Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on March 3, 2011. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
MSU lab IDs insects found in Mississippi
MISSISSIPPI STATE – When Mississippians spot a bug they can’t identify, a laboratory at Mississippi State University can help, as long as the insect is in reasonably good condition.
Blake Layton, MSU Extension Service entomologist, said insect identification is a free service offered at MSU’s Extension Insect Identification Laboratory since 2004. Samples can be mailed in, hand-delivered or in some cases, photographed and e-mailed in for identification. Along with the identification, the lab provides information on how to control the insect.
“The quality of the identification and control recommendations depends on the condition of the sample and the detail of the supporting information that is submitted with the sample,” Layton said. “You can’t really develop a good management plan for an insect without knowing what it is. Also, there can be a big difference in the damage potential of two closely related species, so early detection and identification can reduce the cost of treatment.”
In 2010, the lab received 232 physical samples and a similar number of digital photographs for diagnoses.
“Some people submit an interesting insect they have never seen before and are curious about,” Layton said. “In other cases, commercial producers need to know what species of insect pest is damaging their crop and the best methods of controlling that pest.”
Insects commonly sent in for identification are termites, ants and spiders, as well as a variety of insects found inside homes or attacking commercial nursery crops. On occasion, a person cannot find the insect pest, but they do find frass, which are accumulations of powdery or grainy droppings or chewings from the insect. These can be submitted to the Extension Insect Identification Laboratory.
“Sometimes we can determine which insects are causing the frass by clues that can be seen under the microscope, such as the shape of the droppings, or mandibles, legs or other insect parts that are present,” Layton said. “For example, drywood termite droppings are distinctly shaped and easy to identify under magnification, and the frass acrobat ants make when they bore into wood or foam insulation usually contains parts of dead acrobat ants.”
Each year, Mississippians send in samples of insects they think are bed bugs.
“This illustrates the importance of getting proper identification,” Layton said. “If they really are bed bugs, the client must control them, and this process is quite costly and disruptive. But if they are some other insect, control will be different. Just knowing they are not bud bugs saves the client a lot of money and consternation. For the same reason, it’s important to identify termites and many other insects correctly.”
Richard Brown, director of the Mississippi Entomological Museum, explained the process scientists use to identify an insect.
“Some insect species have distinctive color patterns or other features that permit a person with training in taxonomy to make a visual identification,” Brown said. “However, many insect species are small or do not have distinctive, superficial features, and these must be examined with a microscope to find a diagnostic morphological character that can be used to make an identification.”
In many cases, scientists dissect insects and examine their internal anatomical structures to make an identification. They refer to publications and labeled, reference specimens stored in an insect museum to identify many species.
An insect must arrive at the Extension Insect Identification Laboratory in good shape to be identified. Brown offered some tips for how to preserve an insect and submit it for identification.
“Unless it is a moth with scales on its body, insects can be killed and preserved in alcohol. This type of preservation is required for many kinds of caterpillars and insects in soft-bodied, immature stages,” Brown said. “Adult insects can be preserved in a dry form, but they should be submitted in a container with tissue, cotton, or other packing material to prevent them from breaking during shipment.”
Layton said some samples arrive for identification that have just been placed in a plastic bag, put in an envelope and mailed.
“These usually are so broken or smashed in the mail that they are impossible to identify, so take the time to package the sample properly,” Layton said.
To send an insect for identification, mail it to Extension Insect Identification Laboratory, Box 9775, Mississippi State, MS 39762. Include contact information and the plant or site where the insect was collected.