Cosmos Q&A: Driving an insect-led recovery

A lot of people never get past an aversion to insects, and for the sake of humanity, it would be better if they did. Insects are critical to the success of many natural systems – think plant pollinators – but remain poorly understood; it’s thought that up to three-quarters of the world’s insect species remain undescribed.

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Bryan Lessard in the CSIRO Australian National Insect Collection. Credit: Bryan Lessard

Cosmos spoke to CSIRO entomologist Bryan Lessard – aka “Bry the fly guy” – about his interest in all things buggy, insects’ importance to the way the nature works, and their growing importance as part of the solution to feeding the world. Some cultures, of course, have always consumed them.

A lot of (non-science) people can’t quite get their heads around insects. What are the roots of your interest? What would you say about insects to people in order to capture their hearts?

Insects are probably the most misunderstood and important groups of animals in the world. Thanks to the poor portrayal of insects as dirty and rude mascots in insecticide commercials (looking at you Louie), or cheesy and grotesque mutants in horror movies, many people have developed a negative perception of our six-legged friends. But insects are beautiful and vital to our everyday lives, as they provide essential services to the ecosystem, free of charge.

If you like drinking beer and wine, or eating almonds, avocados and chocolate, then you should be a fan of insects. This is because insects are essential for pollinating many of the crops that we eat. Pollination by the European honeybee alone is estimated to be worth $4-6 billion per year in Australia, and that’s only one of the estimated one million documented species of insects living on Earth.

Everyone should also appreciate the tiny ceratopagonid midge fly for being the most effective pollinator of the cocoa plant and ensuring our supply of chocolate. Of course, many native insect species like flies, moths and beetles help pollinate some of Australia’s most iconic plants like Eucalyptus and tea trees. If these insects disappeared, many native plants and the supply of our favourite foods would be at risk.

What attracted me to entomology, the study of insects, is that there are so many species still waiting to be discovered to science, each potentially with their own important role in the ecosystem or answer to the next challenge that we might face. Scientists estimate that we’ve only documented one quarter of the world’s insect species, so it’s no surprise that we are discovering new species in tropical rainforests or even our own backyard. Naming a species gives scientists a universal language to be able to identify and study that species. It’s also the first step to understanding and protecting species.

Some would say you took entomology even further by specialising in flies and mozzies. What led you down that path?

I knew I wanted to be a scientist at the end of high school, but never considered entomology, let alone dipterology (the study of flies). I first discovered how fascinating flies were during a forensic entomology lecture in undergraduate university, where I learned that maggots could help solve crimes. The size of a maggot is indicative of its age, so they can be used to estimate the minimum time since death in criminal investigations. This exposed me to the exciting world of entomology and newfound appreciation for flies.

Ever since, I’ve dedicated my career to studying these misunderstood creatures. I’ve completed a PhD in horse flies (family Tabanidae) known for the biting females, which require protein in the blood to ripen their eggs (they are also fantastic pollinators). Part of my research was naming new species and using DNA sequencing to look back in time and reconstruct the global migration of horse flies throughout the world. Next, I did my first postdoctoral research fellowship at CSIRO on the classification of soldier flies (family Stratiomyidae), which haven’t been studied in Australia for more than 100 years, despite some species being pests of sugar cane. It was no surprise that my collaborator, Norman Woodley from the Smithsonian, and I discovered close to 150 new species already sitting in the CSIRO Australian National Insect Collection and state museums.

Now I’m working on mosquitoes, trying to improve the diagnostic capabilities of surveillance officers to more rapidly and accurately identify Australian species using high throughput genome sequencing of museum specimens. I’ve also found some new mosquito species that I will get to name. I’m passionate about promoting entomology because I know how important it is to be exposed to new areas of science when you are considering a career path as a student. We certainly need help from the next generation of entomologist to help us document and protect our precious biodiversity.

As a day-to-day job, what are the best and worst bits about being an entomologist?

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Microchrysa wrightae, a new species of Australian soldier fly named last year. Credit: Bryan Lessard

The best part of being an entomologist is the excitement of scientific discovery, especially the moment when you find a new species. It’s a bit of a roller coaster actually, you get a rush of excitement when you first find the species, but then you have to prove that it’s new by comparing it to known specimens in natural history collections or by doing DNA analyses, then once you confirm it’s new, you feel relieved and get a sense of accomplishment when the species is finally published. The other perk of being an entomologist is conducting fieldwork in beautiful areas of the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to collect my flies from Chile, South Africa and New Zealand to see how they compare to their Australian relatives in the fly tree of life.

But like most jobs, there are tasks that are less fun. My first research job was a forensic entomology technician where I was the maggot caretaker. I was responsible for maintaining the fly colonies and feeding them kangaroo mince so they could continue to breed. The smell was awful and sometimes I couldn’t smell it anymore, so it was no surprise that my colleagues wouldn’t sit next to me at lunch. I’ve also been stung after collecting wasps for my colleague Juanita Rodriguez (CSIRO) who is an expert in spider wasps. But the biggest challenge in entomology and science in general is the uncertainty of job security, as many research positions are short-term contracts and it can be difficult to plan your career. That’s why it’s important to be passionate about what you do, diversify your skill set and make great connections along the way.

