Insect study seeks to deliver benefits for farmers

Patrick Burgess, an integrative biology master’s student at the University of Guelph, collecting samples from a Malaise trap in Simcoe on Tuesday afternoon. (ASHLEY TAYLOR)

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Norfolk County is one of the locations where a study is being conducted to help identify the diversity of insects in relation to their impact on agriculture.

Patrick Burgess, an integrative biology master’s student at University of Guelph, was at one of the Simcoe locations last week to collect findings.

“The idea is that we’ve got this growing population globally that needs to be fed, but agricultural intensification sometimes is at odds with the preservation of natural areas,” said Burgess. “The goal is to understand how you best feed a growing population while minimizing human impact on the environment.”

There are around 60 malaise traps — large tent-like structures — around southern Ontario, which are used to measure the number and type of insects in the area. The insects are identified by DNA barcoding at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, a department at the University of Guelph.

Burgess is responsible for 30 of the traps, spread across 15 locations, which were placed in 2018 and are regularly inspected from April to October each year.

“Insects are very important in their ecological role,” said Burgess. “They feed a lot of other animals; they perform a lot of functions in ecosystems.

“But they’re also very important to agriculture in that they control pests; they pollinate crops.”

Burgess said that there is evidence that insects are declining around the world, and this study is trying to figure out why.

“The purpose of this study is to understand what factors are regulating the diversity, composition, and distribution of arthropod communities in agricultural ecosystems,” he said. “The end goal is to understand how we can manage these systems to promote arthropod communities for the good of everybody.”

Burgess said he has discovered a large difference in types of insects between farms, depending on local habitat factors.

“Researchers will gather data from a number of farms in southern Ontario to examine the impact of farm management practices on ecosystem function, pollinators, soil carbon storage, and biomass production,” according to the research website.

The research is part of a larger university program called Food from Thought.

The website says the research program is funded in part by a $76.6-million grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.

“Food from Thought will position Canada as a global leader in the development of innovative solutions that improve both the sustainability and productivity of agricultural production at global, landscape, and micro scales.”

After the study is complete, farmers will be able to make informed decisions about plant choices and other factors affecting their properties.