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Cool Insects
The Mourning Cloak Butterfly

This post is the first in a series featuring ‘cool’ and ‘cruel’ (pest) insects in Canada. If there’s an insect that you’d like to write a post about, please get in touch with us!


by John Acorn

The beautifully camouflaged under surface of a Mourning Cloak butterfly.

How long do butterflies live? For most, the answer is « not very long, » after what may have been many months as an egg, caterpillar, and chrysalis. For the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), however, life as a butterfly can stretch over an entire year. Mourning Cloaks spend the winter in hibernation, under bark for example, and they are often the « first butterfly of spring, » along with their close relatives, the tortoiseshells and commas. Since Mourning Cloaks are widespread in North America and Eurasia, they are probably the most oft-encountered spring butterflies in the north temperate world. After feeding on various trees (elm, willow, and poplar are all acceptable fare) as caterpillars, Mourning Cloak butterflies emerge from their pupae in mid to late summer. They sometimes live as long as twelve months as adults. In springtime, they typically emerge from hibernation before the first flowers are in bloom, and they feed on everything from sap flows to dung to mud, in order to obtain the nutrients necessary for such a long life.

On an older Mourning Cloak, the bright yellow wing edges have faded to pale white, and the maroon of the wings becomes a more generic shade of brown. The wing pattern of Mourning Cloaks has been the inspiration for speculation among entomologists. Most agree that the underside of the wings is camouflaged, looking like a dried leaf, or tree bark. But the upper side has been interpreted as a depiction of a yellow, black, and blue-spotted caterpillar, walking along a brown-maroon surface. Birds might peck at the fake caterpillar, thereby missing the delicate body of the butterfly, and indeed we do find Mourning Cloaks with bird bill marks along the edges of their wings (« cloak and dagger, » one might ask?). On the other hand, Mourning Cloaks are agile fliers, and at least one other insect, the Carolina Locust grasshopper (Dissosteira carolina), appears to mimic the Mourning Cloak, perhaps to convince birds that it is difficult to capture in flight.

A freshly emerged Mourning Cloak with bird bill marks along its wing margin. Wingspan approximately 7 cm.

In any event, the wings of Mourning Cloaks are similar to a traditional style of clothing worn when in mourning, but maroon or purplish mourning dresses with dull yellow trim were a matter of « half mourning » in Victorian England, whereas full mourning clothing was all black. In the UK, this species is known as the Camberwell Beauty, in remembrance of two migrant individuals (yes, this species will sometimes undergo « irruptive » migrations, in years when they are especially common) that made their way from the European mainland to Camberwell, a part of London. In French, the name is Morio, a word that also refers to starlings, birds that share a dark ground colour with yellow accents. As for the scientific name, Nymphalis means « nymph, » and refers to the forest nymphs of Greek mythology, while Antiope was the name of one of the mythical Amazons. You will find, however, that if you Google the word « antiopa, » almost all of the hits will refer to the butterfly, which has now eclipsed its namesake.

Links:

http://www.cbif.gc.ca/eng/species-bank/butterflies-of-canada/mourning-cloak/?id=1370403265696

http://entomology.museums.ualberta.ca/searching_species_details.php?fsn=nymphalis+antiopa&sb=1&r=2&o=1&c=2&s=2652&sn=Nymphalis+antiopa

Photos supplied by John Acorn

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Women in Entomology Series
Heather Coatsworth

This post is the first in a new series featuring interviews with Canadian women working in or studying entomology.


Left: Heather looking through one of their lab’s colony cages, which hold around 200 mosquitoes. Right: Heather blood feeding their lab’s mosquito colony. Since Aedes aegypti are extremely anthropophilic, the colony remains much healthier if fed human blood!

Q: What are you studying or working on right now?

HC: I am currently finishing up my PhD at Simon Fraser University. I use a mixture of molecular biology, bioinformatics and ecology to tease apart virus transmission dynamics in mosquitoes. Specifically, I am attempting to identify, characterize and mimic dengue refractory mechanisms in Aedes aegypti, with the ultimate goal of creating genetically modified mosquitoes to reduce the burden of dengue.

Q: What led you to your specific field of study or work?

Heather solution solving with a good friend, Dr. Ramírez Martínez, from Universidad de Guadalajara.

HC: Growing up, I was curious about medical careers and had (still do!) an extreme interest in and fondness for animals. During that time, I also suffered from an irrational fear of blood (haemophobia), which put a large damper on continuing in a medical field. Sticking with my love for animals, I completed my BSc at the University of Guelph in Zoology and gained indispensable research experience in Dr. Alex Smith’s molecular ecology lab. I took some time off after completing my undergraduate degree and found myself drawn to the field of medical entomology. This led me to my current position at Simon Fraser University under the supervision of Dr. Carl Lowenberger, an entomologist and parasitologist with a keen interest in insect immunity.

Q: When did you first become interested in science and entomology?

HC: As a child I loved collecting insects and keeping them as short-term friends and pets. I loved how interconnected science was with nature and how my curiosity was rewarded and encouraged in science classes. My analytical, detail-oriented mind enjoyed the consistent process by which science was often conducted. Although I knew by the end of high school that I wanted to pursue a career in science, it took me many more years to fully realize my interest and passion for the field of entomology.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your research or work?

