CONFERENCE: When the Ents took over VanCity

Updated: Nov 19, 2018

The joint meeting of ESA (Entomological Society of America), ESC (Entomological Society of Canada), & the ESBC (Entomological Society of British Columbia)

Entomologists are a very different crowd to that at POLAR 2018, the other joint meeting I attended this year between arctic and antarctic councils. It felt more like the Star Trek convention I went to a few years back (long story). Entomology can be a bit fanatical I have found. Maybe I'm just cynical, or maybe I am a envious because my study bug isn't remotely charming enough to put on a sock, let alone a shirt and tie and pin badge...and then be worn all at once.

As an ecologist who works with insects, rather than an entomolgist who dabbles in ecology, I started the conference feeling like a bit of a fraud. And never more than at the Linnean Games, where students battled it out on stage each day, in a University Challenge style competition. I was in awe! These people have insane memories for details of even the most obscure taxonomic groups. The questioning was tough, the standard excellent. And the winners at University of California were well deserved, winning with sass as well as substance. I felt pressed to think of another field that you could have such an event in, but not for a lack of subject matter: Microbiologists have just as many interesting players, mammalian zoologists too. Botanists? But I cant imagine any of them doing something similar. Regardless, it was fun to watch, and good to know that the subject is in the hands of some crazy smart people, even if I did feel like a dullard.

"Soils are the second green revolution"

The meeting overall was huge, 3800 'bug people' met over 3 days at the Vancouver Convention Center - a stupendous building on the sea front with expansive views and expensive tea. Sessions were largely grouped around taxa, with a significant number of symposia on invasives, multiple sessions being dedicated to the Emerald Ash Borer and Gypsy Moth. Subsequently, biocontrol was also a much discussed topic, and probably gave me my favourite talk of the conference: Ana Pineda from the Netherlands Institute for Ecology gave a fascinating talk on soil microbes for pest control. Essentially finding that you can innoculate soils with favourable microbiomes that improve plant performance, increasing their resistance to pest herbivores. She remarked that soil science is the second green revolution. And as a soil science and biogeochemistry fan girl, I can concur. If we don't understand our soils, we don't understand our ecosystems. And if we don't understand them, then we be screwed! Other great talks on a similar theme covered how fungi can be used to prevent herbivory. By inoculating fungi into cotton flowers, pest were less likely to visit. Smart. Science.

"Arthropod declines...death by 1000 cuts"

The most impactful talk of the event for me, and one I suggested on day one could be the most important of the conference, was that by David Wagner from the University of Conneticut. David is writing a review of the recent declines in insects around the world, and his talk was powerful and unequivocal about the importance of the data that is coming in. Last year a study documented 75% declines in flying arthropod abundance in what would usually be considered biodiverse areas of Germany. And these trends are now being seen globally. With 70% of all animals on this planet being insects, any losses will have consequences across ecosystems. And we still dont quite know fully what those consequences may be yet. Nor can we pin-point the declines to any one cause. Climate change; rising greenhouse gases; habitat loss; pollution; and extreme events like drought, all these things will be having an impact. In David Wagner's words, it is a "death by 1000 cuts". Insects form the base of food webs the world over, they pollinate flowering plants and crops and breakdown the litter to make our soils what they are. We cannot afford these kinds of losses.

Standing room only for David Wagner

"Cattle of the bug world"

I'll wrap up by bringing it back around to the students, of whom I am one, so am in no way bias. Turn out by graduates was enormous, with the Graduate 10 minute talks taking up the bulk of the entire conference. I attended the student debates which covered a real breadth of subjects, including one on outreach and science communication - an area that is becoming an integral part of our roles in this day in age. But the most dramatic debate brought us back to invasives again. Who, is the most harmful invasive in the world? A disease ridden mosquito in Ades albopictus, or the cattle of the bug world, the invasive yet deliberately cultured honey bee Apis mellifera. Washington State University won valiantly with the honey bee, arguing that the level of study of its negative impacts on native pollinators and our reliance on it as a tool in agriculture is neglectful at best. The consequences of this reliance on what appears to be a force for ecological ills, may be vast and are not well understood.

Take home message from the conference? Don't underestimate the power of insects to rule the world quietly around us. And do not underestimate the passion of entomologists AND ECOLOGISTS to solve the problems that arise from their imbalances in populations! #oneofus

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© 2018 by Jesamine Bartlett