best and a threat at worst. And with that standard introduction, the seasoned staff of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Insect and Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab gets to work identifying the pests and the problems, raising public awareness, and ensuring the health and safety of Maine citizens and their food supply.
The diagnostic lab gets an average of 2,500 queries a year — calls, emails, mail and walk-ins — on subjects ranging from whether a certain caterpillar could have caused a child’s rash and if this tick is the kind that carries Lyme disease to why tomato plant leaves are turning yellow and have black spots.
“Our role is to educate people on what their pest or plant disease situation is and how to manage it,” says UMaine Extension pest management specialist Jim Dill. “We stress identification of the problem — and if it even is a problem. Not all bugs are bad. And we stress integrated pest management (IPM) and minimal pesticide use.”
The top pest bugging citizens today: the bedbug. Calls to the lab from homeowners to hotel managers have increased 100-fold in the last four years, prompting Dill and the other experts in the Insect and Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab to regularly provide self-help strategies and produce a video on what to do on your next overnight hotel stay.
Two of the most recent threats in Maine with economic development implications are the spotted-wing drosophila, an invasive fruit fly that could affect the wild blueberry industry, and late blight, a plant disease that impacts tomatoes and potatoes. Both have UMaine Extension’s IPM experts on the front lines of prevention and defense.