Tania Kim spends much of her time working with some of our smallest creatures.
Kim, an entomologist at K-State, researches the relationship between insects and the land and how people’s land management affect insects. Some people might be uncomfortable getting up close and personal with her subjects, but Kim said there are many interesting things about them.
“They may be creepy crawly, but they have an important role,” Kim said.
Kim has been at K-State for a little more than two years. She grew up in Canada and did research in several places around the U.S. before arrive in Kansas. Growing up in an urban environment, much of her early experience with bugs was in parks and while camping. Some of her early research in plants sparked an interest in insects. As she developed this interest, she has learned more about the impact they have on agriculture.
One aspect of entomology that Kim finds especially interesting is how and why insects move and how to track them when they do. Because of their size, insects can be difficult to track. Researchers use several methods, from attaching small tags to some larger insects to spraying them with milk or egg proteins to identify them later. They also can track some movement indirectly based on diet.
“If we collect something in a soybean field and it has insects you know are only in a prairie or only in a sorghum field, you know they’ve moved in from outside,” she said.
Some like monarch butterflies might have well known and mass migrations of long distances, but even those that don’t have those migration patterns, like spiders, can still move miles in a single day.
Understanding how the creatures move influences how landowners respond to them, Kim said, especially for those that might bring disease to crops, or pest insects that might move to a different field. It highlights how interconnected the ecosystem is.
“Spraying a pesticide on your field that requires pollination, being aware of that is important for your neighbors to profit as well,” she said.
Kim said she thinks reacting to insects with fear or apprehension is something that is taught as people get older. She said her daughter, 6, has expressed interest in insects but is starting to respond that way. Although they are unusual, Kim said she thinks insects can be beautiful. She said she enjoys looking at the different body structures under a microscope.
“These things have a function but they’re pretty to look at,” she said.
Kim doesn’t have one favorite insect to research but she likes “beneficial insects” like pollinators and predators of pest insects because of their importance to nature and agriculture.
Kim’s husband, Brian Spiesman, is also a member of the entomology department at K-State, and the couple has collaborated on research over the years. Spiesman said they’ve developed an easy shorthand when working together because they understand each other’s work.
“We don’t have to worry about translating,” he said.
He said they have learned where to draw boundaries between home and work but are important resources for each other and can bounce ideas off each other. He said they don’t often work directly on the same project, but when they have it was fun to work in the field together.
“It was a lot of fun to be able to get out there and collect data,” he said.
Kim said she and her family, as might be expected with two entomologists, enjoy spending time outside during their free time doing things like hiking, biking or gardening.
Spiesman said Kim is a good scientist but also a good mentor to her students. He said she tries to be there for them on a personal level as well as in the lab. This year she left Christmas presents for her students in her lab because she couldn’t deliver them in person.
“She’s very hands-on with her students,” he said. “She’s there for the science end but also for the moral support.”
Kim said the COVID-19 pandemic has meant less in-person interaction with her students and scaling back field work. However, she said by this point students know what to expect from online learning in the face of its challenges.
“It’s required a lot of creativity and helping each other,” she said.
Once they are able to spend more time working in the field again, Kim will continue to try to understand more about how the environment and its tiny inhabitants coexist and the influence people have on that relationship. She said she’s learned that people benefit from understanding how their individual actions affect the environment.
“What your neighbors do has an impact on what’s happening on your land,” she said.