Better Know a Scientist: Entomologist Amelia Jordan

This week in “Better Know a Scientist”, I’m interviewing entomologist Amelia Jordan. Amelia graduated with her MSc in Entomology from Washington State University in 2014 where she studied the presence of native bees in alfalfa seed fields. If you missed my last interview with an entomologist, check it out here. I learned so much from that interview and there are so many different aspects to insects, that I decided that a follow-up interview with another entomologist was warranted.

I had questions on a broad range of topics and her answers stand on their own, so you can skip around and read about topics that you’re interested in learning about.

Agapostemon texanus, the bee that Amelia studied. Picture by Amelia Jordan
Agapostemon texanus, the bee that Amelia studied. Picture by Amelia Jordan

Q: You did your Masters in “Insect Identification”… Is that where you just look at an insect and tell me what it is? And once you’ve identified an insect, is the next step to reach for a shoe or can of bug spray?

Yes, insect identification is being able to ID an insect, however, it is not that simple. With an estimated 10 million insects on the planet, and only ~1 million discovered, ID’ing an insect can be incredibly difficult. You have to look for microscopic hairs in very hard to reach places, or tiny, tiny sutures that are only detectable when the light bounces off of them just right. That’s even if there is a key to the species, let alone genera. Most keys are dichotomous, meaning that you look for the presence or absence of a feature, like the color of the back legs or wings, and then go with option A or B.  To make an insect key, you need to have a large representation of the local insect genera to create an overall species, genera, and family template, then you have to look for key differences of one species against the others in the genera.

Making an insect key can take decades and is often tedious work. Dichotomous keys can have hundreds of binomial features to look for, so it can take days to get through the key, and that’s if you’re familiar with the insect family/genus. Another hurdle to making a correct insect ID is that words are greatly inferior to describing the placement and form of these characteristics. Until the later part of the 20th century, entomologists had to rely on drawings of microscopic features in order to make sense of the words and pair them with visuals. The use of macrophotography has been instrumental to making dichotomous keys much more accurate, accessible, and easier to use for everyone. I think the future of insect keys is going to move away from dichotomous descriptions and into interactive, visual keys that make definitive identification easier and faster.

If I see a bug, I generally make it a rule not to bug them unless they are bugging me!

[Layla’s note: apparently, Amelia hasn’t seen the spider that ties up Frodo in LOTR, otherwise she’d be singing a different tune. That thing almost caused the demise of Middle Earth…]

Q: Why is your field of research important?

Entomology is incredibly important because insects are a bedrock of all our food webs, and they pollinate somewhere around half of all our plant species. Not only that, but insects are also incredibly important model organisms. Decades of research on the fruit fly alone have yielded astounding discoveries about embryonic development, stem cell differentiation, genetic heritability of diseases, not to mention all the knowledge we’ve gained about disorders such as Down syndrome, autism, causes of blindness and deafness, and diseases such as cancer. In autism, research on the FMR1 gene was possible by looking at the Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) homolog gene DFRM1. Researchers were able to identify fragile X syndrome, which occurs in about 30% of people with autism, and study the way gene interaction and behavioral interaction correlate with DFRM1 mutations and autism associated behaviors. It’s amazing that something as simple as a fruit fly has to potential to help us understand complex disorders and diseases that are otherwise insurmountable by studying humans alone.

Insects have changed the tides of war, famine, and plague, by transmitting deadly human and plant diseases. Insects are an integral part of the world’s ecosystem and human history, and they have provided incalculable aid in researching everything from the physics of flight, the environment, and advanced chemical interactions to human diseases.

Q: You recently got your first job out of grad school, so congratulations on becoming a “real person”. What do you do? How is it related to entomology?

Thank you for the congratulations! I accepted an agronomy position at Westland Seed in Ronan, MT. It’s located halfway up the Mission valley, so I get to see the mountains and Flathead lake every day.

I love my job. I was hired specifically for my experience in alfalfa seed pollination. We’re attempting our first year of alfalfa seed production and no one in the company had any experience in growing alfalfa seed, let alone any form of commercial pollination. Since starting my job in mid-February, I have been learning non-stop about other aspects of agriculture, mainly fertilization, and making sure our seed field and bees are ready for bloom in mid-June. I know of several growers in the valley who are interested in alfalfa seed production, so if we have a successful first year, I’m sure I’ll be busy assisting our growers with alfalfa leaf-cutting bee management.

