2016 Sterling B. Hendricks Memorial Lectureship Award

Sponsored by USDA-Agricultural Research Service, and Co-Sponsored by AGFD and AGRO

How to eat a plant: Phytochemical detoxification in bees vs. butterflies

Berenbaum&beesDr. May R. Berenbaum an entomologist whose research has focused on the chemical mechanisms underlying interactions between insects and their host plants. Insects produce a wide variety of chemical compounds for combating predators, detoxifying poisonous substances, securing and preserving food, and otherwise exerting control over their environment.

Her work has transformed the field of chemical ecology, fundamentally changing our understanding of the implications of the dealings between insects that eat plants and the plants they eat, especially on the organization of biological communities and the evolution of the species that make them up.

Dr. Berenbaum’s research also has provided a genetic basis for the theory of coevolution through elegant ecological experiments and chemical and genetic analyses. It clearly has shown the consequences of the “arms race” that exists between plants and the insects that feed on them.

In addition, Dr. Berenbaum is concerned with the practical application of ecological principles to insect-plant interactions in an agricultural context as well as the use of these principles to facilitate bioprospecting—the identification of pharmacologically active substances in plants. Her work also provided a clear outline for how insects evolve resistance to insecticides. This research gives a vivid example of how studies in the basic realm of chemical ecology can inform agricultural practices.

Going far beyond a narrow research focus, Dr. Berenbaum has taken leadership roles on major insect-related problems that are front and center issues today: insects and GM crops, pollinator declines, invasive species, pesticides and resistance, and insect conservation. She is one of the prominent researchers in the scientific response to Colony Collapse Disorder and other stresses involved in the escalating colony losses that beekeepers have been facing.

Along with her path-breaking scientific discoveries, Dr. Berenbaum has had a major impact on the environmental sciences through her public engagement. With her commitment to making complicated scientific subjects, especially entomology, accessible for the public, she has become one of the leading public authoritative sources for information on insects in the country.

Since 1992, Dr. Berenbaum has been head of the department of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She also has held the endowed Swanlund Chair of Entomology at U of I since 1996. President Barack Obama awarded Dr. Berenbaum the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor, in 2014.

Among her many other honors and awards are National Associate, an honor reserved for National Academy of Sciences members who have made extraordinary contributions to the National Research Council; Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement;  George Mercer Award, Ecological Society of America; Founder’s Memorial Award, Entomological Society of America; and Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

She also has had a new species of cockroach named after her (Xestoblatta berenbauma) as well as a character in The X-Files: Dr. Bambi Berenbaum, a famous entomologist and love-interest of Agent Mulder.