A mere few weeks after launching Conference2Classroom and the very first event we have facilitated is already coming up!
This week Susan Willis Chan from the University of Guelph is attending the Entomological Society of Canada/America Joint Meeting in Vancouver, BC. And tomorrow Susan will be visiting a Erin Stacey's grade 11 biology class at King George Secondary School to talk about the effects of pesticides on a native ground-nesting bee. If Vancouver wasn't quite so far away, or were I an entomologist, I'd be joining in on this fun! As it is not and as I am not, I got to know Susan and her research a bit better in advance tomorrow's event.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Susan Willis Chan and I am a pollination biologist-bee ecologist-bee conservationist. I spend my time in three ways: (1) Doing original scientific research in the area of native solitary bee biology, crop pollination, and eco-toxicology as it relates to the ground-nesting solitary bee, Peponapis pruinosa (aka the hoary squash bee); (2) Working with farmers to create and maintain effective pollinator habitat on their farms that can integrate well with their farming systems; (3) Educating farmers, woodlot owners, gardeners, university students, and anyone else who will listen (or read) about native bees (not honey bees).
How did you get here?
I have been interested in plants and in farming most of my life. I became interested in honey bees as an undergraduate student at McGill University in 1982 where I was mentored in the biological and practical aspects of beekeeping by the late Dr. Vernon Vickery. I intended to study honey bees at the graduate level but was introduced to the specialist pollinator of Cucurbita crops, the hoary squash bee, by Dr. Peter Kevan at the University of Guelph. I quickly fell in love with the hoary squash bee and I pursued an M.Sc. under Peter, studying the relationship between the hoary squash bee and the crops upon which it depends (pumpkins, zucchini, squash). Many years later, I got an urgent phone call from a stranger who works for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture who wanted to discuss hoary squash bee biology and the possible risks to this species from exposure to neonicotinoid insecticide residues in nectar, pollen, and soil of pumpkin/squash crops. This began my present doctoral studies adventure under Dr. Nigel Raine at the University of Guelph, which seeks to answer the questions that were posed to me in that phone call.
What are you working on now?
I am presently working on several projects: (1) Determining the risk to hoary squash bees of exposure to insecticide residues in agricultural soils; (2) Determining the effects on hoary squash bees of exposure to soils in which there are neonicotinoid insecticide residues; (3) Determining which bee species are visiting pumpkin and squash crops in Ontario and exploring the relationships among them; (4) Evaluating possible pests and diseases affecting the hoary squash bee; (5) and of course, writing a dissertation, making presentations at scientific conferences, publishing my work in peer-reviewed journals, and writing more accessible info-sheets for farmers on the above topics.
Why is your work important?
My work is important because most of the bees in Ontario are in fact ground-nesting solitary bees. These bees are important as pollinators wild plants and to crop plants such as pumpkins as squash, but also including fruit crops such as raspberries, strawberries, apples, pears, cherries, peaches, oil crops such as canola and sunflowers, and forage crops such as alfalfa and clovers. If present agricultural practices such as applying neonicotinoid insecticides directly into soil are putting ground-nesting bees at risk, then those practices are putting pollination services at risk. For this reason, it is important that we understand the risk and that we take action to reduce it to an acceptable level. More generally, my work is important because it adds to the scientific knowledge base that we already have. My work has depended enormously on the previous work of other scientists, even if that work didn't seem all that exciting when they were doing it.
What advice would you give to a budding entomologist?
Entomologists get to study the most diverse and interesting creatures, many of which are largely unstudied. I study a single bee species and yet my questions are endless. My best advice to a budding entomologist is to observe insects in their natural habitat--spend time with them, pay attention to details, pay attention to interactions among insects and between insects and plants or other taxa. Think deeply about what you observe. Ask yourself questions and read the work of other scientists whenever you can. Science is our best way forward to safeguard the integrity of the biosphere upon which we all depend. It is the best way I know to ask meaningful questions and get meaningful answers.