A Magazine from California State University, ChicoSpring 2016 Issue

'Gotta Catch 'Em All'

Through a joint partnership with the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture, Gonzalez (BS, Biology, ’14) and a team of field ecologists and researchers are working to save native Hawaiian coconut palm trees from an invasive and destructive insect.

Aurelia Gonzalez ('14) is on a mission to eradicate a destructive beetle in Hawaii

Hawaii doesn’t want to make the same mistakes as Guam, We wouldn’t want to lose our palm trees—they’re an iconic tree of the state.

In theory, Aurelia Gonzalez’s insect abatement work on the island of Oahu is simple: “Gotta catch ’em all!” 

In practice, it’s a bit more complicated. Through a joint partnership with the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture, Gonzalez (BS, Biology, ’14) and a team of field ecologists and researchers are working to save native Hawaiian coconut palm trees from an invasive and destructive insect. 

The bug in question is Oryctes rhinoceros, the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle, a two-inch-long invasive member of the Scarabaeidae family native to Southeast Asia. Like its name suggests, the beetle has an affinity for coconut trees, which it bores into using a large horn on top of its head. Once inside the trunk, the beetle feasts on the tree’s sweet sap. 

Aurelia Gonzalez“It only takes one beetle to kill a tree,” Gonzalez said. 

The beetle gained notoriety several years ago after decimating palm tree populations in Guam. Likely spread through military travel, the first specimen to prey upon Hawaiian palms was discovered on Oahu’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in December 2013. The insects have since been spreading slowly across the island.

“Hawaii doesn’t want to make the same mistakes as Guam,” she said, stressing the symbolic value of Hawaii’s flora. “We wouldn’t want to lose our palm trees—they’re an iconic tree of the state.”


Gonzalez said that her team’s current objective is to cultivate a large enough sample size to begin testing effective eradication methods. In practice, this means setting daily traps that attract the beetles using synthetic scent lures and solar-powered lights at night. After being caught alive, the beetles are taken back to a lab. 

The testing doesn’t start there, however. In order to maintain a large enough sample size, the trapped beetles have to live out their lifecycle in the lab, mate, and produce further generations of beetles. These new generations are then reared to serve as a control group and for eradication tests with pesticides and funguses in separate studies. 

Gonzalez describes her work as new but not entirely foreign. The ecological, evolutionary, and organismal biology major landed a job with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington state after graduation. She then returned to Chico State to work in the Aquatic Bioassessment Laboratory (ABL) on campus, part of a statewide initiative run by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. There, she studied aquatic insects as indicators of water quality. 

Although she’s enjoying working in many people’s dream destination, Gonzalez said Hawaii likely won’t be her forever home. Her wide array of post-graduate work has broadened her understanding of what it means to be
an entomologist and continues to inform her desire to eventually attend graduate school. 

“It’s really neat to see how big the scope of entomology can be—from research, to describing animal behavior and life cycles, to using it as a biological indicator, to agricultural pest management.”

The next step: choosing which of those paths to follow. 

Zachary Phillips, (BA, English, ’15) is an editorial assistant for Public Affairs and Publications.