Timothy Paine, Distinguished Professor of entomology, didn’t always consider himself a bug geek. “It wasn’t until I got to college that I started studying them. It was a curiosity because insects are so diverse,” he says. “They’ve adapted to so many environments. There are so many examples of insects living in places that you wonder how they can survive.”
He should know: he’s studied the ecology, behavior, and management of insects feeding on forest and landscape trees since before he came to UCR in 1986. In his research, Paine has primarily focused on various insect interactions, from the ash whitefly to the shot hole borer. How do insects find mates? How do they compete for food? What eats them? What are the environment’s effects on them?
“What we’ve been trying to do is learn about them, trying to get an understanding of their behavior and ecology, and then see whether or not there are ways we can reduce the impact of insects,” he says. If scientists can understand the relationships among insect species and the environment, “then we can learn how to exploit the associations to either reduce the impact of detrimental insects or enhance the effect of beneficial insects,” Paine says.
Born in the San Joaquin Valley and raised in California’s Bay Area (a great-grandfather was a 49er), Paine got his bachelor’s degrees in history and entomology at UC Davis. After a detour to law school and a realization that it wasn’t for him, he returned to UC Davis and earned his Ph.D. in entomology. And as the Tokuji and Bettie L. Furuta Endowed Chair, Paine’s work has never been more important. New insect species are entering California at an alarming rate, and studying insects in California’s diverse ecology is always a challenge. “There’s always some [other insect] showing up, so it’s hard to get bored.”
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What is your research about?
My position was initially described as working in and solving problems in nursery stock, woody ornamental plants, and urban forests. The problems are typically associated with invasive species. What we’ve been trying to do is get an understanding of their behavior and ecology, and then see whether there are ways we can reduce their impact.
What insects are you currently studying?
We have a new beetle called the polyphagous shot hole borer that was introduced to Southern California, probably from Southeast Asia. It is causing a lot of damage to urban forest trees, killing trees in the landscape and in the native riparian forests. We’re trying to understand the potential risk, how far it is likely to spread, and whether we can reduce the population. We’re trying to understand the beetle’s interactions with its food sources and fungi it carries under different environmental conditions.
We have a whole series of applied studies trying to come up with tree protection. We have another series of studies focused on parasites of snails and slugs, for biological control. People don’t pay a lot of attention to [snails and slugs], yet they cause a lot of damage. They are also a problem [when plants are shipped to California].
Southern California has so much ecological diversity — you probably will never run out of insects to study because of that.
There’s always something new coming in. We have the benefit — the luxury — of living in an environment where we can grow pretty much anything. We have an extremely diverse range of plants that we can grow in Southern California. Plants are brought here from all over the world, and our landscapes are just dominated by exotic plants. That means that there’s food for insects from all over the world and they move around. When they find something in one place where they can prosper, [their populations] take off, and that’s what we’re dealing with.
How entomologists decide to study insects is always interesting. What drew you to the field?
The diversity is one of the things that really drew me to it. It’s one of the areas in biology where you have the opportunity to impact the quality of people’s lives. One of the things that distinguishes entomology is that you can ask the same fundamental questions [in biology], but you’re getting information that can ultimately be used to benefit people’s quality of life or survival.
More than 200 million people contracted malaria last year. Even though there has been a great reduction in mortality, malaria kills nearly half a million people each year. The most dangerous animal on the planet is the mosquito, and the reason is that the mosquito vectors disease-causing pathogens. Malaria, yellow fever, encephalitis, dengue, Zika, and many other diseases are all vectored by insects. So, if you have an opportunity to ask a question and solve a problem at the same time, that’s terrific. It’s one of the things that helps keep you motivated, because you’re providing some level of benefit.
What about UCR makes it a great place to do your research?
UC Riverside is internationally recognized as the birthplace of ideas and practices (e.g., integrated pest management and biological control) that have revolutionized management of pest problems around the globe. A sense of excitement for discovery is palpable and becomes part of the tradition that we can pass on to our students.
What do you plan to do with your endowment?
We’ll be able to look at emerging problems. We’ve been doing a lot of work on invasive insects that come in to California. They’re often local issues at first, and it’s hard to get funding to work on important local issues. California is a unique place — its environment, plant community, and problems from introduced insects create unique issues. Here, you can go from desert to mountaintop in a very short period of time. You have subtropical environments where you’re growing plants that can’t tolerate frost, to alpine, to tundra at the top of mountains. The Tokuji and Bettie L. Furuta endowment will enable us to address some of these issues that are very hard to generate sustained funding for. It also lets us study problems right away and address them faster.