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Bug man on campus: Whitney Cranshaw is a leader in exploring small but mighty creatures

July 11, 2011
by Coleman Cornelius

Whitney Cranshaw enjoys the little things in life. Little things with multiple legs, antennae, exoskeletons, and wings. Little things that itch, bite, bore, and sting.

Whitney Cranshaw, entomology professor and bug lover extraordinaire, received an Advisor Gratitude Award at the Student Organization and Advisor Recognition ceremony in 2010.Amazing stories

You might call them pests. Whitney Cranshaw calls them fascinating.

“Insects are the most interesting beings in the universe to Whitney. He sees their beauty, and he takes it as his responsibility to educate people and to let them experience his passion,” says Thomas Holtzer, head of the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management. “He’s brilliant, and he works endlessly.”

Cranshaw, a professor and extension specialist, is one of Colorado’s best-known entomologists and has become a go-to guy for a wide range of public questions about arthropods, particularly those found in Colorado homes and gardens.

A major resource in bugology

Proof? The state’s highest-profile news media turned to Cranshaw for explanation and insights when spring heralded the annual influx of miller moths migrating from plains to mountains. The Denver Post, 9NEWS, CBS 4 Denver and ABC 7NEWS, among other outlets, all carried news stories about miller moths. And they all quoted Cranshaw.

“It’s not going to be an epic year,” he pronounced in The Denver Post.

With his trademark unpretentious style – and a tone clearly sympathetic to bugs – Cranshaw explained the miller moth’s life cycle, migration pattern, and impact on Colorado residents and agriculture.

“They’re living in the mountains for the summer, staying cool and getting fat, just like most of us wish we were,” Cranshaw told The Denver Post.

Heck of a teacher, too

Cranshaw also is a well-known bug man on campus. In 2006, he was named one of CSU’s Best Teachers, a coveted award bestowed on professors who have an uncommon ability to connect with students and inspire them to learn. He was nominated for teaching an undergraduate class called Insects, Science and Society. Under Cranshaw’s guidance, the science course has gained popularity and typically attracts 250 students each semester, Holtzer says.

Of Cranshaw’s teaching skills, one student says: “Through his love of arthropods, he has decreased my fear of bugs. He is a true educator. I visited him during non-office hours, and he dropped everything to help me understand the subject. His passion for insects is inspiring.”   

Cranshaw and his colleagues likewise share information through the CSU Extension Entomology program, which produces an ever-expanding library of fact sheets about arthropods that affect Colorado homes, gardens and crops – and how to effectively manage them. (Fact sheets)

With colleagues in CSU Extension's Entomology program, Cranshaw developed Bug Mugs, including this close-up of a harmless bold jumper spider, to help people identify and respond to common Colorado bugs.Creepy-crawly facts

In these fact sheets, readers find the good, the bad and the creepy-crawly. Take this excerpt from a fact sheet Cranshaw penned about the European earwig:

Earwigs mainly are a nuisance pest. Their reputation is made worse by the widespread fear that many people have regarding these insects. Several tales exist concerning alleged damage of earwigs: how they like to crawl into ears or how the forceps cause a painful pinch. These stories have little basis in fact, although earwigs have been known to cause a mildly painful bite when sat upon or handled.

Overall, earwigs may actually be considered beneficial – they feed on many plant pests, such as aphids, mites and insect eggs.

In another CSU Extension entomology project – aptly named “Bug Mugs” – Cranshaw and his colleague Frank Peairs provide close-up photographs of common Colorado bugs along with brief descriptive information. Look into the eyes of the bold jumper, a common but harmless spider, and you’ll see this isn’t the typical field guide. (View the Bug Mugs)

His contributions to integrated pest management in horticultural commodities have resulted in industry awards, including Green Industries of Colorado Person of the Year and Most Valuable Professional for the Colorado Association of Lawn Care Professionals.

Recognizing a serious threat

In what could be a highly significant contribution to his field, Cranshaw and his colleague Ned Tisserat were the first researchers to recognize and describe thousand cankers disease in 2008.

In the Western United States, the disease has been involved in several large-scale die-offs of walnut trees, particularly black walnut. Thousand cankers disease results from the combined activity of the walnut twig beetle and a canker-producing fungus in the genus Geosmithia.

“Black walnut is the most important hardwood species in North America,” Cranshaw says. “Considering the likelihood that this disease will spread, it is a potentially catastrophic situation that we are only beginning to understand.”

The original description of the disease, “Black walnut mortality in Colorado caused by the walnut twig beetle and thousand cankers disease,”appeared in the scientific journal Plant Health Progress in August 2009. 

Boosting bug literacy

Even as he pursues serious research into thousand cankers disease, Cranshaw is eager to share his fascination with insects and other arthropods.

“My job is to increase the entomological literacy of Colorado,” he says. “Bugs impact us in many ways, and people are very interested in that. They love it.”

Contact: Coleman Cornelius
Phone: (970) 491-2392