What’s the biggest entomology issue being debated in Australia today? Why?

I think the biggest debate right now is the “instectageddon”, the insect apocalypse or global decline of insects. A handful of studies coming out of Europe, the UK and the US have made international headlines, reporting on the significant decline of insect species in recent years. While this might be true for particular species in certain countries, there still isn’t enough standardised data for each species in the world to really know what’s going on. Some scientists have even said that these exaggerated reports in the media may cause more harm than good, as many people might become defeatist and think that it’s too late to protect our precious insects.

It’s difficult to estimate how many species are in decline or becoming extinct in Australia, as insects are challenging to collect from the vast continent, require taxonomic expertise to accurately identify species and there is a lack of baseline data on insect abundance to compare recent findings too. It was reported that three billion animals died in the devastating 2019-20 summer Australian bushfires, but this report didn’t include any insects or other invertebrates. When you factor in the rising rates of deforestation, overuse of insecticides and climate change, we are most certainly losing species to extinction, we just don’t know how many.

Without a formal name, species are invisible to science and many may silently go extinct. In Australia scientists are placing efforts into documenting our vast insect biodiversity. Juanita Rodriguez and I discovered new species of soldier flies and spider wasps this year that were previously collected from areas that were severely burned in the recent bushfires, including Namadgi National Park, ACT, Lamington National Park, Qld, and Deua National Park, NSW.

These species are found nowhere else in the world. Now that they have formal scientific names, these species can be identified by other scientists and included in future bushfire management programs to monitor their recovery or determine if they need to be recognised as threatened or endangered species. Now more than ever, it is imperative to form new collaborations with scientists and policy makers to create new research programs looking at the effects of bushfires on the recovery of Australian insects, in the hopes of protecting our unique species.

As world population grows and we face greater likelihood of global food shortages – quite aside from the inequity of food distribution – people are looking at insects as a potential source of protein. Can you give us a historical snapshot of insects as food, and tell which bugs are likely to be the menu superstars of the future?

Today we are seeing a 70% increase in the amount of animal products eaten by people. In the next 30 years we will also have to feed 1.6 billion more people using the same limited resources we have today. Edible insects might be a solution to sustainably feed our growing population. In fact, two billion people are already eating insects from nations in Southeast Asia, central America and Africa. Indigenous Australians have a rich history of eating insects for thousands of years, including the iconic witchetty (or witjuti) grub, honey pot ants and bogong moths.

Western society is slowly catching up, and the global edible insect industry will be worth $10 billion by 2030. Insects are a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Some scientists are reporting that insects are more sustainable and can produce more protein than conventional animal farming. Species of crickets are up to 60% protein and high in vitamins like B12, and 12 times more efficient at converting feed to meat than beef, requiring only a fraction of the land, water and time required to grow.

Crickets, mealworms and ants are big sellers overseas and are starting to jump onto Australian plates. This is because Australian start-ups and small- to medium-sized business have realised that edible insects are not just a gimmick, but an emerging market and an opportunity to create some tasty and unique insect products. If you are feeling peckish, why not try some crunchy chilli-roasted crickets, wash it down with a zesty green tree ant gin, or have a slice of homemade banana bread enriched with high protein cricket powder? These products are already on Australian supermarket shelves.

In Australia, what work is currently being done in the area of edible insects?

My colleague Rocio Ponce Reyes (CSIRO) and I are researching Australia’s unique edible insects. Last year we hosted an international symposium to bring together businesses, industry leaders, policy makers, researchers and First Nations peoples to identify the challenges and opportunities of expanding the Australian edible insect market. One of the interesting outcomes is that the industry wants to develop more native Australian insects. Rocio and I teamed up with Kerry Wilkerson (University of Adelaide) and Olympia Yarger (Goterra, Australia’s largest insect farm) to bring Mark Rullo on board as a PhD candidate; he’s going to help us identify the nutritional profiles of native species to determine the most nutritious candidates for upscaled farming. We are hoping to create some new native edible insect products that will hit the supermarket shelves in the future.

One of the biggest challenges is identifying Australia’s native species. Conrad Bilney and the late Alan Yen (La Trobe University) have done some amazing research working with traditional landowners to document the witchetty grub. Using DNA fingerprinting, they found that the term witchetty grub actually encompasses 23 different insect species, including moths and beetles. Their research demonstrates that it’s important to accurately identify species that are being farmed, as different species have different nutritional profiles and specific growing conditions.

What, in your opinion, are the primary obstacles in getting people (from traditionally non-insect eating cultures) to accept insects as food?

I think the biggest hurdle to overcome is changing the mindset of people who might not be open to eating insects. I used to think that eating insects was gross, until 10 years ago when I tried my first pan fried crickets served on a toasted baguette. The flavours and crunch blew my mind! Since then I’ve been become more adventurous in eating insects, starting out with mealworm lollipops to eventually baking my own pot pies using protein-rich cricket flour. Australian insect producers are also increasing the range of products on sale to cater to people’s different levels of interest, ranging from cricket protein bars and corn chips, to high-end restaurant experiences. It’s a dynamic market, so as more people get curious about eating insects, more products will be developed by the industry. The insects in your backyard could be a new species, or they could end up as the wow factor in your next meal. You never know!

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