University of Wisconsin “bug guy” Patrick “P.J.” Liesch has the creepiest, crawliest email inbox on campus.
Liesch, assistant faculty associate in the Department of Entomology, has been the solo “bug guy” in the Insect Diagnostic Lab for roughly one year. His role consists mainly of handling questions from the public, but he also teaches and conducts statewide outreach.
“Most people will just snap a couple pictures of insects in their yard, email me the pictures, and then we’ll go from there,” Liesch said.
A large portion of roughly 2,100 samples he received last year were from homeowners and the general public. The runner-up spot goes to county extension offices and extension agents searching for an identification or a second opinion.
Over 90 percent of the cases are within Wisconsin, but the lab does see some nationwide and international action. As early as Wednesday morning, Liesch inspected pictures of insects from the Philippines he received via email, he said.
Just received some insect photos from the Philippines. Perfect timing, as I just noticed it's snowing outside #thinkwarmthoughts
— PJ Liesch (@WiBugGuy) February 25, 2015
“Occasionally, someone may be on vacation overseas and see something neat,” he said. “They snap a picture, then find me through a Google search and ask me to identify it for them.”
Samples supplied simply out of curiosity are pretty common. He serves peoples’ insect interests through email, phone and physical samples. Smart phone technology allows him to receive roughly 60 percent of the samples in the form of digital picture messages, he said.
Currently, he plays the role of investigator to identify insects and provide guidance on how to eliminate pest insects.
— PJ Liesch (@WiBugGuy) February 16, 2015
He also works with companies in areas such as pest control, lawn care and landscaping. Liesch said health care professionals even contact him in situations requiring, for example, the identification of a possible bed bug.
“I interact with a network around the state to help people get insects identified and get them pointed in the right direction if they need to manage an insect pest,” Liesch said.
Growing up in Franksville, a rural farming community in Racine County, influenced his interest in animals and biology, he said. This led to his study of biology at UW-Parkside, he said.
During his undergraduate career, he had summer internships with Chris Williamson, UW-Extension professor, entomologist and turf grass specialist.
“That internship helped steer me in the right direction, and also around that same time I had obtained my first microscope,” he said. “That opened the floodgates because I was always looking at insects under the microscope.”
In 2010, Liesch received his Master’s in entomology from UW-Madison and has worked in research in the entomology department on the Madison campus ever since.
Liesch’s enthusiasm for his work in the Insect Diagnostic Lab is apparent in his tweets (@WiBugGuy) and blog posts to the lab’s website. Those who find interest in what others deem creepy may find satisfaction for a “critter fix” on either page.
“Probably what I enjoy most is just getting to see all the different insects that come through the lab,” Leisch said. “If a neat specimen shows up, that just kind of makes my day or makes my week.”