Role insects play evolves with changing environment

Pest control | While agriculture relies on managing damaging pests, biocontrol research puts them to work against weeds and other insects

As president of the Entomological Society of Canada, Rose De Clerck-Floate has been asked about the specific gravity of butterfly wings and whether fireflies could safely be released at a wedding.

It is all part of heading the ESC during its 150th anniversary year, and part of the seemingly infinite variety of subjects available in the world of insects.

Farmers know that variety all too well, and although agriculture has helped maintain the vibrancy of the ESC, it is by no stretch the only sector that has kept the society functioning for so long.

The ESC is one of the oldest scientific societies in Canada and possibly the oldest, said De Clerck-Floate.

Its membership of 450 to 500 includes many professional entomologists who work with Agriculture Canada, the provinces, the forestry industry and universities and colleges.

It also includes or has included many of the researchers who identified and devised strategies to control, predict or manage agricultural pests including grasshoppers, bertha armyworms, wheat midge, cutworms and diamondback moths.

De Clerck-Floate’s day job is in weed biocontrol research for Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge.

Most recently she’s been working on biocontrol of hawkweed using wasps.

Many of her colleagues are similarly engaged in research involving insects, and they find it useful to keep in contact with entomologists across Canada through the society, its quarterly bulletin and its journal, The Canadian Entomologist.

“Entomologists are so passionate about what they do,” said De Clerck-Floate.

“It’s so hands on. There’s just something about insects. People really respond to them.”

Cedric Gillott, a retired University of Saskatchewan entomologist, said the variety of insect life and the role they play in ecology are aspects of study that keep the ESC vibrant.

“We (often) think of insects in terms of, is it a pest, and so that immediately gives them an advantage over studying a group such as birds or mammals or fish,” said Gillott.

“There has always been a strong link between entomology and agriculture in Canada because of the need to manage these pests, and I think that that probably is what has led to the longevity and expected continuation (of the society).”

The ESC doesn’t make direct contributions to science, other than to serve as a forum where entomologists can exchange ideas.

It also has a strong student component, in which graduate students are encouraged to present their research to the entomological community for feedback and mentorship.

“It really is a good training ground for leadership. We do give them a voice, more so than other societies,” said De Clerck-Floate, who was mentored when she first became a member 30 years ago.

Gillott, who edits the ESC’s bulletin and heads its heritage committee, said politics shaped the society even in its earliest days.

The Ontario government tapped the society in 1871 to write a report on the problematic Colorado potato beetle. Money was provided to ESC founding members to write the report.

“In order to get the money, the society had to, if you like, recognize that it was the Ontario government that had provided this money. It was only a few hundred dollars but that was a considerable sum. And part of the requirement was that they change their name to the Entomological Society of Ontario.”

The national society bore that name until the early 1950s, even though it has always had members from across the country. It was then reborn as the ESC, while the Ontario society also continued to function.

“It is an interesting historical feature that politics could get into a scientific society even at that early stage,” said Gillott.

That history is one reason why this year’s annual meeting and 150th anniversary celebration will be held in Guelph, Ont., Oct. 20-23.

De Clerck-Floate said the executive is examining its vision and mission statements this year to ensure they remain relevant to the membership.

However, motivating the members is never a problem.

“The society is just like a big family. I love the people. In my role as president this year, I just love working with people who make things happen.”

The ESC largely comprises professional entomologists. Amateur collectors and enthusiasts are more often found in the regional societies that operate in most provinces.

Regardless of their stripe, most entomologists are also collectors of their insect subjects, which has proven invaluable to research, she added.

DNA can be extracted from insects collected long ago to see how they’ve changed and responded to changing environments.

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