HC: I love the multidisciplinary nature of my work, the international collaborations it has spawned, and its larger connectivity to the public.

First meet and greet with the lab mascot, Acorn, Heather’s dapple wiener dog.

Q: What are your interests outside of academic life or work?

HC: I’m a sports enthusiast, both watching (I’m an obsessive Detroit Red Wings fan) and playing (ice hockey, tennis, and soccer). I love being in nature in any form possible – walking, hiking, camping, lounging etc. I also enjoy training my wiener dog, Acorn; listening to rap and hip-hop music; and drinking all the craft beers Vancouver has to offer.

Q: What are your future plans or goals?

HC: I would love to continue arbovirus genomics research in an academic environment and learn more about computer science and bioinformatics. I would also love to build and live in my own portable tiny house.

Q: Do you have any advice for young students that may be interested in science and/or entomology?

HC: Never stop exploring, reading, and asking questions. Join clubs and forums that interest you, and reach out to people who are doing things you think are cool and interesting. Keep an open mind, and take some time to get to know the insects around you.

A rare sighting of a formal mosquito.

 

All photos supplied by Heather Coatsworth.

 

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When should a non-aggressive exotic species be demoted to a harmless naturalized resident?

By Dr. Laurel Haavik, US Forest Service

Exotic species that establish, spread, and cause substantial damage are demonized as foreign invaders that charge with menacing force across the landscape. Rightly so; those pests threaten to displace or eliminate native species and alter ecosystem functions. Chestnut blight, emerald ash borer, and hemlock woolly adelgid are all excellent examples. What about invaders that aren’t so destructive? Or, at least don’t seem to be at the moment? At what point do we stop monitoring a seemingly innocuous invasive species, especially one that has proved itself a serious pest elsewhere? To make this decision, it’s helpful to know how much the species has affected its new habitat, and whether this impact already has or is likely to change over time. That is exactly what we set out to do with the European woodwasp, Sirex noctilio, in Ontario.

Nearly a decade after the woodwasp was first found in a trap near the Finger Lakes in New York (and then a year later across Lake Ontario in Sandbanks Provincial Park), it still hadn’t killed pines in noticeable numbers, either in the US or Canada. Native to Europe and Asia, this woodwasp has been introduced to several countries in the Southern Hemisphere, where it has been a serious pest in forests planted with exotic pines. By contrast, in North America, it seems that only the weakest trees, those that are already stressed by something else, are killed by the woodwasp. Would forests with many weakened trees allow populations of the woodwasp to build up enough that they could then kill healthy trees in well-maintained forests? Could we find any evidence that this had already happened or would likely happen in the future?

Our goal was to measure the impact the woodwasp has had in Ontario, and whether that has changed over time, by closely examining the same trees in pine forests every year. First, we had to find sites where the woodwasp could be found, which wasn’t every pine forest, and where landowners would allow us to work. We were not interested in sites that were well-managed, because research had already confirmed that the woodwasp was not present in those forests. We used records of positive woodwasp captures from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources trap survey as a guide. We visited 50 potential sites, and eventually selected eight for close scrutiny in our long-term study. These sites were areas where there was likely to be intense competition among trees for resources, with plenty of stressed trees for the woodwasp.

The European woodwasp was probably absent from a well-managed red pine forest (left), but likely to be found in an un-managed scots pine forest (right).

We visited all eight sites every fall from 2012 to 2016, after woodwasps had the opportunity to attack trees. Adult woodwasps mate and lay eggs, attacking trees in the process, in mid-summer. Attack was visible as distinctive resin beads scattered over the trunk. We recorded which trees had been attacked, and later (usually the following year) killed by the woodwasp.

The woodwasp population was considerable at some of our sites, having killed about one-third of the trees within five years. Though at other sites, the population was much smaller, having killed only a small percentage of trees. We’re not exactly sure what caused this variability. It’s possible that the woodwasp arrived at some of our sites years before it arrived at others, and the most vulnerable trees were long dead at the sites it invaded earlier. We have no record of time since woodwasp invasion at any of our sites. It’s also possible that local environmental conditions, which we did not measure, could in some way have affected tree resistance or the woodwasp population.

Most curious, though, was that over the five years many trees attacked by the woodwasp did not die – around 50 to 80%. At least half of these trees were attacked again and again in successive years. We had captured an interesting part of the woodwasp’s ecology, its way of essentially priming trees to become better habitat for its young. When laying eggs, female woodwasps also inject a self-made toxic venom along with a symbiotic fungus into the tree, to help kill it. If the tree is sufficiently resistant to attack, the female may not lay eggs, only the fungus and venom. The fungus and venom then work in concert to weaken (prime) the tree for re-attack – and hopefully successful colonization – in subsequent years.

Female woodwasps sometimes die while laying eggs. Survival of the fittest?

Two-thirds of trees that were attacked by the woodwasp at some point in our study (one or more times) did not die, which shows that most trees selected by the woodwasp as suitable habitat are at the moment resistant to its advances. This also shows, along with the variability in woodwasp impact among sites, that this invader is active in the forest. Should environmental conditions change (say, if a drought occurs), woodwasp populations could quickly rise to outbreak levels, which could kill large numbers of healthy pines. This has happened in other places.

