Examining Bugs

Tracy Ellis looks at bugs. Up close. Everyday.

As the County’s new entomologist, she examines about 2,000 insect specimens each month from traps that are set out around the County and samples brought in from incoming and outgoing plant shipments. She looks for any invasive insects or those carrying diseases that pose a threat or could even decimate San Diego County agriculture. The most dangerous ones she’s looking for now include the Asian Citrus Psyllid that carries the Huanglongbing disease (HLB); any of the exotic fruit flies such as the Mexican, the Mediterranean, Oriental, or new world guava fruit fly; or the Tea shot hole borer, an insect from Asia that carries a disease that threatens avocado trees and is already infesting backyard trees in LA County.

Being the County entomologist is not a position one just steps into. She worked with Dr. David Kellum, her predecessor, for four years, has served as a plant health and quarantine inspector and has the required agricultural inspector licenses.

Dr. Ellis — she has a Ph.D in entomology from Iowa State University — has been fascinated by insects since she was a little girl growing up in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.

In high school, her first field project sent her to Washington State to study stream insects in Olympia State Park. Her college senior thesis, done while interning at the USDA, measured the effectiveness of using parasitic wasps to control the Colorado potato beetle — a serious pest of potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants that has actually developed resistance to some pesticides – and ironically a bug that is not a pest in Colorado.

“I’ve always had an interest in all sorts of biology, plants, soils, and insects,” said Dr. Ellis. “Insects are a huge part of the environment; so I decided early on to make that my life’s work.”

Along the way, she’s earned support and grants from the Explorer’s Club in New York, the Noyes Agricultural Foundation and the private sector. She earned a scholarship to Hampshire College in Amherst, and published scientific papers that got her accepted to Iowa State’s doctoral program. She’s worked for the New England Small Farm Center and School of Natural Science, a Massachusetts organic farm, a Midwestern seed company and a San Diego biotechnology company.

Before joining the County, Dr. Ellis’s specialty was developing methods for rearing insects and testing insecticides on them. She was part of the team that brought the first generation of genetically engineered microbial insecticides to the market for spray-on applications as well as developing the first transgenic plants for insect control. She is also the co-author of several patents in the field.

Like many East Coast transplants, Tracy came here with her parents to escape the winters in Boston. She recounts sitting on the sidewalk, watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade and loving the warm sunshine. After completing her education, she returned. Still later, while working in private industry, she turned down a company move back to the Midwest in order to remain in San Diego.

 “It means a lot to me to live in San Diego; it’s a very special place to me,” she said

In her position with the County, she identifies insects submitted by pest detection staff (the trappers), agricultural inspectors, landscapers, growers, and even the backyard gardener. In the case of the Asian Citrus Psyllid, she looks under a magnifier at yellow sticky traps at the rate of 1,500 per month for the three-millimeter insect and to determine if specimens are infected with HLB. While the insect has been discovered in San Diego County, primarily south of I-8, it is only recently that a specimen was found in Hacienda Heights carrying HLB disease.

“If any infected citrus trees are found here,” she said, “they would have to be uprooted and destroyed – whether in someone’s background, or in an abandoned grove. But that would be a small price to pay to save a $276 million citrus industry in the state.”

If you would like assist in the trapping process and help protect San Diego’s $1.6 billion agriculture industry, contact pest detection through e-mail at  AWM.pd@sdcounty.ca.gov  or phone toll free 1-800-300-TRAP (8727).