Bug expert puts quick-to-squish humans in their place with lesson about respecting little critters

Iain Phillips's love of insects is infectious. Saskatchewan's senior ecologist for aquatic macroinvertebrates has important advice about seeing the beauty in the little things.

Sask. ecologist Iain Phillips reminds us about the important role insects play in our ecosystems

Iain Phillips, Saskatchewan's senior ecologist for aquatic macroinvertebrates, paddles across the South Saskatchewan River. He can often be found boating, swimming or pond-net dipping in the province's waterways for his job. (Submitted by Iain Phillips)

Iain Phillips almost didn't make it to our interview. He was heading back to his home in Saskatoon when a "beautiful caddisfly" — a moth-like insect often used to model fishing flies — flew past his car window.

"I nearly had a car accident," he said. "There was no opportunity to stop ... but I regret it, and I probably will regret it through to going to bed this evening." 

Phillips is Saskatchewan's senior ecologist for aquatic macroinvertebrates: insects in their early stages of life that spend at least part of their time in water. He finds them in the province's rivers and lakes, brings them back to a lab in Saskatoon and studies them to figure out the impacts of pollution, construction projects and other stresses.

Right now, a lot of Phillips's work relates to climate change and environmental degradation, which he said is causing "chaos" for the insects he studies. 

"This is unprecedented — the way everything is changing," he said. "Never in recorded time in this region have we experienced such changes in temperature, so what will happen next is really a 'best guess' scenario.

"The temperature might be advantageous for one bug or disadvantageous for another. But as the temperature changes, all of that will interact. Everything is connected like a three-dimensional spiderweb, and as one thing gets touched or pushed, it will affect everything around it."

And what happens to the insects he studies can be a valuable early warning sign of environmental problems. 

Iain Phillips inspects caddisflies on a rock from Pine Cree Regional Park. (Submitted by Iain Phillips)

So, when Phillips sees someone fail to appreciate a bug's value and squish it unnecessarily, he gets a bit frustrated.

"It impresses upon me both the uniqueness that we have, but also the hubris that one would have in our human condition to judge their role in the ecosystem, when all that has gone on before us to evolve them into a role that is necessary and that they persist in," he said.

"It's a burden I bear, I suppose, in having an affection for bugs and regretting the harms that befall them."

It's really what I can offer, in a lot of ways," said Phillips. "I don't play hockey; I don't have those other talents; but I certainly have a lot of experience with insects and — fortunately — they're all around.- Iain Phillips, Saskatchewan's senior ecologist for aquatic macroinvertebrates

It's that healthy respect for other species that Phillips is trying to impress on his two young children. Phillips and his four-year-old son tend bees together in their backyard, and his preschooler is already a crack hand at insect identification. 

He's also a big fan of dad's insect-themed jokes.

"What does a bee say going backwards?" Phillips asks. "Zzub zzub zzub!"

And the boy will dissolve into laughter.

"It's really what I can offer, in a lot of ways," said Phillips. "I don't play hockey; I don't have those other talents; but I certainly have a lot of experience with insects and — fortunately — they're all around."

Phillips spent much of his own childhood with a pond-dipping net in hand, discovering the creatures that inhabit the creeks and puddles of northern Cumberland House, Sask. When his family moved south to Lumsden, the Qu'Appelle River became his backyard.

Iain Phillips stands in Battle River with a pond-dipping net and a shovel. This has been one of his favourite activities for most of his life. 'I was the dorky kid who was in the water, rather than stepping around it,' Phillips recalled of his childhood. (Submitted by Iain Phillips)

"I was the dorky kid who was in the water, rather than stepping around it," he recalled.

Phillips kept bees, learned to identify insects, and carefully built his bug specimen collection.

Still, he didn't plan on having a career in entomology. He became a volunteer firefighter at 16 and intended to get a job in the field after graduation.

"When I was in high school, my thoughts were that you can either be a firefighter, an astronaut or a ballerina," he said. "Well, I don't like confined spaces or outer space and I'm all thumbs with my feet, so it leaves me firefighting."

However, coming from a family of scientists — his parents are a biologist and biology teacher, respectively — Phillips was "bullied into going to university," he said.

In his first month at the University of Regina, a professor introduced him to entomology, then hired him as an assistant. Phillips also found a mentor at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. 

During the summer, Phillips would travel to northern Alberta to study the unique characteristics of insects that colonize post-wildfire habitats, where his firefighting training would serve him well. The fire crews, who got to know him as he followed behind collecting specimens from burned areas, called him "the bug guy."

One summer, when he was at the Regina airport on his way to Alberta for research, he found himself sitting next to a pair of corrugated box experts.

"When I described what I was going off to Alberta to do, they sat in rapt silence for the duration of it and for a few seconds after," he said. "Then one of them said, 'Boy, I wish I was going to do that. You tell anybody that story and you're really going to have their interest.' 

"Those corrugated box experts said, 'Go to the bar and tell a girl that story and you'll have a date in no time.'"

That was not how Phillips met his wife, but he said the advice has rarely steered him wrong. 

That's likely because Phillips's enthusiasm for his work is infectious. He can suck you in just as excitedly with talk of stoneflies that peek through the ice in the Cypress Hills in the winter as he can about the ladybirds in his own backyard. No matter the topic, Phillips succeeds in seeing the beauty in the little things.

"I sure do feel a privilege whenever I look down on my garden or when I'm swimming in a river and I see everything that's going on, and I know about what they're doing and how many different species there are, and how much we still don't know about them."


Julia Peterson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. They are a journalist with a passion for arts journalism, science reporting, and social justice movements. They were with the CBC from 2020-2021.


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