Where are we now: Joe

Hi, I’m Joe!

For those of who are new to AaE, let me introduce myself.

I’m Joe Ballenger. I’m a single dad, and I really like to climb when I’m not working.

My background is physiology. Specifically, I’ve done a lot of genetics and physiology, and I look at the nuts and bolts of how things work. In the past, I studied insect viruses, I’ve looked for proteins which kill insects, and now I’ve changed tracks and I’m using these skills to look at how weeds hurt crops.

So how does that work?

What’s Joe Doing Now?

Shade Avoidance1

Joe’s currently studying shade avoidance. When plants are exposed to certian kinds of light reflected off other plants, they grow in a way that’s kind of bad for crops (right in both cases) because they put more resources into stems than yeild.

This year has also been a big year for me, as well. I decided to leave my job in industry, and not only go to grad school, but study a whole new group of pests.

There’s actually a lot of cool stuff going on in the field of weed science. New herbicides are hard to make, and as a result, herbicide resistance is…kind of a problem.


In the field of weed science, we’ve got to figure out how weeds work. More importantly, we’ve got to understand how plants fight each other so we can understand how weeds damage crops.

You’d think this is obvious. That yield loss due to weeds is from competition to nutrients, right?

So…it turns out that crops can never really recover from weed damage, and we don’t know why.

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We’re coming back from hiatus tomorrow!

Dear Fans and Friends,


First of all, we, the Ask an Entomologist team would like to thank you for submitting your question. Many have asked questions throughout the years, and your continued interests in insects is greatly appreciated.


The Situation and Unexpected Hiatus

We – Joe, Joanie, and Nancy would like to apologize for leaving your question(s) unanswered despite our mission and name. The truth is, Ask an Entomologist just became too much for us! We never imagined that our project would grow to the point that we were receiving hundreds of emails and messages across our platforms every week. Coupled with the surprising influx of new visitors, the three of us had major life transitions. Joe left industry to start a PhD. Joanie transitioned from her Master’s degree to a PhD. And Nancy decided to start her own entomology focused tourism business. These new endeavors left us with very little extra time to spend with our families and hobbies let alone a science communication project. Ask an Entomologist is a way for people to interact with scientists, and any career will involve difficult, stressful, and time-consuming transitions.


The Solution

This past month we decided to not only be honest with ourselves  – but to you as well. As scientists, our goal has always been to expand our community into yours, and we’d like to address you as part of our community about how we can keep answering your questions.


The first thing we have decided is that we loved producing content centered around what you’d like to know. Blog posts, videos, interviews, art, etc. However, with emails upon emails we found that we could not create the content we loved because we were busy furiously answering emails to the best of our ability. Our goal when starting this project was to offer something *new* to the science communication community. A place where questions about insect biology would be addressed  in a clear and engaging manner by actual scientists that is freely open to the public. While this aspect of the project was new, to continue answering questions, we need to make some changes.

Questions about identification or help with pest control is something that can be handled better by people with the infrastructure to respond to hundreds of emails a week with qualified specialists. Therefore, we will be only answering questions unique to insect biology, physiology, or ecology.


We have a new schedule where starting May 5th, expect to see three new posts a month! In May we we will reintroduce oursevelves, revive our social media platforms (facebook / twitter), and start our new buggy content in June. We have had lengthy conversations about how to continue Ask an Entomologist without falling down the same pitfalls so we can continue creating the content you love, and still have time to finish our PhDs, run our businesses, and engage in our hobbies. So a win for everyone!


But … my question was never answered…

Do not fear, if you submitted a question about ID requests or pest control services we recommend the following resources.


