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Ron Ochoa, Research Entomologist, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, Beltsville, MD

Stories of Technology in Agriculture

Photograph of Ron Ochoa in the laboratory.A Mite-y Powerful Technology Ever looked at a bug in your hand or a butterfly on your shoulder and wished you had a microscope to see it better? Scientists, who are impacting the way we think and changing the way we do agriculture, don’t just wish. They explore ideas until they find answers to challenging questions and make those wishes come true.

Dr. Ronald Ochoa is a mite expert with the Systematic Entomology Laboratory of the Agricultural Research Service. With colleagues, he adapted low-temperature scanning electron microscopy (LT-SEM) to study tiny mites that cause big problems for farmers, ranchers and other growers. LT-SEM technology uses electrons passing through a magnetic field to magnify the specimen, recording its image on a cathode ray tube that looks like a monitor. With a 50,000x magnification, the LT-SEM images enable Dr. Ochoa and his teammates to see the complex details of the mouth parts, sensory organs and other features of mites. “With this technique, you are not on the desk, looking down at [specimens]; now you are with them, walking with them. You can look at them in a completely different way,” said Dr. Ochoa in an interview for a recent issue of Entomology Today. “It is a giant door to start to see the micro world at the same level that humans see regular life.”

The information helps to answer questions about the more than 6,000 species of mites and how they attack plants and insects that act as hosts. Almost every plant important to agriculture is affected by mites and those problems aren’t just an annoyance. They can lead to the loss of billions of dollars a year from lower production.