Long-term study of these sites, and hopefully others, is needed so that we can be aware of changes that arise in woodwasp impact. This will allow us to be proactive about what steps to take to manage this invader, should it become a problem. It will also help us better understand and predict what causes exotic species to vacillate on the spectrum between aggressive invader and innocuous resident.

Want to read more? Check out the original article published in The Canadian Entomologist, which is freely available for reading & download until May 14, 2018.

Haavik, L.J., Dodds, K.J. & Allison, J.D. (2018) Sirex noctilio (Hymenoptera: Siricidae) in Ontario (Canada) pine forests: observations over five years. The Canadian Entomologist, 1–14. doi: 10.4039/tce.2018.18

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When Adventure Comes Calling ~ Foreign Perspectives

By Paul Manning, Post-doctoral Researcher, Dalhousie University

Sometimes when you’re least expecting it you can find yourself presented with the adventure of a lifetime. This recently was the case for me. My adventure took me to the United Kingdom, from September 2013 to August 2016, where I completed my DPhil in Zoology at the University of Oxford.

I didn’t have any long-standing plan to attend the University of Oxford. While finishing my undergraduate degree at the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University (Truro, Nova Scotia), I decided to apply for a Rhodes scholarship on a bit of a whim. The application was daunting but nonetheless, I managed to put something together and received word that I was a regional finalist. Roughly a week before my final interview, I scanned the University of Oxford – Department of Zoology website and came across the name Owen Lewis. I read through a couple of his papers and sent him a quick e-mail explaining my situation. I received a near-immediate response. Owen enthusiastically wished me the best of luck with my interview and agreed to act as my supervisor should I receive funding. Through a combination of luck, privilege and merit I found myself presented with the opportunity to study at the University of Oxford. I submitted my application to the university a week later. Opting to spend three years being supervised by a stranger based on a single e-mail exchange is not something I would advise to others, but it is exactly what I chose to do. Fortunately, I landed in an incredibly supportive and inclusive research group – and Owen’s first exchange perfectly predicted his supervisory style: helpful, available, and incredibly kind.  

I fell in immediate love with the city of Oxford soon after my arrival. The first thing you might notice about the city is the architecture: medieval walls, ivory towers, and ancient gates seem to appear around every corner. The second thing you might notice is all the bikes – they easily outnumber the cars on the road. The squealing of rusty brakes and pinging of bells is the soundtrack of a morning commute. The third thing you might notice is the gigantic slugs and snails that appear at night – that was my experience at least.

Looking West down High Street Oxford from the top of the Magdalen Tower (L). A delightful garden snail (Limax flavus) that would greet me at the entrance to my flat (M). A delightfully plump slug (Cornu aspersum) with a pound coin for scale (R).

My DPhil research explored the importance of insect biodiversity in perturbed environments using dung beetles as a model system. I did a fair amount of my fieldwork in Southwest Wales, where I was introduced to my co-supervisor Sarah Beynon. Sarah had recently completed her DPhil with Owen as a supervisor and was in the process of setting up “Dr Beynon’s Bug Farm”, which is probably best described as a mixture between a research centre, tropical insect zoo, and working farm. It also is home to Grub Kitchen, UK’s first restaurant with edible insects on the menu.  I spent my first summer living and researching on-site, while the start-up was in its initial stages. It’s a beautiful place – in the early spring the farm is blanketed with yellow iris, red campion, and various orchid species. It was a short bike ride to the coast which I frequented to enjoy steep paths, white sands, and impressive waves.

One of the things that I truly loved about the United Kingdom was the widespread appreciation and knowledge of natural history. The entomology and ecology circles that I ran in certainly would have amplified this signal, but it seemed to run deep in society-at-large. When a server interrupts your book-in-face breakfast to offer her insights about myxomatosis, a viral disease of rabbits, you might just be in the United Kingdom.

A late afternoon rainbow spotted at the Bug Farm (L). Some red campion (Silene dioica) blooming near St. David’s, Pembrokeshire UK (M). Blue skies and strong current on the Ramsey Sound (R).

Some of my favourite memories from my time abroad were natural history outings. Richard Comont, a DPhil student in our research group took me out in the winter of 2014 to see the impressive minotaur dung beetle. We arrived at a local park in the pitch black of night, armed with a couple flashlights. Richard, who bears a certain resemblance to Hagrid (the brawny groundskeeper for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry), also carried a pooter, umbrella, and beating stick. We found the minotaur beetles, they were certainly impressive, but perhaps more memorable was a vivid image of a grinning Richard whaling on a bit of gorse with a broom stick, in the pitch black of the woods.

Another dung beetle memory involves Darren Mann, Head of the Life Collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Darren invited me out for a day of dung beetle recording as part of a Scarabaeoidea recording effort known charmingly as Team DUMP. We left at six in the morning, drove two-and-a-half hours to rural Wales, and sifted through animal dung on sand dunes until it was so dark that we couldn’t see our hands in front of us. Darren found one species he expected was locally extinct – upon realizing what he found, he gave a fantastic howl of excitement. I’d expect there are few people who are more enthusiastic and knowledgeable about insects than is Darren Mann. If you ever get the chance, make sure to ask him about cockroaches sometime.

