“Who wants to feel how strong its legs are?” asked Étienne Normandin, holding a Pachysphinx modesta, a bulky moth with pink hindwings. Some of the amateur entomologists with him stepped forward, taking turns feeling the tight grip of its small feet on their fingers.
Mr. Normandin, who met his partner at an insect-tasting event and whose vehicle’s licence plate reads “INSECTE,” is the president of the Association des entomologistes amateurs du Québec (AEAQ), a group of nature lovers who collect bugs for fun. He joined the group as a teenager and is now a professional entomologist in charge of the University of Montreal’s insect collection.
The moth he was holding earlier this month was attracted by his DIY light trap – made from a mercury vapour lamp, a UV neon light, and a white sheet suspended between the two for insects to land on. The trap was set up on the road leading to where the AEAQ held their weekend of activities – the Laurentides Biology Station, a research facility located in Saint-Hippolyte, Que., about 85 kilometres northwest of Montreal. Besides monitoring the light trap, also on the agenda was a workshop on how to properly set up specimens in scientific collections, and a talk on aquatic insects.
Amateur entomologists are not just quirky hobbyists carrying nets and exhibiting child-like wonder for small creatures others usually ignore or despise. They play a big role in collecting data about local insect populations that may be declining because of habitat loss, or otherwise changing as the climate warms.
Losses in insect populations around the world have made headlines since 2017, when a group of German amateurs not unlike the AEAQ documented a decline of more than 75 per cent of the flying insect biomass in protected areas over less than three decades. This research triggered fears of an “insect Armageddon,” as well as calls for more data.
Subsequent publications show a more nuanced portrait, but still, “there is ample cause for concern” over observed losses, a 2021 paper summarizing recent findings said. This could have dire consequences for both ecosystems and the economy, as insects provide many services such as pollination and waste management.
“The amateur organizations are incredibly important,” said Chris MacQuarrie, president of the Entomological Society of Canada. Because there are relatively few professional entomologists spread out across the country, citizen scientists’ observations are invaluable, he said.
And the 50-year-old AEAQ, he added, is “a really unique and really neat organization. I don’t know one that’s similar anywhere else in Canada.” The group has about 75 members today, making it the country’s largest such association, according to Mr. Normandin.
In Canada, “there aren’t tons of studies” about insect losses, said Maxim Larrivée, director of the Montreal Insectarium, but they point in the same direction. A 2023 review of 150 years of inventories on Anticosti Island, Que., suggests that it, too, experienced a decline in insect biodiversity. A 2017 study found a reduction in the diversity of certain beetles, wasps and flies around Ottawa and Montreal in recent decades. Upcoming research by Mr. Larrivée will show a decline in butterfly diversity across North America over the past 10 years, he said.
At first, only entomologists discussed the decline, but more and more people are noticing it, Mr. Larrivée said, often through what has been coined the “windshield phenomenon” – long drives that used to result in countless bug splatters now end with a spotless windshield.
The main culprits likely driving the decline, in Canada as in the rest of the world, are habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change, said Lauren Des Marteaux, an entomologist with the federal government.
More than 44,000 species of insects and related arthropods (such as spiders) are known to occur in Canada – exceeding the number of species for all other animal groups combined – and almost as many are probably yet to be discovered.
But only 67 arthropods have been granted a protection status under the federal Species at Risk Act, which does not necessarily mean they are doing well. “The problem with insects is that, often, we don’t have enough data to be able to improve their conservation status,” said Flavie LeBlanc, a University of Montreal biology student who works with Mr. Normandin.
Ms. LeBlanc also co-ordinates the AEAQ’s “Cap sur les insectes” project, launched last year, which aims to document certain groups’ diversity and abundance with volunteers across the province. They use the citizen science platform iNaturalist, among other tools, making it easier for laypeople to identify and report observations.
In Saint-Hippolyte, amateur entomologists’ discoveries at the AEAQ gathering would produce a survey of the local entomofauna, Mr. Normandin said, but the goal was primarily to have fun and help nurture people’s interest. It seemed to work, as old-timers helped neophytes with identifications.
“I didn’t know at all what to expect,” said Audrey Thibeault, a horticulture student who attended one of the group’s events for the first time. “I always liked insects and all that, so I thought I could learn from them by coming here.”
Simon Rainville, whose day job with Global Affairs Canada has nothing to do with insects, has been collecting them since childhood and is now sharing this hobby with his 21-year-old triplet daughters. Their discoveries have occasionally led to new mentions of rare insects in scientific publications.
Over the course of the weekend, as AEAQ members and their children wandered the site’s forests, meadows and lakes, they looked for Coleoptera (beetles), Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, and ants), Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and other six-legged animals. The kids and adults alike marvelled over the diversity of shapes and colours found in the thicket, like this blue and yellow longhorn beetle (Desmocerus palliatus) or that thin, black and orange parasitoid wasp of the Sphecidae family carrying a caterpillar to feed its offspring.
“It’s important to work on the next generation,” Mr. Normandin said. “Otherwise in 20 years, who is going to do these censuses?”