SIDNEY - For Deb Waters, studying the insects that infest crops and weeds is more than just an interesting field of work in the new insect quarantine facility. It's a passion of sorts.
Before she became a scientist, she was a wheat producer with her husband north of Richey.
"Our fields were hit by the wheat stem sawfly in the '80s and we didn't know what it was," said Waters, a biology science technologist at the ARS-Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory in Sidney. "I was the one out there scouting the fields all the time. I was the truck driver. I noticed it, but I didn't know what it was."
But she was determined to find out.
Waters returned to college in the '90s when her children had grown and left home to pursue a master's degree in entomology. She wanted to study the pests that caused so much damage to her family's wheat field. It was a mission for her to be able to help other producers.
At Montana State University, the adviser of the department asked her to be part of a study on blending solid-stem and hollow-stem varieties of wheat for the control of wheat stem sawfly. Waters jumped at the chance, and from there she learned about the sawfly. She has been studying and teaching about wheat stem sawfly since 1996.
When the position opened at the facility at ARS-NPARL with wheat stem sawfly, Waters applied and was accepted.
ARS could not have found a more enthusiastic researcher. The wheat stem sawfly has been found throughout much of western U.S. and Canada. In the northern tier, it has been predominant in Montana, and in fact caused millions of dollars worth of damage to fields in 2008.
And now it has now been found moving eastward into fields in North Dakota. Waters said they are unsure why it is moving, but that is being studied. The Sidney lab has been one of the leading sites in the nation for research into biological controls of the wheat stem sawfly, she said. In recent years, the lab has identified a new parasotoid species for use against the wheat stem sawfly, known as the Collyria catoptron, which exists in China.
The lab is receiving clearance for the insect, and will probably receive it next spring, Waters said.
They will be studying both the parasotoid and the plants associated with it when it arrives. It will actually be a long process before the sawfly insects can be released, she said. There are several "specificity" tests the ARS will do before the insects could be released into producers' fields.
That work was done previously for flea beetles, which infest leafy spurge. Much of that work was conducted at the ARS lab in Sidney, Waters said. There are currently two other parasotoids in this area that are natural pests of wheat stem sawfly.
"We don't want these parasotoids from China to ruin the populations we have here already," she said.
These natural parasotoids are generalists, however, and attack many different pests such as wheat stem maggot and Hessian fly.
"If we brought something in from China and didn't know what the impact was, it could potentially impact these generalists. Then there would be no natural pests against Hessian fly and wheat stem maggot," she said.
There was a lot of fanfare in October when the lab was cleared and received gall moths from Kazakhstan that lay eggs in saltcedar, a weed that sucks up large amounts of water and is costly to producers.