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November 5th, 2019

Insects in the soil are difficult to monitor, but listening in on the noises they make could help farmers detect pest infestations and improve estimates of biodiversity.

Carolyn-Monika Görres laughs at the seeming improbability of her own research. She never expected to find herself eavesdropping on beetle grubs living in the soil, much less to be planning a project she now calls Underground Twitter.

Görres, an ecologist at Hochschule Geisenheim University in Germany, is interested in how insects that munch on plant roots can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions from the soil. But in trying to tackle this question three years ago, she was presented with a problem: it’s hard to know what soil insects are munching on, or even how many of them are in the ground, without digging up the soil and destroying the very ecosystem she wanted to monitor.

This dilemma isn’t unique to Görres’ research; monitoring soil insects is notoriously difficult. “There is so little work being done with soil insects, and it’s because it’s really hard,” says US Department of Agriculture researcher Richard Mankin, who has spent much of his career studying the subterranean critters. For farmers whose fields are threatened by soil pests such as white grubs, the voracious larvae of beetles in the Scarabaeidae family that frequently devastate harvests, the only way to confirm an infestation is to excavate their fields. Read more …