Love blossoms among the moths for doctoral duo
Couple, who have just received their doctorates alongside each other, tell how insects brought them together
It was in 2011 when Vernon Steyn met a second-year classmate who spontaneously helped him with details of a test during his agricultural science studies at Stellenbosch University.
On Tuesday, the classmate – now his wife, Leigh – and Steyn received their doctorates alongside each other, and both focused their research on moth pests: the false codling moth for Steyn and the Cape grapevine leafminer for Leigh.
Steyn, 28, studied biological methods farmers can use to control false codling moth in stone fruit orchards and vineyards. The moth’s larvae can cause unsightly damage to fruit, making it ineligible for export.
He looked at the impact of insect-specific worms – also known as entomopathogenic nematodes – and fungi on the pest, discovering that it is particularly effective to use worms during the moth’s larval stage.
“In the past, farmers have unsuccessfully tried to control the pest using insecticides, and because of their damaging impact on the environment and on human health new ways of combating the moth must be found,” he said
Leigh, 27, developed a biological management plan for a small indigenous moth, the Cape grapevine leafminer, which has become a problem for many vineyards, especially in the Berg River region.
Its presence on bunches of grapes disqualifies them from export, and so far no insecticides have been registered for the control the insect in table grape vines.
Remembering how the couple met, Steyn said he had missed a few classes and was desperate to find out what he needed to study for a test.
“After class, a girl I did not know, spontaneously and kindly started helping me and provided the information that I needed. And that was it!”
Steyn said Leigh was the first to become interested in insects. “She has the wonderful ability to notice the smallest insect in the veld or even when we are just walking in town.”
Their “eureka” moment was when they attended classes on insect behaviour and development presented by entomologist Prof Henk Geertsema.
“We hung on every word he said, and for the first time truly realised just how interesting and important the world of insects was,” said Leigh.
After receiving their undergraduate degrees, both embarked on their MSc studies on agricultural pests, and Leigh said that in the past three years they had worked a few blocks apart.
“We literally met every day for lunch or coffee just to talk things over. The journey was a long one and there were days when things got tough, but we were there for each other and one would motivate the other.
“If we both felt down we would go for a walk and have ice cream down the road or a hike on the mountain to get that extra energy and motivation.”
Even though the two worked “non-stop” for the past six months of their research, Steyn said he was “relieved that it’s finally over. But part of me is sad as I won’t be spending much time with Leigh during the day.”