Bugs beware

August 12, 2014
IMAGE-story-forest_LFlaherty


Biological Sciences faculty member is collaborating on two forest insect studies – one of which involves invasive species traps

Tucked away in an album somewhere are photos of Leah Flaherty as a child attempting to eat insects. These days, Leah is still trapping the tiny creatures, but for research purposes only, of course.

Leah, a faculty member in MacEwan University’s Department of Biological Sciences, says she was always interested in biology. Between her masters and doctorate, she worked with mountain pine beetles (her research is in forest entomology, or the study of insects and arthropods), and this summer she’s using her knowledge for two new projects.

Both projects are collaborations focusing on the ecology of forest insects – forest tent caterpillars and bark- and wood-boring beetles.

Forest tent caterpillars

Along with research team members from the Canadian Forest Service (in Edmonton and Sault Ste. Marie), Concordia University and the University of Alberta, Leah is studying forest tent caterpillar dynamics as a means to determine what causes mortality in young caterpillars.

IMAGE-story-forest_sampleThe study aims to determine why some young colonies seemingly disappear. While the forest tent caterpillar is considered a pestilent insect, Leah explains that it is important to know why the colonies disappear – for example, to be able to exploit the mortality factor.

Leah’s fieldwork is part of a long-term, multi-year research project. The team she works with has caged and exposed branches on a piece of private land near Elk Island, then placed colonies of caterpillar eggs on the branches.

“We follow their development, going back every two or three days, counting the number of the larvae that have survived and remained in the colonies.” For the larvae that are missing or dead, the team tries to determine what, if any, diseases or natural enemies are to blame.

Detecting invasive forest insects

As part of a collaboration with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Canadian Forest Service, Leah is trapping invasive forest insects, particularly bark- and wood-boring beetles, in a patch of forest in northwest Edmonton; an identical experiment is taking place in Halifax.

The goal of this study is to improve tools for detecting invasive forest insects. The beetles are caught using a variety of available traps and lures, which are then compared to the standard traps currently in use, to see which are more effective.

Over the summer, a research assistant – MacEwan University science student Christina Gomez – is helping Leah with setup and trap collections, and is leading the sorting, pinning and identification of the insects caught. Leah says it’s a great opportunity for Christina to get both lab and field experience.

The trapping study is a three-year project, and it’s the data collected that informs the direction of the research for the following year.

“The great thing about insects, especially pests, is that they’re relatively numerous and easy to study – and sometimes easier to get research funding for,” says Leah.


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