Monday, 31 August 2020

An Unconventional IPM Student Experience

Over the course of the summer, I encountered practical applications of many concepts introduced during my university biology classes. While working from home, I completed online courses, attended webinars, and engaged in numerous video calls to discuss blog posts and scientific papers. These opportunities enabled me to learn about species distribution, insect life cycles, symbiotic relationships, parasitism, genetic modification, and the evolution of insecticide resistance. After studying these topics, it was interesting to read about field research studies performed on farms far different from my own family’s in terms of size, location, and practices. For example, we discussed many studies performed in Europe where the field sizes are MUCH smaller than in Alberta. Though many crops and pests are similar between regions, I had to think critically about how applicable the results were to Canadian farms. Moreover, I learned to think more about insect sampling techniques and their applications in Alberta and other areas. I am eager to continue applying these new skills as I return to school this fall.

During weekly paper and blog discussions, the IPM team discussed economic thresholds and how they are applied to make control decisions. Prior to this, I had little knowledge on how farmers make chemical control decisions or how often insecticides are actually applied to fields. I thought insecticides were used more frequently but, in the Peace River region, natural enemies and weather conditions can help to regulate pest populations. Exploring biological and cultural pest management options has enlightened me to the reality of sustainable farming and the landscape-level practices required to maintain it.

I also learned a variety of pest monitoring techniques and how to apply economic thresholds in the field. I was lucky enough to monitor insects in two fields on my family’s farm, even with COVID-19 restrictions in place. I learned how to set traps in canola for flea beetles (Fig. 1a), diamondback moth (Fig. 1b), and bertha armyworm (Figure 1c), as well as how to use a sweep-net to scout for lygus bugs and cabbage seedpod weevil in the crop canopy. In field peas, I set up pitfall traps adjacent to the field to monitor pea leaf weevil. Managing only a few traps on my own has given me a greater appreciation of the massive amount of effort and materials required to conduct more complex and large-scale studies in entomology.

Figure 1. Traps set adjacent to a canola field near Sexsmith, AB on June 19, 2020, used to monitor flea beetles (a), diamondback moths (b), and bertha armyworm moths (c). Photos: M. Sears 2020.

Prior to this experience, I only knew of a few general insect groups (eg. grasshoppers, moths, aphids) that affected my family’s crops. Early in my term, I learned the characteristics that differentiate insect orders through the  “Bugs 101” course (offered through the University of Alberta). While monitoring, I was introduced to pest and beneficial species of arthropods in the Peace River region and the unexpected ecological niches they can occupy. For instance, I discovered flies are among the most important pollinators in agricultural ecosystems (Fig. 2). Finally, while creating scouting charts for oat, sunflower, and mustard, I encountered and began to recognize similarities in pest species across crop types. Now when I glance at an insect in a field, I have a good idea of the group to which it belongs and how it may affect the crop — or at least I now know where to find resources to help me identify it.

Figure 2. Fly species found on canola flowers growing in the field on July 2, 2020, near Sexsmith, AB. Photo: M. Sears 2020

Furthermore, I have come to better understand the tough control decisions farmers struggle to make on a regular basis and the impact management decisions can have on both pest and non-target insects in field crops.

- Maiya Sears

Thanks to Aarika Harpe, Shelby Dufton and J. Otani for reviewing this Post.

Read more about the 2020 students working in the IPM Program.

Summer Student Work Term - COVID-19 Style

During my time with the IPM program at the Beaverlodge Research Farm, I learned so many valuable things. With COVID-19, my experience was definitely different than past students. However, it provided many learning opportunities that I will take in to the future and I am very grateful.

My favorite day of the week became Tuesday because I got to go out to do fieldwork and spend some time outdoors and away from the computer. This year, I began monitoring two of my family's fields. I love that insect monitoring allowed me to get hands-on experience. Everything I learned via computer got transferred to the field, whether evaluating growth stages, identifying pests, or looking at damage. It was cool to see another side of agriculture that I normally wouldn’t see. Before, I wouldn’t have known to compare a pest with the growth stage of the crop and weather conditions. I now know the importance of scouting fields during critical time periods. I’ve come to appreciate the difficulty of farming on a whole new level because there are numerous components to take into account when deciding on the necessity and type of pest management strategy.

