A bug’s life: New perspectives during a global pandemic

Rachel Adams / May 15, 2020

Aedes togoi, commonly known as the coastal rock pool mosquito
(Peter Belton / E-Fauna BC)

Universities all over the world have had to suddenly transition to online learning in the last couple months. This came with unprecedented changes. Although all departments have been affected, entomology labs have been impacted in unique ways. Since these labs house colonies of live insects, switching to working from home is not so simple.

Dr. Dan Peach is a postdoctoral fellow studying mosquitos at the Ben Matthews Lab in the Department of Zoology at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Because of COVID-19 he is now living with dozens of those buzzing, pesky insects.

The Ben Matthews Lab was home to two mosquito species before it shut down. One was aedes aegypti, a tropical species known to carry many diseases such as yellow and dengue fever, and the zika virus. The other, aedis togoi, is a species native to British Columbia commonly referred to as the coastal rock pool mosquito. Dr. Peach is using the coastal rock pool mosquito for his postdoctoral research project. When the lab closed, he had to make a decision on the fate of these insects.

“This project was my project, it was my postdoctoral work that I’d proposed when we’d started out, and so it was sort of my responsibility to take care of them.”

Dr. Dan PeachPostdoctoral Fellow, Ben Matthews Lab, UBC

Dr. Peach and his research team had spent months – since November and December of 2019 – collecting them from the wild and attempting to breed consecutive generations.  He decided to bring them home with him instead of letting go of the colony and starting from scratch when the university reopens.

At Simon Fraser University (SFU) another entomology lab suffered a similar dilemma. The Forensic Entomology Lab in the School of Criminology had to ethically euthanize its two colonies of blowflies. SFU transitioned entirely to online learning on March 19, which meant that no one was allowed into the lab to take care of the blowflies. Dr. Gail Anderson, Professor and Associate Director at the SFU School of Criminology is now the only person who is allowed in because she frequently works on cases for various police departments and the RCMP all over Canada.

Vienna Lam, Forensic Entomology Lab Manager at SFU and PhD student in the School of Criminology said the decision to close the lab was made for them when the university switched to online learning. She said it would be too expensive and laborious for any one individual to bring the colonies home as they are fed a diet of premium raw beef liver. She says closing the lab was the ethical thing to do in order to keep everyone who works at the lab safe.

What is a colony?

“We typically have a minimum of five students that work in our breeding room, and they all come in at least once a week. So these eggs and our colonies are taken care of five out of seven days minimum. Sometimes we’ll have people come up on the weekend to take care of them.”

Vianna LamVienna Lam, Forensic Entomology Lab Manager, SFU

Research interrupted

Lam had left for a research trip to Melbourne, Australia in mid-March, right before the global response to COVID-19 ramped up. She had been planning and organizing the trip for two years. She had to secure grant money, visas, and gain security clearance in the research hospital she was partnering with.

Days after she arrived, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recalled Canadians abroad home. After brief discussions with her supervisors she made the decision to return home.

“It was pretty terrifying because on the one hand we had just spent so much time, and the moment you step foot in Australia, your visa starts ticking.” – Vienna Lam, Forensic Entomology Lab Manager, SFU

After a long and challenging return journey, Lam’s research trip is officially postponed. However her troubles did not end when she landed back in Vancouver. As she was self-isolating herself, Lam said she spent upwards of forty hours on the phone and emailing with various granting agencies to ensure the funding she had already secured would still be available when restrictions are lifted. Lam’s host supervisors in Australia have extended their invitation to Lam, and she is currently shifting projects so she can work remotely.

Lam is not the only graduate student whose research has been impacted. Dr. Peach said all field work at UBC is postponed for the foreseeable future. Dr. Peach said grad students who are still conducting research in the lab or need to do field work are severely impacted on their timelines for completing their degrees.

Entomology in Canada is very seasonal, so timing is everything. Even in the more temperate climate in the Lower Mainland, it is too cold to find bugs in the winter.

“If it’s field research for this summer, well, they might miss the window to do their research this year and get delayed by a whole other year.” – Dr. Dan Peach, Postdoctoral Fellow, Ben Matthews Lab, UBC