By STEVEN NALLEY
In 2012, universities across the country, including Mississippi State University, will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land Grant College Act. On Oct. 2, Gregory Bohach gave Frank Davis an early gift.
Bohach, vice president of the MSU Division of Agriculture, was giving a welcome speech to kick off the MSU Insect Rearing Workshop. Davis, now retired from his work with MSU as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, led the way for the creation of the IRW as well as MSU’s insect rearing center, where he still serves as volunteer director. Davis said Bohach began talking about a book the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities was assembling featuring the six greatest achievements of its member institutions over 150 years.
When Bohach said Davis’ workshop was on his list of achievements to nominate for MSU, alongside the mechanical cotton picker and the anhydrous ammonia applicator, Davis said he was in disbelief.
“At first, I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Davis said. “I couldn’t get any sleep that night for thinking about it. Whether we are selected or not, that’s in the future, but just to be nominated for one of the six or however many they come up with, that’s just tremendous.”
The 14th MSU Insect Rearing Workshop in 11 years concluded Friday, and students left the workshop adding their own positive testimonies to the one Bohach gave.
Davis said students are given the opportunity to fill out an evaluation form grading the workshop from 1-5 before leaving, and while the average score is routinely above 4.5, this was the first time everyone gave it a perfect score. The goal of the workshop, Davis said, is to teach students procedures they can implement at their respective universities or businesses to raise and multiply their insects, whether for experimental or other purposes.
“I have a folder about this big on success stories,” Davis said. “We have a young man named Gary Cousins from Clearwater, Fla. He and his wife have invested in a facility to rear butterflies and to sell them for weddings, for schools. Even at funerals, people release butterflies now. When he came, he told Dr. (Norm) Leppla and I that they were in bad shape. The butterflies had diseases. Gary tells us this workshop saved them.”
Students came from across the country and the world to join Davis’s workshop. John Welch studies the screwworm, formerly the No. 1 killer of cattle in North America, at a USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service facility in the Republic of Panama. Welch said even after 27 years working with screwworms, Davis taught him procedures he believes will improve his research.
“I’ve gone to a number of workshops all over the country and the world, and this one, without a doubt, has been the best,” Welch said. “I’ve gotten the most information from it; they’ve had the most professional people; the people that are attending the course are very interested in the subject. I don’t think anybody else could have done this. (Davis is) a unique person. His expertise; his personality; his perseverance – it’s just incredible.”
Edgar Alvardo, a professor at EARTH University in Limón, Costa Rica, said a Louisiana State University professor recommended Davis to him. Alvardo said he has spent three years on the waiting list and he was grateful to finally join the workshop. He said Davis has a kind personality and a desire to share his discoveries with the whole world.
“I think he has been keeping this institution a center for development and all the techniques of rearing insects,” Alvardo said. “He’s putting together all the academic facilities for people from other areas that don’t have this opportunity.”
David Long, an entomology professor at Pennsylvania State University, said he had searched online for professional development tools in insect rearing, only to find no university offered a degree in it and few classes were available. Long said Davis and his workshop fill that need in a way no one else has.
“Rather than having to reinvent the wheel, … Dr. Davis put this together and consolidated a lot of information, a lot of opportunities for a niche market, which is exactly what we are,” Long said. “His passion for what he does, it shows when he speaks. The man’s retired, and he’s still here doing this.”
Davis said while he is credited as the leader and creator of the workshop, he owes its success to excellent administrative assistance from MSU staff and a team of lecturers who, like the students, come from around the world.
“I couldn’t ask for a better team of lecturers,” Davis said. “I couldn’t ask for a better administrative staff with all the registrations, keeping up with the money the workshop brings in. I am a man that is blessed with top-notch support.”
Davis said he created the workshop at the same time he led other MSU staff to create the MSU insect rearing center. Like the workshop, Davis said, the center has steadily grown in popularity, as well as size, in the years since Vance Watson, then head of MSU’s agriculture division, first gave the IRC the green light.
“At first, he gave us $100,000 to take the basement (of the Clay Lyle Entomology Building) and rework it into an insect rearing center,” Davis said. “Well, people liked it so much, they wanted more insects and more insects. We went back to Dr. Vance and asked for $100,000 more, for buildings right out back where more insects are being reared. And now, we’re asking for more money to the new vice president for some extension of these buildings, because the interest in insect rearing is growing and growing.”
As much as Davis has done for entomologists around the world, he said there was a time when he planned to study animal husbandry instead. Halfway through his undergraduate studies at MSU, he said, he began to hear about a job crisis in the cattle industry he had wanted to enter. When Davis went to MSU’s dean of agriculture asking to switch to entomology, he said the response was overwhelming.
“His words were, “Son, we need lots of bug boys,’” Davis said. “And away I went.”
Davis said he fell in love with entomology because of insects’ evolutionary achievements, such as the social hierarchies of bees and the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies. He said he’s as much averse to the bugs that sting and bite as anyone, but only 1 percent of all insect species are actual pests.
“The rest of them are doing great things out there, like bees pollinating the orchards and the crops, and making honey that we love to eat,” Davis said. “Here now, I’m 72 years old, and I’ve been introduced to the black soldier fly, and I can’t believe my eyes when I see them feeding in thousands together. My love has grown over the years.”