A third dung beetle memory is a day I spent collecting with Sarah and her partner Andy. We were getting ready to run a few experiments, and set-up a dung beetle demonstration at a tradeshow. Of course, the powers that be sent along torrential rain. To this day, I don’t think there is a more miserable feeling than kneeling in prickly shrubs, soaked to the bone, sifting through sheep dung. Nonetheless, that’s what we did for hours and hours. Upon returning to the vehicle, I cleaned up and towelled off only to have a bird defecate directly onto my head and shoulder. There couldn’t have been a more fitting end to the day.

An impressive Minotaur beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus) in Shotover Country Park, Oxfordshire (L). A vial of dung beetles containing 104 Onthophagus joannae removed from a single pile of dog dung (Photo by Darren Mann) (M). A collection of beautiful Geotrupid beetles found on Ramsey Island (St. David’s, Pembrokeshire) (R).

While my experience in Oxford was overwhelmingly positive, it did not come without its challenges. The biggest challenge I encountered was dealing with low points caused by an all-encompassing imposter syndrome. The ease and speed at which my colleagues could process and synthesize information was nothing short of intimidating.  Meanwhile, I had trouble getting my first few experiments off the ground; while simultaneously everyone around me seemed to be successfully completing ground-breaking research. I felt slow, unaccomplished, and lazy.  I tried to compensate by putting in additional time: arriving earlier, staying later, and working on weekends – but this just left me feeling burnt-out. Plenty of exercise, structuring my work days, limiting social media, and hours of conversation with my partner, friends, family, colleagues, and supervisors helped me get back on my feet.

I’ve been home in Canada since the summer of 2016, working as a post-doc and a sessional lecturer. I think often and fondly about my time spent abroad in the United Kingdom and would highly recommend it as a study destination. While competitive, there are many different funding sources that Canadian students can access, including the Commonwealth ScholarshipsNSERC – Michael Smith Foreign SupplementRhodes Scholarships, as well as numerous other international scholarships offered at the institutional level. Living in a foreign country provides you with a fresh outlook and opens your world to a range of new experiences, ideas, and perspectives. If international study is compatible with your other commitments, mull it over a little, and think about giving it a shot – becoming an international student might be just the adventure you’ve been looking for.

Are you a Canadian resident spending time abroad to conduct entomological research, or are you coming to Canada for the opportunity to study? If you’d like to share your story and experiences as part of the Foreign Perspectives series, please get in touch with us by email.

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Risky Buzz-i-ness

By Nicole McKenzie, PMRA

Growing up is a continuous lesson in assessing risks.

In my case, those risks included going for a double salchow with the risk of taking a bad fall, pushing my limits on my bike with the risk of an accident around every corner, or choosing an insect-filled educational path that was once considered risky for girls and women.

But with these risks come opportunities, and learning which risks are worth taking, and which are best avoided, is a critical lesson we all learn through experience and opportunity. Luckily for me, I survived the risks I took, and the lessons they taught me prepared me for a job that I love.

For the last decade, I have been an Evaluation Officer with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), the pesticide-regulating wing of Health Canada.

In an effort to join the #scicomm science communication revolution, I want to do a better job of explaining what I do.

No, I don’t pop a wheelie on ice while wrangling bees in a forest, but I do work that is almost as interesting.  I said *almost*.

What DO you do, then?

I deal with pollinators of the insect kind.  I look at how pesticides affect bees that collect and move pollen from male and female flower parts. This process is called pollination and it helps to produce fruit like apples. Pollinators are vital to not only Canada, but to the entire world’s food supply. I assess pollinator pesticide risk, which means I analyze research from some Entomology Society of Canada members as well as the greater pollinator community. With a team of scientists, I dissect the data from research studies and organize it around a risk assessment framework. The framework holds up the data so the team can see ALL of the highs and lows of the risk.  

From here we can step back and take in the whole risk picture gallery.

From the picture emerges a Pollinator Risk Management Plan that can be put in place to help safeguard our bees and food.

The Bikes and the Bees

Every day, we take what are deemed acceptable risks like driving a car at high speeds, and we try to prevent unacceptable risks like contracting measles that could affect our families and ourselves.

Deciding which risk is worth taking can be overwhelming. My risk assessing jam is The Risk Song by Risk Bites. It both winds my gears and chills me out.

Our method to assess risk is a lot like grinding through bike gears from smallest to largest. A better way of explaining this is by writing about going for a bike ride. But not just any bike ride, a big one like a Century Bike Race where you ride 100 km in one day, something I hope to accomplish this summer.

A Century Bike Race is risky, but like anything, it can be assessed and a plan developed to manage the risk.

To assess the risk, I first completed 3 tests as I trained on my bike. Like steps, each test relied on the one before to gather information on the risks.

The stepped tests (or tiers as we call them in the risk assessment world) start very basic and move toward a more realistic set-up closer to mimicking the actual bike race. At each step, if an effect was seen (or a risk identified) another test was completed.

Effect information:

Tier 1: Basic bike riding skills

  • TEST: Emergency stop or trying-to-stop-quickly-from-a-fast-speed.
  • EFFECT = Falling over. This might be the fastest (unintentional) way to end my race.

