STEM is for Everyone: Richard Mankin, Entomologist
Richard Mankin is an entomologist who studies bugs and insects by "listening" to them. Using acoustic tools, Mankin helps detect, monitor, and solve problems related to pests and invasive species.
A Career Studying Bugs and Insects
Scientists who study bugs and insects often do fieldwork to track and observe their subjects by looking. Turning over a log, peering closely at a pile of dirt, or investigating tree leaves can reveal a thriving ecosystem — or signs of an ecosystem being threatened or damaged by an invasive pest or infestation. Looking for bugs and insects is one thing, but Richard Mankin, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS), listens to bugs and insects as a way of detecting and monitoring pest problems. In addition to listening in on insects, Mankin's research involves the development and use of sound-based (acoustic) tools that can help control these problems by using sound to alter bug and insect patterns or disrupt behaviors.
The Noisy World of Bugs and Insects
Crickets and bees have tell-tale sounds, and the buzz of a mosquito might even wake you up at night. Cicadas, too, give themselves away with their repeated clicking. But when you think of bugs and insects, as a whole, you might not think of them as inherently noisy. Mankin's research suggests quite the opposite. With specialized tools, the gnawing, chomping, and feeding of insects that have infested a host creates a soundtrack that scientists can use to detect and monitor invasive pest problems.
Due to a muscle disease, Mankin uses crutches and leg braces to get around, but this doesn't stop him from doing field work as an entomologist. In interviews about scientists with disabilities, he has said that despite his disability, he was always determined to be a scientist. He's candid about the fact that it hasn't always been easy, but negotiating his disability led him to his first work in a USDA insect lab. In that process, he realized there were ways to apply physics tools to the field of entomology, and he's been listening to insects ever since.
"My research focuses on detecting and controlling hidden insect infestations. I also work on questions about how insects use the senses of smell and sound in communication." — Richard Mankin, USDA Agricultural Research Service
Studying Bugs and Insects with Sound Science
With special sound equipment, Mankin can literally hear insects eating, moving, and communicating. Using sound, scientists can detect infestations, estimate the size of a pest population, and more. Scientists sometimes use sensitive microphones to eavesdrop on bugs and insects, but other monitoring tools include ultrasonic sensors, vibration sensors, and even accelerometers. With a device that detects the vibrations created by insects eating something like a tree and uses a piezoelectric crystal, for example, Mankin can measure voltage changes that correlate to the insects eating.
There are millions of species of insects, but the work of Mankin and other scientists suggests that the sounds insects make can be as unique in some cases as a fingerprint, and these sounds can reveal the presence of unwanted pests long before there may be visible signs. By being able to detect, identify, and monitor insects by sound (even when you can't see them, deep in the soil or high in the trees, for instance), scientists may be able to develop more environmentally-friendly ways to target infestation problems. Invasive pests that may cause extensive and costly damage to crops and agricultural industries. Pests can pose problems in orchards, vineyards, farms, and in all kinds of crops. They can also be a problem in storage facilities and silos.
In addition to detection of insect infestations, Mankin's work also involves experimenting to see if bug and insect sound patterns can be used to help solve pest problems. For example, Mankin developed a buzzer-based system to trick male insects and interfere with the mating cycle of an invasive species responsible for the multi-billion-dollar citrus greening problem in Florida. (You can see an example of this kind of Arduino-based setup in this article about Mankin's work with Asian Citrus Psyllids.)
A long list of scientific papers and articles hint at the scope of Mankin's work and the range of bugs and insects he has studied at the USDA ARS, including the red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, a threat to palm trees), Asian citrus psyllids (Diaphorina citri, which carry the bacteria that leads to citrus greening), the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti), the grape root borer (Vitacea polistiformis, a threat to vineyards), the hardwood stump borer (Mallodon dasystomus), the cowpea beetle (Callosobruchus maculatus), rice weevils (Sitophilus oryzae), and many other species.
"I was born to be a scientist so I couldn't do anything else." — Richard Mankin
Listen to Bug and Insect Sound Samples
Students can listen in on Mankin's (and other entomologists' research) with sound clips on the Bug Bytes Sound Library page. Thanks to the availability of these sound samples, students can listen to recordings of specific kinds of mosquitos, cockroaches, larvae, ants, termites, beetles, grubs, and more. (Note: depending on your browser, you may need to download the sound files rather than listening in a browser for them to play properly.)
Explore Bugs, Insects, and Sound with Student Projects and Lessons
Students inspired by Makin's story and curious about bugs and insects (or worms, spiders, centipedes, and other invertebrates) or the ways in which sound and acoustic technologies can be used for monitoring and detection may enjoy projects like these:
- Are There Bugs Under Your Feet?: make a Berlese funnel to investigate micro-invertebrates in soil.
- Bug Vacuums: Sucking up Biodiversity: make a homemade bug vacuum to explore the biodiversity in your own backyard.