Eventually, I will develop an insect and crop scouting program for our growers (who number around 200 commercial and home productions), and hopefully a successful alfalfa seed crop for the company. I have vials ready to collect insect pests so that growers can hopefully ID common pests in office, rather than relying on verbal descriptions and cell phone pictures. I have also started pressing common weeds found in our fields, in the hopes to build a giant weed book that growers can page through. I have made myself available to our local cherry growers; Spotted Winged Drosophila and the Brown Marmorated stink bug are both invasive potential pests that could evolve into critical pests. Helping cherry growers successfully ID both insects now and having growers set up a cooperative insect pest monitoring network will help me be able to develop a good integrated pest management program for both.

[Layla’s note: what this boils down to is that Amelia is now somehow a shill for Monsanto and is making millions of dollars off of it.]

Q: There’s been much fuss lately about Oxitec’s genetically engineered mosquitoes designed to combat mosquito-borne illnesses. What’s your vote: yea or nay? Why?

A: I am yea on this. Currently, Florida uses an intensive pesticide spraying regime to control for these mosquitoes, so replacing that with a management system that only affects one species versus hundreds of species of insects, amphibians, and mammals makes much more sense on an environmental health level. We have used this control strategy before on male fruit flies; they were irradiated to make them sterile and released in order to control for damaging fruit fly populations in the South East. There’s no reason to think that this method shouldn’t also work when it comes to controlling mosquito populations and the spread of disease. The only difference between the two strategies is that one uses radiation and the other genetic modification.

[Layla’s note: Amelia just wants GM mosquitoes to help control dengue because she’s a shill for Monsanto. If you want to learn more about Oxitec’s mosquitoes, I’ve written about them here.]

Q: There’s a lot in the news about the health of bees and how it may be linked to GMOs or glyphosate. I haven’t written much about it, so I turn to you. What should readers here know about this topic? Is there an association between bee health and GMOs? If so, is there evidence of causation?

A: I’m really glad you asked this question since my Master’s research was on this exact topic. The alfalfa seed growers in the Touchet Valley of Washington State plant conventional alfalfa, and they started growing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2011 when it was deregulated. What makes the alfalfa system unique is that it requires insect pollination, and so ~90 years ago, the farmers of the Touchet Valley started cultivating a ground nesting native bee called Nomia melanderi, the alkali bee. Today, the Touchet Valley is home to the only domestically managed ground nesting bee species in the world, with annual emergence to the tune of hundreds of millions of bees. These growers actively create ideal nesting sites in the midst of their alfalfa fields and even run underground irrigation pipes to keep the bee-bed soil cool for the bees. It’s quite an amazing operation.

As for other GMO crops, this paper by Jian J. Duan et al looked at Bt exposure in honey bees [Layla’s note: to learn more about the Bt-trait/Cry protein, please see this post]. They did not find any direct impact of the Cry protein (the transgenic protein in some genetically modified crops, known as Bt-crops) on honey bee fitness and health. I have not heard about any impact from Rainbow papaya or any of the other disease resistant GMOs on pollinators, and I do not suspect that they are inherently dangerous to our bees. Population numbers of these bees have not declined in the slightest since the growers started using Roundup Ready alfalfa; in fact, the number of alkali bees have steadily increased. Along with the alkali bee, the growers import millions of alfalfa leaf-cutting bees from Canada and local honey bee beekeepers also leave their hives on public ground. The decades of survey data on these bees has provided no indication that the introduction of Roundup Ready alfalfa has been harmful to any of the commercial pollinators. My research, however, was centered around the other native bees. Do they enter alfalfa seed fields? Do they pollinate alfalfa? How many are found in seed fields? The answer is yes, they are there, probably pollinating alfalfa, but not to the level that the commercial pollinators are. I looked at populations between non-GMO and GMO alfalfa and there were no differences in number and variety of species caught. The largest factor in native bee diversity in alfalfa seed fields was proximity to native habitat. Fields on the edges of riparian habitats had the highest diversity of bees, versus those surrounded by alfalfa and wheat fields. If you’re looking for my published thesis though, I’m sorry to say that process is still ongoing. Hopefully it will someday be published. My research is being continued by a new graduate student and I’m excited to hear what she has found.

Amelia's picture of the valley. I was going to make a photoshopped image of mutant bees riding alfalfa pollen, but this seemed much nicer
Amelia’s picture of the valley. I was going to make a photoshopped image of mutant bees riding alfalfa pollen, but this seemed much nicer. Picture by Amelia Jordan

As an aside, the growers of the Touchet Valley do use pesticides, but they are very, very careful about which ones they use and when. Alfalfa blooms between 6-9 weeks out of the year, so the growers use pest surveys to predict which pests will be most bothersome. They then spray before bloom and bee emergence (since the system is so well oiled that flower bloom and emergence are almost perfectly timed) and wait until bloom is over and the bees have died before spraying again. They also spray at night so as to disturb the bees as little as possible and to have as much time between spraying and foraging for the pesticide to decrease in oral toxicity. It’s a very finely balanced machine out there, and the bees are thriving.

