Entomologists at Pennsylvania State University are poised to hire a researcher to act as a liaison for Chester County residents besieged by aggressive mushroom flies.
Last week, the university advertised an opening for a "research technologist" on its website. The announcement comes five months after Penn State received a $90,000 grant from the state to study — and, it is hoped, repel — phorid flies, a species of insect inherently tied to the county's cash-crop backbone.
The technologist would, according to the job description posted Oct. 24, "provide a link between the research activities ongoing at University Park and the residents and mushroom growers in the Chester County region."
Researchers at the university said in the spring that the position is a first; they've never had the funding to communicate directly with residents and assist them with their concerns.
Nina Jenkins, a senior research associate and co-leader of the team studying the flies at Penn State, said Thursday that the new researcher will be based in Chester County, setting up studies on the flies at mushroom farms. The researcher will also be available to speak directly with homeowners, answering their questions about the insects.
"I want to caution high expectations of this, because if there was a total solution, we would've already told them," Jenkins said. "But they'll be more available to listen, observe, and suggest things that are feasible for a homeowner."
For three years, the flies have become a seasonal, nagging presence for some residents, starting in the spring and lasting until the first frost. Homeowners in towns at the southern tip of the county, including Landenberg, Kennett Square, and Avondale, report horror stories of thick blankets of flies on ceilings, windows and light fixtures, as well as swarms that have interrupted holiday meals and disrupted everyday life.
Normally, the flies are confined to mushroom houses and the soil they rely on, and researchers have been unable to explain why the insects are popping up in residential neighborhoods. Theories abound, ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency's 2012 ban on diazinon, a pesticide that controlled fly populations, to the disturbing of soil as new subdivisions are built in the area.
Whatever the cause, residents have mobilized with mushroom growers and municipal leaders into various committees. Their activism grabbed the attention of local elected officials, including state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, whose office helped secure the grant money from the state Department of Agriculture earlier this year.
In the months since the money was announced, residents have turned to their own remedies. Barbara Runkle, a Landenberg resident, has been regularly treating her home's foundation with bifenthrin, a pesticide that hours of research led her to. She's also taken to spraying her home's exterior and lawn with cedar oil and has placed cedar chips in the beds of her gardens. The result this season has been shocking.
"It's a big, big dramatic dropoff," Runkle said Thursday. "This is the best summer I've seen in years."
But some of her neighbors haven't been so fortunate, she said. These neighbors haven't been as diligent as she has in taking a DIY approach to killing insects.
"My biggest fear is that if they don't do anything, we'll get them back," she said. "To me, we're holding them at bay."
A few towns over, in Avondale, Paul Morgan is at his breaking point. The house he shares with his wife and four kids was supposed to be their "forever home," he said. But the fly infestation is so bad, he all but abandons his upstairs bathroom until the mid-winter cold kills the flies.
"That's good for these people, but I come from a single-income family, and I can't afford to do what these people do," he said, referring to Runkle and her neighbors. "It's just not in my budget to fight these bugs."
Morgan said he's discouraged by the delay in getting results from Penn State researchers, and is exploring capturing and sending some of the flies to an independent laboratory to see if they present any danger to him or his family. Generally, research from other areas where the flies are present show they pose no major health threats.
"But I don't care about China or other parts of the country. I want to know the flies in my house in Chester County aren't carrying disease," he said. "These are my kids, my family. These flies are landing in our toilets, landing on my kids' food."