European imported fire ant. Photo by Gary Alpert, Harvard University, via

The European imported fire ant is one of many introduced insect species that are getting comfortable in the Victoria area.

In Germany earlier this year, a woman called the police after her doorbell rang repeatedly in the night, terrifying her. The cops apprehended the culprit—an ant nest built tight into the doorbell was tripping the switch.

My friend experienced a similar problem. Her home-security system spontaneously and repeatedly went off over a period of several months. It usually rang during the day, when she was at work. The alarm would signal the alarm company. The alarm company would notify the police. The police would come by and find nothing amiss. Telephone calls and letters from the company to my friend would follow. My friend would—again and again—call in technicians to find the problem.

It turns out the problem had eight legs and a dime-sized body, and liked to hide in crannies….

Read the rest of this editorial in the Victoria Times Colonist….

Mosquito. Photo by Eli Christman (Gamma Man), Creative Commons

“Incredible,” she said. “It’s evening, we’re eating outside, and THERE ARE NO MOSQUITOS. We’d never be able to do this down east. We’d be eaten alive.”

“it’s Victoria’s secret,” I told her. “If the rest of the country knew how few and how lame our mosquitos were, we’d be overrun.”

When Nature Boy and I moved to Victoria from Small Prairie Town, Alberta, we marveled at the lack of window screens in houses here.

It wasn’t until summer that we learned the reason. Victoria, we discovered in our own screenless home, boasted many annoying flies, huge spiders, and endless trails of tiny ants, but few nippers and biters.

Hooray! Nature Boy cheered, and promptly went out and fired up the barbecue. He’s one of those useful people the rest of us like to have around in mosquito-infested territories. The bugs love him above all other warm-blooded animals within carbon dioxide-sniffing distance. It’s just part of his animal magneticism.

We’d discovered another reason to be smug about living here.

But we don’t talk about it. Not only would the rest of Canada not believe us, but we wouldn’t want to call down the wrath of the gods by boasting about our good fortune or anything.


Continue reading this piece at the Victoria Times Colonist….



Information Forestry, December 2009

In 2009, Vancouver's renowned Stanley Park was discovered to be home to 31 invasive insect species.

In 2009, Vancouver’s renowned Stanley Park was discovered to be home to 31 invasive moth species, four of which were identified in British Columbia for the first time. Photo by outdoor PDK.

Emerging DNA-screening technologies can play a vital role in detecting and identifying potentially problematic pest insects in Canadian forests, according to a recent insect survey conducted in Vancouver’s Stanley Park by Natural Resources Canada, the University of British Columbia and other agencies. In the survey, DNA screening uncovered 31 non-native moth species established in the 120-year-old urban park.

Four of the non-native species were not previously known to be established in British Columbia; three of those four are new records for North America.

“These are phenomenal results, considering only 190 species were collected,” says Natural Resources Canada Research Scientist Lee Humble. “The DNA analyses helped us zero in on species identities.”

Humble has been conducting surveys for alien insects in forested areas throughout British Columbia’s lower mainland for 14 years. In 2007, in cooperation with the University of British Columbia forestry department, the Metro Vancouver Parks Board and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, he extended his research to include Stanley Park. Humble supplied light traps for the university-led insect inventory and developed protocols for collecting moths using light at sampling locations in the 400-hectare urban park. The park survey was initiated after the December 2006 windstorm toppled old-growth trees and caused more than $12 Million of damage to the park’s forests.

The 2006 windstorm toppled thousands of trees throughout Stanley Park's old-growth groves. Photo by Jenny Lee Silver

Damage by wind storm to the old-growth forests of Vancouver’s Stanley Park in 2007 prompted a survey for insects, which were identified using DNA-barcode screening. Photo by Jenny Lee Silver

Humble and Ph.D. candidate Jeremy deWaard used the survey to populate the DNA database of Canadian Lepidoptera for the Canadian Barcode of Life project, an initiative based out of the University of Guelph, in Ontario. Like the universal product codes on supermarket goods, the DNA segments that are analysed serve as species-specific identification tags that eventually could be cross referenced between the database and new samples collected in the field to assist with species detection and identification, track movement of species around the globe, and study evolution and biodiversity.

“The Stanley Park experience highlights many advantages to using barcoding in biodiversity inventories,” says deWaard, who contributed to development of DNA-barcoding methodology during his undergraduate and masters studies at Guelph.

