As long as Louisiana has been settled, its humans have had to learn to live with insects.
The written entomological history of this region’s insects began almost three centuries ago, said Rogers Leonard, who recently retired as the AgCenter associate vice president and program leader of animal and plant sciences.
An entomologist, Leonard spoke about the history of entomology in Louisiana when he was the featured speaker at the LSU AgCenter Department of Entomology Jerry B. Graves Distinguished Seminar Series in November 2019.
“I was once told that history can be a dangerous thing,” Leonard said. “It represents the past and may be an indicator of things to come, not a guaranteed predictor of the future. History is resistant to change — it can, but it is usually a reinterpretation.”
The entomology of Louisiana was first documented in 1758 by the naturalist Le Page du Pratz. He wrote about pests in and around New Orleans, including cockroaches, lice, grain weevils and flies.
During his presentation, Leonard noted the historical firsts in Louisiana. In 1804, eight years before Louisiana was admitted into the United States, honeybees were first recorded, Leonard said. The nation’s first insecticide law was passed in Louisiana in the 1890s to control the purity of Paris green, a pigment that became an insecticide.
Early entomologists were often jacks-of-all-trades, Leonard said, studying insects along with art, medicine or other animals.
“They had little competition and were armed with the fact that a poorly educated public saw a clear need for pest management all across the board, urban as well as rural, to protect their food, homes and health,” Leonard said.
The Morrill Act in 1862 created land-grant universities, including LSU. The first agricultural experiment station in the state began in 1885, with the Sugar Experiment Station, and the next year stations were established on the LSU campus and in Calhoun in north Louisiana.
The federal Hatch Act of 1887 created funding for more agricultural experiment stations, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 officially created state cooperative extension agencies to work with land-grant universities. Through cooperative extension, agricultural professionals, including entomologists, spread across the country to help farmers grow crops, raise livestock and battle the insect pests that hindered agricultural production.
H.A. Morgan became the first entomologist working for the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, which is part of the AgCenter, in 1889. The state of Louisiana hired its first state entomologist, C.O. Hopkins, in 1929.
Across the South, producers fought the boll weevil in their cotton fields with the pesticide DDT. But in 1955, researchers documented that the pest had become resistant to DDT in Louisiana. Jim Brazzel, one of the researchers who wrote the 1959 paper that led to the program that officially eradicated the boll weevil, was a graduate of LSU, Leonard said.
Many entomologists in Louisiana have worked on the control of red imported fire ants, which have pestered homeowners and livestock producers for decades. The Louisiana Legislature put eradication of the red imported fire ant in the state budget, Leonard said, creating an initiative for areawide control in 2000. They remain a problem, but progress has been made.
Louisiana entomologists have a long history of working to safeguard people and livestock against mosquitoes, Leonard said. Also, the AgCenter worked with other agencies to study and treat termites in the French Quarter of New Orleans, a federally subsidized $5 million-per-year program that lasted more than a decade. It was the first major Formosan subterranean termite demonstration project in the country, Leonard said.
Leonard encouraged his fellow scientists to consider this history as they face the challenges of the future.
“We must always look forward, but we have to understand our history in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said. “I have seen too many instances where people continue to pursue wrong courses of action because they do not take the time to think critically about what has happened in the past.”
Kyle Peveto is an assistant specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.
(This article appears in the spring 2020 issue of Louisiana Agriculture, which features entomology.)
Rogers Leonard, left, receives the Jerry B. Graves Distinguished Lectureship award from Jerry Graves, professor emeritus in the Department of Entomology, in November 2019, when Leonard gave a talk on the history of entomology in Louisiana. Graves was Leonard’s major professor. Photo by Kyle Peveto