Phil Pelliterri spent nearly 40 years communicating via bugged phone and Internet lines.
Two or three times a year, while writing for The Post-Crescent, I would phone Phil for the expert scoop on the story bugging me that day.
One of the last times I tapped the information bank of Wisconsin’s “Bug Guru” was the 2003 gypsy moth blitzkrieg, devastating oak trees in Waupaca and Portage counties.
Pelliterri, 62, retired Feb. 28 as head of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Insect Diagnosis Lab, capping a 36-year career.
He was the state’s expert on insects, from the beneficial honey bee to the gypsy moth and Asian lady beetle, at the other end of man’s best friend list.
The gypsy moth has no redeeming quality.
The lady beetle was introduced into the United States by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as a biological control agent in 1978 and 1991, as an important predator of aphids and scale insects. It has the dubious habit of seeking the warmth of indoors over winter, making it an unwelcome intruder.
Pelliterri’s path to entomology expert had several bumps from his original goal of wildlife ecology, because it had few job openings in the early 1970s. Insects caught his fancy after considering medical school.
He earned his bachelors and masters at UW and joined the UW-Extension in 1977. The Insect Diagnostic Lab opened in 1978 to support extension agents answering questions for farmers, gardeners and others inquiring about bugs.
Pelliterri estimates receiving 250,000 inquiries, an average of 43 daily, beginning with phone calls and snail mail, evolving to email and cell photos of the bug in question.
In 2013, he analyzed 2,206 insects. Pellitteri has identified at least 95 non-native insects in Wisconsin – including gypsy moth, Emerald ash borer and Japanese (Asian) lady beetle.
In addition, he was the main news source to questions about mosquitoes, wasps, tent caterpillars, honey bees, budworm and ticks. The deer tick is responsible for 30,000 Lyme disease cases a year.
Gypsy moth defoliated about 40,000 acres of oak in 2003; in an area north and east of Iola, west to mid-Portage County and west of Waupaca, and south to northwest Waushara County. Chemical suppression was successful on about 26,000 acres in all but two of 177 treatment blocks.
Traps were set to determine moth numbers and potential defoliation areas for treatment. I learned only last year from Charles Olsen, another Amherst High School alumnus, he had checked traps set at Pitt Acres in central Waupaca County.
Pellitteri was seldom surprised, but the proliferation of bed bugs in recent years has shocked him. Bed bugs were believed nearly eradicated for decades, but increased in numbers since 1995.
Pelliterri did not go quietly in the night, but waved a red flag on the latest exotic, the Asian stink bug, literally knocking on the door.
The stink bug arrived as a stowaway on a ship from Asia in the late 1990s. It has spread east to west and has been spotted in 40 states, including Wisconsin.
It has all the worst traits of the Asian lady beetle, but no saving grace as it causes millions of dollars damage, feasting on fruit, soybeans, corn and other crops.
It is foul smelling like most stink bugs, but is even more offensive as its odor can linger for hours, Pelliterri says.
The Polar vortex is a natural threat as it is susceptible to cold, but its instinct to survive is like the lady beetle, swarming in late fall and seeking warm winter quarters, squeezing through the smallest opening.
It has no natural predators, but some birds are gaining a taste for the stink bug.
A parasitic wasp in Asia gorges on stink bug eggs. Importing it is problematic – will it be beneficial or will it prove to be the newest nuisance with no natural predator?
There are species yet to be discovered, many native to Wisconsin, by Pelliterri’s successors.