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From the Lion’s Den to the White House

When President Obama honored 94 researchers on Sept. 26 as recipients of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, chances are there was only one former pet-shop-manager-turned-zookeeper-turned-scientist in the bunch: Jonathan Lundgren.

Lundgren works at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) North Central Agricultural Research Laboratory at Brookings, S.D., and he’s also the ARS Early Career Scientist of 2010.  He calls himself a “predator ecologist,” but he’s also known within ARS as “the bug detective.”

As Lundgren is quick to point out, some of the biggest pest threats to our nations’ crops–and food supply–aren’t hanging around on the tops of plants; they’re lurking in the soil.  The corn rootworm, perhaps the most important crop pest in the world, is a classic example.

So Lundgren focuses on what’s going on in that “black box” just beneath the surface of the soil: who’s living there, and perhaps more importantly, how they’re getting along.  He says it’s a “bug eat bug” world down there, but that’s good news for American agriculture, because beneficial bugs can play a big role in wiping out or at least keeping at manageable levels the pests that attack our crops.

Lundgren’s a big promoter of biodiversity in farm fields, and his ideas are spreading.  He says that when he first started talking to farmers about the importance of protecting the biodiversity represented by insects in the soil, at the end of his 45-minute talk, the only ones still hanging around and listening were “the crickets at the back of the room.”

But these days, through his promotion of ag management practices that sort out the good from the bad and the ugly, his appreciative audience includes an increasing population of farmers who use his information on beneficial insects to boost their arsenal of weapons against crop pests and ensure maximum crop production with reduced reliance on chemicals.

The Presidential Awards honor the pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology.  Lundgren’s work, which promotes the use of “nice bugs” ranging from lady beetles to pirate bugs and wolf spiders to combat crop pests, is entomological innovation at its finest.  “Everybody is a little creeped out, but also a little fascinated, by insects,” he says.  “But insects are among our best tools for helping reduce our reliance on chemical controls in our crops.”

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