Figure 1. Collecting a sweep-net sample in our canola field on August 11, 2020 near Valhalla Centre, AB. Photo: A. Harpe 2020

Before this job, I honestly thought that, if there was a lot of insect damage, growers would just spray the field with insecticide. After becoming more educated on economic thresholds, I realized that this is not what happens at all. I would have never thought about insecticide resistance being a problem or the long-term effects of chemical management. I found insecticide use particularly interesting, especially neonicotinoids and how their use is tightly regulated in Canada.

Figure 2. Field work: Bertha Armyworm pheromone trap set-up in along the edge of a blooming canola field near Valhalla Centre, AB in 2020.  Photo: A. Harpe 2020

Field work allowed me to gain a new appreciation for insects. Never the biggest fan of insects, I avoided them as much as I could before - a funny thought in hindsight. After this year, I am starting to understand and appreciate some of the important services and how they benefit us. They are so small yet make such a big difference in our lives and their impact is not recognized most of the time.

Figure 3. A beautiful blister beetle (Lytta nuttalli) found on a mint leaf on June 14, 2020, near Valhalla Centre, AB.  Photo: A. Harpe 2020

The skills I gained during our paper discussions will also stick with me as I move forward. I’ve found the paper discussions with the IPM team to be very helpful in a number of ways. Normally, I am never one to ask questions in a lecture because I am too scared. The expectation to read research papers and prepare questions for a discussion, has pushed me out of my box. I changed my thinking style to “I am here to learn and become better.” I also realized that I need to push past my shyness to take advantage of opportunities and the expertise of individuals working in the field. I also appreciated all of the papers we read; they required critical thinking and questioning like, “What did the authors do that was great?” or “What might be done differently?” and so on. This allowed me to develop a greater understanding of the science and methods used when carrying out experiments. I came to appreciate the people that work in this field because agricultural studies often involve tedious work. Agriculture is also a challenging field as a lot of factors cannot be controlled and things can even work against you.

I can take these new skills with me to school, leadership opportunities, and more. Even though I am taking psychology in school, I feel as though this job will apply very well with research.
Although this summer didn’t start as planned, it turned out pretty great. Everyone in the IPM program is amazing and so helpful. Even though I grew up on a farm and have experienced how hard it is, I have so much more respect for all the farmers who do this job every day.

- Aarika Harpe

Thanks to Maiya Sears, Shelby Dufton and J. Otani for reviewing this Post.

Read more about the Students working in the IPM Program from May-August 2020.

New appreciation for the buzz about pests

Spending my summer working in the IPM program based at the Beaverlodge Research Farm enlightened me - ecology truly is complex! Insect pest management is incredibly dynamic because new problems can appear quickly like the introduction of an invasive pest or development of pesticide resistance in insects. Growers are in a constant “tug of war” with field invaders and need to develop and utilize  tactics like new pest-resistant crop varieties and insecticides. I learned that growing crops isn’t as simple as watering and fertilizing a plant - it’s a struggle against nature itself. A bug on a leaf now represents a force of nature ready to adapt to continue the survival of its species.

During my work term, I gained more respect for growers. I was surprised to discover how many insect pests within the Canadian prairies are invasive species. While I studied invasive species in courses, I gained a better sense of how the environment affects them and the scope and scale of their impact on Canadian agriculture. Examples of invasive agricultural pests in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba include the Diamondback moth, Cereal leaf beetle and Pea leaf weevil. It was both terrifying and spectacular to see the destructive capabilities of these pests. 

Figure 1. Snout moth (Pyralis sp.) perched indoors on a mirror calling for a mate. 
(Photo: D. Bosnich taken near Kanata, Ontario)

Throughout the term I learned about specific insect pests and read scientific literature in order to share presentations with my coworkers. This required extensive research on each topic and I had to conquer my relative shyness for public speaking. After the initial few “ums” and “ahs” in my first presentations, the weekly Google Hangout and Zoom meetings with the IPM team allowed me to improve both my research skills and my confidence. 

