Montana State University students traveled thousands of miles, dug hundreds of little holes, and sorted through truckloads of dirt for worms this summer.
The messy life and long hours of the worm wranglers help pay for their college costs, but the work also benefits graduate work on a growing enemy of the state's grain crop.
The target is wireworms, tiny white larvae that turn into click beetles to become one of the state's worst wheat and barley pest foes. They also attack sugar beets, potatoes, lentils and other crops they find underground.
"We are losing several acres a year (to wireworm infestations)," says Richard Barber of Denton, Mont., a seed producer of spring wheat, winter wheat and lentil crops.
Producer Mark Grubb of Conrad, Mont., saw barren spots around his farm even when he was a young man working with his father, but the wireworm-caused problem only worsened exponentially after he joined the Conservation Stewardship Program and instituted no-till practices on irrigated crops.
The most significant damage occurred in his barley, but wireworms also invaded his winter and spring wheat crops until the infestation became "pretty much farm-wide," he observes.
Undergrad researchers Branden Brelsford and Emily Rohwer trapped wireworms on both producers' fields this summer, as well as in other private and MSU plots.
Working to help defray their MSU expenses, the ran trap lines in 10-inch-deep holes and collected worms in plastic bags. Sorting through their finds, they note they often mistook worms for roots.
It is estimated the duo probably traveled 10,000 miles this summer in their worm wrangling adventures, capturing about 2,000 of the pests. The researchers they work for say they'll need at least five times that many for their studies to be complete.
More wireworms probably would have been collected by the students had it not been for spring flooding, which sent the culprits deeper into the soil than Brelsford and Rohwer dug.