Experts excited but puzzled by hairy midge discovery

It’s bigger and it’s hairier than Swede midge, but there’s a lot more to be learned about a new species of midge recently identified in Saskatchewan and Alberta canola fields.

Researchers know the midge can damage canola flowers, but more study is planned to determine whether that damage is economically significant and whether the insect can affect other parts of the plant.

Boyd Mori, a research scientist in insect ecology with Agriculture Canada in Saskatoon, was the first to confirm that the midges he saw in Saskatchewan fields were different from other species.

“There’s always been some kind of thoughts that the Swede midge we had in Saskatchewan seemed to be slightly different from the one in Ontario,” said Mori.

“It seemed slightly larger than the one in Ontario, and it also had hairier wings, which was apparently a very noticeable characteristic compared to the one in Ontario.”

Last summer, Mori was working with pheremone traps and emergence cages in fields near Carrot River and Codette in northeastern Saskatchewan.

He captured numerous adult midges in the cages but none in the pheremone traps. After determining there was nothing wrong with the lures, he concluded this was a different midge species than the Swede midges previously found.

“I was pretty excited by it,” he said.

“It’s probably going to be the only time in my career that this will happen, especially a new insect that’s on a crop. They’re generally well studied and so it was pretty exciting to find it.”

Mori sent samples of the midge to Rebecca Hallett and James Heal, two Swede midge researchers based at the University of Guelph. They agreed the Saskatchewan midges were more robust and had slight differences in their antennae and genitalia.

Midge expert Bradley Sinclair of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency further confirmed the differences. A partial gene sequence that also showed significant differences sealed the deal.

Mori said Sinclair will likely be the one to name the new midge species after taxonomic work is done. For now, it is known the insect is within the genus contarinia, but its species remains to be named.

The insect was also found this summer by Alberta entomologist Scott Meers and insect research technologist Shelley Barkley in east-central Alberta fields.

Mori said researchers and entomologists will try this summer to determine the midge’s range and learn more about its life cycle.

“We want to see if it’s going to cause yield losses,” he said.

More information will also allow him to develop pheremone lures so the midges can be trapped and their numbers assessed. Mori said there is no need for alarm because more information is needed to see whether the midge poses a threat or is simply benign.

Swede midge hasn’t been a significant insect problem in canola for the last few years. Mori said even the most insect-savvy farmers will need a microscope to see differences between the new midge and Swede midge.

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