Walker got to work placing containers of water and small pieces of dog food in jars of pretzels to help the cockroaches acclimate to their new home and feel comfortable enough to begin with. to reproduce.
“I loved farming insects – I was good at it,” recalls Walker, 66, an entomology professor at Michigan State University. “I could grow the insects and make sure they were in good condition.”
Acting like Cupid to cockroaches was Walker’s first glimpse into the wide world of entomology. From there, Walker focused his nearly 40-year career as a medical entomologist and professor on the impact of insects on people’s lives in different corners of the world.
During his career, he helped a hospital and a Ford factory mitigate fly swarms that were impacting business bottom lines and helped determine how long the insects lived on dead bodies during investigations of murders.
“The types of insects that colonized the decomposing body can be used as forensic information, not just as information, but as actual evidence in court to try to present information about how long the body may have been up in one place and things like that,” Walker said.
However, he spends most of his time studying what, in the summer, seems to be Michigan’s flagship bird: the mosquito.
The main focus of his current studies is focused on how mosquitoes transmit diseases to humans and developing ways to track the spread of these diseases from one source to another. In Africa, his work focuses on ‘question’ the mosquitoes, or developing a roadmap of the types of people that malaria-carrying mosquitoes like to bite above others. In her Michigan-based work, Walker works with the state’s health department to track disease-carrying mosquitoes that fly around Michigan to help inform people if any part of Michigan is endemic to diseases like eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) or West Nile virus.
Walker collects mosquitoes from different parts of the state to run blood tests to see which animals they have bitten and deliver mosquitoes to state labs to test for EEE. Research in Michigan is essential to understanding how IAS are transmitted throughout the summer.
On a recent field trip near Dexter, Walker and his team of students laid black tree planters on their side next to a bog. He explained that the tree planters mimic the natural environment of the mosquitoes they were trying to collect.
The students used a battery-powered vacuum — or a steroid hair dryer as Walker described it — to suck the mosquitoes out of the box into a small mesh cup where they could be transported to the lab for study. The goal is to track EEE in Michigan’s mosquito population weekly throughout the summer to see if the infection rate increases as the mosquitoes breed.
“There are birds here that will get the virus and the mosquitoes and the birds carry it through the summer,” Walker said. “And the risk is that if the infection rate of the virus increases in mosquito and bird populations, that would increase the risk to people living here.”
The circled mosquitoes buzzed angrily after being sucked into the bug vacuum, but Walker and his students were still able to identify the specific mosquito species they were studying and even how many male and female mosquitoes they had. The species, Culiseta Melanurais a carrier of EEE and can be identified by the hairs on its body and its longer feeding tube.
“The mosquito with the long nose and the armpit hair – that’s the one we’re looking for,” the professor said.
More than 40 years after helping cockroaches mate, Walker still feels at home and rushes a bit every time he goes out in the field to pick up mosquitoes. For him, being able to spend time in nature makes work a privilege.
“It’s the real world here,” Walker said with an ear-to-ear grin while picking up mosquitoes. “There’s no screen between me and that’s what I like.”
Walker describes her relationship with nature as an intrinsic love that drives her work. When he’s not collecting bugs or looking at them under a microscope, he tries to spend as much time as possible birdwatching or visiting MSU’s public gardens.
“I think it’s really important, especially in these times (when it seems like you) have to have an open screen in front of you or have to have your cellphone in front of your face, to encourage people to walk away at take it from there and just look at nature and really appreciate it for the living things that we see.
This year, its summer staff consists of three undergraduate lab assistants to help with mosquito collection. During the long drive to the collection sites, he told them about the careers they wanted to pursue and gave them names of people to contact. In the field, he demonstrated how to use a hand-held vacuum cleaner to suck up mosquitoes while talking about the distinction of male and female mosquitoes. The flow of information that Walker stopped only when he turned his head to identify which bird was chirping or to report patches of poison ivy sticking out of the ground.