DNA-barcode screening increased the accuracy of species identifications and speeded up the identification process to a matter hours per specimen compared to days or weeks using traditional methods. It also flagged specimens requiring further attention, thereby allowing trained taxonomists to focus on problematic identifications while non-specialists were able to confirm identities of the common, routine specimens.

“It allowed us to identify cryptic species, new species, species that don’t belong here, and species for which only single specimens were collected.”

For instance, DNA analysis of one lone specimen collected in the park indicated the moth closely matched the genus Prays from Eurasia.

Prays fraxinella, an invasive moth from Eurasia, found in Vancouver's Stanley Park, thanks to DNA barcoding.

Prays fraxinella, an invasive moth from Eurasia, found in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, thanks to DNA barcoding. Photo by oldbilluk.

“So right away we knew the family and had an indication of genus,” deWaard says. “In a quick discussion with colleagues, we learned of one specimen that had been collected in Newfoundland in the 1970s that was also a member of Prays, so we pieced it together, looked at the literature and examined our single Stanley Park specimen, and that’s how we arrived at the i.d.”

Prays fraxinella is one of the four survey identifications that represent new non-native moth records for British Columbia.

“The Stanley Park results demonstrate clearly how DNA screening can save time and resources, and provide reliable, accurate identification,” says Humble. “As the technology becomes more accessible and cost-effective, we’re going to see DNA screening become a regular part of the pest detection and monitoring toolkit.”

© Natural Resources Canada 2009


Information Forestry, December 2007—Many insects rely on scent to communicate with each other and to find food and hosts. Setting out traps baited with insect and host-tree smells has long been a technique used by plant health officials to detect and track unwanted pests.

But the scents currently used by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the federal organization responsible for keeping Canada’s forests safe from alien forest pests, fail to entice all insects of potential concern into detection traps. For instance, baited traps have yet to consistently capture emerald ash borer or Asian longhorned beetle, two non-native insect species infesting regions of southern Ontario. Scientists at Natural Resources Canada are helping the CFIA close these gaps by testing new lures and scent combinations.

“Right now, we’re quantifying what species the lures are picking up and what species they’re missing,” says Canadian Forest Service Entomologist Lee Humble, from the Pacific Forestry Centre. “Our goal is to develop more generic lures and extend the repertoire of lures used to trap nonnative insects that may have already become established in Canada.”

Trapping emerald ash borer. Photo by Pennsylvania Dept Conservation & Natural Resources, Forestry Archive -

Plant-protection officials set out insect traps baited with scents that attract beetle and moth species to detect and monitor the presence of forest pests. Canadian Forest Service researchers are trying to determine the most effective scents and scent combinations to lure non-native wood-boring and bark beetles into traps.

The researchers are testing combinations of scents released by common host trees, in addition to insect pheromones—scents released by insects that prompt behaviours in other members of the same species.

“Pheromones target specific species or groups of species, and are usually much more sensitive than host-tree compounds,” says Atlantic Forestry Centre Research Scientist Jon Sweeney. “A target insect encounters it, and it responds like, ‘hey, there’s one of me out there calling, and it’s saying let’s get together.’”

But pheromones limit the range of insects detected. “By including a pheromone in your trapping system, you increase sensitivity or detection ability for a particular pest, but you also narrow the focus of that lure,” Sweeney says. “It simply won’t work on a broader range of species.”

“There are hundreds or thousands of insects we don’t want entering this country,” says Peter deGroot, a research scientist with Great Lakes Forestry Centre. “You can put species-specific pheromones out, but it becomes very cumbersome to place and maintain hundreds of traps, each with a different pheromone for a different insect. And in many cases, we don’t have the pheromones, and we have to rely on other things to attract the insect into an area and into a trap.”

Lures based on tree scents, which include ethanol and components of turpentine, entice broader ranges of insect species by mimicking stressed or injured trees—the preferred targets of most wood- and bark-boring insects.

“Determining a suite of lures that attracts a broad range of species is a way to lower the risk of infestation by a non-native pest,” says deGroot. “It helps us find and counter insect problems before they blow up so big we can’t eradicate them.”

Humble, Sweeney and deGroot began testing in 2006. They placed lures at sites in Nova Scotia, Vancouver and southern Ontario that are considered high risk for introductions of alien forest insects. Sites include ports, freight depots, and warehouses. The scientists are documenting and analyzing results collected during the last two years, and will be setting out test traps again in 2008.