Tier 2: Group riding skills

  • TEST: Riding with the flow in a group of cyclists with bikes in front, behind and on both sides.
  • EFFECT = I wobble side to side as I ride.  No one wants to ride beside that.

Tier 3: Bike racing skills

  • TEST: Entering some shorter bike races.
  • EFFECT = I have never done a bike race before. *NOTE: I have competed in short distance triathlons, but ask any roadie about how these don’t count*. Bike racing seems a little like running with bulls, except with extra metal, spokes and wheel parts. Ouch.

Exposure Information:

It’s not enough to list effects seen from my bike race “tests”; I need to know about the race. I need to know details about what I could be exposed to during the race. This could include the road conditions, the type of race, the timing of the race and so much more.

Risk Assessment = Effects + Exposure

Using a framework, I compared the effects seen in the 3 tiered tests to what I expect to be exposed to during my bike race, and came up with this Risk Management Plan:

 

TEST TYPE RACE EXPOSURE INFORMATION RISK IDENTIFIED MANAGEMENT STEPS
Tier 1

Basic bike riding skills

  • The race is mainly on paved roads
  • There is a hill at 87 km
  • There is a gravel road at 88 km, at the bottom of the hill
  • Race is in the summer
  • I want to finish well
Falling off bike
  • REDUCE THE RISK
    • Wear a helmet
    • Carry a bike repair kit
    • Carry water and food
    • Carry emergency contact information
    • Practice emergency stopping
Tier 2

Group riding skills

Wobbling as I ride
  • REDUCE THE RISK
    • Practice riding in a straight line
    • Practice riding in a group
Tier 3

Bike racing skills

I have never done a bike race before
  • REDUCE THE RISK
    • Practice climbing hills
    • Practice biking on gravel
  • MINIMIZE EXPOSURE
    • Enter smaller bike races before the big one
    • Wear weather appropriate clothing and sunscreen

If my bike analogy is still lost on you, connect with me on Twitter and I’ll try comparing it to landing a double axel instead. In the meantime, here’s a handy interactive infographic to explain the risk assessment process using caffeine as an example.  

The Bees and the Bikes

Assessing pesticide risk to pollinators is similar to assessing bike race risk. There are of course different pollinator tests for each of the 3 tiers and different exposure details needed for plants and pesticides but the process is the same. Each tier gets more specific and more realistic to what and how a pollinator could react when encountering a pesticide in the environment. Here is how a general pollinator risk assessment works starting with the tiered tests:

Effect information examples:

Tier 1: Individual bee effects

  • TESTS:
    • Observe individual bees after they are fed pesticides mixed with sugar
    • Observe individual bees after a pesticide drop is placed on their back

Tier 2: Semi-field effects

  • TESTS:
    • Observe bee colonies that are placed under tents with pesticide treated plants
    • Observe bee colonies that are fed pesticides mixed with sugar and/or pollen

Tier 3: Full-field effects

  • TEST: Observe bee colonies that are placed in fields of pesticide treated plants

Exposure information examples:

    • The type of pesticide and how it works
    • The plants that are to be treated with the pesticide
    • The timing of the pesticide applications and when the plants bloom
    • If pollinators are found on or attracted to the treated plants
    • The amount of pesticide found in the plant parts that pollinators may feed on or touch

Risk Assessment = Effects + Exposure

Just like with my bike race we use a framework to compare the effects with the exposure information but there is more to consider that can complicate the process.  

We also strive to understand the natural history of pollinators and the way crops are grown and harvested in Canada.   This crucial information is then overlaid on the exposure information and the effects seen. This melding together of ALL the collected information results in, you guessed it, a Pollinator Risk Management Plan.

Example of Pollinator Pesticide Risk Management Plan Steps

Some management steps that crop up in plans I’ve helped put together include:

  • Not allowing pesticides to be applied to any plant while it flowers
  • Reducing the amount of pesticide applied to a level below where the risk lies
  • Changing the timing of a pesticide application from before to after flowering
  • Eliminating the use or method of a pesticide application

Risky Buzz-i-ness keeps me busy

Working with pollinators has taught me that nothing is as straightforward as it seems. The science changes all the time, as do the risks as we learn more about bees, their behaviour, and how plants are grown in Canada.

There is one thing I do rely on, and that is how pollinator work is NEVER boring.

If you want more information about the pollinator risk assessment process… or to give me bike race tips here’s some links:

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Love, Tiny Flies, and One Big Opportunity for Researchers to Work Together Helping Farmers on Both Sides of the Border ~ Foreign Perspectives

Me at the University of Guelph Elora Research Station.

by Elisabeth Hodgdon, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Vermont

“It’s a story of unrequited love,” says Dr. Yolanda Chen, my Ph.D. advisor, describing our research on pheromone mating disruption. Mating disruption, a pest management strategy that involves inundating a field with synthetic sex pheromone, prevents male insects from finding their mates because they can’t cue in on individual female pheromone plumes. As a result, the males become confused and die without mating. During my time as a Ph.D. student, I’ve spent a lot of time in Vermont and Ontario becoming intimately familiar with the sex lives of swede midge, a serious invasive pest of cruciferous crops.

