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Kosztarab's book on scale insects caps work of lifetime

By Stewart MacInnis

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 36 - July 25, 1996

Michael Kosztarab has always had a penchant for long-range projects. He recently completed what he says is his last big project and what he hopes will be a foundation for the work of other researchers.

The respected entomologist finished his 650-page book three years after he retired from the faculty of Virginia Tech. The book, Scale Insects of the Northeastern North America, is the crowning achievement of his career, he says. It is published by the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and sells for $59.95. It is available at all the museum's locations, including its Virginia Tech branch.

Scale insects are tiny creatures that can have devastating effects on fruit, nut, and forest trees, shrubs, and ornamental plants. Economic losses from scale insects in the U.S. are estimated at $50 million annually.

Correctly identifying pests is the key to managing them, Kosztarab said. The book is richly illustrated, with a field key that allows non-experts to identify scale insects as belonging to major groups without having to use a microscope. It also has four indices, allowing readers to search the 254 species listed by geographic region, by host plant, by natural enemies of the insects, and by the scientific and common names of the insects.

"This is information I've been collecting for 37 years," he says. "I've visited 19 states, the District of Columbia, and four Canadian provinces. I am very fortunate that my hobby is also my career. I try to instill in my students that they should consider their professional work as their hobby."

In addition to treating the 12 families, 93 genera, and the hundreds of species known to science, the book also introduces 11 species that are described for the first time.

"It is very unusual for new species to be presented in a book like this," he said. Kosztarab named a number of the new species for colleagues or benefactors, including his wife, who were instrumental in his life's work. Among those honored are J.M. Grayson, former head of entomology at Virginia Tech; Mary Rhodes, a co-worker at Virginia Tech; and Ruth and Miles Horton, long-time supporters of the university who provided financial assistance for Kosztarab's work.

In addition to his own field work, Kosztarab depended on the contributions of fellow entomologists throughout the region, many of whom studied under him. He also spent hours pouring through the resources of the Smithsonian Institute.

In its scope and ambition, the book is similar to a book he completed in 1988 on the scale insects of Central Europe.

Scale Insects of the Northeastern North America is the first comprehensive updating of the information in this field in more than 40 years. The book also represents Kosztarab's fourth contribution to the National Biological Survey. He hopes it will serve as a spur for other entomologists to develop similar guides for other regions.

The National Biological Survey is a project Kosztarab has been pushing for more than 10 years. A comprehensive inventory of natural resources, the survey was conducted into the 1930s, but it was abandoned before World War II. Kosztarab carried on the effort to re-energize the survey from 1984 until it was adopted again as a federal project in 1993.

Another long-term project he spearheaded was the 20-year effort to have a branch of the Virginia Museum of Natural History located at Virginia Tech. He is also the curator of the museum's insect collection, the oldest and largest such collection in Virginia.

"You can't be afraid of starting long-range projects," he says. "You can't give up just because it becomes difficult. I learned that under the Nazis and the Communists."

Born a Transylvanian-Hungarian, Kosztarab and his family were forced from Rumania to Budapest, Hungary, by the Nazis. At the age of 17, he was arrested for helping 36 Jews escape the Nazis.

The arrival of the Red Army saved him from the Nazis, but plunged him into life under the Communists. He worked as an entomologist for the Hungarian State Bureau of Plant Protection, and later as an assistant professor at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Budapest. He escaped to the West after the Soviets crushed the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

He earned a Ph.D. in entomology from Ohio State University in 1962, and he joined the faculty of Virginia Tech the same year.