Nunatsiaq Online
FEATURES: Nunavut July 19, 2010 - 4:08 pm

The creepy crawlie collector

Crystal Ernst is spending her summer chronicling Kugluktuk’s shifting array of insects

JANE GEORGE
Researcher Crystal Ernst services a trap designed to intercept and capture flying insects.  To empty the trap, she unscrews a bottle attached at the top and dumps its contents in a sample bag.  (PHOTO BY ANGUT PEDERSEN)
Researcher Crystal Ernst services a trap designed to intercept and capture flying insects. To empty the trap, she unscrews a bottle attached at the top and dumps its contents in a sample bag. (PHOTO BY ANGUT PEDERSEN)
This is what a typical “yellow pan” bug trap looks like after about four days in the field. The trap resembles a small yellow bowl that’s either laid on the ground or dug in so they’re flush with the ground.  Flying insects like butterflies, wasps, flies, are attracted to the yellow colour from above, while ground-dwelling critters like spiders, beetles, grasshoppers, stumble in. (PHOTO BY CRYSTAL ERNST)
This is what a typical “yellow pan” bug trap looks like after about four days in the field. The trap resembles a small yellow bowl that’s either laid on the ground or dug in so they’re flush with the ground. Flying insects like butterflies, wasps, flies, are attracted to the yellow colour from above, while ground-dwelling critters like spiders, beetles, grasshoppers, stumble in. (PHOTO BY CRYSTAL ERNST)
A red marsh ground beetle peeks up from the sandy shores of the Coppermine River. (PHOTO BY CRYSTAL ERNST)
A red marsh ground beetle peeks up from the sandy shores of the Coppermine River. (PHOTO BY CRYSTAL ERNST)

Dragonflies and grasshoppers.

When you picture these two insects, you probably imagine them in a tropical climate— or at least some place in southern Canada.

But now you can find both of these warmth-loving insects in the western Nunavut community of Kugluktuk, along with a variety of beetles, spiders, bumble bees and, of course, biting flies and mosquitoes.

The healthy and numerous bug population of Kugluktuk is one reason why Crystal Ernst, a graduate student from Montreal’s McGill Univ., came to the community this summer to collect insects and spiders.

When Ernst heads out to work on the land, she always dons a full bug jacket and coats her hands with repellent— but she still sees clouds of insects and hears their constant hum around her.

The bugs not as intolerable as she thought they would be— “but if the mosquitoes were as bad in the South as they are up here, it would be Armageddon and people would freak out and never leave their houses,” Ernst jokes.

Putting up with bugs is all in a day’s work for Ernst, a researcher with the Northern Biodiversity Project.

This project wants to document changes in insects and spider by comparing today’s finds with the results of the Northern Insect Survey, which took samples in 72 places across northern Canada from 1947 to 1962.

And the kind of bug life Ernst now collects will help show how the climate around Kugluktuk has changed over the past 50 years— when locals say they don’t recall seeing dragonflies and grasshoppers— and it could also point to other changes because bugs are important sources of food for other northern birds, animals and fish.

Ernst and other teams of researchers, who have visited Labrador, northern Quebec and Manitoba— and now Iqaluit— this summer, are all doing “exactly the same procedures in different locations,” sampling insects and spiders in the same ways in similar kinds of environments.

Since she arrived in Kugluktuk in June, Ernst has set out 100 bug traps in three locations around the community.

Nearly every day she heads out with her research assistant Angut Pedersen on Hondas to see what the traps— sometimes bright-yellow pans with goo on them to trap the bugs— have gathered.

Ernst and Pedersen then pick up the trap’s contents, store them in plastic “whirl pak” bags and label these carefully. Then they clean out the traps and set them back up for a new catch of bugs.

She also visited the Coppermine River with guide-helper Kenneth Kuodluak to sample water-loving insects, like the ruby-coloured marsh beetle.

In her spare time, Ernst, who carries a butterfly net in her backpack, combs the area around Kugluktuk looking for other interesting places to find bugs.

As part of her sampling, she’s also looking at ponds and lakes.

Bugs which breed or live in and around the water give a good picture of the health of the environment, Ernst says, because they’re extremely sensitive to changes in the environment.

When Ernst gets back to Montreal, she plans to start counting all the various insects and spiders she’s gathered and compare her findings with those from the earlier survey.

“That’s when we’ll start get an idea of how things are changing,” Ernst says.

Then, she’ll have a better idea of whether grasshoppers and dragonflies as well as other bugs are newcomers to Kugluktuk and what their abundance and numbers now say about changes in the environment.

“Even though I’m 3,500 kilometres away from home, I’m seeing the same kinds of insects I’m used to seeing in the South,” Ernst says. “Insects are amazingly adaptable and can put themselves in just about any environment.”

Ernst is also been talking to people in Kugluktuk about bugs— and, among other things, she’s heard that they don’t like tiny ground beetles.

Once an elder who was sleeping out on the land woke up to find a beetle in his ear, they say— a story that’s remarkably similar to cautionary tales about earwigs in the South, Ernst says.

So far, Ernst’s work has gone well, without any major mishaps— although last week she and Pedersen got stuck on the trail southwest of S Lake, and ended up completely covered in mud by the time they managed to free their Hondas.

Ernst plans to leave Kugluktuk in mid-August. To follow the progress of her work and of the other Northern Biodiversity research teams go to: http://insectecology.mcgill.ca/NBP/index.html

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