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Postcards from the Edge of a Leaf

May Berenbaum, leading entomologist and expert on the evolutionary relationship between insects and plants, has received the 2011 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, administered by USC Dornsife.

May Berenbaum won the 2011 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, administered by USC Dornsife. Berenbaum was honored for her work on the co-evolutionary arms race between plants and the insects that eat them, and for helping to pass a bill addressing the disappearance of honey bees. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.
May Berenbaum won the 2011 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, administered by USC Dornsife. Berenbaum was honored for her work on the co-evolutionary arms race between plants and the insects that eat them, and for helping to pass a bill addressing the disappearance of honey bees. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.

Entomologist May Berenbaum is bugged by Rep. Joe Baca. Seeking to forever squash the Delhi sands flower-loving fly, the congressman for California’s 43rd district is pushing for a bill that would amend the federal Endangered Species Act.

The amendment would require a review of any species listed as endangered for 15 years and demonstrate an increase in population to remain on the list. The legislation is aimed in part at swatting that one particular protected fly, which lives in 365 acres of land in Baca’s district including San Bernardino that could otherwise be prime commercial real estate. Berenbaum argues that among other things, the fly might well pollinate flowering plants and contribute to the biodiversity unique to that area.

“The bill is a throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater situation,” Berenbaum said. “There must be a better way to deal with these conflicts than assuming that a lack of knowledge is a sound basis for deciding whether a species has a chance to remain on Planet Earth.”

The passionate insect advocate has been named the Tyler Prize Laureate for 2011. Established in 1973, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement is the premier award honoring environmental science of great benefit to humankind. Jane Goodall, the world’s leading chimpanzee expert, and Werner Stumm, father of aquatic chemistry, are past laureates. USC Dornsife administers the annual prize.

Gene E. Robinson, director of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Bee Research Facility and Institute for Genomic Biology, nominated Berenbaum, saying her work “uniquely combines high-impact science with effective public engagement.”

“Professor Berenbaum is one of the most respected entomologists in the world,” physicist Stephan Haas, vice dean for research in USC Dornsife, told an audience during the April 14 award ceremony and Berenbaum lecture. “She’s a pioneer in research who has integrated genetics into the field of chemical ecology — or the study of nature in chemical terms.”


Each of the 950,000 known insect species is unique, says Tyler Prize Laureate May Berenbaum. Photo by Alex Wild.

Berenbaum also has been outspoken on the issue of the sudden disappearance of millions of honey bees in a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Presenting information on the crisis before Congress in 2007, she began by explaining pollination.

“Pollination is the process by which pollen grains are transferred to receptive female floral parts to bring about fertilization,” she told Congress. “Approximately three-fourths of the 250,000-plus species of flowering plants on the planet rely on mobile animal partners — pollinators — to carry out this vital process. Over the past two decades, there has been a reduction in pollinators of all descriptions, with declines reported in no less than four continents.”

In the United States during the same time, the western honey bee Apis mellifera — the world’s forefront managed pollinator — experienced dramatic population declines, primarily as a result of the accidental introduction of two bloodsucking parasitic mites. The mites were first reported in the U.S. in Florida in 1987, apparently as an accidental introduction along with illegally imported South American queen bees. Between 1947 and 2005, colony numbers nationwide declined by more than 40 percent from 5.9 million to 2.4 million.

“These losses have occurred as demand for pollination services has soared for a number of fruit, nut and vegetable crops, most notably almonds,” Berenbaum told Congress.

During her April 14 lecture, she told the audience that CCD has resulted in a profoundly unstable situation.

“Nineteen billion dollars of American agriculture is dependent upon one managed species,” she said. “And its fate is uncertain. . . Without honey bees there are no almonds. The almond industry at the time [2007] was a $2.5 billion industry.”

A year after Berenbaum’s testimony, Congress enacted the 2008 farm bill, which among other things provides additional funding for research and conservation programs addressing honey bees and pollinators. The law reflects provisions that were included in the House and Senate’s versions of the farm bill, which addressed honey bees and pollinators as part of their conservation, specialty crop and research. It included language that broadly encourages habitat development and protection for native and managed pollinators.

“This was one issue that wasn’t blue or red; it involved everybody,” Berenbaum said. “The congressional committee seemed almost jubilant to have an issue they could all rally around. They listened and enacted. For the first time in the history of the farm bill, pollination was written in.”

The head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Berenbaum centered her lecture around her groundbreaking research on the co-evolutionary battles between plants and the insects that eat them. Her research in the field of chemical ecology has revealed the relationships between insects and plants on a genetic level.

Her genetic analysis and experiments have shown that plants evolve to create natural defenses including chemical toxins to keep pests at bay. Consequently, the insects evolve to overcome these defenses. This co-evolutionary arms race between plants and insects has been crucial to a deeper understanding of pesticide resistance, insects and genetically modified crops.

“Escalating cycles of chemical defense and insect circumvention of defenses account not only for the diversity of plant toxins but also for the extraordinary species richness of flowering plants and the insects that consume them,” Berenbaum said.

She also elaborated on threatened insects. Of 950,000 known insect species, she lamented that only 768 have been evaluated with their respect to their conservation status. Of those studied, a disproportionally high number — 553 — are known to be threatened. Of those identified as at risk, three-fourths are in serious danger.

“That’s not surprising because they have incredibly specialized lifestyles,” she said. “They live on parsnips. There are insects that live in the nostrils of sea lions. There are insects that live in petroleum pools. Because they’re so small and evolve so fast, they can survive on amazingly resource-deficient nonfoods. Dung, for example.”

Most critically endangered insects are called by their long and unpronounceable Latin names, which doesn’t help their cause, she said.

“The ones who do have common names sometimes have lousy common names,” she said in her authoritative yet humorous style. “And some, like the pygmy hog sucking louse, have a really terrible common name. I cannot imagine signs that say, ‘Save the pygmy hog sucking louse.’ In most places, insects at risk have a public relations problem.”

The Tyler Prize comes with a $200,000 cash prize and gold medal.

“Over the past 300 million years or so, insects have devised over a million ways of making a living on Planet Earth,” Berenbaum said. “Humans stand to learn a lot from them on how to go about living on Planet Earth for the foreseeable future.”