By Anita Neal Harrison
ORGANISMS THAT suck life from others are seldom regarded as heroes. But thanks to the pioneering work of entomologist Ben Puttler, we now know that the vampire-ish ways of “parasitoid” insects can be very good indeed.
Puttler’s whole career, now in its seventh decade, has been about demonstrating the significance of these potential enemies of crop-eating insects and plant-choking weeds. It’s a campaign he waged for more than 30 years with the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service before retiring, and he has now accumulated 24 more years of work in biological control at MU.
For most of that time Puttler’s research has focused on parasitoids, insects that feed off a “host” organism and ultimately kill it. As ruthless as this sounds, many parasitoids can be useful in agriculture. It’s all about choosing those that kill only the enemies of “good plants” such as food crops, trees and flowers.
“To assure a parasitoid is beneficial,” Puttler explains, “various tests are performed to see that it attacks only the targeted species of insects and that it won’t attack beneficial insects. Many of the parasitoids are almost host-specific: They will only attack one pest insect.”
Puttler’s interest in things that creep and crawl came after his graduation from Los Angeles’ famous Hollywood High School. He didn’t know what career to pursue (the thought of acting makes this quiet scientist laugh), and one of his brother’s friends suggested entomology — a field the friend had considered before becoming a dentist.
“Why not?” thought Puttler, and soon he found himself on an unusually straight, though not always easy, path toward insect investigations.
As a young person, Puttler admits, academics were a challenge. And while he was talented enough to gain admission to the prestigious University of California, Berkeley, while there he struggled to maintain a C average. Puttler credits two caring professors, Robert Van den Bosch and Ray F. Smith, with encouraging his eventual success: “They were good teachers, and they had faith in me.”
That faith proved merited. Over his long career, Puttler has earned national recognition as an authority on biological control. His contributions include identifying natural enemies of pests, devising methods for propagating and distributing the aforementioned parasitoids, and discovering how to overcome pests’ natural immunity to biological control agents. His research has taken him across the globe to hunt down parasitoids for pest management, and he has returned home with enemies of destructive creatures like the Colorado potato beetle and the velvet bean caterpillar, a soybean scourge. Two of his parasitoid finds that were previously undescribed were subsequently named in his honor, the Euplectrus puttleri and the Edovum puttleri, both of which he found in Colombia, South America. Another of his discoveries, the tiny fairy fly Anagrus virginiae, he named after his wife, Virginia.
Puttler’s many contributions earned him a nomination into the USDA Hall of Fame in 2000. “No one person within [the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service] has done as much to promote the principles and practical understanding of biological control of insects while quietly implementing projects that have made a difference in reducing agricultural dependence on chemical pesticides,” two of his USDA colleagues, Tom Coudron and Don Hostetter, wrote.
Puttler has been in Columbia since 1965, when the USDA opened its Biological Control of Insects Research Laboratory. He retired from the USDA in January 1989 and, two months later, began working at MU as an extension associate. He later became an extension assistant professor before accepting emeritus status in 1996.
Puttler, now 82, gives a simple reason for continuing to work.
“I enjoy it,” he says, smiling, as he leans back in his desk chair and laces his fingers behind his wavy, silver hair. “I enjoy being with students. I’ve tried to treat them as I’ve been treated.”
He also still enjoys the thrill of discovery. This spring, MU has been abuzz with news that it has its very own bug, the Aphis Mizzou. Puttler found this “new” insect, a tiny member of the aphid family, while investigating how a parasitoid wasp feeds on a different, previously described aphid that lives off the sap of MU’s abundant St. John’s Wort plants. Doris Lagos from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign helped him determine the MU bug’s new-to-science status.
Puttler doesn’t plan any further work on the Aphis Mizzou — he says it’s not much of a player in the insect world — but he has had fun watching MU hail its small claim to fame.
“I put the Mizzou name on this bug mainly because I thought the University has been good to me, and this was the only place where this bug is known to be found,” Puttler says. “It was a means of showing loyalty to the University.”