MADISON — It may be subject matter that some can find annoying and even creepy. But PJ Liesch keeps pretty busy fielding questions about the little critters in the insect world that bug us.
For just about a year now, Liesch, a Caledonia native and 2003 graduate of Case High School, has been managing the Insect Diagnostic Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s a multifaceted, university staff position that includes fielding questions about insects from the public, some teaching and also conducting outreach programs about insects throughout the state.
“A good way to describe what I do is ‘insect detective.’ I often have to gather clues,” said Liesch, 30, who grew up at a rural homestead near the Husher area of Caledonia.
Liesch is a one-man show. The lab is part of the Entomology Department at the College of Agricultural Sciences, but Liesch is the only staff member of the lab. Still there is plenty to do; last year he received some 2,100 insect samples to inspect and to answer questions about.
While 60 percent of the samples are digital images emailed to him, he does receive some specimens through the mail and others are dropped off at the lab, which is located right across the street from the Babcock Hall Dairy Store, a popular source of ice cream on the UW campus.
The lab includes office space for him and a lab table for dissection and inspection, microscopes and “lots of books,” Liesch says.
Most of the inquiries come from in-state, including some from county extension offices. But he also has received questions from throughout the nation and even some from around the world, including some as far away as Afghanistan, South Africa and Australia.
Over half of the cases he handles come in from homeowners or the general public, he said. “The next biggest chunk are county extension offices and county agents. And then I also do get quite a few samples from companies. It could be a pest control company it could be a lawn care or landscaping company it could be an agricultural grower,” Liesch said.
The questions range from those who are curious about what they have seen or found to those seeking management and abatement advise.
During the winter months, when the insect world isn’t as active in the northern climates, Liesch keeps busy with outreach programs and teaching. He conducted a program earlier this month at the UW Extension Office in Kenosha County. He also assists from time to time with the UW Entomology Department’s Bug Ambassador program, which brings insect samples to schools in the greater Madison area.
Occasionally, a curious child with parents in tow drops by Liesch’s lab and he is more than happy to bring out some of his insect collection to share and show the details of the “critters” under the microscope.
“Most insects are just out there playing their role in the ecosystem. If you take the time to learn about them, you find out how fascinating they are,” Liesch said. “Seeing them under the microscope, you can really appreciate the details on their bodies and unique structures. They are really fascinating critters to look at up close.”
While always inclined toward the outdoors (he remembers catching frogs at the pond on his family’s property) and inclined toward the sciences, Liesch stumbled into entomology by chance. As an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Liesch had summer internships with Chris Williamson, a UW Extension professor, entomologist and turf grass specialist who was conducting surveys on the emerald ash borer, a destructive invasive species.
That led Liesch to pursue a master’s degree at UW-Madison, where the insect lab was just two doors down from Williamson’s lab. When the lab’s longtime manager retired, Liesch found himself filling in on an interim basis as manager and then was named permanent manager in July.
And Liesch could not have found a better fit for himself.
“This is essentially my dream job. I do enjoy going out and collecting insects, but it’s cool its just so cool to see the critters, things like spiders, that people send in to me; that’s very enjoyable,” Liesch said. “And I also very much enjoy the teaching and outreach component, getting out and speaking with the public telling them what’s up with insects. Hopefully I’ll be in that position for many, many years.”