I feel we need to encourage as much pollinator diversity as possible, and providing bee (and fly!) habitat in your home garden is a wonderful way to do that. Adjusting when you spray pesticides so that they don’t overlap with flower bloom, or spraying at night, are also ways to minimize pollinator interaction with pesticides. Despite what some people say, I can tell you that agriculture does care about pollinators. They know that a diverse and robust pollinator ecosystem increases pollination and fruit set (the amount of fruit produced) across all crops that require insect pollination. Theoretically, the greater the pollinator diversity, the greater the yield of the crop, the more food that is grown, and the less of a need to turn untouched land such as rain forest into agricultural fields.

[Layla’s note: see what I mean? Amelia claims that Bt has no impact on bees, but it’s because she’s a shill for Monsanto, and she wants you to have a bee habitat in your home garden because she wants to see the demise of Middle Earth.]

Q: Be honest: if there’s a spider in your shower, do you squash it, drown it, or do you run away shrieking like a banshee? Is there size criteria for the spider that defines your behaviour?

Haha. I have never been very scared of spiders. I remember in 9th grade picking up a rather large spider (~50 cent piece size) in my science classroom and putting it outside when the rest of the class was screaming and jumping on their desks. Recently, a female wolf spider a little bigger than a quarter was disturbed when I changed my bedsheets. She crawled about my pillow for a little bit and then went back into the bookcase and the dark underbelly of my bed. I didn’t see a reason to disturb her. Spiders are my friends, no matter the size. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. I even hauled a very wet and traumatized bat out of a bathtub once when my aunt realised it was in there with her. Lots of shrieking, but the bat was freed.

[Layla’s note: I can only conclude that she hasn’t seen Starship Troopers either, otherwise she would have approached the spider with a can of spray in one hand and a shoe in the other.]

Q: Do you have any concerns about genetically engineered crops and any potential risks they pose to insects? Do you think that biotech crops or transgenesis in general hold any promise for bugs? Please provide references.

I do have concerns about genetically engineered crops, but they are very specific.

  1. There is a fitness cost to producing a plant defense chemical. It takes energy and resources to make a compound that has nothing to do with the growth or immune system of the plant, but is instead sequestered just in case something comes along to nibble on it. These defense mechanisms take resources away from growth and fertility. By stacking traits (inserting multiple insect resistance genes, such as multiple Bt coding genes) of these defense chemicals, we could theoretically create a slower growing plant, or one more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies, or more sensitive to inclement weather, or less able to fight off disease, etc etc. Would they under compete against non-stacked traited plants, even if they hadn’t been fed on? Will these crops require more land and/or fertilizer/input to make the same amount of food versus non-stacked traited plants? I don’t think we have encountered this problem, and the issue is very complicated to analyze in totality, but I think it’s something that plant breeders should consider when making decisions about breeding insect resistance. This concern can be applied to other forms of breeding, so by no means is this a GMO only concern.
  2. Herbicide tolerance (HT) is a topic that comes up a lot with GMOs, but HT is not something that is exclusive to GMOs (specifically Roundup Ready crops). Exemplified by the failed attempt of Chipotle to appear more environmentally responsible, the GMO HT soybeans they removed from production were replaced with HT sunflowers (conventionally bred), and the herbicide that the sunflowers are resistant to has over three times the number of resistant weed species than glyphosate! Herbicide tolerant weeds are a major concern in agriculture, and we need to tread very carefully in balancing chemical weed control with HT weed development. I do not think we should stop developing HT crops, as they have been very beneficial to no-till farming, but we need to be responsible with their use. I would hate to lose this technology due to irresponsible use.
  3. There is concern of GMO traits escaping into the wild and “polluting” native cousins, but in my opinion, this issue is more culturally important that biologically. Even if a gene did escape to a viable relative, the trait would have to confer a distinct fitness advantage in order to make it a threat to the genetic diversity of the species. We should be careful not to engineer something like that, and to also let governments decide if a GMO presents a threat to a culturally relevant crop like corn; we shouldn’t ignore agricultural heritage in the face of progress, or allow it to stop progress either. We should let our cultural heritage guide us in using this technology respectfully.

I think biotechnology holds incredible potential for agricultural pest control. If we can target only pests instead of the entire insect and arachnid community, which is what we do when we spray insecticides, I think that is a much better way of controlling insect pests. The same goes for disease resistance. I don’t think enough people realize how much food we lose every year to plant diseases, or how many insecticides and fungicides we apply to counteract them. Insects are disease vectors, so we spray to prevent the spread of disease just as often to stop feeding damage. By breeding disease resistant crops, we can harvest more with less land and theoretically reduce spraying by the tons.

