Jeremy deWaard and Agata Pawlowski with a malaise insect trap outside U of G’s new Centre for Biodiversity Genomics.

It’s a bug-catching project with global buzz.

Under a new malaise-trapping initiative based at the University of Guelph, school kids in Ontario and scientists across Canada and around the world are trapping insects to learn more about local and global biodiversity.

Collected bugs of all shapes and sizes from the project – actually three nested projects – are now arriving at U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO). Researchers here analyze specimens’ genetic material and enter new species into a growing DNA barcode reference library of life on Earth.

By using genetic material to catalogue the world’s creatures – not just bugs but other animals, plants and fungi – scientists can help control pests and disease, monitor the environment, conserve species and authenticate food products to protect human health.

Under the new project, collectors at global, national and regional levels are all using malaise traps to snare insects. The traps resemble a mesh tent whose design lures bugs into ethanol-filled bottles. The traps are named for their inventor, Swedish entomologist René Malaise.

Under the global malaise trap program, scientists plan ultimately to collect in 50 locations covering every continent except Antarctica. The program already involves a mix of public and private sites in Canada, the United States, Finland, Germany, South Africa, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, New Zealand and Bulgaria.

Researchers collect insects and send the specimens to Guelph for analysis. “We want to get an idea globally about patterns of diversity,” says Jeremy deWaard, BIO’s director of bioinventory and collections.

Knowing what lives where – and how many of each thing – has important implications for biodiversity scientists, he says. Biologists might use the information to tackle research questions such as why so many species exist on Earth, how diversity occurs and why certain areas have more species than others.

The global project includes two Canadian sites. One is the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in Churchill, Man., where Guelph runs an Arctic ecology field course. That malaise-trapping project is led by Prof. Sarah Adamowicz, an integrative biologist and one of the BIO’s principal researchers. On her way to academia, she earned a master’s degree at U of G in 2002.

Another trapping location is in Puslinch, Ont., just south of Guelph. That’s home to Prof. Paul Hebert, BIO director. In fact, the site is Hebert’s home and, specifically, his backyard. There the team completed an earlier pilot project to establish the sampling protocol and estimate insect yields – roughly 20,000 specimens per trap over 10 weeks – for the global initiative.

More than 200 species have been trapped on the professor’s property alone. Says deWaard: “His backyard is now probably the best-inventoried residential property in the world.”

Last year marked the beginning of a national malaise trapping project based at Canada’s national parks. That project involved a road trip for researchers aboard Guelph’s BIOBus. BIO scientists have used the dedicated RV for collecting treks across North America since 2008.

Last summer, the field research vehicle visited 14 locations, ranging from St. Lawrence Islands National Park in southeastern Ontario to Pacific Rim National Park in British Columbia. A rotating team of U of G students and BIO staff members worked with Parks Canada staffers to set up and tend the traps.

Back at Guelph, all of last year’s specimens were barcoded by technician Stephanie deWaard, another Guelph grad who earned her B.Sc. degree in 2003.

This year, a BIOBus crew will cover every province in eastern Canada. At the wheel again will be Agata Pawlowski, a BIO collection technician and project co-ordinator for the vehicle.

Pawlowski will also co-ordinate a school malaise-trap project this spring. For the first time, Grade 6 and 12 students in 60 schools in southwestern Ontario will set up schoolyard traps. U of G researchers will visit schools on the BIOBus later this month to discuss urban biodiversity and show students how to use the equipment.

For the school project, BIO staffers are working with Let’s Talk Science. The national science outreach organization will store a lesson plan on its “CurioCity” website to help in teaching biodiversity.

“We want to get youth excited about the natural world; it’s important,” says Pawlowski. What’s so important about insects? “We’re all connected. If we don’t have insects, we don’t have fruits and vegetables in our kitchen.”

She says DNA barcoding complements traditional taxonomic methods for identifying animals and plants based on physical traits. “That’s looking on the outside of an organism, whereas with barcoding we’re looking at what the story tells from the inside.”

Pawlowski took the Churchill field course with Hebert when she was a Guelph undergrad. After finishing her zoology degree in 2006, she worked in the BIO labs and then went to Dalhousie University for a master’s degree in resource and environmental management. She returned to Guelph last year.

Aboard the BIOBus last summer, she saw not just bugs but varied wildlife: grizzly bears, bison, prairie dogs and burrowing owls. One “surreal moment” for her came when she crossed into the Northwest Territories for the first time while visiting Wood Buffalo National Park.

“I love to travel. By the end of this summer, I will have visited every province and almost every territory in Canada.” Malaise traps are easier to set up and service than other collection methods such as UV light traps, says Jeremy deWaard. Originally from Brantford, Ont., he completed his undergrad and master’s degrees at Guelph. For his graduate degree completed in 2004, he studied rates of evolution with Hebert.

Earlier, he had worked with Hebert on an undergraduate research project testing then-fledgling DNA barcoding on starfish and their parasites. Although he says he had doubts about the efficacy of the method, it didn’t take long for him to see its merits.

Along with his supervisor and other researchers, Jeremy deWaard co-authored two papers in 2003 that first described the idea of using a short DNA stretch to identify the planet’s creatures. That idea spawned barcoding projects that now involve numerous researchers at Guelph and around the world.

“I was in it from the beginning,” he says. “As a biodiversity scientist, I think it’s an invaluable tool. It allows us to rapidly and almost effortlessly parse natural ecosystems to assess their health, to measure the effects of change, to answer seminal questions on how and why they are there in the first place.”

He’s based within BIO in the new Centre for Biodiversity Genomics. The centre will officially open a new campus facility this summer.

In Canada, the malaise-trap projects have received private and public support, including provincial and national funding through Genome Canada and the Ontario Genomics Institute. Early this year, the Canada Foundation for Innovation announced $650,000 in new funding for the wider barcoding project.