Categorized | Environment

UH entomologists develop tool to study, conserve wekiu bug


Entomologists from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Hilo published the article, “Application of Agriculture-Developed Demographic Analysis for the Conservation of the Hawaiian Alpine Wekiu Bug,” in the prestigious scientific journal Conservation Biology.

Daniel Rubinoff of UH Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, and Jesse Eiben of UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management, describe how they are able to study and help to conserve the rare native insect using methods that were originally developed to track and control agricultural pests.

The wekiu bug is an endemic insect only found on the summit of Mauna Kea. It has a remarkable ability to survive in the volcano’s harsh, high-elevation alpine desert above the treeline, but it lives nowhere else in the world—except in a few laboratories.

The wekiu bug is important to scientists because it is an indicator of natural resource degradation due to human disturbance.

It lives on the summit’s cinder cones, some of which have been altered for telescope facility construction.

Thus, it is important to be able to monitor its status to assess the environmental impact of existing and future construction.

Because it is difficult to find and study the insects in their natural habitat, Rubinoff and Eiben developed “life tables” to observe them in the lab, discovering at what temperatures the insects grow best, and then finding those temperatures in their native environment.

With the predictions created by raising the wekiu bug in captivity at various temperatures over the course of three years, they have created a predictive model to monitor the growth of the wekiu bug in its natural habitat.

This method was originally created to study agricultural pests, so farmers would be able to apply insecticides at the optimal time of day and during the correct growth stage on the host plant.

Explains Rubinoff, “Ultimately, by using a model designed to control pest bugs in fields, we have offered a way to help save a special insect restricted to the highest peaks of Hawaii’s tallest volcano.”

Many insects that should be considered for conservation are often overlooked because of a lack of data due to the insects’ secretive habits. The detailed information necessary to monitor insect populations and range is often difficult to acquire, especially for rare species in remote areas.

The experiments by Rubinoff and Eiben can be used to help conservation efforts of rare insects by allowing researchers to optimize their field monitoring methods and timing, only searching for species of concern in places and at times that match rare insects’ preferred conditions.

That means that, for the wekiu bug, there are fewer potential impacts on the summit from looking for the insects at the wrong times, and more efficient and cost-effective fieldwork.

Most importantly, if there are ever negative impacts to the wekiu bug populations, researchers and land managers will be able to discover this decline faster and, hopefully, work to help them recover.

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