Termites. Mike Potter helped pioneer a method for controlling termites that reduced the need for indoor treatment.
Potter with Henry Duncan, now retired from UK Extension, whose home became a demonstration project for the new termite control method. It was put in place several years ago, but Duncan says “We still have the same protection system...with no termites!”
Bed bugs after a blood meal. Mike Potter has been sought out by national media to talk about the resurgence of this pest, which feeds on human blood—often while people are sleeping.
On a summer night in the early 1960s in upstate New York, two brothers crept out of their house with a black light and one of the family’s bed sheets. They hung the sheet on the front porch, plugged in the light, and waited for moths to careen toward the light’s haunting glow. Then, gotcha!
Those Potter boys were at it again. In fact, they still are. Only now, they’re at UK, where along with their career achievements, Dan and Mike Potter have bestowed the University with another distinction:
“As far as I know, Dan and Mike are the only brothers working for the same department of entomology in the United States,” said John Obrycki, department chair.
Dan and Mike Potter are the urban guys in a department that largely navigates toward bugs on the farm—not surprising, since the Potters’ childhood was spent in the city and suburbia.
Dan is the outside expert, known the world over for his work with pests such as Japanese beetles, white grubs, and cutworms—the bugs that beset athletic fields, golf courses, lawns, and pastures. He also works with insects that damage garden plants, vineyard grapes, and trees.
His research emphasizes finding solutions that use more biology and less chemicals. That research has altered control strategies nationwide.
Mike is the inside expert. Since the early 1990s, he has been UK’s extension entomologist, which means he works directly with clients full-time to help them deal with indoor bugs, be they termites, roaches, bed bugs, brown recluse spiders, or something else. He has been recognized as one of the 25 most influential people in the pest control industry.
But before all this, before the accolades and calls from national media and awards and published papers and magazine articles, both Dan and Mike Potter loved the outdoors and its bugs.
For Dan, “it must have started when I was about 9,” he said, “when an aunt and uncle gave me a bug collecting kit for my birthday.”
His vocational fate was sealed when he found himself, as a first-semester freshman at Cornell, sitting at the feet of a man he calls “a legendary, brilliant” teacher of entomology—the late Professor George C. Eickwort.
“I soaked up every tidbit of information he gave out. I realized then that entomology was what I wanted,” Dan said.
It was a straight shot from there through undergraduate school at Cornell, where their father taught food sciences, to Ohio State for a doctorate.
As a newly-minted PhD in 1978, he was offered a job in UK’s entomology department by the late Bobby Pass, who was department chair. Dan has been at UK ever since, forging a national and international reputation.
Dan’s lab is among the world’s primary research groups studying urban landscape entomology. He has received a slew of awards, published more than 160 scientific papers, written a textbook on turfgrass pests and about 20 book chapters, and he speaks around the world. Recently, he became the first recipient of a research professorship in the Department of Entomology named for the late Dr. Pass. He has also received national and college-level teaching awards, and his courses are among the most highly rated by UK students.
His focus has shifted somewhat over the years, from knowledge for knowledge’s sake as a basic scientist to more applied science. “Mike has helped me see (the need for) that,” Dan said. “Now I can see the value of good old-fashioned entomology trying to build environmentally responsible solutions.”
But now, something else matters more than any research Dan Potter will do himself, any papers or textbooks he’ll publish from this point on.
“The most important thing right now is the success of my students,” he said.
He wants to talk about their research more than his own—work that helps grape growers, the nursery industry, horse farm owners, cattle producers, and others deal with their insect problems. What they learn is taking some to industry jobs, some to state and regulatory positions, and some to academia.
“All of my last five PhD students are in tenure-track faculty positions,” he said. “Two of them are already tenured. And two of them are women, a group that’s increasing in a traditionally male-dominated field.”
When Mike recalled the brothers’ boyhood, he said “We were always rooting around outdoors, doing stuff.”
He remembers taking a weird bug in to show an entomologist at Cornell. He came home with information and “an egg case full of praying mantids and a cricket colony.”
Mike, like Dan, also went to Cornell, where he was first pre-med, then pre-vet. He also thought about marine biology, but jobs in that field were scarce.
Eventually, he declared entomology as his major and continued on to the University of Arizona for his master’s degree and doctorate.
Mike had a practical bent, so he headed straight for research and development in the agrochemical industry. Some years later he became the national technical director for Orkin, the world’s largest pest control company, in Atlanta, and that’s when he began to find that his true calling was “working with clientele full time.
“You have to be sensitive to people and their problems,” he said, “and remember that they are often as apprehensive about chemicals and pesticides as they are the bugs around their homes.”
In the early 1990s, a full-time extension appointment in urban entomology opened up at UK.
“It’s what I did anyway,” Mike said, “solve problems with critters around buildings.”
He put his hat in the ring. “Bobby (Pass) was savvy and cautious enough to make sure Dan wasn’t on any search committee or part of the vetting process, so there wouldn’t be any question of nepotism,” he said.
Mike relishes his work in extension. Unlike some other land-grant universities, he said, Kentucky has maintained 100 percent extension appointments, “and that’s a very good thing.” He works “with anyone who has a building with a pest problem—homeowners, the professional pest control industry, schools, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, food plants…
“Like other extension experts, we specialize in helping clientele and fixing their problems,” he said.
Early in his UK career, Mike found that most buildings can be protected from termites by applying certain chemicals around the outside of buildings with little indoor treatment. That approach means less expense, disruption, and floor drilling and less exposure to pesticides. In 2004, the EPA began revising labels on termite pesticides to reflect the new treatment Mike helped pioneer.
About five years ago, the country was hit with a resurgence of bed bugs, which were last a major problem a half-century ago but had suddenly started to show up in middle-class homes and high-class hotels, not to mention apartments, college dormitories, hospitals, and movie theaters.
Mike suddenly found himself sought out by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and many other media outlets to talk about bed bugs. The calls are still coming.
“It’s the most challenging pest problem I’ve ever dealt with,” he said.
It’s been a long journey from catching moths on the front porch by the glow of a black light. But when you listen decades later to the enthusiasm of Dan and Mike Potter, whether it’s for clients, or students, or the insect kingdom, maybe it hasn’t been such a long journey after all.