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Voracious pest leads to award winning research

PULLMAN, Wash. – When it comes to pests, few can match the appetite and impact of the spider mite. These tiny critters are known to feed on over 1,000 plants around the world.

Adekunle Adesanya stands on a dirt farm road inspecting hop vines.
Adekunle Adesanya stands in a hop field near Prosser, Wash.

Adekunle Adesanya, a Ph.D. student in WSU’s Department of Entomology, is looking for an answer. Because different spider mite populations have developed resistance to varieties of control measures, he studies mite DNA to find clues to better methods.

“We started on hops, since spider mites are the biggest pest problem,” Adesanya said. “We’ve had success in helping save farmers from wasting sprays, time, and money.”

For his research, Adesanya will receive the 2018 John Henry Comstock Award from the Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), the highest honor granted to an entomology graduate student. The Pacific Branch includes 11 U.S. states, four Canadian provinces, eight territories, and three Mexican states.

He’ll receive the award at the annual ESA regional meeting in Reno on June 12 and be recognized at the national ESA meeting this November in Vancouver, B.C.

Global vision

Adesanya and his supervisor, Doug Walsh, are also working on spider mite populations impacting alfalfa, peppermint, and even strawberries in California.

As Walsh and Adesanya meet with California strawberry growers, who have been hit hard by spider mite damage, they know their work could benefit growers beyond the U.S.

Adekunle Adesanya holds a plastic bag against a hop vine and shakes mites into the bag.
Adesanya collects mites from a hop vine.

“It’s very rewarding work, knowing that what I’m doing can be transferred to so many other crops around the world,” Adesanya said.

That’s important because he saw first-hand the devastation pests like spider mites can have when visiting his grandparents’ cocoa farm in his native Nigeria.

“I saw farmers suffering financially from infestations,” Adesanya said. “My goal is stop that as much as possible.”

When he graduates, Adesanya hopes to continue doing research in an academic setting.

“I love to teach, and work with farmers through extension,” he said. “I’m passionate about addressing the world’s food security problem and helping fight these infestations that destroy crops is a big part of that.”

This summer, Adesanya will take part in the Borlaug Summer Institute on Global Food Security at Purdue University. The prestigious program gathers graduate students in multiple disciplines from across the U.S. who are interested in understanding the challenges around global food security.

Local impact

“Kunle is an outstanding student,” said Walsh, a WSU professor of entomology. “He’s the first person in the U.S. to do this work in cropping systems. I can’t wait to see where the rest of his career goes.”

For his part, Adesanya enjoys figuring out solutions to problems that affect a wide swath of farms and farmers.

His work is incredibly complex, requiring him to find a trait at the metabolic level that shows exactly how a mite can resist a particular control method.

“Thanks to Kunle’s work, we now have a snapshot of many mite populations and how they respond to miticides on hops in the U.S.,” said Walsh, who is nominated for his own separate ESA award as well. “Mites are sneaky, they’ve adapted to the same miticide in completely different ways in Korea compared to the U.S. So staying ahead of them is becoming more difficult.”

The result of his work is that Washington hop farmers no longer use two popular miticides on their crops. This saves them money that would have been wasted on an ineffective product and reduces the overall usage of chemicals on the crop.