Published on 09/22/97

Bad Bug Summer Good for Scientists' Studies

This has been a great year for insects in Georgia. Lots of them out there attacking and eating everything they find. Farm crops provide a virtual buffet for dozens of insect species that eat their fill, reproduce and keep eating.

That's not-so-good news for farmers. But it's great for researchers.

"We're seeing more insects in the field this year than we have in the past five or six," said Bob McPherson, a University of Georgia scientist.

"Some varieties are devastated by insects," he said. "Some are resistant, and we're learning the best ones to plant so farmers don't have to spray as many pesticides."

McPherson said that's good for the farmer and the environment. If farmers don't have to spray as often, their cost to grow soybeans drops. And it puts fewer chemicals into the air and potentially into the water.

McPherson, an entomologist at the UGA Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Ga., is working on a test that shows which of 27 soybean varieties are most insect-resistant.

It's not so much that they're resistant, he said, as that some varieties tolerate insect damage and still produce a good crop.

These varieties come from all over the Southeast. "They send their test varieties here because we've got so many insects," McPherson said. A light year for insects in Georgia, particularly south Georgia, is worse than a bad year in most states around us.

"Often, we'll get varieties the scientists from other states record as insect-resistant, with maybe 20 percent of the foliage eaten by insects," he said. "Here they'll destroy 60 or 70 percent. It's a whole new ball game."

McPherson and other scientists with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences are working to help Georgia farmers grow more soybeans more profitably.

Soybeans have lost acreage in the state in recent years. But the numbers have picked up in the past two years. Georgia farmers planted 430,000 acres to soybeans in 1997, a 7.5 percent increase over 1996.

Soybeans appear in the most unlikely places in your daily life. John Woodruff, an extension agronomist, said the average person has about 15 contacts with soybean products every day. It's in everything from lipstick to crackers and even ink.