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Local Scientists Look For 'Most Wanted' Insects On Behalf Of The Federal Government

Carnegie Museum of Natural History
The contents of an insect trap. Each trap can contain hundreds to thousands of insect specimens.

Millions of insects will make their way through Pittsburgh over the next five years under a renewed contract between the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under the partnership, a team at the museum will study 6,000 insect traps per year, searching for unwanted and invasive species.

Bob Androw, a scientific preparator at the museum, said his team painstakingly goes through the traps to look for insects on the USDA's Priority Pest List, which he compares to the FBI Most Wanted List, but for bugs.

"And often those are pests that are not established, but they're the ones that the USDA is most concerned that could become established," he said. 

They also keep an eye out for invasive species, whether or not they've previously been detected in the area. Going through one trap takes about 90 days, said Androw.

"You have to know what belongs in an area to detect something that doesn't," he said. "That's part of the challenge."

The traps come from all over the eastern United States. The most common trap sent to the museum is called a funnel trap; it has eight to 12 funnels stacked on top of each other, and sometimes includes a substance to lure insects inside. Androw said the traps imitate the look of tree trunks, and will be outside for up to two weeks. 

"An average trap sample may be hundreds if not thousands of specimens," he said. "The majority of them are in the one to two millimeter size range."

The traps belong to the USDA, who place them in areas where invasive species may be detected. That includes ports, industrial complexes and state parks. The agreement between the museum and the USDA has been in place since 2006. 

Though the 90-day turnaround for a trap isn't a real-time look at pests and invasive species in an area, Androw said the work can still help identify a potential threat before it gets out of hand.

WESA receives funding from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.