Vargo elected Entomological Society of America Fellow

Newswise — Edward Vargo, Ph.D., professor and endowed chair of urban entomology in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Entomology, has been elected as an Entomological Society of America Fellow.

Vargo is internationally recognized for research in the reproductive biology and molecular ecology of social insects and urban insect pests. He received his award at the society’s recent annual meeting in National Harbor, Maryland.

“Fellowship is the society’s premier award, and when I look at the people who have been named a fellow, it’s an amazing group,” Vargo said. “I think the award recognizes what an entomologist has done in their career and the impact it has had on the field. So, it’s a real honor to be considered in that group.

Scientific curiosity led to entomology

Vargo’s interest in entomology did not begin with a fascination with insects.

Lewis Thomas’ book, “The Lives of a Cell,” first captured his imagination. He was intrigued by the behavioral and biological concepts surrounding Thomas’s explanation of how cells work together for the good of the organism. Then he discovered that ants and termites, bees and wasps can be considered “superorganisms” because, like the cells of an organism, they coordinate individual activity and work together to benefit the colony.

His doctoral research focused on the social regulation of reproduction and development in fire ant colonies.

“In grad school, we worked on this really big pest class, but I was in a lab doing basic research, so we weren’t looking at how fire ants affect people and the ways to control them,” he said.

In 1987, Vargo was awarded a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship to work with Luc Passera, Ph.D., at the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France, on the regulation of reproduction and caste development in Argentine ants.

In the late 1980s, fire ants spread to Austin and became an agricultural and urban pest around large swaths of the state. Vargo returned to the University of Texas to study the reproductive biology of fire ants as a research scientist from 1989 to 1998.

“Fire ants started out like a lot of invasive species,” he said. “They’re together for a while, and then something happens, and it explodes. I started working with the Texas Department of Agriculture on the issues presented by fire ants, and I realized it was important. “

Scientific opportunities with social pests

Vargo began studying a pest he had no prior experience with when he joined the Department of Entomology at North Carolina State University as an assistant professor in 1998.

“There’s a lot we don’t know, and that’s why we discovered the basic biology and foraging behavior because termites have a mysterious lifestyle that lives and forages underground,” he said.

New genetic and molecular methods present opportunities for Vargo and others to understand termite social organization, foraging dynamics and other behaviors. Vargo said the method has helped him and other scientists understand invasive pest species and retrace their introduction history.

“I saw an opportunity to get some basic biological information and also do things that would be of interest to the pest management industry in terms of controlling it,” he said. “It’s the integration of molecular ecology with urban entomology, using molecular genetic methods to understand colonies and populations.”

Understanding urban pests

Vargo assumed his current position in 2014. His interdisciplinary research in urban entomology uses genetics, behavior and physiology to study reproductive biology, population genetics and management of urban insect pests from fire ants. to termites, cockroaches and bed bugs.

Next-generation genomic sequencing has provided even more power to identify genetic differences between species and how individuals are related from one population to the next, he said.

Vargo’s genetic studies examine the reproductive structure of termites and ant colonies, the dispersal and population biology of bed bugs and cockroaches, the biology of urban pest invasions, and management strategies. aimed at eradicating termite and ant colonies.

He provides insight into how environmental changes influence the population dynamics of No. 1 ant pest in the country – the stink ant. This species is native to the US, and its single-queen colonies are few and far between in forests and countryside. But their social behavior changes dramatically in urban and suburban environments, and colonies can include thousands of queens.

“More people have problems with it than any other ant species,” he said. “And so, we’re trying to better understand this massive change in social organization when they move from natural to urban environments.”

His research also examines the growing concern, insect pest resistance to insecticides and how to reduce or prevent the spread of resistance genes in pest populations.

His research on chemical communication in social insects focuses on the role of queen pheromones in caste determination, king and queen identification among workers, and regulation of reproduction in ant and termite colonies.

Vargo’s group has published more than 180 scientific papers and book chapters. He has given or co-authored more than 300 presentations at regional, national and international meetings. He has taught 10 doctoral students, nine master’s students, 11 postdoctoral researchers and six visiting scientists.

He has held leadership positions in professional societies, including president of the Entomological Society of America’s Medical, Urban and Veterinary Entomology Section; president of the North Carolina Entomological Society; and president and secretary-treasurer of the North American Section of the International Union for the Study of Social Insects. He served as associate editor of Environmental Entomologyand he advised the governments of Korea and Australia on the interception and remediation of introduced fire ants.

“It’s an honor to be recognized and to feel that your peers value your work,” he said.

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