After 6.5 hours driving the desolate highways of Wyoming, zig-zagging through dramatically changing landscapes, passing what seems like hundreds of semi-trucks, and persevering through the limited number of rest stops along the way, we finally pull into tourist laden Cody, Wyoming. Albeit beautiful, this time of year Cody is a widely sought after destination for cross-country road trips and a reasonable stop for families visiting Yellowstone National Park. As we begin to unload our field gear into our hotel room, smiling and saying hello to our hotel neighbors, I think to myself- the experience we are about to have in the Big Horn Basin is wildly different than that of all the traveling families sharing this hotel roof.
The Big Horn Basin rests in north central Wyoming. It is a plateau region and intermontane environment bounded by the Absaroka Range to the west, the Big Horn Mountains to the east, and the Owl Creek and Bridger Mountains to the south. Because of the mountainous crown surrounding this zone, views from any focal point provide incredible, iconic Wyoming scenery.
In addition to its’ beauty, this flat plateau is intensively utilized as agricultural land. We are here sampling alfalfa seed and hay crops to collect alfalfa weevil larvae. Alfalfa weevil are considered a terrible pest for alfalfa farmers, and with this research, we hope to alleviate some of the stresses involved with pest control. The sampling process involves using a sweep net to collect weevils. Waving this net back and forth 50 times, walking in 6 parallel rows, we manage to collect the samples we need to conduct further research.
After a long day of sweep netting, we typically end up with a cooler of 2 dozen or so gallon zip lock bags full of vegetation and insects. And what on earth do we do with those? We take them back to the hotel room to sort and count weevils- and thoroughly weird out our hotel neighbors in the process. We pulled tables and chairs to the sidewalk outside our room to sort through bags of flying lady beetles, wasps, spiders, flies, and dozens of other insects, all while smiling and waving to passerby hotel guests. This can be a lengthy process, and the same guests continued walking back and forth from their cars to their rooms, with long confused glances as we sucked up weevils with aspirators and set them aside to rear.
After a full week of this bizarre hotel room science display, only 1 person was brave enough to ask what on earth we were doing. And to answer her question- we work to separate two paper bags of 50 weevil larvae each. We handle these bags gently, set them in the lab, feed the weevil alfalfa every other day, and wait for them to pupate. After a few weeks, they will either emerge as adult weevils or will have died with evidence of parasitism left behind. This research project is designed to determine rates of parasitism in alfalfa weevils..…What is parasitism, you ask?
Check back soon to learn more about parasitism and to see what we discover with these pesky weevils post-rearing!