Montana State University

MSU gumshoes solve mysteries about Montana’s plants, insects

June 30, 2015 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

MSU Extension Associate Specialists (from left) Laurie Kerzicnik, Noelle Orloff and Eva Grimme sort through samples sent by mail from the public and MSU Extension agents for diagnosis in the Schutter Diagnostic Lab. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN – You never know what will arrive in your mailbox when you’re a sought-after detective who solves mysteries about Montana’s plants and insects.

The three who work in the Schutter Diagnostic Lab at Montana State University said they’ve received poison ivy in a box, the bloody skin of people who believe they have parasites, and bamboo chopsticks from a Chinese restaurant with wood-boring insects.

They’ve watched hitchhiking spiders escape into the lab and opened a dripping box of aquatic plants that had been in the mail for six days.

One woman sent a partially eaten mushroom and asked if it might have been the reason she landed in the hospital. Evidently she survived because she later sent another mushroom, this time unsampled.

One man sent a picture of his puppy, hoping that its cuteness would ensure extra good service.

“You never know when you open a package what will come out,” said Eva Grimme, the lab’s expert on plant diseases.

You also don’t know who will walk in the door of the lab, she added.

A man who cultivates earthworms recently stopped by to see if his European stock might be considered an invasive species, for example. Another time, the police arrived to help a visitor who thought she had parasites, but more likely had a condition called “delusional parasitosis.”

Such is the life of the MSU Extension Associate Specialists who answer Montanans’ questions about insects, mushrooms, plant diseases and plant identifications. In addition to Grimme, they include Laurie Kerzicnik and newcomer Noelle Orloff. Kerzicnik is an urban insect diagnostician and assistant integrated pest management (IPM) specialist. Orloff came to MSU in May to identify plants.

“Most samples are submitted by MSU Extension agents, homeowners, farmers and commercial operators,” said MSU Extension Plant Pathologist Mary Burrows, who supervises the Montana State IPM program. “The majority of samples are received in May-September, but the lab is open to receive samples throughout the year.”

In 2014, the diagnostic trio identified more than 2,000 insects and plants that came to them by mail or in person. They answered innumerable questions by phone and email.

So far, 2015 is proving to be a big year for spiders and a “really bad year” for aphids in deciduous trees, Kerzicnik said. Montana has had a couple outbreaks of forest tent caterpillars. Canker worms have appeared in some urban areas, and she is seeing an invasion of weevils.

Orloff said she is receiving lots of inquiries about herbicide injuries in plants. The herbicides may have been misapplied or interacted with the weather. It’s possible the injured plants were susceptible to herbicides. Gardeners are also sending her plants injured by herbicides found in compost piles.

Some people send her plants, wanting to know if they are weeds or not, Orloff said. If they are weeds, the senders want to know how to control them. If they aren’t weeds, Orloff is happy to tell them that “It’s a really pretty plant.”

Grimme said she is currently focused on wheat and barley diseases, with the biggest two being the wheat streak mosaic virus and wheat stripe rust. She added that the diagnosticians also examine hay and other plants and see if they contain fungi or other micro-toxins that are sickening the sender’s animals.

With a workload so heavy, Burrows jokes that she would need to hire someone new if she wanted to count every phone call and email. She encourages Montanans who have questions about plants and insects to start with their local Extension agents. The agents will then mail the specimen to the Schutter Diagnostic Lab, which offers plant disease, insect, plant and mushroom identification as a free service. However, it charges a fee for out-of-state samples, special tests and multiple samples.

For more details about the lab and instructions for submitting samples that won’t leak, escape or otherwise alarm the recipients, Burrows said senders should go to http://diagnostics.montana.edu/.