Figure 2. A compost fly (Ptecticus sp.) observed in yard near Kanata, Ontario.
(Photo: D. Bosnich)

Throughout the work term, my coworkers and I received training using various remote technologies to complete our weekly tasks. As one who struggles to work a microwave at times, these training opportunities improved both my familiarity with multiple videoconferencing platforms and forced me to become more adept with technology. For example, one weekly tasks was photographing insects in situ. By learning and practicing how to use the camera on my phone, I manipulated my camera’s focus with different angles, filters, and touch commands. I even discovered new camera settings on my phone! 

Figure 3. Sweat bee (Halictus sp.) covered in trillium pollen near Kanata, Ontario.
(Photo: D. Bosnich)

Overall, working in the IPM program at the Beaverlodge Research Farm has transformed the way I view the environment and the organisms within it. Additionally, the experience has helped develop my public speaking as well as forced me to improve my technological understanding. As my work term ends, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to work with many incredibly kind and intelligent individuals and I look forward to directing the experience towards expanding my knowledge of biology!

- Donovan Bosnich

Thanks to Aarika Harpe, Amanda Jorgensen and Jennifer Otani for reviewing this Post.

Read more about the Students working in the IPM Program from May-August 2020. 

My Introduction to the Wild World of Insects

As the summer comes to an end, I am reflecting on things I’ve learned during my unconventional term with the Insect Pest Management group at the Beaverlodge Research Farm. While COVID-19 seriously hampered plans of obtaining field work experience, I still was able to learn a lot during my work term. Some of the most valuable outcomes were gaining experience in insect identification and learning about the importance of chemical communication in the world of insects.

At the start of my work term in January, I spent time in the IPM lab processing pitfall and sweep-net samples collected the previous field season. To process samples we grouped insects by taxon, a group of organisms described by taxonomists. Identification requires knowledge of shared characteristics within a taxon. In this case, we sorted based on Order, Family, genus and species levels which required attention to detail and manipulating the specimens. Characteristics ranged from obvious, such as the presence of sets of iridescent red dots on the elytra (Fig. 1), to subtle or as in the degree of curvature of the pronotum (i.e., the shield-like plate on top of the thorax). By learning to identifying some insect groups, I began to appreciate just how diverse they are in the environment.

Figure 1. Dorsal view of a Calosoma calidum collected in a pitfall trap. Photo: T. Malloff 2020

Insects are small and usually dispersed throughout a habitat. They have evolved mechanisms and strategies to communicate with conspecifics and locate both hosts and mates even over great distances. Many insects emit volatile semiochemicals to communicate. Conspecifics or similar species of an insect can sense semiochemicals, even at small concentrations. Semiochemicals, known as pheromones, act as alarm signals, help insects aggregate, and facilitate mate location. For example, a female moth releases a sex pheromone from glands in her abdomen when she is ready to mate, alerting male moths to her location (Fig. 2 A). Insects even sense semiochemicals released from other species. For example, plants can release volatile chemicals when attacked by herbivores. These volatile chemicals can help attract natural enemies including predators or parasitoids who respond by preying upon or attacking the insect pest feeding on the plant. By understanding how insects communicate, insect pest management strategies can be enhanced to become more targeted.

The IPM program used semiochemicals in pest detection and seasonal monitoring. Lures filled with species-specific synthesized sex pheromones or aggregation pheromones were used. In most cases, the pheromone lure attracts the target insect to the sticky surface of a delta trap or in proximity to a vapona insecticide strip. Pheromone-baited traps are important tools for insect monitoring when populations are hard to detect owing either to the large distances they traverse or great difficulty in detecting or catching them (e.g., if exceedingly low populations are present). It can be enormously helpful to take advantage of an insect’s mating behaviour to ‘lure’ a pest of interest to a specific trap. Early detection of insect pest populations is crucial to detect economically damaging densities. Growers depend on monitoring as part of an integrated pest management strategy to protect their crops.

Figure 2. Female sphynx moth (Family: Sphingidae) calling for a mate (A) and male green midge (Family: Chironomidae) resting on a leaf. Notice the fuzzy antennae, the increased surface area allows for more chemoreceptors and therefore more sensitive detection of semiochemicals such as sex pheromones. Photos: A. Harpe 2020 (A) and T. Malloff 2020 (B) 

Semiochemical communication is facilitated by structural and behavioural adaptations in the insect world. Insects have sensory equipment or chemoreceptors on antennae and other parts of the body. Chemoreceptors are generally highly specific: each often only responds to one compound. The specificity of chemoreceptors can make synthesis and commercialization of semiochemicals or pheromone lures quite difficult. However, the specificity is also useful as highly specific or targeted pheromone lures tend to reduce by-catch in traps. Even more importantly, specific pheromone lures avoid attracting beneficial insects such as pollinators and natural enemies. As control methods continue to evolve, I am interested to see how semiochemicals will be integrated in to future insect pest management strategies.

