Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: Teacher bugged by crop pest

January/February 2022 California Bountiful magazine

Classroom uses educator's fellowship for studying Asian citrus psyllid




Students Yolanda Aragon, left, and Lucas Blanco work with teacher Amy Downs on a project to study and raise awareness of the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny insect that can kill citrus trees. Photo: © 2022 Tomas Ovalle

There's an insect the size of a sesame seed that can cause a big problem for California citrus farmers. Amy Downs, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Global Learning Charter School in Visalia, decided to do something about it.

As the Citizen Scientist Fellow for California State University, Bakersfield, she and her students embarked on a project to study and raise awareness of the Asian citrus psyllid. The pest feeds on the leaves and stems of citrus trees and can carry a bacterium called huanglongbing disease. Once a tree is infected, it will produce bitter, misshapen fruit and die within five years.

The idea for the project originated in 2017, when Downs and another teacher created an educational game for a contest. Called "The Bugs Are Breaking In," the game was inspired by the work of Mark Hoddle, a University of California, Riverside biological control specialist. He brought a predatory wasp that feeds on the Asian citrus psyllid from Pakistan to the Center for Invasive Species Research at UC Riverside. When he learned of plans for the game, Hoddle and a team made an educational video to accompany it.

Since then, Downs and her students have been studying the citrus pest and its predatory wasp, passing on their knowledge to their families, communities and agriculture and education groups.


From left, students Ashlee Zavaleta, Yolanda Aragon and Lucas Blanco play the game "The Bugs are Breaking In." Photo: © 2022 Tomas Ovalle

Why did you think this was a good topic for your students? I found the whole story so fascinating. We have an invasive species with no natural predator in a region where we commercially grow citrus—its favorite food!

Then to top it off, Californians have all this citrus growing in their landscaping, unaware that they may have Asian citrus psyllids in their trees. Dr. Mark Hoddle goes in search of a wasp in a region of the world that shares the close line of latitude and similar climate as the Central Valley.

There is just so much science and geography for students to study a relevant, local issue that is really a global problem.

How were the students involved? Early on, the students were just participants in playing the game and learning about the predatory wasp. They learned how it had been released to help slow down the populations of the Asian citrus psyllid.

The goal is that kids share the experience of playing the game and share the video with their families, who would then go outside to check their citrus trees. If they think there are signs of the Asian citrus psyllid, they would call the hotline.

This last year, my students used Foldscopes, a paper microscope, to learn about the vascular system of plants and how huanglongbing disease kills citrus trees. We also looked at Asian citrus psyllid wings to better understand how incredibly tiny this insect is.


A Foldscope is used to view the Asian citrus psyllid, among other things. Photo: © 2022 Tomas Ovalle

How did the students respond? This was my students' first experience exploring the microscopic world. That first magnified view when looking through the lens of a Foldsocpe always brings on the ooooo's and ahhhhh's.

Since the Foldscope has a magnetic coupler to attach a cellphone, we were able to capture images and create projects with the pictures.

How has this project benefited California farmers? Commercial citrus in California is a $7.1-billion-a-year economic industry. The first HLB-infected tree was discovered on a backyard citrus tree in Los Angeles County in 2012.

Students are now able to identify the unique wing pattern of the Asian citrus psyllid, they know what signs to look for if it is present on a tree and they know the signs of (the deadly bacteria) in trees.

We collected data in our community by reaching out to homeowners, asking them to check their citrus trees for the Asian citrus psyllid.

Tell us about your presentations and workshops. I have presented at California Ag in the Classroom, CUE educational conferences and the Tulare County Tech Rodeo throughout the Central Valley.

I presented with students about our Citizen Scientist Project a few times on Zoom and a few students made short videos as a part of the presentation. My students also presented to the California State Bakersfield Citizen Scientist team.

During in-person workshops, I will have stations set up for educators to use Foldscopes and I always have slides of the Asian citrus psyllid wings for the participants to view. At many workshops, we have also played "The Bugs Are Breaking In."


Yolanda Aragon, Lucas Blanco and Ashlee Zavaleta discover a clue for the game. Photo: © 2022 Tomas Ovalle

What is the object of the game "The Bugs Are Breaking In"? Students play the role of researchers, scientists and homeowners who have citrus trees. In under 45 minutes, the students need to find the clues that have been hidden in the room where they are playing the game.

Through a series of critical-thinking puzzles, students discover the combinations to unlock boxes that have additional clues. A key element is to find the USDA permit that will allow them to free the tamarixia radiata (predatory wasp) at the UC Riverside Insectary & Quarantine Facility.

There are alpha locks, where a word is the answer; number locks, where a four-digit number sequence is the answer; a direction lock, where directions are the answers; and a key lock that is hidden someplace in the room.

The goal is to break out and open the very last large box. Inside, the students will have broken out the tamarixia radiata and get a copy of a bookmark with a QR code and Dr. Hoddle's video.

Who else supported you in the project? I was supported by the Citizen Scientist Fellowship director Dr. Brittany Beck, assistant director Jesus Esquibel and my mentor Dr. Kathleen Szick, a biology professor at Cal State Bakersfield.

I also worked with a collaborative group of citrus scientists and experts. Dr. Elizabeth Grafton-Caldwell, a research entomologist and former director of the Lindcove Research and Extension Center, was instrumental in connecting me with entomologists Dr. Monique Rivera, Dr. Sandipa Gautam and Judy Zaninovich, the Kern County grower liaison for the citrus pest disease prevention program.

They provided my students with prepared microscopic slides of the Asian citrus psyllid wings to view under the Foldscope. In addition, they helped to develop the BioBlitz survey we used to collect data in our community where we asked homeowners to check their citrus trees for the Asian citrus psyllid.

Any other projects in the works? Yes. This year my class is part of an Open Field Collective citizen science project monitoring freshwater algae blooms. We are working with a team of mentor scientists who are guiding the project and educators from around the world to study freshwater algae from local water sources.

We will again use Foldscopes and a new scientific instrument called a spectrometer.

Linda DuBois


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