back to news June 18, 2013

Under the Microscope: Ticks and Mites Cannot Hide at Ohio State's Acarology Laboratory

For more than 60 years, practicing biologists and advanced students from pretty much everywhere have made the trip to Ohio State to learn the latest secrets of the Acari from the world’s top experts at the Acarology Laboratory’s three-week Acarology Summer Program.

For something so small, microscopic in most cases, the Acari—or ticks and mites to most of us—are of worldwide concern in health and agriculture.

At Ohio State’s Acarology Laboratory, the first step in damage control is to try to understand everything about the Acari. The second is to teach others about their discoveries.

Once again the Acarology Summer Program does just that, kicking-off its 62nd year with 26 people from 12 countries attending its workshops, June 24 - July 12.

About 20 people are enrolled in each workshop; they come from across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, New Zealand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, and the Netherlands.

“The total number of participants is about 26, because most folks signed up for both workshops,” Hans Klompen said. Klompen is an associate professor in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology and director of the Acarology Laboratory and Summer Program. “About half are graduate students, but we also have some folks who work in pest control, and some are faculty, so it’s really a fairly wide range.

“Most folks this year are interested in applied acarology: pest control and development of biocontrol agents in crops and stored products.

“The vets and soil folks will show up next year when we do Soil Acarology and Med-Vet Acarology.”

Participants attend intensive workshops taught by Klompen, who is assisted by guest lecturers from the USDA and universities in Florida, Brazil, West Virginia, Washington, Michigan, and Russia.

The week one workshop is a general introduction to acarology, taught by Klompen. It is followed by a workshop on agricultural acarology, taught by guest lecturers, all specialists in their field: Gilberto de Moraes, ESALQ, Brazil; Cal Welbourn, Florida Collection of Arthropods; Ron Ochoa, USDA SEL; David James, Washington State University; Jim Amrine, West Virginia University; Philipp Chetverikov, St. Petersburg State University, Russia; and Barry O’Connor, University of Michigan.

One of the advantages of this program is the built-in diversity provided by experts from a variety of different places. Most come back year after year to help lead the program, but Klompen appreciates a periodic infusion of “new blood.”

This year, Klompen is happy to welcome Philipp Chetverikov from St. Petersburg State University in Russia. “This is Phillipp's first time. He is a young and very good specialist on Eriophyoidea--super small mites with major agricultural impact,” Klompen said.

“Our previous expert, Jim Amrine, is now retired, and so I am trying to bring in a new person. If possible I want a transition year where the new person works with the old one. That way transitions trend to be smoother. There are no young/active experts on the group in North America anymore, so it was Philipp or a worker in South Africa. Philipp was recommended by Jim and travel expenses from Russia are cheaper than from South Africa. Plus it gets us some contacts with Russia—we have not had that before.

“As an aside, Philipp is also a very accomplished pianist!”

For those who might think the program includes field trips, Klompen said, “No field trips. We rarely have those. We may have some folks check out the apple orchards at Waterman farm, but that is about it. There is no time.”

The reason there is no time for such things is the absolute intensity of the lab work—which is what makes it the best.

“The program is the undisputed champion of the world for training in systematic acarology,” Klompen said. “It is rare to not have at least four continents represented in our participant core. And it can be practical. In one year, we had reports of major range expansions of pest mites based on reports from participants, allowing USDA to go into overdrive to try and stop it. It worked for a major rice pest; unfortunately not for the red palm mite; it is now established in Florida.”

Ohio State’s acarology program traces its origin to a pioneering acarology group headed by “the father of North American acarology” George W. Wharton, at Duke University in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In 1961, Wharton, who had catapulted to acarology’s forefront with his dust mite physiology research, came to Ohio State to become chair of the entomology department. Wharton brought with him the Acarology Laboratory and Summer Program he founded at Duke in 1951.

Ohio State proved to have a favorable climate for the study of ticks and mites and for attracting top researchers who would help him build the program.

Under Wharton’s leadership, both the discipline of acarology and the summer training program for practicing biologists grew in reputation. Over the years, its researchers have amassed an outstanding worldwide collection of soil Acari, accompanied by a comprehensive library.

Wharton is remembered for showing the world (with great glee) what grew in its eyebrows, and mattresses; what caused disease in animals and humans; and the epic economic damage done to crops.

Acarology at Ohio State consists of two main branches, the Acarology Summer Program and the Acarology Collection. Both are under the direction of Klompen, whose group does collection-based research on mite systematics. They work specifically on basal Parasitiformes using resources of the Acarology Laboratory collection. Other projects include molecular systematics of Parasitiformes—including ticks—Parasitengona, and biology of deep soil mites.