Swede midge (Contarinia nasturtii, Diptera: Cecidomyiidae) first arrived in North America in the 1990s in Ontario. Vegetable growers started noticing that their broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage plants were deformed and didn’t produce heads, and that their kale leaves were twisted and scarred. On canola farms, yields decreased because of distorted plant growth. The culprit, identified by Dr. Rebecca Hallett and her research group from the University of Guelph, was a tiny fly called swede midge. The midge, only about 2 mm long as an adult, is seemingly invisible to farmers because it is so small. Within a few years, the midge had made its way from Ontario to Québec and other provinces, and into New York and Vermont.

Female swede midge on cauliflower.

At the University of Vermont, we are the only research lab in the US working on this pest, which is currently causing up to 100% yield loss of organic broccoli and kale in our state. Naturally, it made sense for Dr. Chen to reach out to Dr. Hallett in Guelph for collaboration to investigate management options for this pest. Together, they wrote a grant funded by the USDA to conduct pheromone mating disruption research on swede midge that would take place in both Vermont and in Guelph.

This where I enter into the story. I jumped at the opportunity to join Dr. Chen’s lab, not just because I’m interested in insect pest management, but also because of my continuing love affair with Canada. I grew up in Vermont, a small state that borders Québec and has had lots of influence from our northerly neighbors: a history of French-Canadian immigrants, widespread availability of decent quality poutine, and signage in our largest city en français, among other things. I grew up learning French and visiting nearby Montréal and later went on to study agriculture at McGill University’s Macdonald Campus. I was thrilled at the opportunity to spend more time in Canada during my Ph.D. program.

Me and University of Guelph entomology graduate students at the ESC meeting in Winnipeg last fall: Charles-Étienne Ferland, Jenny Liu, me, Sarah Dolson & Matt Muzzatti (left to right). Photo credit: Matt Muzzatti.

I have gotten to know the English-speaking provinces better through my graduate work as a visiting Ph.D. student in Dr. Hallett’s lab in Guelph. Although many Canadians, especially those from nearby Toronto, describe Guelph as being a “small farm town,” it felt like a real city, especially coming from Vermont. I fell in love with Guelph — the year-round farmers market, old stone buildings, beautiful gardens, and emphasis on local food. The large sprawling farms just outside the city were the perfect places for me to do my research on swede midge pheromone mating disruption, which required lots of space between plots and treatments. Back in Vermont, where the farmland is wedged in small valleys between mountain ranges, we just don’t have the scale of crop production that there is in Ontario.

Josée Boisclair, me, Yolanda Chen, and Thomas Heer (left to right) at IRDA this summer getting ready to transplant broccoli for mating disruption research.

Working with Dr. Hallett opened up many doors and expanded my network in Canada. Last year, my advisor and I started a collaboration with the Institut de recherche et de développement en agroenvironnement (IRDA) in St-Bruno-de-Montarville, Québec. Earlier this winter, I practiced my French and mustered up the nerve to give two extension presentations on my swede midge work to francophone farmers in Québec. I was surprised at the number of people who came up to me after my talk, appreciative that I was making an effort to communicate with them in French rather than English. They were genuinely interested in working together with my research group across the border to help strengthen our research efforts to manage swede midge.

In all the time I’ve spent in Canada (which at this point can be measured in years), I can’t think of a time when I’ve felt unwelcome. On the contrary, I am impressed with how open most Canadians are to foreigners. I hope that we can continue to work together, despite language barriers, differing political systems, and other potential challenges, to gain traction in our efforts to find solutions for swede midge and other shared invasive species in the future.

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Dévorés, par Charles-Étienne Ferland

Extrait de « Dévorés », un roman de science-fiction entomologique post-apocalyptique qui paraîtra aux Éditions L’Interligne (Ottawa) le 7 février 2018. « Dévorés » est le premier roman de Charles-Étienne Ferland, candidat à la maîtrise en entomologie à l’Université de Guelph et cofondateur d’une jeune entreprise qui conçoit des applications mobiles utilisant les technologies d’apprentissage automatique pour identifier les insectes.

Dans les dix jours qui suivirent le début de l’invasion, les insectes privèrent l’Homme de tout moyen de subsistance. Ils paralysèrent le secteur agroalimentaire, sans toucher aux herbes ou aux arbres incomestibles.

Les projets de culture en serre hermétique, et ceux dans les grottes souterraines, furent autant d’échecs. Inexplicablement, l’insecte parvenait à s’infiltrer et à saccager les jeunes pousses. Les tentatives de transmettre un virus aux voraces ravageurs des cultures ou de les empoisonner au moyen de cristaux parasporaux de bacilles furent vaines. L’utilisation de cultivars transgéniques fit chou blanc. L’insecte n’était pas appâté par les attractifs alimentaires synthétiques, ni par des phéromones artificielles développées en vitesse. Il n’existait aucun ennemi naturel apparent.

Dehors, des avions survolaient les champs, pulvérisant à profusion de l’insecticide sur les guêpes insatiables poursuivant leur carnage. Malgré la menace, plusieurs groupes environnementaux manifestaient dans les rues. Ils étaient furieux d’assister, impuissants, à la destruction des écosystèmes, cinquante ans après la publication de Printemps silencieux écrit par la biologiste Rachel Carson. Dans les régions nordiques, on construisait des serres isolées. On aménageait des semi-remorques hydroponiques chauffées et éclairées. Malgré les protocoles de quarantaine, les guêpes y apparaissaient dès que les conditions devenaient adéquates pour cultiver. Leur propagation défiait toute logique.

