Northward-bound bugs studied

Canadian researchers have scattered across the North to study insects not normally found in the region, including wasps and hornets.

'Excellent barometers for environmental change'

Canadian researchers have scattered across the North this summer to study insects not normally found in the region, like wasps and hornets, and figure out how those bugs got to the Arctic in the first place.

Biologist Donna Giberson of the University of Prince Edward Island has set up teams of graduate students in various northern communities to collect insects.

"If you see people swinging butterfly nets in the Arctic this year, this is basically the team that's doing it," Giberson told CBC News on a recent flight from Norman Wells, N.W.T., where one team has been based.

The research is part of the Northern Biodiversity Program, a collaboration between UPEI, the University of Toronto, McGill University and other research institutions across Canada. The project is funded in large part by a national research grant.

Researchers are studying insects as they are "excellent barometers for environmental change due to their abundance and potential for rapid population growth," according to the project's website.

The students are hoping to collect wood wasps and other insects that are not native to northern Canada, but travelled up on annual supply barges or came north in some other way.

Wasps in Nunavut

For example, Giberson said four wood wasps were found a few summers ago in Rankin Inlet, a community in central Nunavut.

"They're really big and really ugly-looking, and we think that they're coming out the pallets from the barge," she said. "They're a terrifying sight to somebody who's never seen something like this before."

Giberson said non-native insects might be coming from supply barges and dying quickly, or they might be finding ways to adapt to northern conditions.

The research will not only determine which non-native insects are in the North, and how they may be adapting to their new environment, but also will track their movements.

"We're very aware of disease-causing mosquitoes down in the South, mosquitoes that are carrying West Nile virus. Although some of those mosquitoes actually occur in the North, the West Nile virus is not in the North," she said.

"It is possible with climate change that some of these diseases can be coming north, and it's important to know how well those insects can adapt."

The field teams are collecting bugs over the next two summers in 12 locations, including Norman Wells, Iqaluit, and Lake Hazen on Ellesmere Island.

The insects will then be compared with bugs collected 50 years ago, Giberson said.