The Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab at Utah State University recently was awarded first place in the National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN)’s Rotten Tuber Awards for its submission, “Hazmat Team Called for Bee Excrement!” The Rotten Tuber Awards recognize unique samples that leave plant diagnosticians asking themselves, “What was this person thinking when they sent this sample?”
The NPDN is an internationally respected consortium of plant diagnostic laboratories. It was established in 2002 by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Office of Homeland Security to enhance agricultural biosecurity by detecting instances of biological attacks.
The NPDN contributes to protect plant health and productivity of U.S. agricultural and natural ecosystems by providing early detection and identification of plant pests and diseases. It is supported by NIFA and the collective efforts of many agencies and individuals representing Land-grant Universities, federal agencies, state departments of agriculture and other stakeholders.
Enjoy “Hazmat Team Called for Bee Excrement!” submitted by Zach Schumm, arthropod diagnostician and urban IPM associate, and Claudia Nischwitz, plant pathologist specialist:
“In mid-August 2021, the Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab received a frantic call from an individual at a local Department of Health regarding a substance that was found on school buses that were about to be sent out to pick up children. They weren’t sure what the substance was and due to safety concerns, they delayed the use of the buses. Thinking the substance could be from a plant or plant derived, they contacted us in the diagnostic lab to see if we could offer any immediate advice. But they made it abundantly clear that they had no idea what the substance could have been. And tensions were clearly high!
“When we were contacted by the individual, Zach Schumm had them send photographs of the substance and told them we would call back immediately once we got a look. Zach identified the substance immediately as bee excrement and nothing of concern. Within a few minutes, we called the individual back and she immediately put me on speakerphone.
“Schumm vividly remembers telling them I knew what the substance was, and they replied “Oh my god! Okay wait! I am putting you on speaker phone with others from the department of health, the local sheriff’s department and the hazmat team. We are all stationed on-site under a tent!” This was no ordinary response; it was being treated as a potential threat and public health crisis. So there Zach is, one minute just eating a bland lunch and thinking his job is to identify insects, and the next minute he’s talking to high-level officials with much more authority than himself about the simple fact that bees decided to poop on their school buses.
“To help confirm the substance identification, Zach asked them if there were any agricultural fields nearby that would result in a high abundance of bees. Sure enough, the place where the buses were parked was adjacent to agricultural fields.
“When Zach applied to his position -- arthropod diagnostician -- he wasn’t aware that he was going to have to save the day by saying the word “poop” to a hazmat team and the Department of Health. We are eternally grateful about the quick response by Utah officials to keep Utah’s children safe when there was a concern, but you can’t help but laugh at the situation.”