As It Happens

This scientist is living with thousands of ants because of COVID-19 campus restrictions

Entomologist Aaron Fairweather was meant to be spending this summer in a lab researching ants in agriculture. Now, thousands of the creatures are living in their home in Guelph, Ont.

Aaron Fairweather's Ontario home has become a makeshift lab for ant research

Aaron Fairweather is a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph. As a scientist, they often conduct research in the field. (Submitted by Aaron Fairweather)

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Aaron Fairweather is a self-described "bug nerd." It's not unusual for them to have a few hundred ants living in their home. 

But now, Fairweather's house in Guelph, Ont., has become a makeshift research lab for thousands of ants.

"I've had to make a little set up in my living room where we have an air conditioner pointed toward the table and I have a couple of fans going," Fairweather told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. 

Those are just some of the changes that the entomologist has had to make to their living space to accommodate the new house guests. 

"It is quite difficult and it has been a big change to get the conditions as stable as I can, but it still doesn't compare to a lab setting," they said. 

Fairweather's Guelph, Ont., home has become a makeshift lab for ants. (Submitted by Aaron Fairweather)

Delayed research

Fairweather had planned to spend this year researching ants and agriculture at their lab at the University of Guelph. 

But when COVID-19 struck, and restrictions on lab research were put in place in March, Fairweather was forced to take home the creatures that usually live at the lab. 

A lasuis neoniger, one of the ants that Fairweather studies, is pictured here. (Submitted by Aaron Fairweather)

While the entomologist has well over the number of bugs necessary to carry out experiments, and is able to do some preparatory work, the lack of lab resources has meant that their work has been delayed. 

"Mine is probably set back at least the year," they said.

"I had been planning this summer's work for at least eight months, about the time of the beginning of last fall, but I can't have all of the research assistants that I wanted to have and I can't have my colonies and lab."

Cross-border challenges

Fairweather isn't the only scientist facing challenges because of COVID-19. A fellow researcher from Harvard University wasn't able to come to Canada to do field work because of border restrictions, Fairweather explained. 

"So he asked me in desperation if I would be able to go up and do this week-long collection trip instead of him and then ship the ants to him with proper permits…. It took about four months for us to set this up."

A colony of ants that Fairweather recently collected on a trip to a research centre by Kirkland Lake, Ont. (Submitted by Aaron Fairweather)

It's not only cross-border research that has been stunted due to the pandemic. Researchers and teachers at Canadian universities have struggled to keep up with restrictions.

"We're trying to do our best, and especially in terms of keeping education going," Fairweather said. 

"A lot of students are going to have to cut things short or aren't going to be able to graduate…. It's really tough right now for graduate students."

Written by Oliver Thompson. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. 

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