A Day in the Life of an Urban Ecologist

This is a guest post from PhD graduate student Sarah Parsons

I hunch over a freshly cut tree twig and I count: 1…2…3… It is a breezy day, for which I am grateful. Counting insects on city street trees can be a warm endeavor, a phenomenon we can attribute to the “urban heat island” effect. It is often a few degrees hotter in urban sites when compared to surrounding suburban and rural areas. I count to 18 and throw the twig in the back of the truck. Today I am counting crape myrtle aphids, Tinocallis kahawaluokalani. In fact, almost every field day of my urban ecologist career I have counted these little critters, who occupy a space not much larger than a pen head.

Crape Myrtle Aphids go through many life stages (instars) before reaching their winged adult form. Here you see second and third instar nymphs and a winged adult.

I make another clipping and repeat my counting: 1…2…3… This time someone startles me and I have to stop my counting. A woman comes walking briskly across an adjacent lawn. Her eyes are set on me.

I can expect this encounter to go one of two ways. This is a woman with an insatiable appetite for learning, whose scholastic intrigue cannot keep her from asking me what I am doing, OR she is a slightly disgruntled neighbor. She is the latter. When she approaches, I calmly explain who I am, a researcher at NC State University, and what I am doing, counting crape myrtle aphids. I tell her that her neighborhood tree won the prize for being the ONE tree picked out of thousands in the city database to be sampled. This last line usually makes people laugh. This particular neighbor was not amused. I then explain that this is a city street tree, on which we have permission to sample. I also explain that I make 4 small clippings from the tree to count aphids. I show her the clippings, and her body language relaxes. My explanation has been successful. I have established that no harm to the tree is being done, and that I am nothing more than a lowly graduate student trying to pave my path toward a publication.

In order to get a good sampling of crape myrtle aphids on a tree, it is good practice to count aphids on several areas of the tree canopy. Here you see me taking a clipping from a lower area of the canopy. During each tree visit I take four clippings from both high and low areas of the canopy.

Although this woman’s approach was not atypical, it is not common. Most people who approach me while sampling trees are intrigued. They want to learn about my aphids and their crape myrtles. The conversation usually segues into one about when they should prune their trees or how to treat for other pests in the garden.

I have been asked in for tea and chocolate, have heard life stories, and have been offered jobs to do landscaping. This is the norm. This is being an urban ecologist. I enjoy this part of my job, and I find it to be the part of my job that sets my field apart from others. Many ecologists work in settings secluded from humans, but in urban ecology humans are a part of the landscape and the ecosystem. In fact, humans are integral in the ecosystem, especially if you are studying a tree like crape myrtles, which would not exist in North Carolina without human intervention.

In my small corner of urban ecology I study the landscapes around crape myrtle street trees to ask larger questions about how we can attract beneficial predatory insects and therefore reduce pests on crape myrtles, such as the crape myrtle aphid. I hope my research will inform future landscape design around street trees and reduce overall pesticide use on city trees.

After my encounter with the neighbor I make another clipping and start counting again…1…2…3… The slight breeze dries the sweat on my brow and makes snow of the crape myrtle flowers, which rain down on my sun hat. I smile. Just another day in the life of an aspiring urban ecologist, I think to myself. I finish counting, throw the clipping in the truck and head off down the road to my next adventure.

2017-07-19T12:39:38-04:00 July 13th, 2017|Categories: Natural History and Scientific Adventures, Urban Ecology|Tags: , , |

About the Author:

Sarah Parsons
My research explores how to manage pests on city trees through sustainable landscape design.