Après la disparition de presque toute la nourriture, la plupart des populations animales d’élevage se mirent à décliner à l’instar de l’humanité. Nombreuses furent les familles qui partirent vers les côtes ou vers les régions riveraines. Les populations de poissons diminuaient au rythme extra-industriel de la surpêche. D’autres gens prirent la route du Nord ou des déserts. Plusieurs personnes et animaux moururent de faim.

Au cours d’une décade, des émeutes éclatèrent lorsque les supermarchés épuisèrent leurs stocks. Les hécatombes se multiplièrent. Le nombre de croisades égoïstes au nom de la faim grimpa en flèche. La situation donnait lieu à des luttes brutales et sanguinaires entre insurgés et forces armées. Tout cela pour les dernières conserves qui hantaient les étalages des magasins à grande surface.

Alors que la faim et la chaleur de l’été devenaient chaque jour un peu plus insupportables, que la Terre semblait tout indiquée pour devenir un désert stérile, la mutation se produisit. Une étrange cascade de transformations génétiques reprogrammant l’insecte. La guêpe adopta une nouvelle proie. Un seul et unique animal : l’Homo sapiens. Le jour de la mutation, la ville devint méconnaissable. De violentes secousses sismiques mirent à terre la moitié des bâtiments, des pylônes de lignes à haute tension et des arbres. Ce même jour, les guêpes femelles émergèrent du sous-sol. On aurait dit une version de l’insecte mâle aux dimensions décuplées. Des monstres capables de découper un homme en pièces. Tous ceux qui étaient à l’extérieur, en voiture, ou même un peu trop près d’une fenêtre au moment de l’émergence des femelles, furent condamnés. Ils se firent happer par les essaims si denses qu’on aurait dit qu’il s’agissait d’un seul et unique organisme, quelque Léviathan issu des Enfers. Les militaires déployés sur le terrain pour assurer un semblant d’ordre ouvrirent le feu. Les cibles étaient trop rapides, trop nombreuses. Les survivants se barricadèrent chez eux. D’autres se regroupèrent dans les souterrains du métro, un des rares endroits où les insectes anthropophages ne s’aventuraient pas depuis la mutation. Dès lors, l’être humain fut restreint à un mode de vie nocturne. Car dès que le soleil se levait, des nuées de guêpes affamées s’accaparaient les villes fantômes. Le jour leur appartenait. Et celui qui s’aventurait à l’extérieur lorsqu’il faisait clair était voué à un destin funeste, poignardé de dards comme César de dagues sur le Champ de Mars.

Peu à peu, les autorités se montrèrent plus discrètes jusqu’à ce que l’électricité, les médias, les services, les communications et l’économie devinrent des reliques d’avant la crise. Des vagues de maladies surgirent, exacerbées par les misérables conditions sanitaires quasi médiévales. Entre autres, la dysenterie et le choléra atteignirent bon nombre de survivants. Les fièvres et les infections affligèrent les enfants comme les adultes. Au début, on inhuma les défunts, puis on les brûla – ce qu’il restait d’eux après le festin des guêpes – par incinération massive durant la nuit. D’autres furent empilés dans des fosses communes jusqu’à ce qu’elles débordent et que les dépouilles gisent dans les rues. On ne se donna même plus la peine de s’approcher ensuite. On rompit le contrat social. Devant l’échec de la loi martiale, on renonça aux règles de société, désormais révolues, pour s’en remettre à une nouvelle loi : chacun pour soi. La loi de la jungle. Dans la ville, des bandes d’assassins, de pillards et de brigands se formèrent, prêtes à tout pour mettre la main sur des armes, de la nourriture, de l’essence ou des médicaments en terrorisant les camps de survivants. En voyant s’éroder les fondations de la civilisation, force était de constater qu’avec le ventre vide, l’homme retrouvait un instinct de survie des plus égoïstes.

Dans la métropole anarchique qui comptait désormais moins de dix mille âmes, Jack et Frank partageaient leur appartement avec Chad et Maddie. Il valait mieux se tenir à plusieurs. C’était plus sûr ainsi. Le groupuscule partageait un point commun. Aucun d’entre eux n’avait réussi à rejoindre les siens. La famille de Maddie demeurait en Europe. Les trajets transatlantiques, aériens comme maritimes – s’il y en avait encore –, étaient supposément réservés aux ambassadeurs, aux émissaires ou aux plus fortunés. Chad avait perdu ses proches dans les épidémies. Les centres de soins avaient été pris d’assaut et, sans antibiotiques, leurs chances de survie avaient chuté. La dernière fois que Jack avait eu des nouvelles de son père, de sa mère et de sa sœur, ils étaient en voilier sur les Grands Lacs. La famille avait mis le cap sur Main Duck Island, une petite île isolée et inhabitée baignant dans le lac Ontario, qui servait de colonie de pêche au début du 19e siècle. Des rumeurs circulaient à propos de havres épargnés par les insectes. « Pourvu que Main Duck n’ait pas été touchée. » Privé de moyen de communication, Jack n’en aurait le cœur net que s’il parvenait un jour à y poser le pied. Quant à Frank, même avant les évènements, il n’avait jamais été des plus volubiles au sujet de ses proches.