Insect Identification:

When submitting your image of your insect to any of the following resources, please include the following information

  • Where you found the insect / arthropod (Country / State)

  • A high resolution image

  • If a facebook group, please follow all the rules instituted by that group

BugGuide: (just for North American insects) www.bugguide.net

Bug ID Blog: http://www.whatsthatbug.com
The Entomology FB Group: https://web.facebook.com/groups/TheEntomologyGroup

Spider and Bug Questions With the Bug Girl: https://web.facebook.com/groups/1626262754255734

Beetles: https://web.facebook.com/groups/30749256655

Moth and Moth Watching: https://web.facebook.com/groups/137219092972521

Ants, Bees, Wasps: https://web.facebook.com/groups/HymenopteristsForum88


Pest Control:

We are prohibited from giving any pest control advice. We are not professionally trained doctors or certified pest control experts therefore we cannot legally give advice about pests. Not only does pest biology vary between states, but the laws do as well. Our community is international, and these all complicate things to a point where we cannot be qualified to answer any questions about pest control.


We highly suggest you read this post by Joe about some basic pest control tips. These will help you identify problems so when you reach out to an expert you will be prepared and have all the necessary samples and information for them.



This article by Nancy will help you assess your risk and your situation as a whole.



When you’re ready, we suggest you follow these links to find your local resources. Generally, universities have extension agents who can also help you.

Find Your Local Resources: (United States) http://npic.orst.edu/mlr.html


General  Question About Insects:

We are still happy to accept general questions about insects related to their biology, ecology, physiology, taxonomy, etc. These are the kinds of questions we set out to answer and these are what we will now be focusing on it. If you submitted a question of this nature, please RESEND your question with “General Question: – your question” as the Subject! Please give us any other further relevant details / photos / locations


Media Requests:

WE have missed many media requests because they often get lost within the swaths of identification requests. If you have a media request, please fill out THIS form.




Moving Forward

We want to answer your questions, because we know you like to learn about bugs. We love teaching people about bugs. We’re finally getting to a point where we can keep making stuff which educates, entertains, and engages you about the wonderful world of bugs!

To do this, we’ve had to simplify our systems and be honest with what we’re capable of. We’ve updated our schedule and we’re returning making the stuff you want us to create. We are excited to return from our unexpected hiatus and continue into the future with you.


Thank you so much for being here and supporting us through this journey.



The Ask an Entomologist Team


Joe, Joanie, & Nancy


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What’s putting bugs in pots on my windowsill?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Does anyone know what kind of worms these are? They were in this mudlike ball stuck to the screen (second pic after it burst open) and when I flicked it to remove it, it busted apart and these 3 worms were inside. They look like miniature alien creatures…lol. My roommate said she saw a wasp hanging around there, but the mudball didn’t look like a wasp nest. It was perfectly round, about the size of a tiny malted milk ball candy. I used the top of my lighter to see a comparison in size, but they were about an inch and a half long. And yes, they were alive.

We get a lot of ID requests, and there’s just not enough time to focus on all the cool insects that people see around them. We do, however, see some insects mentioned with some consistency.

A lot of these posts show us pictures of or mention grey pots filled with caterpillars, almost always caterpillars from the same family: Geometridae (or inchworms).

These nests are pretty easy to ID: they’re the nests of a wasp called Eumenes fraternus. The wasps build these nests out of mud, and sting caterpillars to paralyze them. The wasp’s larvae then feed on the paralyzed caterpillars, until they emerge as a wasp ready to start the cycle anew.

These wasps are also really important. If you see these gals flying around, you don’t need to worry about running into a nest because they don’t make big colonies.

However, they’re very closely related to groups which do. These wasps are the closest evolutionary relatives to paper wasps and hornets, wasps which are famous for constructing nests which house large colonies.


Image credit: Tolweb.org License info: CC BY 3.0

Posted in Behavior, Ecology, Evolution, Identification, Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Household Casebearer is…a little weird. It’s also one of the most common pests we get asked about.

Written by Joe Ballenger
Household casebearer

Photo of household casebearer, from AaE inbox.

We get a lot of questions about household pests, and the biology of these pests can be a bit…weird. Most live in dry areas, and have a lot of adaptations to deal with it. It’s also a good way to be preadapted to human habitation, because our dwellings tend to be very dry and typically don’t have a lot of food.

One of the more common insects we get in our inbox is the insect above, the household casebearer. It’s often confused with clothes moths, although it doesn’t feed on fabrics. It’s a different critter altogether.

