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Little souls

Tackling worldwide insect decline with local efforts

By Mandy Cook

Humans tend to do one of two things when they see a bug.

Squish it or save it.

A Faculty of Science-based research project, with Memorial’s Botanical Garden and local organization Nature N.L. as partners, aims to encourage everyone in this province to make the latter choice.

Insects and other arthropods like spiders and millipedes are important parts of all terrestrial ecosystems, says Dr. Catherine Scott, an honorary post-doctoral scholar in the Department of Biology.

“They play a variety of critical ecological roles: decomposers contribute to nutrient recycling and soil aeration, nectar-feeders provide pollination services, predators help to control insect pests and many birds and other animals depend on insects for food,” she said.

Climate change and human activities are contributing to insect declines worldwide. A handful of insect species in Newfoundland and Labrador are known to be threatened, but for most insects, scientists don’t have enough information to even assess their conservation status.

A white woman in her mid-20s wears spider earrings with woods in the backgroun
Dr. Catherine Scott
Photo: Submitted

“We cannot protect species if we don’t know which ones are present, and where,” said Dr. Scott.

That’s where the Insect Apocalypse? Citizen Science Insect Monitoring and Outreach project comes in. Dr. Scott is the project’s co-ordinator; Dr. Tom Chapman, Faculty of Science, is the project lead.

Insect Apocalypse’s focus is on engaging community members in a multi-year citizen science project to provide baseline information about the diversity of insects present in Newfoundland and Labrador, while providing high-quality environmental education to interested members of the public.

A fly-like bug on a green branch. The background is extremely blurred.
A critter captured by a participant’s camera at the bug photography event at the Botanical Garden.
Photo: Submitted

The project is also creating momentum around establishing a Newfoundland and Labrador Master Naturalist Program, a training program that Nature N.L. would offer so that people can improve their natural history knowledge and skills around identifying plants and animals.

This summer, there’s been an, ahem, up-tick in activities and events that Dr. Scott and Marie Louise, executive director of Nature N.L., partnered on to plan and obtain funding for.

One hands-on learning opportunity was a bug photography event, led by Dr. Sean McCann, an insect and photography expert, at Memorial’s Botanical Garden.

Two young women use photography equipment in a flower bed.
Insect photographers at work at the Botanical Garden. The woman on the left has attached a macro lens to her cellphone to improve her photos.
Photo: Submitted

Rebecca Fanning, a bug photography participant and Faculty of Science graduate, decided to attend.

She says she was delighted to learn that purchasing an inexpensive macro lens that attaches to her cellphone would vastly improve photos she’s been taking of moths.

“That person discovering something new can be you.” — Rebecca Fanning

She says insect populations and diversity in Newfoundland and Labrador is “tragically” understudied, and new exotic invasives arrive every day.

“And now with photographic evidence becoming increasingly acceptable in the scientific community, compared to the gold standard of physically collecting the specimen, all it takes is a phone and a steady hand to make a significant contribution to the study of insects in the province,” said Ms. Fanning, who is from the Annapolis Valley, N.S. “That person discovering something new can be you, with only a little bit of searching.”

A man in his 80s is in profile, smiling. A dragonfly rests on the side of his head.
A dragonfly uses a bug identification event participant’s head for a rest stop.
Photo: Submitted

Dr. McCann will next host a moth night, where he will set up a “moth sheet” with a special mercury vapour lamp to attract moths and other insects in order to photograph and identify them.

You can find details of all upcoming events on the Nature N.L. Facebook page. Events are scheduled to run until mid-November.

For all insect-related activities, participants are encouraged to add their photos to iNaturalist, a non-profit social network of naturalists, scientists and citizen scientists.

These kinds of observations made by community members can be valuable in detecting invasive species and documenting rare or undescribed species in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Volunteers can also assist in the research by learning how to identify insects in processing the samples Dr. Scott and her colleagues collect as part of the project in two main locations: the Botanical Garden and the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada farm on Brookfield Road in St. John’s.

Dr. Sean McCann, at right, with young participants at the bug identification event at the Botanical Garden. More than 125 people attended.
Photo: Submitted

Using tent-like traps (called Malaise traps) they intercept flying insects that are then funneled into a container. This allows them to passively sample all the insects flying through the area.

The timing of the trapping events coincides with the local breeding season of tree swallows to standardize with their collaborators of the North American Insect Abundance Network.

In addition, they are doing monthly sampling events across the active season for insects in the province. If you are interested in participating, please contact Dr. Scott.

“Insects are extremely diverse, beautiful and fascinating,” said Dr. Scott. “Everyone can find them in their yard, the local park or Memorial’s Botanical Garden or pretty much anywhere they go, so they are an extremely accessible gateway to nature appreciation.”

A honey bee sits on a fuschia flower.
Wasps are key pollinators of our plants.
Photo: Submitted

Ultimately, the group hopes to share the importance and fascinating biology of insects with the public, while collecting data that will help them to better understand what insects are present in Newfoundland and Labrador and inform their management and conservation.

The Insect Apocalypse? project was funded by the Office of Public Engagement.

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