BUGHOUSE FOR ENTOMOLOGY
BY GEOFF GEDDES • PHOTO COURTESY OF AGRICULTURE AND AGRI-FOOD CANADA
One of the largest bug resources in the world is located right here in our backyard. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) maintains the Canadian National Collection (CNC) of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes. Located at the Ottawa Research and Development Centre Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, ON, the facility serves agricultural research in a number of key areas.
This impressive collection features both terrestrial and aquatic insects. “For arachnids, we have a good spider collection and an excellent assortment of ticks, fleas and mites, as well as the greatest representation of nematodes in Canada,” said Peter Mason, research scientist with AAFC.
The facility houses more than 17 million specimens in cabinets and slide boxes (the latter for viewing small mites and fleas under high-powered microscope), many of great importance to scientists in Canada and around the world. More than 70 per cent of the specimens are from Canada, with the remainder collected elsewhere on the globe. Given its immense practical value, the collection is highly secure. Permission is required to enter the facility and access its fireproof, water-resistant cabinets.
Notably for the ag sector, the CNC supports research on many fronts. “We have 17 in-house [taxonomists] who link with the collections to do their research,” said Mason. “If they or other scientists see something in the field that is unfamiliar, like a potential new pest, they use the collection and their accumulated knowledge to determine the status of the specimen: Is it a native species, or a non-native one that has increased in number? If non-native, where did it come from?”
Armed with this knowledge, Mason and his colleagues can search for biocontrol agents, such as a parasitoids, that may help combat the pest without negatively affecting native insect species.
The collection is also vital to the work of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). “When a ship loaded with grain comes into port, the border services agents sometimes find it infested with an unknown species,” said Mason. “Specimens from the shipment are sent to the CFIA, which works closely with the collection and our taxonomists. Together, we determine if that species puts the shipment at risk so the ship must be turned away, or whether it is a species already occurring in Canada and, thus, not a big danger.”
As well, the collection offers a comprehensive library of taxonomic literature going back hundreds of years. This includes journals and catalogues that list the scientific names and locations of a vast array of species.
An ongoing project that draws on the collection involves the diamondback moth. “The diamondback is a pest throughout Canada that attacks crops like canola and can be a huge problem in some years,” said Mason. “We are just finishing a cross-Canada study to identify natural enemies of the moth. We are also looking at a potential control agent found in Europe and have imported that agent into our highly secure containment facility that ensures no insects escape into nature. There we will see if this parasitic wasp attacks species related to the diamondback moth.”
Over time and with new discoveries, the array of insects studied at the CNC for ag purposes has continued to evolve. For example, the moth group related to the leek moth had never been examined until the insect invaded the Ottawa region in 1993. That finding resulted in a taxonomic review of the group that was published in a scientific journal in 2007. This enabled sound research to be carried out for this pest.