Au mois d’août, la civilisation d’avant l’infestation aurait aussi bien pu être un mythe, l’histoire d’un éden idyllique que l’on racontait aux enfants d’après les réminiscences des survivants. On entendait même parler d’une secte vénérant les guêpes. Des croyants extrémistes citaient les textes anciens, convaincus qu’il s’agissait d’une réédition augmentée de la huitième plaie d’Égypte. Un fléau divin prophétisé. L’apocalypse. La fin.

Le roman est disponible en librairie et sur amazon.
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Czech out research abroad ~ Foreign Perspectives

 

By Dr. Lauren Des Marteaux, Postdoctoral fellow, Biologické centrum AVČR

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No one would describe me as having wanderlust; I am a nester, molding my surroundings for maximum comfort, convenience, and aesthetics. I loved my historic apartment, my extensive set of kitchen gadgets, and all of Canada’s familiarities (AKA Tim Horton’s everywhere, anytime). As a fresh post doc I had no idea what to expect when relocating from populous southern Ontario to a dorm room with a shared kitchen in small-town Czech Republic. Now (six months later), the only way to describe my time abroad would be overwhelmingly happy. Lire la suite

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A new home for an old Blog

Welcome to the new home of the ESC Blog!

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Nearly 350 million years ago, insects evolved the ability to totally transform themselves, and proceeded to take over the planet in a way that no other group of organisms has since. These new holometabolous species had stumbled upon the process of complete metamorphosis, a complex physiological process that is controlled by hormonal regulation, connected to outside stimuli, and constrained by natural selection, and which provided them the opportunity to further divide and conquer ecological niches while avoiding having adults compete directly with larvae for resources and space.

Today, insects with the ability to rearrange and reassign the majority of their cells into a new phenotypic expression are considered by many to represent a perfect allegory for rebirth, a new chance to make a difference, and a new opportunity to take on the world in ways they couldn’t before. While we here at the ESC Blog aren’t immune to allusions of grandeur and promises of world-changing impact, for now we’ll happily settle for a metamorphosis that results in a new look and home on the newly redesigned Entomological Society of Canada website, while we continue to provide a means for entomologists to share their passion, interests, and ideas in a public forum.

The ESC Blog debuted in June, 2012 at escsecblog.com, primarily because the old ESC website predated the very concept of a blog, and wasn’t technologically capable of hosting one. Now that the ESC homepage has been redesigned and updated thanks to Jordan Bannerman and the ESC Web Content committee, it only makes sense for us to make like a monarch and migrate, allowing us to better integrate with all of the other endeavours and efforts associated with the Entomological Society of Canada, and provide our authors and community better access to the ESC membership-at-large.

If this is your first introduction to the ESC Blog, thanks for joining us! While we work to continue bringing new content to the blog, why not poke through our archives (which we’ve fully migrated over to our new home) and see what we’ve been up to the last 5 years? Originally founded by Chris Buddle, Crystal Ernst, and Morgan Jackson as a means for entomologists with an interest in Canadian entomology to share what they were up to, the ESC Blog has provided an opportunity for entomologists and insect enthusiasts to contribute to a global conversation. Since 2012, we’ve welcomed Sean McCann as an additional editor, and published more than 200 articles that have been widely shared and read online, and we look forward to continuing to bring the inside scoop on insect research for years to come. We’ve covered everything from the pluralization of thrips, to an entomologist’s Nobel connection, and are thrilled to share new research from the next generation of entomologists.

If you’re interested in contributing to the ESC Blog, don’t hesitate to get in touch! We’re always looking for stories from the lab or field, updates on new and emerging research that you’re involved with (or that you just admire!), and the ways in which insects intersect with our lives. If you have photos, videos, or observations you’d like to share, graduate student or employment opportunities you need to recruit, or resources for your research that you need to find, we’re more than happy to help you share them with the entomological community in a timely manner. And if you’re on Twitter, be sure to follow @CanEntomologist for up-to-the-minute updates from your society, as well as its members, editors, and publications.

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ESC Blog Classifieds – U Winnipeg MSc Opportunity Rearing Endangered Butterflies

MSc Graduate Student Opportunity in the Department of Biology, University of Winnipeg

Project title: Developing a laboratory rearing technique for the endangered Poweshiek skipperling and assessing the feasibility of introduction into tall grass prairie habitats in Manitoba.

Objectives: The Poweshiek skipperling (Oarisma poweshiek) is an Endangered butterfly species that is in critical danger of becoming extinct. Less than 500 individuals remain in the wild and the grasslands of southeastern Manitoba represent one of the species’ last strongholds. The species inhabits remnant patches of tall-grass prairie and in the past 10 years has greatly declined across its historical range. Working at both the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg and the University of Winnipeg, the student will help develop laboratory rearing techniques and to determine the feasibility of reintroducing the Poweshiek skipperling into tall grass prairie sites where it has been extirpated or new potential prairie habitat. The student will study life history factors (such as mortality and survivorship of various development stages) and evaluate potential tall grass prairie sites for reintroduction. This study is in coordination with the University of Winnipeg, Assiniboine Park Zoo, and Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).

See flyer for further details and how to apply.