- Author: Heidi Holmquist, UCCE San Diego
When he's not swinging over pools of water or navigating past other obstacles on American Ninja Warrior, Eric Middleton, UC integrated pest management advisor for San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties, can often be found examining plants for insect pests.
Middleton, known as Bug Ninja on the TV competition, studies biological control in ornamental plant production. Insects chew on nursery plants, robbing them of their beauty so they can't be sold. He is comparing the efficacy and cost of using beneficial arthropods and pathogens in place of chemical pesticides and conventional management practices so he can share the findings with the growers and communities he serves.
Many people supported him on his road to success as a well-rounded scientist, Middleton said.
The path to entomology
Middleton was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to scientist parents whom he considers the biggest influence on his career. More so than teachers, his parents were the ones who molded his interest in academics and science. At a young age, Middleton became interested in the scientific process and was intrigued by questions that nobody knew the answers to.
However, his path to a career in entomology was not always clear. “For quite a while I thought I would be a herpetologist because I liked snakes, but I didn't have a specific goal in mind for what I wanted to do.” In late high school and early college, Middleton dreamed about being a stuntman, but never seriously considered it as a career.
Middleton came to a crossroads with the trajectory of his career at his undergraduate college orientation at the University of Utah. He knew he wanted to be a scientist of some kind and that he enjoyed several different scientific disciplines, but the pressure was on to choose a major when orientation staff were dividing people into groups based on the major they wanted to pursue.
“Biology majors this way, psychology majors that way,” they directed students. Interested in both biology and psychology, Middleton momentarily froze, mentally contemplating the gravity of his next decision. It was a very literal “choose which direction you want your life to go” moment, Middleton said. As the two groups began walking in different directions, he was forced to make his choice, and ultimately walked away with the biology group.
Looking back at this moment which many young scholars experience, Middleton knows that he could have been happy in several different areas of study as long as he was still practicing science. Of course, Middleton is very content with where he ended up. “I'm glad I went with the biology group which ultimately led to entomology.”
Getting the teaching bug
After graduating with a B.S. in biology from the University of Utah, Middleton was accepted into the University of Minnesota where he earned his Ph.D. in entomology. In his doctoral program, Middleton got the opportunity to create and teach an entirely new undergraduate course.
“For a semester, I designed and taught a course on “Insect Warriors,” which consisted of the various ways insects fight each other and how they have been used in human warfare,” Middleton said, noting that fleas were infected to carry bubonic plague and flies to spread cholera during World War II and that the Romans launched beehives from catapults to disrupt enemy troop formations.
Middleton also had the students run and jump, then compared their results first to the world records for humans and for insects. “Of course, the insects always perform much better given their weight and size,” he said. “That was a great and unique experience and was a ton of fun.”
The support of his parents, teachers and other mentors along the way helped to develop Middleton into a leader passionate about understanding the natural world. “While I think bugs and agriculture are very interesting and important, the thing I am most passionate about is how we come to understand things and how to rigorously test to make sure we actually understand them.”
Collaborating with growers on research
Today, Middleton collaborates on integrated pest management research and helps Southern California growers establish IPM practices in their crops.
Middleton is currently working on four main projects. The first project is a study on agave mites and how best to manage them in ornamental agave production. The second project is a community-participation science project with the UC Master Gardeners to determine if African tulip trees have a negative impact on native pollinators in Southern California.
His biggest and third project is a USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant-funded study on small-scale urban agriculture. The goals of this project are to determine if small-scale, urban production is economically feasible for people trying to make money, and to figure out scale-appropriate pest, water and nutrient management.
Middleton's latest project is studying the ability of predatory Amblyseius mites to control agave mites.
While the impacts of his service at UC Cooperative Extension have been invaluable, there is always more work to be done, according to Middleton. “There is simply too much need for me to meet. Lots of people need help with pest management, and there are so many different areas that I could devote huge amounts of time to. It's pretty hard to say ‘no' and to prioritize only the most important things or the things I think I can help the most with.”
Outside of his career, Middleton still enjoys insects, agriculture and the outdoors. “My wife and I just got a new house and are in the process of turning the backyard into a food forest. That is a ton of fun and is very gratifying to work on.”
Competing on an eight season of American Ninja Warrior
Outside of work, Middleton's main hobby is running obstacle courses.
“I've always loved climbing on things and running amok, so it was a great fit for me. I've been lucky enough to get to compete on the TV show American Ninja Warrior every year since I started getting into obstacle courses back in grad school. That has been a crazy experience, both very fun and very stressful. But one of the most fun parts has been getting to share my love of entomology on a national stage and getting the two hosts, Matt and Akbar, to eat cooked insects if I complete the obstacle courses. Getting to compete and do so well on American Ninja Warrior is a very big source of pride. It was something I never would have thought was possible growing up, and also fits well with my pipe dream of being a stuntman.”
Although Middleton just joined UC Cooperative Extension in 2022, with his passion for entomology, he is already helping Southern California growers manage agave and aloe mites. To follow his research on biological control of thrips, mealybugs and spider mites in ornamental production, subscribe to his YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/@emiddleton_ucce or follow him on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/dungbeetlestrong. His seminars on best management practices for current and potential invasive pests will be posted on the UCCE San Diego events calendar at https://cesandiego.ucanr.edu. To watch him tackle obstacle courses, tune into NBC's American Ninja Warrior in 2024.