Bugs, pests and problem visitors

They are just bugs, birds and weeds, but these particular bugs, birds and weeds cause billions of dollars worth of damage to the Canadian economy each year. Even in urban Toronto, a casual observer can see evidence of the considerable diversity of invasive organisms in our environment.

Left: Dandelions are an invasive plant species

Dandelions give a golden covering to the roadside verges, sparrows and starlings fly from tree to tree. Occasionally there are enormous outbreaks of some not so pleasant visitors, such as the plague of aphids a few years ago, that was followed by a swarm of ladybug insects. From the dandelion and the sparrow, to the aphids, all of these species are examples of invasive non-indigenous species (INIS). Although some go unnoticed and others may simply be a nuisance, some invasive species are not so innocent visitors and can reap havoc on the environments they are introduced into. Last year, for example, York Region was devastated by the impact of the Asian Long-Horned beetle. Majestic trees, some centuries old, were destroyed to prevent the spread of this beetle.

Invasive species of insects, plants and waterborne pests that are imported into Canada flourish. These species impact agriculture, forestry, water quality and property values.

Right: The Asian Long-Horned beetle

The economic damage of INIS is enormous and yet difficult to calculate. In the USA, it has been estimated that harm caused by these organisms results in US $137 billion each year. In Canada, there are figures for only 18 of the hundreds of invasive species and estimates suggest a cost of $5 to 14 billion annually to agriculture, $8 to 20 billion in forestry and $800 million in damage to aquatic ecosystems. None of the estimates take into account the healthcare costs associated with measures used to control INIS such as pesticide application or with medically important organisms such as West Nile virus and the mosquitoes that transmit the virus.

Left: The Culex mosquito carries the West Nile virus

“By definition, invasive species come from other countries and fall under the purview of the international strategic research initiative sponsored by the Office of the Vice-President Research and Innovation,” explains Laurence Packer, professor of biology in the Faculty of Science and Engineering . “The invasive species problem is one that falls within the interdisciplinary research initiatives spearheaded by the VPRI. Identification of these pests requires expertise in the biological sciences. The economic impact of the damage each species causes requires assistance from economists. Regulation of the trade routes that result in the introduction of each species and the international law required to control and prosecute for the damages require legal scholarship and expertise.

“Clearly interdisciplinary research is required to solve problems caused by INIS and so the increased emphasis on interdisciplinary research here at York puts us in an ideal situation to become national and international leaders in this area,” said Packer. “Numerous areas of academic enquiry will have to be focused on the problems surrounding and caused by invasive species if Canada is going to be successful in reducing their economic impact.”

Despite the obvious interdisciplinary ramifications of the invasive species problem, academics generally treat them as a biological issue and a change in attitude is necessary, says Packer. As a first step in implementing this change, the York Invasive Species Research Group is organizing a workshop entitled “Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Problems caused by Invasive Species”. The workshop, which is being sponsored by the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, will take place Nov. 8 on the Keele campus, the specific location to be announced.

In addition to presenting the biological perspective, the workshop will include presentations that offer the viewpoints of a variety of different groups that are now having to deal with the problems caused by these invasive species. Viewpoints from political scientists, economists, environmental educators, indigenous peoples and experts on international trade will all be part of this comprehensive and informative workshop. To complete its  interdisciplinary breadth, it is also hoped that an exhibit of art on the topic of invasive species can be coordinated in time for the  workshop.

The presence of two world-renowned invasive species biologists at York University (Norman Yan and Dawn Bazely) and the University’s focus on promoting and supporting interdisciplinary research provides a firm foundation for the development of the workshop into a full international conference. Organizers hope to have the groundwork in place for a conference in one year’s time. For more information on how to register for this free workshop, please contact Sarah Whitaker, conference and information coordinator, Centre for International and Security Studies, 375 York Lanes, at ext. 55156 or e-mail to sarahw@yorku.ca.