Brunswick native Hillary Morin Peterson got some media attention in November when Maine’s Department of Conservation Agriculture and Forestry announced she’d discovered a new species of wasp in Harpswell; she named it Ormocerus dirigoius in honor of her home state. But we wanted to know more, like when she knew she’d found something special, how and why she came across these wasps, and how she got into bugs in the first place. We called Morin Peterson up in State College, Pennsylvania, where she is working on a doctorate, to get answers.

Hillary Morin Peterson Photo courtesy of Hillary Morin Peterson

THE METAMORPHOSIS: Morin Peterson grew up in Brunswick, on a road filled with other people with the last name Morin (she got married this summer). “My father had nine siblings. I think my mémé and my pépé bought all the houses on the street for their children to live in.” Was she a science-oriented child? “I liked to play outside a lot, and I liked to watch Animal Planet. I think my eighth-grade birthday was an insect-themed party.” But she wasn’t planning a career in the sciences. She attended Catholic schools, St. John’s in Brunswick and then Cheverus, and thought about studying theology. She had even put in applications to 13 Catholic colleges. Then one night she saw an earwig in her house and went down the internet rabbit hole learning about it. “I ended up spending all night reading about insects.”

RELIGION AND SCIENCE: As she pondered college, she started thinking about the cost of an education in theology and the kinds of jobs she could get with that degree. “It is kind of crazy that you have to determine these life paths at 17.” (Yes.) She also started noticing that all the “Nova” episodes she watched with her sister seemed to feature scientists from state universities, including the University of Maine. Entomologists even, that is, those who study insects. Morin Peterson has an uncle who teaches forestry at the University of Maine. She decided to apply, was accepted and ended up on the path to that wasp.

HONORS IN HARPSWELL: Morin Peterson enrolled in an honors program when she arrived in Orono. She would need an idea for a research project, which ultimately she’d defend before a committee. “Essentially it is like a mini-masters project.” She got an idea while working for the entomology department the summer between her sophomore and junior years as an assistant on a project that graduate student Kaitlyn O’Donnell was running on winter moths in Harpswell. They’re invasive and destructive, capable of defoliating entire trees. “It’s particularly problematic in Vinalhaven and in Cape Elizabeth and really bad in Harpswell.” Predators are needed.

FOE FREE: Part of the problem with winter moths, which are small and brown and you could see flitting around right now (“they emerge in the winter”), is that they are too new in the area to have any natural enemies. Morin Peterson and other researchers started thinking about prospective enemies – natural ones, we’re not talking about Raid here – that could take out some of the burgeoning moth population.

BAD TIMING: Wait a minute. How does a newly hatched moth handle a Maine winter? “They are crazy. They are able to generate their own heat. Like they can vibrate and melt the snow and push their way out of it.” That is impressive.

THE FLY, NOT FLYING: Scientists know that some mammals could eat the future winter moths in larval stages on the ground, but there are potentially more useful predators, like a fly that serves as a parasitoid (which kills its host by eating it). This fly lays its eggs on a leaf near a winter moth in its caterpillar form, which the caterpillar then eats. The egg hatches and the fly eats the caterpillar from the inside out. Talk about mind (and body) blowing. Morin Peterson took part in a release in Harpswell of these flies, bred especially for this purpose (Cape Elizabeth is using them as well). “It was funny, these flies just sat there. We had to shoo them out of the cage.”

PREDATOR PROWL: Morin Peterson also got curious about wasps known for drilling holes in trees, paralyzing their prey and then coming back to eat its eggs. Maybe they’d pull that trick on the winter moths? She experimented with putting out 200 blocks of wood with pre-drilled holes in them, adhering them to trees in Harpswell. “I wanted to see if they were provisioning with winter moths.” She left them for a while, came back, opened them up and found provisioned spiders, but no winter moths. She also sampled the area for insects by knocking them out of trees and onto a sheet for collection, and by using the old big yellow bowl trick. Don’t know it? Put a yellow bowl filled with soapy water in the woods. The insects will think it is a flower and fall in because the surface tension of the water is broken by the soap. Her golden ticket in the form of the unknown wasp was in her collection of samples. But she wouldn’t know it for awhile.

THE GRADUATE: Fresh out of UMaine, Morin Peterson and her future husband, George, whom she’d met in Orono, headed to Pennsylvania. She wanted to continue in graduate school at Penn State, but hadn’t gotten in, possibly, she thought, because she didn’t have a planned project. “I decided to be a total creeper and move down there, and I got a job at one of their labs.” A corn lab to be precise, where integrated pest management plans could be worked out on live crops. Interesting work, but “corn was not my jam.”

HER JAM: Bugs still were. A spontaneous road trip to Maine to attend a BioBlitz (like a flash mob of scientists doing bug assessment) at Acadia National Park involved a car share with a Smithsonian scientist. The connection helped land Morin Peterson an internship at the Smithsonian, where she learned how to mount and preserve specimens, and then to identify them with great accuracy. There were 30 specimens from Harpswell that appeared to be the same, but Morin Peterson’s mentor took a look at them and told her it looked like a new species. It wasn’t quite the “Eureka!” moment you might expect. “In the insect world, there is always another species that can be described.”

BUT IT IS STILL COOL, RIGHT? “I definitely told my friends and family, but we didn’t know for sure.” She spent months “describing” the species, that is, making note of all that distinguished it from other wasps. “It is like a puzzle. It almost feels Sudoku-y.” She got to name the wasp and chose Ormocerus dirigoius after Maine’s motto Dirigo, “I lead.”

STRAIGHT TO A DOCTORATE: At Penn State, she quickly moved into a PhD program. “I don’t really know what my graduation date will be. Probably at least another three years.” But then, she said, she’d like to come back to the land of Ormocerus dirigoius. Maybe to be a Maine Forest Service entomologist, or in the UMaine Cooperative Extension system. Something involving fruit maybe. Because fruit, after all, attracts insects.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

 

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.