Mike Rust kneels down to examine a series of plastic tubes wound in a circle on the floor, littered with mostly dead termites. The idea behind the experiment is to see how far the termites can travel after they are exposed to a new termiticide, to test how well the active ingredient transfers to other members of the colony.
“It’s working a little too well,” explains Rust. “The termites are dying before they can get back to the colony.”
Though his voice doesn’t change, there’s a palpable excitement coming from Rust. After more than 30 years at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), he still loves getting his hands dirty. He loves being a scientist.
It’s this kind of enthusiasm that he’s shown every day on the job since he joined UCR’s faculty in 1975 that has made him a leading authority on urban entomology research, as well as one of the most successful teachers the pest management industry has known.
An IPM Approach
Rust came to the UCR Research Lab after completing his Ph.D. in entomology from the University of Kansas, under the guidance of his mentor William J. Bell.
The program at UCR was, and still is, centered around integrated pest management (IPM). It was there that Vernon Stern and others really first developed the concept while working on insect control of field crops — though in 1975 much of the entomology department was still focused on the horticulture side. Working with his then-new colleague Don Reierson — Rust’s right-hand man through the years — Rust sought to change that.
“One of my primary objectives when I came here was to develop the urban entomology program to match the urban growth in the Los Angeles and San Diego area,” Rust says. “Over the past 30 years, both in administrative roles and as a professor, we’ve expanded the program on campus where there are now seven or eight faculty members on campus involved in urban entomology. We cover fields from insect biology to worker exposure to pesticide issues to the environment. It’s turned out to be a pretty complete program. I’m proud we’ve really been able to meet the urban needs in Southern California.”
Over the years, the work Rust and his students have done with cockroaches, ants, fleas, termites and yellowjackets — the major pest species of the Western U.S. — has revealed new and important aspects of pest biology, and brought practical solutions to the pest management industry.
“The urban program here has a very strong basic research component that I insist students participate in. And then we try to expand it and incorporate it into our applied program, in support of the day-to-day field research,” Rust says. “When the students are done here, they have the feeling of both academia as well as the needs of the pest management industry.
“Doing this kind of research, not just publishing, but actually seeing it used in the field, that’s part of our mission as an IPM-focused department,” he adds.
Looking back at how the industry has changed in part due to his research, Rust talks about how entire lawns were sprayed and treated for Argentine ants, but now such applications are selectively targeted. Getting that same look he had looking down at his termite tubes, he says that the current research on termites and how insecticides are transferred will allow pest management professionals to successfully treat structures using less insecticide more judiciously.
“When I got started, a one-gallon B&G and a spray rig were the weapons of choice. Now we do a lot of targeted treatments, spot treatments, baits — a lot of things we wouldn’t have dreamed of in the 1970s,” Rust says. “One just has to think about what was done in the 1970s — how we approached pest control — and how we’re doing things today. It’s been a revolution.”
Though his research has led to new innovations and practices for the pest management industry, Rust’s true legacy will be as a teacher and mentor to his many students and colleagues.
As Clay Scherer, global product development manager for DuPont Professional Products, said in his Hall of Fame nomination form, “Dr. Rust’s program is very well respected among his colleagues, and is one of the more desirable labs to train for graduate work. The industry is littered with his former students.”
Each day, with Rust’s lessons ingrained in them, these former students continue to make contributions to the industry as well as academia. The list include Jules Silverman at North Carolina State University, Weste Osbrink with the USDA, Arthur Appel at Auburn University, Rudolf H. Scheffrahn and Brian J. Cabrera from University of Florida, Linda Hooper-Bui at Louisiana State University (LSU), to name a few.
“I think I get the greatest reward seeing them be successful and going on developing programs in urban entomology at other universities,” Rust says. “At the end of the day, that’s probably my greatest accomplishment here.”
Even when he’s not in the lab, Rust’s children call him the “Bug Doctor” at home.
Though he didn’t raise an entomologist of his own, his eldest daughter Amy is a writing instructor at California State University and youngest daughter Rachel is a 4th- grade teacher in Napa Valley, showing that teaching runs in the family. Even his wife Mary is a former principal.
“I think after five years [Mary's] learned to live with an entomologist, because I do bring my work home with me,” Rust laughs. “The hardest thing is to convince her that sometimes we’re not supposed to necessarily kill the ants. Keeping the Raid can out of her hand has been a problem.”
While Rust also enjoys fishing, gardening and jogging (“It used to be running,” he jokes), Rust’s work at the UCR Research Lab will continue for some time.
“There’s always all kinds of research projects going on,” Rust says. “I think that’s what makes it exciting here. From week to week, the projects and the different kinds of insects we’re doing work on change all the time.
“I’ve got the perfect job,” he adds. “I just couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather do or want to do. It’s just fun to come to work every day.”
“Mike has been special to all of us. His research has been cutting-edge, some of the best in the world, and I know the industry really appreciates the work he’s done. It’s been a pleasure working with Mike, not only as a colleague, but as a mentor, as a teacher and as a principle investigator.” — Don Reierson, University of California, Riverside
“Mike believes in the people who work with him. He brings people into his lab, gives them space and freedom to do what they want, and allows them to develop experiments and pursue the angles and avenues they want and find interesting.” — Rick Vetter, University of California, Riverside
“Mike has been a true leader among entomologists, and has given urban entomology legitimacy through his broad, interdisciplinary approach. He has worked on every major pest, including cockroaches, yellowjackets, ants and termites. His research on the cat flea has had a tremendous impact.” — Coby Schal, North Carolina State University
“Mike is an absolute leader in the university research field of structural entomology. His influence on our industry reaches far and wide.” — Jamie Ogle, Lloyd Pest Control
“Dr. Rust built UCR’s program into one of the most highly regarded sources of information, nationally and internationally. As an extension scientist, I use his publications on a regular basis, knowing I can trust the veracity of the information for recommendations.” — Faith Oi, University of Florida