Within the CMNH Section of Invertebrate Zoology resides a program called the Biodiversity Services Facility – the BSF for short. The program is a revenue-generating insect screening and identification service whose principle client is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and Plant Protection and Quarantine Program (PPQ), as well as various state departments of agriculture. The BSF is designed to support time-sensitive survey work being performed by these agencies to detect invasive species, primarily wood-boring beetles.
As the Primary Identifier and Program Manager of the BSF, I can accurately describe 2020 as a busy year by citing a workload of nearly 8,000 raw trap samples generated through 23 survey projects being run in 16 states, stretching from Maine to Georgia and west to Nebraska and Kansas.
So how did it all begin? Let’s take a look…
In 2001, the country suffered the greatest tragedy in recent memory, the terrorist attacks of September 11. As a response, in 2002, the Office of Homeland Security was created, and during the following years, federal funding and personnel were reallocated from efforts to guard against agricultural and environmental threats to increase screening for human-centered security threats to the country. This resource shift created a void in the areas of pest detection and identification, and it became increasingly important to find outside support to help fill the gaps.
In 2005, through collaboration with Dr. Robert Acciavatti, an entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service and a long-time Research Associate in the Section of IZ, a proposal for a proof-of concept study was submitted to the U.S. Forest Service to determine if the museum could provide the needed identification services as a private contractor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The proposal called for funding staff to do the contract work as well as providing some collection support for the Section of Invertebrate Zoology. All aspects of the process were quantified: how long it took to check in samples; the time spent in proofing data; the number of samples that could be screened in a day; the number of specimen ID’s generated from any given sample; the resources needed to archive specimens; and the time involved in managing the activities. And most importantly – could it all be done in a fiscally responsible way to offer a service cheaper than existing options, while generating enough funding to complete the work as well as support the essential staff? The results of the project concluded that, yes… it could.
The icing on the cake during the proof-of-concept study was the detection of an invasive bark beetle species (Coleoptera: Curculionidae: Scolytinae) native to eastern Asia, Anisandrus maiche Stark. It was found in samples collected at the Moon Industrial Park near the Pittsburgh International Airport. It had not previously been recorded from the United States and in subsequent years was found to already have spread into eastern Ohio and the West Virginia panhandle before its discovery in the Pittsburgh area. Not only had the project proved the work could be done at a competitive price for the USDA, it proved that the taxonomic expertise in the Section of IZ was up to the task. The BSF was officially launched in 2006 and to date has processed nearly 95,000 raw samples, generating nearly $2,000,000.00 in outside funding.
First detected in the United States in 2005 by Robert Androw.
(Image courtesy of Dr. Robert Acciavatti)
When I screen samples, I work against a ‘Priority Pest List’ developed by the USDA that contains the exotic species considered to be the greatest potential environmental threats should they be introduced into the country. In addition to the twenty or so priority pests, I screen for nearly 75 other species known to have been previously intercepted at ports or established in the U.S. to aid in monitoring the distribution of those species. The USDA efforts are guided by a practice dubbed EDRR – Early Detection, Rapid Response – a plan of responding quickly to any new pest detection to improve the likelihood that it can be extirpated before it can spread and become a major problem. To help meet this goal, I work under a self-imposed 90-day deadline for every sample – from the time a sample arrives with its associated collection data, it gets processed and the results reported to the client within 90 days. Prior to the BSF’s formation and involvement, samples could sometimes take as long as two years to get processed by the over-taxed screeners within the existing system.
Most samples are collected using one of two types of traps: the Lindgren funnel trap and the Cross-vane panel trap. Both act as “silhouette” traps – their dark, vertical design can appear to be the trunk of a tree to a flying insect. These can effectively capture many species through this deceptive visual cue alone, but most often, the traps are baited with various chemical lures designed to attract specific species or genera of beetles. Traps can be deployed in forests, in urban parks, outside of warehouses or any other location where pest species may potentially be found. Most traps are run for a period of 10-14 days before the sample is removed from the collection cups and submitted to the BSF.
The two most commonly monitored lineages of beetles – Curculionidae (weevils and bark beetles) and Cerambycidae (long-horned beetles) – are both wood-boring taxa, with the damage usually being done by the larvae. The nature of the damage differs across lineages, with most of the damage caused by long-horned beetles being physical in nature – burrows and holes in the wood which hasten decay as well as providing avenues of access to other wood-boring insects. The bark beetles cause a variety of damage but are more likely to spread plant disease by boring into wood and creating chambers in which fungus is deposited by the female as an eventual food source for the larvae. While the long-horned beetles are moderate to large in size, most bark beetles in the weevil subfamily Scolytinae – the primary group of concern – are tiny insects generally less than 3mm in length.
Many target species are small enough to be accidentally discarded if attempts are made to “clean” the sample by removing leaves or other debris. Therefore, the BSF requires raw, unsullied samples to be submitted by our collaborators to ensure that no target taxa are lost during handling of the samples. We have another benign ulterior motive for raw samples to be submitted – to allow us to assess the “bycatch” in detail. This includes examining all specimens in the sample, not just checking for the species on the lists of known pests. This scrutiny ensures the detection of any new invasive not yet known to occur in the country, as was the case with Anisandrus maiche. The bycatch also provides a wealth of native specimens to augment the main IZ research collection. As I screen the samples, I extract all target species, specimens of uncommon to rare native species, specimens representing groups of special interest to the IZ staff, and specimens in groups for which specialists are available to provide identification.
Once the specimens are extracted from the samples, they are prepared and labeled and then sorted by taxonomic groups for identification by me or other specialists. Once ID’d, the specimens have their data captured in a data base with the information made available to the customer through their project page on the BSF web site. In a recent data dump, over 70,000 records of a wide variety of insects, but primarily beetles – were provided to USDA in response to their request for data for a bycatch assessment study. All specimens extracted and data based are permanently archived in the research collections in the Section of Invertebrate Zoology. This allows for reexamination of the actual specimens reported upon as well as providing the comparative material for future identification efforts.
Many of these specimens were acquired from BSF projects over the years.
The bycatch also provides a continual influx of material for various projects underway in the Section of IZ. My personal group of interest is the Cerambycidae – or long-horned beetles – and thousands of specimens have been documented in support of several faunal studies in progress. Lindgren trap samples from West Virginia have generated many records for long-horned beetles that will be used for an eventual publication on the Cerambycidae of West Virginia. Records of ground beetles taken from the trap samples are being compiled for a publication by Robert Davidson, Collection Manager Emeritus, documenting new state records of Carabidae. Thousands of specimens, from many families of beetles, have also been loaned to various specialists to garner determinations to further enhance the main research collection.
All-in-all, the Biodiversity Services Facility is a win-win situation – the funding supports collection staff and provides revenue for supplies and equipment, and the USDA and other clients get much needed support in their screening and identification efforts at a competitive price. The samples provide an annual infusion of specimens into the Carnegie collection and the clients receive information that would be otherwise lost about the insects coming to their traps. And maybe most importantly, the BSF leverages the taxonomic expertise of the IZ staff against real-world problems and contributes to making an impact in protecting our environment from invasive pest species.
Bob Androw is Collection Manager in Invertebrate Zoology. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.