Monocultures, intellectual property rights, cross-pollination, personal ideologies, industry transparency, and counter-culture agricultural ideals, these are issues that can be applied to more than just GMOs, and should be. By focusing on one breeding technique, we miss the whole picture. Again, see Chipotle restaurants substituting herbicide-tolerant soybeans for herbicide-tolerant sunflowers. Nothing truly productive was achieved by the move; herbicide tolerant crops are still being used for consumption (HT crop management was not addressed), there was no change in crop diversity to the US market, the company did not positively engage growers to help promote pollinator conservation or utilize soil erosion prevention techniques, they did not work with growers to provide greater financial security for them or the company, and they did not make an effort to foster a lasting and mutually respectful relationship with farmers. Those are actions that any company can take to improve our agricultural culture and support real efforts to make agriculture ever more low-impact, sustainable, and diverse.

[Layla’s note: awesome answer… For a shill. No wonder she doesn’t appreciate Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity”. Why would anyone question the fact that beef flown in from Australia is better and has more integrityness than beef from right here? No one would. Unless they’re a shill.]

Amelia Jordan
Amelia Jordan

Q: Your Facebook profile suggests that you’re one of those cat people (as a dog person myself, I scoff at your tribe). If you could create a transgenic cat, what traits would you select? If you could only select an insect trait to bestow upon your cat, what would you pick?

I had a beagle named Socrates growing up, but when I got Babers on Valentine’s day 2007, I fell in love. Nothing better than a warm fire, a good book, and a purring cat on your lap. That’s heaven. If I could create a transgenic cat, what trait would I bestow…? Hmm… It would probably be reduced fertility. Cats are an invasive species worldwide and do much damage to local small mammal and bird populations. That’s why my cats are indoor cats. I’d breed a cat that only reproduced once a year and gave birth to 3 or less offspring, rather than going into heat once every 1-3 weeks. If I could engineer a cat with an insect trait, it would have to be silkworm fur. Imagine how soft that would feel.

[Layla’s note: I’ve got to hand this one to her. That does sound pretty cool.]

Q: If there’s one thing you’d want everyone to know about bugs, what would it be?

I want everyone to know that insects are truly amazing creatures. They have the largest ratio of sizes in the animal kingdom, meaning that over half of insect species are 0.05-0.1 inches long, but species can be orders of magnitude larger (imagine apes with that size diversity!). Insects have the weirdest reproductive cycles out there, can be grotesque, stunning, complicated, and unfathomable creatures whose beauty is striking and lasting. Don’t be afraid of them, be awed by them.

[Layla’s note: “…amazing creatures”… I just hope that Amelia remembers that when the world ends due to some mutant GMO insect made by her corporate overlords].

Q: If there’s one thing you’d want everyone to know about transgenic crops, what would it be?

I’d want everyone to know that the positive potentials of genetic engineering are vast. They could reduce our need for chemical controls drastically, increase nutrition and food diversity, and help us to farm in a more intense, but less environmentally damaging manner. GMOs can be a part of agricultural and environmental sustainability that benefit the world’s agroecosystem. Do not mistake my statements for thinking that we shouldn’t conduct all research with the utmost ethical standards; we should make sure that every new crop we develop, regardless of breeding technology, be done ethically and responsibly.

Q: You’ve been very open about being a diabetic. Could you share with us how synthetic insulin has impacted your life? If you had the choice between “natural” insulin and the genetically engineered material, which one would you choose?

Absolutely. I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2010, less than a month before my 24th birthday. I was immediately started on a regimen of two different synthetic insulins, a long lasting and a short acting. These medications saved my life and I would never switch to anything else. I’m now using an insulin pump and only one insulin, instead of two. Despite the term synthetic, these insulins are more molecularly similar to our own human insulin molecule than any of the bovine or porcine insulins that were in use before the advent of genetic engineering. This means the control is much finer, and blood sugar levels more natural. I have spoken with many diabetics who were diagnosed in the days of bovine and porcine insulin, as well as the days of NPH, R and N (older versions of synthetic insulin). Their ability to control their blood sugars has exponentially increased with each new generation of insulin, even if the cost has also dramatically increased. My life isn’t the same compared to my life before diabetes, but I can still live a relatively normal life. I even had a cupcake (gasp) during the Superbowl and sometimes make french bread with sugar free syrup every once in a while. Diabetes has made me a stronger, more driven person.

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Layla Parker-Katiraee holds a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and a Bachelors degree in biochemistry from the University of Western Ontario. She is currently a Staff Scientist in DNA Sequencing Product Development. All views and opinions expressed are her own.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Thanks Layla

  • We shill-spotters knew Amelia was on the Monsanto paybook as soon as we saw the keywords “integrated pest management program”.

    Good job to both of you.