Getting the Bugs Out

Ecologist Judy Myers hunts for exotic pests and `alien invaders’

by Charles Ker
Staff writer

Tent caterpillars worship sunshine and will climb to the top of trees to find

On this particular day though, no climbing is necessary as tents fronting the
east side of Northwest Marine Drive are drenched in sun.

Judy Myers’ face is inches away from a roadside tent laden with motionless,
basking caterpillars. Like sentries caught napping, 100 or more fuzzy bodies
snap to attention as Myers coughs in their direction.

“Neat, eh?,” says the career insect ecologist and recent associate dean of
science. She explains that the colony’s mass reflex to raise a collective
periscope when disturbed by sound deters incoming flies from landing and laying eggs.

Myers’ affinity for insects is evident upon entering her office in the modest
confines of Hut B-8 on Main Mall. Visitors are greeted by a colourful tree of
hand-puppets: a brown cockroach, a caterpillar that transforms into a
butterfly, a lightning bug that glows in the dark and a Venus fly trap. These
are the tools she uses in school programs to convey her message that bugs are
beautiful. The key, she says, is to look at them as individuals.

Myers wasn’t born a bug lover. She admits that she couldn’t stand touching specimens collected for a Grade 11 science project.

After graduating with a BSc in biology from a small college in her home state
of Pennsylvania, Myers promptly won a scholarship to study ecology at the
prestigious Woods Hole Marine Biological Station in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Studying the interactions between marine animals and plants proved a turning

“Ecology was practically unheard of in 1963 and the Woods Hole experience
really opened my eyes to what science was all about,” she says. “I made my mind up then to become a field biologist.”

A fascination for insects was cultivated a year later when she met two
biologists who invited her to Trinidad where they were studying Queen
butterflies. A summer of chasing butterflies and dodging snakes in a prickly
pineapple patch was enough to get Myers hooked. She went on to complete a
master’s degree on the courting ritual of Florida Queen butterflies looking
specifically at how females received the male scent and what role the male
perfume played in the mating process.

UBC offered Myers the chance to apply the basic biological research she
undertook for her graduate degrees to biological control of agricultural
problems. With a cross appointment to the departments of Plant Science and
Zoology in 1972, Myers began investigating the “alien invaders” she says
threaten Canada’s agriculture, forestry and quality of life.

Knapweed, purple loosestrife, tansy ragwort, European craneflies, thrips and
winter moths are just a few of the exotic pests Myers and her graduate students
attempt to control through the introduction of natural enemies.

On the weed front, Myers has on ongoing battle with knapweed which continues to run rampant over rangeland in the interior of the province.
The low-nutrient weed is taking over from grass and proving to be a costly
concern for cattle ranchers.

While the success rate for biological control of weeds stands at just 15 per
cent, Myers knows it can be highly successful. An example is tansy ragwort, an introduced pasture weed which can be poisonous to cows. A small beetle brought in from Europe has successfully thwarted tansy ragwort in the Fraser Valley by attacking the plant year round.

“A lot of research is sold to the public as potentially providing a miraculous
solution,” says Myers. “If we were totally honest, we’d say that we do basic
research because sometimes things fall out that you’d never predict, that you
would never imagine to be useful down the line.”

But Myers is concerned that not enough restrictions are being placed on the introduction of plants from exotic lands. Nearly a quarter of
B.C.’s plants have been introduced from other parts of the world, an influx
which has had detrimental effects on the province’s natural diversity. Myers
believes B.C. should be maintaining its own natural plant resources and using
them more in local landscape projects.

Myers’ research into tent caterpillars on the university south campus lands and
the Gulf Islands is aimed at understanding the 10-year population cycles of the
insects. The summer of 1996 is a peak period in the cycle and Myers is set on
finding out how one enemy of the caterpillars, a nuclear polyhedral virus,
spreads and influences the insect populations. Its effect on caterpillars is
similar to what the Ebola virus does to humans.

“It essentially causes them to disintegrate,” says Myers. She adds that
scientists are trying to develop virus sprays targeted at specific insect pests
and harmless to others.

In 1992, Myers spoke out against Agriculture Canada’s spraying program to
combat the Asian Gypsy Moth in Vancouver.

“For me the issue was not the safety of the spray for humans, but that other
caterpillars, perhaps even rare species, were killed over a large area,” she
says. “If you value biodiversity, then you don’t spray large areas with
insecticide unless absolutely necessary.”

Myers credits her success in science to the teaching and encouragement she received early in her education. Since 1990, she has been offering support and encouragement to UBC students as associate dean for the Promotion of Women in Science.

When she accepted the position, women represented just three per cent of
science faculty members, 40 per cent of science undergraduates and 25 per cent
of the graduate students. As Myers steps down from the associate deanship,
female faculty have more than doubled and close to 60 per cent of incoming
first-year students are women. At the graduate level, 40 per cent of master’s
students are female while female doctoral candidates remain at a low 24 per
cent. Myers also notes with satisfaction that women make up about half of the
students majoring in mathematics at UBC.

Several projects initiated by Myers have contributed to the rise in numbers of
women in science. Among these is a Faculty of Science teaching evaluation
program and a mentoring program for all first-year students. She has also
spearheaded a poster campaign to be launched this autumn for all labs and
classrooms outlining the rights and privileges in academic situations.

Myers says the poster will “drive home the necessity of mutual respect among
faculty, staff and students regardless of sex, race or position in the
university hierarchy.”

For now, Myers is anxious to explore the rugged 35-acre plot she and her family
purchased on Saturna Island. Forty years ago, graduate students in zoology used
to go to this area for field trips. Myers and her husband, zoology colleague
Jamie Smith, look forward to reintroducing students to the local song birds,
insects and natural history of the Gulf Islands. As for her son’s two
Madagascar hissing cockroaches, they will remain in Vancouver. Says Myers: “We
aren’t taking any chances of releasing any more aliens.”