I am grateful for an introduction to the incredible world insects within agricultural environments. Learning about the diversity of insects and how they communicate has widened my perception of the natural world and has sparked an interest for further study into insects. The interactions between insects and their environments are vast and diverse. There is so much more for us to learn.

- Tia Malloff

Thanks to Isaac Hudson Foy, Amanda Jorgensen and J. Otani for reviewing this Post

Read more about the Students working in the IPM Program from May-August 2020.

My Pandemic Work Term

 This summer hasn’t gone how anyone expected, which meant that our team had to get creative with work. Despite most of my work term remaining indoors rather than in fields, I  learned a lot.
A number of tasks and duties were assigned to the student members of the IPM team during our summer work term. I learned how to be a better scientist by refining my analysis and presentation skills through weekly scientific paper discussions. On a weekly basis, two people from our IPM team would choose a scientific paper to present. All the team members read each paper with a critical eye to dissect how the authors described their research and what and how they communicated their findings. I learned about multiple areas of insect pest management in agriculture and how to conduct experiments. Most importantly, I learned what works when communicating experiments and results to others.

One of the most valuable things I have taken from this term is how to photograph insects for identification purposes. For proper identification, it is important that pictures are clear, sufficiently zoomed in, and contain the entire insect. Diagnostic photos must include a complete dorsal or lateral view, along with a size reference when possible. If sending pictures to experts to obtain insect identifications, it is vital to note the date, location, and crop the insect was found on along with the photo.  Additionally, special cameras are not required to take good photos. The images below include photos taken using my cell phone camera in my back yard (Fig. 1). It took a lot of practice to get a steady hand and figure out how to get the zoom and focus just right.

Figure 1. Cell phone photos taken in the back yard early in August 2020 on sedum flower; a Pennsylvania leather wing beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) approximately 1.5 cm in length (A) and an ambush bug (Phymata spp.) approximately 1 cm in length hunting for prey (B). 

Insect photography helped me learn about the biodiversity in Grande Prairie, as well as in my hometown where I returned to in July due to the pandemic. Both insects featured in Figure 1 are beneficial insects, which refers to the phenomenon that insects benefit the host plant either through pollination, parasitism or predation. The beetle and ambush bug featured in Figure 1 are both predators of other insects and ultimately will help reduce insect populations in my garden. My knowledge about pest insects and beneficial insects in crops attained working at the Beaverlodge Research Farm will better equip me to care for garden and greenhouse plants. While developing my insect photography skills, I also learned the importance of labelling both future pictures as well as pinned insect specimens.

Not only did I learn a lot about insects, I learned more about how food is grown in Canada. Whether or not I return to the agriculture sector, what I learned during my work term will have an impact on how I think about the food I eat for the rest of my life.

- Isaac Hudson Foy

Thanks to Tia Malloff, Shelby Dufton and J. Otani for reviewing this Post.

Read more about the Students working in the IPM Program from May-August 2020.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Meet our 2020 crop of IPM Students!

The Beaverlodge Research Farm employs continuing high school and post-secondary students to support research and train new agricultural professionals.  In the IPM Program, we are very pleased to have five students join us for the 2020 growing season!  Read more about them...

Isaac Hudson Foy
Tia Malloff
Maiya Sears
Donovan Bosnich
Aarika Harpe

Meet our Students - Introducting Aarika!

Figure 1. Aarika in her farmyard in Valhalla Centre AB this spring.

Hello! My name is Aarika (Fig. 1) and I am one of the new student assistants in the IPM program at the Beaverlodge Research Farm during the summer months.

I am entering my third year of my Bachelor of Science degree with specialization in Psychology at the University of Alberta! I was raised on a farm in Valhalla Centre and look forward to becoming more aware and learning about entomology. I am so excited to be able to gain valuable experience in this program and to do field work/research.

I can’t wait to learn, contribute, and see what the next 4 months hold!