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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Computer Software Makes Quick Work of Bug Samples

LAS CRUCES -- Counting and identifying thousands of insects from farmer's fields used to be a job for entomology research assistants. But with today's modern technology, computer analysts like Shaun Meeks are finding their niche in the bug lab as well.

Meeks began work earlier this year as an analyst with New Mexico State University's entomology, plant pathology and weed sciences department where he designs sampling methods and develops image processing software to count and classify a variety of insects. The software, called the Automated Arthropod Counting and Classification System (AACCS), has been in the works at NMSU for almost 20 years.

"The goal of the AACCS software is to identify and count a sampling of insects from a field to determine the population dynamics of that field," Meeks said. "That helps us know the predator/prey ratios to decide if some type of insect control is needed."

In the past, this precise analysis of insect densities was too time consuming and labor intensive for field use. Today, insects are collected from the field with a large vacuum system, then spread out on a computer scanner for identification and counting.

"We have an image database of about 37 different classes of insects," Meeks said. "The AACCS software analyzes each insect on the scanner, noting the insect's size, shape and color, and compares it to the image database for identification."

Meeks fine tunes the process to remove background colors, shadows and stray objects to help the software recognize individual insects. "One of our hurdles has been making sure the software can clearly distinguish the insect from its surroundings," he said. "But, ultimately, anything a human can do relatively easily a computer should be able to do also."

Meeks, who holds a master's degree in agricultural economics/statistics and a bachelor's in business research and marketing from NMSU, admits he's never taken an entomology course. But that hasn't hindered his ability to maintain the ever-growing database of bug images that could someday help farmers make quicker decisions about pesticide use.