© Natural Resources Canada 2007


Information Forestry,  December 2007

western spruce budworm, by William Ciesla, Forest Health Management International

Western spruce budworm’s prefers feeding on Douglas-fir needles.

A century-long ocean-warming trend may explain the rarity of western spruce budworm outbreaks on southern Vancouver Island since the 1930s, according to a study by Canadian Forest Service scientists Alan Thomson and Ross Benton.

Mild winter temperatures, linked to a rise in sea temperature, have de-synchronized budworm–host interactions in the region: budworm larvae now emerge earlier in the year, while timing of bud flush of Douglas-fir, the defoliator’s preferred host, remains unchanged. The trees do not respond to the early warming because their photoperiod requirements are already met by that time.

Race Rocks Lighthouse in distance. Photo by Evan Leeson

Scientists compared more than 80 years of sea-surface temperatures from Race Rocks Lighthouse (seen in distance) near the southern tip of Vancouver Island with historic air temperatures.

More than eight decades of sea-surface temperatures, collected at the Race Rocks Lighthouse near the southern tip of Vancouver Island, were compared with corresponding historic Environment Canada air temperatures. Mean sea surface temperatures and the mean maximum and minimum air temperatures from January to March correlated, with all temperatures from this region increasing over the period studied.

The good news does not extend beyond the south island, however: changing climate is believed to be contributing to a widespread, 30-year budworm infestation in the interior, far from the influence of sea-surface temperatures.

© Natural Resources Canada 2007

Information Forestry, December 2007 — Canada’s climate is changing, and forest pests are on the move.

In order to track and predict long-term effects of a warming climate on pests, Natural Resources Canada scientists use a software tool originally developed to help forest managers plan short-term pest control or sampling activities.

Distribution of gypsy moth in Canada from 1964 to 1970. Image © Natural Resources Canada

Distribution of gypsy moth in Canada from 2001 to 2006. Image © Natural Resources Canada

This tool, called BioSIM, links insect life-cycle models to weather data and manages their output to determine the timing of specific stages in an insect’s life cycle—for instance, when an insect reaches the stage most vulnerable to pesticide applications. BioSIM has recently been extended to help in forecasting where current or future climates might favour invasion by an alien species because the weather is, or will be, more suitable for its survival.

“The success of forest pest control programs hinges on the vulnerability of pest populations at the moment of intervention,” says Canadian Forest Service scientist Jacques Régnière, who studies insect population dynamics and developed BioSIM. “With insects, weather conditions are a controlling factor.”

In order to predict long-term climate effects on insect populations, the researchers use data from climate scenarios generated by the Canadian Global Circulation Model that extend many decades into the future.

“Taking BioSIM from immediate applications to seasonality modeling and establishing probability over long time periods was a bit of a leap in complexity, but not much of a change in paradigm,” says Régnière. “Whether you’re looking for short-term or long-term views, it uses the same technology: weather-data management and model-output synthesis.”

Régnière teamed up with fellow-Canadian Forest Service researchers Vince Nealis and Kevin Porter to determine probable range expansion of gypsy moth in Canada. At the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)’s request, they analyzed historical records from Natural Resources Canada’s Forest Invasive Alien Species Database, and current and likely future range of gypsy moth in Canada, based on the Gypsy Moth Life Stage model, climate suitability and host distribution. Using the results, the researchers devised recommendations for gypsy moth management strategies, which they then submitted to the CFIA.

Potential distribution of gypsy moth in Canada, #1. Image © Natural Resources Canada

Potential distribution of gypsy moth in Canada, #2. Image © Natural Resources Canada

“The real benefits of models like BioSIM from a quarantine management point of view,” says CFIA Forestry Specialist Shane Sela, “are that they allow us to better assess risks, and more effectively allocate resources to critical areas where potential risk is highest.”

Régnière also worked with Insect Ecologist Allan Carroll to predict range expansion of mountain pine beetle in western Canada. According to their results, eastward invasion by the beetle will continue if current climate trends persist.

BioSIM is capable of determining probability of future range for any species—insect, pathogen or plant—because it is designed to work with any model that encompasses an organism’s life history and response to climate. This emphasizes the need to quickly acquire such information for any species that represents a significant risk to Canada’s forests.

© Natural Resources Canada 2007