Bug Expert Snags Enviro Prize

22 March 2011 5:43 pm

For more than 35 years, May Berenbaum has been a champion of insects, studying how they interact with plants and humans and conveying her fascination with bugs to the general public. For this work, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, entomologist will receive the 2011 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. Announced today, this international prize includes a gold medal, $200,000, and recognizes "those individuals who have contributed in an outstanding manner to the scientific knowledge and public leadership to preserve and enhance the environment of the world." It has been awarded annually since 1973.

With a Web site that begins with a poem about wild parsnips, Berenbaum helped elucidate the molecular arms race between plants trying to fend off herbivores and insects that evolve ways to sidestep, and sometimes make use of, these defenses.

However, even as an undergraduate, she has reached out to the general public. "I serve as a self appointed spokesperson for all things six-legged," she tells ScienceInsider. In 1984, she started an insect-fear film festival that is still going strong; she's written several books, the latest being a cookbook, Honey, I'm Homemade: Sweet Treats from the Beehive across the Centuries and around the World.

"I don't expect people to become entomologists or even necessarily to love bugs, but at least to think before reflexively stepping on them," she once said.

On a more serious note, in 2006 she led a National Research Council panel that pointed out the precarious state of pollinators in the United States and later did work on bee colony collapsing disorder that helped focus attention on viral causes of this epidemic.

She hopes to use her prize money to promote citizen science, in particular to be possibly expanding a local Illinois bee spotting program that involves the general public in bee surveys. "I dream of taking it national," she says.

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