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Childhood fascination becomes vocation for entomologist

Michael Toews' childhood hobby of studying insects has grown into a career as an entomologist.

Michael Toews' childhood hobby of studying insects has grown into a career as an entomologist.

TIFTON, Ga. -- Michael Toews' fondness for studying insects started early as a child growing up in Kansas.

"It's safe to say I had the largest insect collection in my high school, hands down," Toews joked.

Growing up in the Midwest, Toews enjoyed studying tiny insects like ground beetles and grasshoppers. That early love of collecting and examining insects led him to become an expert on all kinds of insects, especially the one's that cause havoc in Georgia farm fields.

"I can remember beetles as a kid, being an area of fascination. There's a certain beetle species in the Midwest that actually has a defensive compound that they raise up their hind legs and squirt it at you," Toews said. "As kids, we took great delight in trying to get the beetles to squirt it as often as possible."

Toews' insect collection has grown since high school. The associate professor of entomology on the Tifton campus of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences spends a bulk of his time studying numerous crop pests, including stink bugs, thrips and whiteflies. Toews, who came to UGA in 2006, studies insects' behavior and movement within a field, whether it is in corn, cotton or soybeans.

Trying to figure out how bugs think and predict how they're going to behave is a rewarding and challenging endeavor, he said.

"The pests don't necessarily show up at the same exact time each year. Some years, worms can be a real problem. A beet armyworm for example, just seems to appear out of nowhere," Toews said. "It leads you to wonder, but it also means that we've got work to do to get it all figured out."

While Toews grew up fascinated by all kinds of bugs, he can understand why farmers aren't as enamored with the insects that eat their crops.

"As an undergraduate I worked as a crop scout, walking wheat and corn fields while looking for insect pests. I was also interested in wildlife biology, but I knew that insects were going to be a better way to make a living," Toews said. "People are always going to have a need to control insects. That was one of the things that pushed me in that direction."

One insect that Toews and fellow UGA researchers hope to contain is the stink bug. According to the UGA CAES Department of Entomology website, stink bugs feed on fruiting structures -- like cotton bolls -- while also introducing bacteria and other microorganisms that result in fruit decay.

The kudzu stink bug, an invasive species that was first observed feeding on soybeans in 2010, is another bug that has captured Toews' attention.

"They've colonized virtually the entire Southeast, as far west as the Mississippi River, in three years. That's a phenomenal feat for a critter that is barely one-fourth inch long," Toews said. "Understanding how these things are able to survive, what they feed on along the way and how they move from one point to another, that's exciting stuff."

Toews' love for entomology is a valuable tool for farmers.

"Georgia is a unique and special place to be a cotton entomologist. I take great pride that we're able to directly translate dollars that are invested by our own growers to provide real-world solutions that not only save the farmer money, but also enhance profitability in the long run.Professionally, that's very rewarding," Toews said.

Clint Thompson is information coordinator the University of Georgia, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Tifton campus.