Creepy, crawlies are his game

Entomologist retires, after years of solving ag dilemmas

Entomologist Bob Hammon is retiring after an almost 30-year career at the Colorado State University Extension Service. Hammon’s job is part teacher, part botanist, part detective and part psychologist.

Dealing with spiders, grasshoppers and other insects for almost 30 years was the least of Bob Hammon’s job as an entomologist.

Beyond insect identification, diagnosing problems and knowing how to control pests, the majority of his work was about connecting with people — the growers, the homeowners, the gardeners. And that part of the job came with experience, not his scientific training.

Hammon’s job is part teacher, part botanist, part detective, part psychologist, part fundraiser in addition to his role as the region’s resident insect expert. Last week, he retired from his position as the Colorado State University Extension Service entomologist for Mesa, Delta and Montrose counties, but that doesn’t mean he’s quit working.

See, Hammon’s passion for learning and supporting agriculture didn’t stop the last day he left work at his office at the Mesa County Fairgrounds. He’s already set up an office at his house on Orchard Mesa, complete with a microscope that’s currently loaded with specimens of tiny spider mites crawling around on corn leaves like minuscule crabs.

Retirement is just the latest phase of Hammon’s career as an insect expert, which unofficially started when he was a young boy growing up in Constantine, Michigan.

Hammon remembers collecting his first insects when he was about 6 years old, when he accompanied his mother on rounds. She was a large-animal veterinarian, the only woman with her title in the state for the first 25 years of her career. Hammon traveled from farm to farm with her as she doctored animals, and he would run around and catch insects for his collection. He spent his childhood helping with her vet clinic, which was located in the front of their house. She and his father, a science teacher, encouraged his love of nature and insects.

His parents also introduced a love of Colorado’s mountains to Hammon and his two siblings, and it’s something that beckoned him to leave Michigan after he graduated from college.

Aphids will always have a special place in Hammon’s heart, as the Russian wheat aphid is what brought him to western Colorado permanently. An infestation in the mid-1980s led officials to fund research to deal with the pest to help wheat growers, and Hammon was one of four research associates hired at the time.

Over the years, he’s dealt with a variety of insects that have impacted the agriculture industry in western Colorado. One of the big successes of Hammon’s tenure was the unified effort he organized in 2004 to defeat the introduction of the Japanese beetle in Palisade. The pest, which threatens not only ornamental plants but also fruit and other crops, was introduced with infected nursery stock and threatened to establish itself in the area. But a targeted treatment program prescribed by Hammon and cooperation from those who lived the area led to its eradication.

Just last year, Hammon identified the first samples of phylloxera now determined to be established in several vineyards in Mesa and Delta counties, the only federally designated wine-growing regions in Colorado.

Hammon’s expertise took him to international locations as well, as he has traveled to Armenia and Macedonia to assist and educate agricultural communities with pest management in recent years.

Over the years, he’s seen some good things — the improvement of the internet and other technologies that have allowed him to collaborate with other experts and gain access to diagnostic tools and improve efficiency. He’s also seen some changes he considers negative — namely the increased challenges to farmers and agriculture overall, the whittling away of large tracts of farmland to make way for ranchettes and the urbanization of formerly rural areas.

Being the extension entomologist brought something new every day and Hammon loved helping farmers find new tools to help them thrive. He was always looking for a better solution, like the time he obtained grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a scientific trial on an insecticidal virus called Gemstar and found it was effective. It’s a widely used product in the sweet corn industry now, which targets the caterpillar of the corn earworm and doesn’t kill beneficial insects.

He’s tried to help those in the agricultural community negotiate some of these changes to survive — finding new pesticides when others were outlawed, or providing guidance on management techniques to help them battle problems new and old. Navigating social, environmental and regulatory issues wasn’t something he was trained to do when he studied entomology, but it became a large part of his job over the years.

Being an extension entomologist meant not only dealing with commercial farmers, but also members of the general public who frequently brought in random insects for identification and advice. Hammon always relished the challenge, and recalls some cases were trickier than others. In one case, a woman brought in a sample of maggots. Hammon identified them as a type of blowfly maggot, which concerned him because they feed on rotting flesh, including humans.

He coaxed the woman to tell him more and she explained she found the maggots in her bed. Eventually, Hammon was able to determine that the blowfly maggots had infested dead birds in the woman’s attic, and the maggots fell through a light fixture in her bedroom ceiling to the bed.

Another time, a woman brought in her son who had been bitten by a velvet ant and his arm swelled up within minutes.

Hammon could see the boy was having a serious reaction.

“I looked at him and said, ‘Ma’am, you don’t need to see an entomologist, you need to go see a doctor right now,’” he recalled.

Plenty of times, he dealt with folks who thought they had bugs on them, suffering from delusionary infestations, when there were no insects present at all. Frequently, he tried to educate and calm those who were fearful of bees, wasps and spiders among other bugs.

In retirement, Hammon plans on continuing his work with his wife, Sharon, who he credits for supporting him with his career and being a willing partner in his intellectual pursuits and adventures.

“She’s been very tolerant of my interests,” he said. Together they will continue doing contract work under their new business, Hammon Ag LLC. He’ll also spend more time at their cabin in Tin Cup, and collecting insects with his camera in addition to photographing wildflowers, especially the penstemons he’s partial to.

Hammon also helped his replacement transition into his position. Meredith Shrader started last month, and comes to extension after earning her doctorate at Virginia Tech. She has a background in integrated-pest management in vegetables and fruit tree production and has conducted extensive research on spotted-wing drosophila, a destructive orchard pest that officials are monitoring for in the area.

It’s just time to retire, but Hammon is grateful for his varied and interesting career.

“It was a perfect job for me,” he said.  “When you put together the people, the geography and the bugs and the plants, and it was just a pleasure.”


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