This piece was originally published in National Observer and appears here as part of our Climate Desk collaboration.
Hidden in anodyne filing cabinets scattered across the federal government’s Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa is a library of 17 million dead bugs.
The Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes is one of the world’s largest, and it’s essential to Canadian agriculture. Managing bugs is a key part of agriculture, whether it is combating pests and invasive species or trying to prevent the loss of pollinator populations. And taxonomy, or the science of identifying species, is fundamental to this work.
“Working on this fundamental backbone to biology—understanding taxonomy and diversity and how things are related—sets the stage for all the other biological sciences,” said Jeff Skevington, a researcher who co-manages the collection and studies hover flies.
Those sciences are more important than ever. About 85 percent of food grown globally depends on pollination, yet pollinator populations—including bees, birds and hover flies like the ones Skevington studies—are declining worldwide.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 16.5 percent of vertebrate pollinators are threatened with global extinction. About a third of Europe’s bee and butterfly species are declining. And in North America, the relative abundance of bumblebees is estimated to have crashed by 97 percent.
The shocking decline is tied to widespread pesticide use and habitat losses that are largely driven by industrial agriculture. While the collection alone won’t solve the problem, it provides a valuable reference for those studying it.
For instance, Skevington explained, some researchers are trying to see how hedgerows and other pollinator-friendly habitats can support agriculture if planted alongside farm fields. But first, they need to figure out which bugs are living in certain kinds of habitats (e.g. hedges, fields). To do so, they’ll check the collection in the same way a writer consults a dictionary.
“You have to be able to put a name on those (insects) to be able to work on them, and the collection is the resource that allows you to check your specimen against named ones and vouch for your material,” he said.