Entomologist receives National Science Foundation grant to study jewel beetles
The aptly named jewel beetles are found in brilliant iridescent colors with markings that appear to be made with an artist’s hand. But these beautiful bugs can be destructive pests.
LSU AgCenter entomologist and assistant professor Nathan Lord is studying this family of beetles, particularly their vision, to understand if their metallic coloring helps them attract mates or deter predators.
Lord received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study color and vision in jewel beetles.
“Beetles are one of the most diverse organisms on the planet, and I realized we know little about how they see,” Lord said.
Understanding their sight may be key to stopping the destruction they cause.
The emerald ash borer, a member of the jewel beetle family, has killed tens of millions of ash trees in North America. This insect, which is native to China, was first detected in Louisiana in 2015. The borer’s larvae tunnel into the tree’s vascular system, limiting the tree’s ability to take up water and nutrients.
AgCenter researchers believe the emerald ash borer could cause significant ecological damage to Louisiana forests and result in as much $13 million in initial losses to the state’s economy.
Lord is collaborating with researchers at the University of Minnesota, Brigham Young University and an optical physicist with the Adolphe Merkle Institute in Switzerland to understand if the beetles’ eyes are capable of processing color.
Through his research, Lord has discovered that jewel beetles, which come in shades of metallic green and blue, lack a gene that helps them recognize some colors.
“If they can’t see blue, we need to understand how they are finding their mates,” he said.
Lord is setting up a digital imaging lab to study the vision and exoskeleton of the beetles. His research could lead to altering DNA patterns of the beetles, making it more difficult for them to mate, which could reduce their population.
Lord joined the faculty of the LSU AgCenter and LSU College of Agriculture in July. He brought with him a graduate student, Able Chow, and an undergraduate student, Kariann Lamon, who are funded through the grant and will work with him on this project.
Chow studied the flash signals of fireflies while getting his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida.
“While studying fireflies, I became interested in insect vision and mating behavior and how it drives evolution,” Chow said.
Lamon worked in Lord’s lab at Georgia College, where he was an assistant professor. She transferred to LSU this semester to continue her research.
“There is so much we don’t know about insects, and coming to LSU gave me an opportunity learn more and develop as a scientist,” she said.
Lord recently returned from London where he was studying the collection of jewel beetles in Britain’s Natural History Museum.
“The Natural History Museum in London is one of the oldest and most important collections for insects in the world, containing specimens collected by Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle to recent acquisitions by their researchers,” Lord said. “The museum contains hundreds of drawers of jewel beetles, totaling thousands of specimens.”
Lord said he and his students will plan an extended trip to work in the museum’s collection.
Lord’s research has taken him across the world. He has studied insects in Bolivia, Brazil, Madagascar, New Zealand, Rwanda, Vietnam and Central America and conducted research on museum specimens across Europe.
“I was that kid that liked collecting bugs and never quite grew out of it,” he said.