- Build a Better Moth Trap: Will Different-colored Lights Affect How Many Moths You Catch?: investigate the role color plays in the effectiveness of moth traps.
- Drawing Circles Around Ants: experiment to see how effective different solutions are as an ant repellent.
- Extreme Sounds: Lessons in a Noisy World: use the Science Journal app to learn more about sound monitoring.
- Go and Stop? Ant Traffic Signals: investigate ant behavior and how they use pheromone signals to mark trails and paths.
- Measuring Your Threshold of Hearing for Sounds of Different Pitches: explore how the sensitivity of one's hearing varies with the pitch of the sound.
- What Is Home Sweet Home to a Bug?: sow bugs are actually crustaceans. Learn more about their preferred habitat with this project.
- Where Do Earthworms Hang Out When Food Is Around?: track the movement of worms over the course of a week to see what they do when they locate a food source.
- Which Bait Works Best for a Homemade Fly Trap?: make a homemade fly trap to investigate what foods or liquids are best for baiting flies into a trap.
- Worm Hunt: Isolating Soil Nematodes from Your Backyard: test to find out which types of soil make the best habitats for nematodes.
- Bat Detector: Listen to the Secret Sounds of Bats: this project is about bats, but students interested in using sound technologies to study bugs, insects, or other animals may be interested in how ultrasonic sensors can be used to study bats.
- For even more ideas, see the Bug and Insect STEM Roundup.
Students interested in the ways Mankin combines physics, electronics, and high-tech equipment in his study of bugs and insects can learn more about using sensors with projects and resources like these:
- Is It Ripe Yet? Build a Circuit to Detect Ripe Produce: the circuit in this project uses color to help determine when produce is ripe.
- Green Technology: Build an Electronic Soil Moisture Sensor to Conserve Water: the soil-moisture circuit in this project helps prevent water waste, but for the technology to be effective, it needs to have a durable design. In this project, students use the engineering design process to create a case for a soil-moisture sensor.
- How to Use an Arduino: learn more about how the role microprocessors play in setting up smart systems.
Educators can lead hands-on sound science and sensor-based explorations with lesson plans like these:
- Classroom Noise Meter: use Google's free Science Journal app to measure and explore sound data. (Educators can learn more about using the Science Journal app with students on the Science Journal App page. Students can get started learning about the Science Journal app with this series of tutorials.)
- Environmental Monitoring: explore the use of technology to measure environmental parameters like water quality or light pollution.
- Protecting Nature with Technology: extend the exploration of designing electronic circuits to measure environmental parameters and develop a plan for how these circuits could be used to solve a real-world problem.
- Perfect Pitches with a Rubber Band Guitar: learn more about how the properties of a sound wave, like frequency and amplitude, affect the sounds we hear.
Related STEM CareersThe following career profiles help students learn more about careers related to entomology:
- Zoologist and Wildlife Biologist
- Soil Scientist
- Agricultural Technician
- Environmental Scientist
"There's a number of insects like the coconut rhinoceros beetle that you can't see when they get into tree trunks. For a long time we've been using sounds to detect these hidden insects..." — Richard Mankin
- Richard Mankin (USDA ARS)
- Disabilities don’t stop these experts in science and tech (Science News for Students)
- Disability is not a Handicap (The Scientist)
- A Place for Engineering in Entomology
- Butterflies Can "Talk," UF Research Suggests
- Giant Beetle Threatens Palm Trees Of Hawaii
- How USDA is helping to rescue Florida's citrus industry
- Listening to Larvae: How Acoustics Can Measure Efficacy of Palm Weevil Management
- Researchers use acoustic tools to detect underground insects that attack grapes
- Tuning In to Weevil's Chomp
- What does the caterpillar say? (monitoring vibrations of masked birch caterpillar)
The STEM is for Everyone Series
For more information about this series of profiles of scientists with disabilities and to learn about other scientists and engineers, see the following posts:
- STEM is for Everyone: Scientists with Disabilities
- STEM is for Everyone: Nicholas Saunderson, Blind Mathematician
- STEM is for Everyone: Temple Grandin, Animal Scientist with Autism
- STEM is for Everyone: Geerat Vermeij, a Paleoecologist who is Blind
- STEM is for Everyone: Farida Bedwei, a Computer Scientist with Cerebral Palsy
- STEM is for Everyone: Ralph Braun, Engineer
- STEM is for Everyone: Wanda Díaz-Merced, Astrophysicist
- STEM is for Everyone: Richard Mankin, Entomologist
- STEM is for Everyone: Helen Taussig, Pediatric Cardiologist
- STEM is for Everyone: Annie Jump Cannon, Classifier of Stars
- STEM is for Everyone: Jane Goodall, Zoologist
This post is part of our STEM is for Everyone: Scientists with Disabilities series. This series is made possible by generous support from Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, a non-profit foundation jointly funded by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation of Japan and its US affiliates, working to make changes for the better by empowering youth with disabilities to lead productive lives.
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