The early literature on this species is actually full of misidentifications, and it’s biology isn’t very well known. However, as far as entomologists can tell, it appears this species originated in either Africa or Australia and has hopped around the globe with people. Outside of it’s habitat, wherever it’s found, it’s usually found in association with people…and it doesn’t typically dwell far outside human habitations.

In it’s native habitat-or at least what we think it’s native habitat is-it’s found in conjunction with spiders. The caterpillars tend to live under spider webs, eating the leftovers the spider tosses out when it’s done. In addition to dead insects, it also eats silk from abandoned spiderwebs, webspinners, and other silk producing insects.

From here, it’s pretty easy to understand how this insect could get into houses. There’s a number of spiders which live in houses, which include cobweb builders like Pholcus and Steatoda. In addition, most houses contain some amount of dead bugs which come in from outside and can’t quite gain a foothold.

As a result, control is pretty simple…find and get rid of any cobweb building spiders, and do some deep cleaning in those forgotten recesses. However, it’s also a pretty cool bug. It feeds off the traces other bugs leave behind, and has spread all over the world because of it’s unique lifestyle.

Works Cited

Heppner, J. B. (2005). Notes on the Plaster Bagworm, Phereoeca uterella, in Florida (Lepidoptera: Tineidae). Holarctic Lepidoptera, 10(1-2), 31-32.
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Replay of live video on Anopheles mosquitoes of Madagascar with Riley Tedrow

Hey ya’ll! We’ve been doing these neat live videos with entomologists from all different backgrounds. It’s been almost a year of doing so, but they are only posted to Facebook. From now on we’re going to provide the link to our BeLive videos here!

Replay of live video with Riley Tedrow on Thursday (July 5th) talk about Anopheles Mosquitoes of Madagascar!

Facebook link to talk with Riley Tedrow

Riley is a PhD Candidate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He currently works on feeding behavior and malaria infection in the Anopheles mosquitoes of Madagascar. He does this by conducting field work in Madagascar – living in remote villages with a small Malagasy team that treats malaria patients as they catch local mosquitoes.

You can also check out Riley’s WordPress here

Posted in Live Video, Medical Entomology, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Ladybugs as invasive species…what does the science say?

Written by Joe Ballenger

So…this is a correction of a previous post I wrote on Facebook, back in March.

Ladybug meme

In the comments under the article, I may have gotten myself into a bit of trouble because I made some comments which implied some things which weren’t quite correct:

ladybug comment 1

Ladybug comment 2

Everything here is factually correct. Ladybugs bought online don’t really help with pest control, unless they’re contained inside the garden with something like netting. Invasive ladybugs do carry parasites, whose roles in ladybug ecology are uncertain overall. They also do eat ladybug eggs and larvae, and it’s that last point which I’ve decided to explore a little bit further.

When I made these comments, the implication…and what I thought was true at the time, was that Asian ladybeetles were a major cause of ladybug species changes in North America. However, it seems that I wasn’t current in my research because these questions have begun to be answered by our colleagues.

So…this week, let’s explore ladybug declines in the US.

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A look at resistance management in biotechnology.

Written by Joe Ballenger

I work in industry, so it’s not often that I can talk about what I do. The reason for this is that I work in a group called discovery, which means that I look for new proteins which we can use against crop pests. The majority of what I find doesn’t work, which is kind of par for the course. However, when we find something that only works against certain insects, we slap it in a plant and then wait a decade for it to come on the market after a whole host of safety tests. In agricultural biotechnology, our goal is to find things that are specific. That is, we want to use stuff that only targets insects…and specific groups of insects at that.

Double-stranded RNA is perfect for that. Critters use dsRNA to do a whole lot of things, from fighting infections to turning specific genes on and off while they’re growing up. It’s purpose is to be very specific, and only act on certain genes. It’s the perfect tool for agriculture, because if we find the right gene sequence, we can make a pesticide that is species specific.

