, , ,

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:


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
    • 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
    • Practice riding in a straight line
    • Practice riding in a group
Tier 3

Bike racing skills

I have never done a bike race before
    • Practice climbing hills
    • Practice biking on gravel
    • 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:

, , ,

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.

, ,

Basic vs. Applied Entomology: How the Mountain Pine Beetle Opened My Eyes

Trap pictures 002

Staffan Lindgren checking the lure on a prototype multiple funnel trap. Photo: Ron Long

A guest post by Staffan Lindgren

I finished my bachelor’s degree at the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 1975. I had actually completed most of my degree at Umeå University, but because I wanted to take limnology and entomology, I moved to Uppsala for my last semesters, so my degree was granted by that venerable institution. Like many recent graduates, I was now faced with finding my way to a future in biology, and since I was interested in research I wanted to continue as a graduate student. A 2-year detour as a failed doctoral student in medical physiology (I have actually co-authored five publications in endocrinology), a semester as a special-interest student in two courses in forest entomology at what was then the Royal College of Forestry in Stockholm brought me back to essentially the same conundrum. I managed to land some temporary jobs (teaching assistant, which had the perk of leading a student field trip to what was then still the Soviet Union, and stream surveyor using aquatic insects to assess pollution) I applied for entry into the Master of Pest Management (MPM) Program at Simon Fraser University. Why this program? Well, one of my criteria for future employment was that anything I did had to be “useful”, so it had to deal with applied science. To make a long story short, I managed to get through this program, and was recruited by Dr. John Borden for a PhD working on semiochemical-based management of ambrosia beetles. Dr. Borden had quickly pegged me as “bright, but not particularly hard working if not motivated”! I can’t really argue with the latter part of that assessment! Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and since using sticky traps (the standard research tool when I started) involved hard work, I invented the “multiple-funnel trap”, a story I will save for another blog.

This is where my obsession with “usefulness” started to hurt me, however.  SFU had excellent ecology faculty, and they had a seminar series called “Les Ecologistes” (and they still do). The MPM program also had a seminar series, and unfortunately there was a bit of a rift between the MPM and ecology faculty with each side preferring to stay clear of the other.  Consequently I never went to their seminars, something I deeply regret to this day. I feel that it hurt me because I went through my PhD with blinders on, looking only at outcomes, rather than causes for my successful and failed experiments.


Dan Miller (now a research scientist at USDA FS, Athens, GA) (Photo B.S. Lindgren) checking the tree where he just applied a verbenone bubble cap.

Skip forward to well into my 10-year stint as Research Director at Phero Tech, Inc., a spinoff company that was in part based on my PhD work, including a commercial version of what was now called “the Lindgren trap”. I was working on the application of verbenone, an oxidation product of a major monoterpene of many conifers, α-pinene via trans-verbenol, the principal aggregation pheromone of the mountain pine beetle Hunt et al 1989). Verbenone had been known for some time through research in the United States, but I wanted to see if we could use our release technology to make it applicable for mountain pine beetle management (Lindgren et al 1989, Safranyik et al. 1992, Shore et al. 1992, Lindgren and Borden 1993, Miller et al. 1995, Lindgren and Miller 2002a,b). The results were somewhat mixed, however. On the one hand we achieved significant protection of trees, but sometimes there seemed to be no effect at all (Amman and Lindgren 1995). It appeared as if the beetles responded, but if they attempted an attack, they then ignored the verbenone. At high densities, verbenone appeared to have no significant effect at all.

As I thought about this, I gradually came to the realization that I had no idea whatsoever of the mechanism of “anti-aggregation”. In the literature, verbenone had been billed as an anti-aggregation or spacing (epideictic) pheromone. Research by David Hunt revealed that verbenone was produced by microorganisms, so that if bacterial symbionts were knocked out, the beetles could not produce verbenone. Furthermore, it appeared that many species responded negatively to verbenone. This made me think that it was less of an anti-aggregation pheromone and more a tissue degradation kairomone, which would explain some of our failures, and necessitate a different approach to application. Other more capable researchers picked up the mantle and the use of verbenone is still being investigated.

It was about this time that I was fortunate enough to land my current position at UNBC, and with many new avenues of (curiosity-driven) research available to me, I eventually abandoned verbenone and semiochemical –based management research. I felt that mountain pine beetle had taught me a lesson, and in the words of Bart Simpson “…I never give up before trying at least one easy thing”.

What is the morale of all this? To me it is an example that shows that we must strive to not let existing paradigms blind us to the opportunities. My experience in science is that paradigm-shifts, even at the small scale that I would be capable of, are often slowed down because you cannot get funded to try something that goes against existing wisdom. One of my lasting memories from my undergraduate years in Sweden was listening to a Nobel Laureate (whose name has long since faded away) in brain research from UC Berkeley (if I recall correctly). He said that he would essentially state as fact something that would go against common knowledge, because he knew that it would generate lots of research to prove him wrong. He didn’t care if he was right or wrong, he just wanted to know the answer! I was never such a maverick, but I think some of the most successful scientists are. In the end, my zealousness for being “useful” made me less able to be just that. Don’t let that happen to you!


Amman, G.D. and B.S. Lindgren.  1995. Semiochemicals for management of mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae Hopkins: Current status of research and application. In S.M. Salom and K.R. Hobson [tech.eds.], Application of Semiochemicals for Management of Bark Beetle Infestations –  Proceedings of an Informal Conference, Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America, Indianapolis, Indiana, December 12-16, 1993, Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-GTR-318, U.S. Dept. Agric., Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Ogden, Utah, 54 pp.

Hunt, D.W.A., J.H. Borden, B.S. Lindgren, and G. Gries.  1989.  The role of autoxidation of  α-pinene in the production of pheromones of Dendroctonus ponderosae (Coleoptera:Scolytidae).  Canadian Journal of Forest Research  19:1275-1282.

Lindgren, B.S. and J.H. Borden. 1993. Displacement and aggregation of mountain pine beetles, Dendroctonus ponderosae (Coleoptera: Scolytidae), in response to their antiaggregation and aggregation pheromones. Can. J. For. Res. 23: 286-290.

Lindgren, B.S., and D.R. Miller. 2002a. Effect of verbenone on predatory and wood boring beetles (Coleoptera) in lodgepole pine forests. Environmental Entomology 31: 766-753.

Lindgren, B.S., and D.R. Miller. 2002b. Effect of verbenone on five species of bark beetles (Coleoptera: Scolytidae) in lodgepole pine forests. Environmental Entomology 31: 759-765.

Lindgren, B.S., J.H. Borden, G.H. Cushon, L.J. Chong and C.J. Higgins.  1989.  Reduction of mountain pine beetle (Coleoptera:Scolytidae) attacks by verbenone in lodgepole pine stands in British Columbia.  Canadian Journal of Forest Research  19:65-68.

Miller, D.R., J.H. Borden, and B.S. Lindgren. 1995. Verbenone: Dose-Dependent Interruption of pheromone-based attraction of three sympatric species of bark beetles (Coleoptera: Scolytidae). Environmental Entomology 24:692-696

Safranyik, L., T.L. Shore, D.A. Linton and B.S. Lindgren. 1992. The effect of verbenone on dispersal and attack of mountain pine beetle,  Dendroctonus ponderosae Hopk. (Col., Scolytidae) in a lodgepole pine stand. Journal of Applied Entomology 113: 391-397

Shore, T.L., L. Safranyik and B.S. Lindgren. 1992. The response of mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) to lodgepole pine trees baited with verbenone and exo-brevicomin. Journal of Chemical Ecology 18: 533-541