A career battling pests leads to national honor for scientist

Closeup of Doug Walsh
Doug Walsh

For five years, Doug Walsh helped decide which scientists joined the ranks of the prestigious Fellows of the Entomological Society of America (ESA). Now, the Washington State University professor has officially been named among those he once helped select.

“I sat in judgement of people I didn’t feel justified in judging,” said Walsh, a professor and Extension specialist in WSU’s Department of Entomology. “When I look at the list of ESA Fellows from the past 100 or so years, I’m still shocked that my name has been added.”

He is one of six scientists who will be honored as Fellows at the upcoming ESA national conference this fall.

Walsh, who is based at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, has worked primarily on pest control issues, mostly on hops, grape vines, mint, and alfalfa. One of his first successes at WSU in 2005 involved developing a novel method for controlling cutworms, which climb up from the soil in spring to nibble on grapevine buds.

The industry started using an insecticide to kill the worms, which did significant damage to the wine grape crop each year, but to only moderate success. Pests inevitably develop immunity to pesticides, which means new products must be tried. Walsh avoided strong chemicals by spritzing a repellant on the trunk of each vine.

“The worms just stayed on the ground, it didn’t kill them,” Walsh said. “Insecticide use dropped 85% in the wine grape industry after we figured out how to create the barrier spray.”

His current projects include leading a large USDA-funded project to overcome barriers to trade for hops and fighting grape mealybugs, the primary vector for leafroll disease. That disease has devasted vineyards on a large scale, with Walsh saying he can diagnose leafroll “from my car going 70 miles per hour down the interstate.”

There isn’t a solution to that problem yet, but he and his team are testing a few ideas, including the possibility of disrupting the bugs’ mating process.

That kind of problem solving has endeared him to the industries he serves, but he didn’t have any specific plan to become an entomologist.

“I wanted to be a botanist,” said Walsh, who earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz and a doctoral degree from UC Davis. “I was working in a local Extension office in California after I got my bachelor’s degree. That work involved battling spider mites on strawberries. I kind of fell into entomology, but I love the work and the creative solutions we find to help growers.”

Job security is another reason he moved into entomology. Walsh said there are five-to-ten entomology jobs for every botany job.

“We as humans are very efficient at moving pests around,” he said. “There is always going to be a new pest and a need for someone to figure out how to best fight it.”

Walsh is particularly proud of how the ESA has evolved over time to reflect society more accurately. The process for electing a Fellow involves a thorough submission process and healthy debate amongst selectors.

“I saw how rigorous the election process is as a member of the ESA governing board,” Walsh said. “That makes being selected even more humbling and flattering.”

In addition to working at WSU for over 25 years, all three of his children have graduated from the university.

“I was offered jobs at WSU and UC Cooperative Extension on the same day in 1998,” Walsh said. “My wife and I decided WSU was a better fit and we’ve been here ever since. I never looked back.”

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