Beyond that we also need things that are durable; that are resistant to evolution so they’ll be on the market for awhile. Some animals are so well known for what they do, that we can associate them with a certain lifestyle. Fish live in the water, so they swim. Birds get around by flying, so they’re associated with flight. Well, insects evolve resistance to everything we’ve ever used to control them. So birds fly, fish swim, and insects evolve.

dsRNA was supposed to be a perfect tool. It was species specific, safe for use in food plants. Hypothetically it was supposed to be durable, as well. This is a pretty important pathway, because bugs need it to fight diseases and work their genes. The idea was that if insects became resistant to one gene, that gene could be swapped out with something else pretty easily.

Well…even seemingly obvious hypothesis need to be tested, because nature doesn’t always work like we think it should.

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Entomologist Answers Commonly Googled Questions About Entomology and Entomologists

Written by Nancy Miorelli

I’ve been rehauling my YouTube channel and I thought – that as member of the Ask an Entomologist team – what better way to spread the bug love than to answer questions that are commonly Googled! This week – I started just by tackling some questions about entomology and entomologists.

The Questions

What Do Entomologists Study?
Why Do Entomologists Study Insects?
What Does Entomology Mean?
What Do Entomologists Do?
What Do Entomologists Make?
What Do Entomologists Do Every Day?
What Do Entomologists Wear?
Why Do Entomologists Use Dichotomous Keys?
What Do Entomologists Use To Catch Insects?
What Do Entomologists Do at a Crime Scene?
How Do Entomologists Help Solve Crimes?
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Posted in Education, Identification, Pest Management | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Caught on camera: A wasp…party?

Written by Joe Ballenger

During the fall, we get a lot of questions about wasps…but not about wasps in nests.

Often, these are from people who work in construction or otherwise around heights. I know the sizing of the pictures below is a little awkward, but they’re sized this way to show the behavior.

I run a house framing crew and each fall i run into this same situation. We have a boom truck on site (crane), and when the boom is high in the air, wasps congregate all along the boom, but especially at the tip. They will swarm all around the boom, more so the higher it gets. As i lower the boom to ground level, the wasps dissipate rather quickly until they are completely gone within 10′ or so of the ground. If i then raise the boom again, the wasps return almost immediately.  They hang out wether the machine is running or not. Just wondering what is going on. Also, there is no nest in the boom.


I work in the communication tower industry and every year around late summer to early fall we tower climbers experience a phenomenon. Wasps will swarm up towers. As you can imagine, this can be very disconcerting, however they aren’t aggressive at all while they’re doing this. In 20 years of climbing I’ve never been stung. It appears they are in the mood for love and mating.

There are a lot of misconceptions about this phenomenon though — everything from the wasps being attracted to the RF (radio frequency) to being attracted to the galvanizing of the steel itself. Would you explain what they’re doing up there and speak to the hazards of climbers sharing space with hundreds of wasps?

Wasp swarm

We’ve written about wasp nests before, in a question about why wasps tend to die headfirst in their nests. To begin this story, I’d like to quote the last part of that article.

These wasps are caught out in the cold-both figuratively and literally-after their society collapsed. After the annual collapse of their society, they died looking for food.

This sort of behavior is actually very common in social insects. Honeybees do the same thing. After winter, it’s very common to see dead bees headfirst in honeycomb. They died the same way…looking for food.

While these wasps didn’t make it, some of their sisters survived the winter by finding a warm place to sleep. They’ll start nests of their own next year, and the cycle will continue anew.

It’s sad, but that’s nature for you. It’s both beautiful and cruel…all at the same time.

At the end of every year, wasp societies collapse. The workers die, the queens hibernate, and new nests appear in the spring. It’s a simple story…but it’s not quite right. As always with insects, there’s more to the story.

There’s another layer of complication to how people tell the lifecycles of wasps, and the pictures above show a part of an interesting story that few folks know about.

Before they build their nests in the spring, the future queens gather for one last party.

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Is This Asian Lady Beetle Meme True?

Written by Nancy Miorelli

This meme – floating around FB. Fact? Fiction? Mix?
I’m starting to feel like we’re the Snopes of Entomology.

This has been floating around Facebook. So fact, or fiction?

The answer?

Mostly False.  Like 98% False. And lots of misleading information. 

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Posted in Ecology, Identification, Pest Management | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment