by Sarah Einselen
When Lewis Cass sophomore Lauren Bashore’s mother saw an unfamiliar insect crawling around her house last week, she could only describe it as a “black and white weird-looking thing.”
Lauren, 15, took one look at it and identified it instantly as a boxelder bug, one of 150 different insects native to Indiana that she’s been studying since late October.
Lauren and three other students in the FFA program at Lewis Cass Junior-Senior High School competed Saturday in the state FFA entomology competition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, facing off against teams from Indiana’s 10 FFA regions to identify and describe the most insects.
Four more Southeastern students — three junior-highers and one sixth-grader at Galveston Elementary School — went to the state 4-H crops contest the same day.
Lewis Cass finished eighth in its group ranking for crops on Saturday and fourth in entomology.
The teams advanced to the state competitions after a good performance at the nine-county area competitions on Nov. 16.
Lewis Cass agriculture teacher Mike Appleton has sent a team to the area crops contest for each of the last 12 years, he said, but this was the first year that the school’s team won that contest. Past teams have placed well enough four or five times before to earn state competition slots.
“I was really surprised” to win, said Mallory Minnick, 13, a Lewis Cass seventh-grader on the crops team. “There were a lot of big teams and it was our first year.”
She and fellow team members Mack Appleton, 13, seventh grade; Brad Berlet, 14, eighth grade; and Miah Martin, 11, a sixth-grader at Galveston Elementary School, competed against about a dozen teams at the area competition, said Mike Appleton. He expected up to 20 of the state’s best teams to compete at the state level.
Team members spent about three hours identifying 25 different crop and weed plants out of some 67 possibilities and finishing other challenges at the area competition.
The specimens included both common and little-known crops, “things you’ve heard of, maybe, but never really seen,” said Mike Appleton, who urged his son Mack to compete. “Most of the weeds they’ve never heard of in their lives before studying for this contest.”
They also had to be able to identify diseases and damage found in Indiana’s most common crops and insects that plague crop systems, according to the crops contest manual.
The area crops contest wasn’t the first time the students had impressed their teacher. The crops team members placed first in their division of the state 4-H livestock Skill-A-Thon contest Sept. 22.
“When they take something on, they take it pretty seriously,” Appleton said.
The same is true for the students on the entomology team.
Since Appleton’s expertise lies more in other agricultural areas, entomology team members said, they study independently for the insect contest.
That means poring over flashcards and presentation printouts to identify obscure differences between similar bugs.
“We decided this year we’re going to make Appleton learn all of them,” said senior Heather Newell, 17, who has been on the school’s entomology team the last four years. “It’s just great to give him a hard time.”
Lauren and Heather teamed up with Sidney Tigler, a 16-year-old junior, and freshman Breanna Diedrick, 14, to learn the common name for each insect and the scientific order to which it belongs. They also memorized basic facts about the insects, including whether they were pests and to what crop or animal and how long each stage of their life cycle lasted.
This was about the fifth year that Lewis Cass sent an entomology team to the area contest, said Appleton.
“I’ve never taken a team that has not made it to state for that,” added Appleton. In both of the last two years, the Lewis Cass entomology team finished in fifth place at the state competition.
“I look for them to be higher than fifth this year,” he said Friday before contest day.
Heather expected at least to make into the top six. She and the other team members hoped to place fifth or fourth.
Where did the crops team think they’d place?
“I have really no idea,” said Mallory, encapsulating the team’s sentiments. “I’ve never done this before.”
Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at email@example.com or 574-732-5151.