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When ‘bringing your work home’ means ‘make room in the fridge’

Scientists share their homes with thousands of spruce budworms

October 2020

by Nathalie Chaperon
Senior Communications Officer — Quebec Region

Did you know that with strict COVID-19 health guidelines in effect in spring 2020, two Natural Resources of Canada employees from the Laurentian Forestry Centre (LFC) needed to host many “guests” in their homes and even let them sleep over? You could go as far as to call it group lodging as each of them welcomed 2,000 to 4,000 guests … in their refrigerators.


For a few days, 4,000 spruce budworms stayed in Véronique Martel’s refrigerator (left) for a few days, while Stéphane Bourassa hosted 2,000
For a few days, 4,000 spruce budworms stayed in Véronique Martel’s refrigerator (left) for a few days, while Stéphane Bourassa hosted 2,000

For a few days, 4,000 spruce budworms stayed in Véronique Martel’s refrigerator (left) for a few days, while Stéphane Bourassa hosted 2,000 (right).


From the very first days of working from home, researcher Véronique Martel welcomed thousands of insects, both dead and alive, into her home! She quickly equipped her kitchen table with a microscope and gathered all the necessary equipment to sort the bugs.

Véronique Martel

Véronique Martel has been sorting insects in her dining room on a daily basis since confinement started.

Finding comfort in routine

“I’m not usually in charge of insect sorting, but I have to admit that the repetitive task brought me some comfort at the start of confinement,” explains Véronique. “Thanks to the work of all my team members, each in their own dining room, we were able to catch up on our backlog of two or three years.”

Her team sorted through thousands of dead insects collected in forest traps as part of their studies on spruce budworm parasitoids, which are organisms that live on or within a single host, ultimately killing it.

Véronique also hosted thousands of live spruce budworms. At one point, she had 4,000 budworm caterpillars competing for shelf space in her refrigerator.

“The larvae were in diapause in an uninsulated building at the LFC. (Diapause is a dormant state, see the box below.) As the temperature warmed up in May, they would have emerged prematurely from their condition. So we maintained their diapause by keeping them cool in my personal refrigerator until the fir buds, a food source for them, were ready to be harvested,” says Véronique, who explains that the harvest took place in various areas thanks to the cooperation of her team members’ family and friends.

Emergence boxes for diapausing budworms in Stéphane Bourassa’s dining room.

Emergence boxes for diapausing budworms in Stéphane Bourassa’s dining room. After coming out of their diapause, the budworms moved toward the light they saw through the plastic pots that contained their diet.

It’s a dining room takeover!

Meanwhile, forestry technician Stéphane Bourassa also housed spruce budworms in his refrigerator and welcomed them into his dining room — all 2,000 of them.

As there was a lot at stake, he made every effort to save these valuable specimens. “These larvae are part of a research project that’s been going on for five years,” says Stéphane. “They’ve been exposed to specific environmental conditions over the years, and we couldn't afford to lose them.”

Spruce budworm larvae hosted by Stéphane Bourassa.

Spruce budworm larvae hosted by Stéphane Bourassa.

The larvae were in diapause at the Valcartier Forestry Research Station, near Quebec City. Stéphane couldn’t risk having them “wake up” and escape into the wild. So he obtained the necessary authorizations and moved them first to the LFC’s refrigerators while they completed their diapause.

Coaxing them into adulthood step by step

When it was time for the larvae to wake up from their rest phase, he brought them home to his dining room. There, they stayed in special emergence boxes with an opening that let light and heat through.

This stimulation caused the larvae to emerge from their diapause. Stéphane then placed them in his fridge and fed them a special diet until he was able to take more than 1,000 of them back to Valcartier under controlled conditions. In July, once they reached their pupal stage, Stéphane finally returned the adult spruce budworms back to the Laurentian Forestry Centre labs, where they could continue mating and eventually lay their eggs, giving birth to a new generation with the same characteristics as the previous ones.

These larvae are part of the Temperature Free-Air Controlled Enhancement (T-FACE) project, in which the effects of climate change are simulated so scientists are able to examine how the spruce budworm’s development is affected by such variables.


Dedication and professionalism

Véronique and Stéphane perfectly embody the dedication and professionalism that NRCan’s scientists have shown since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that scientific research continues and that, ultimately, Canada remains an innovative and prosperous country for the benefit of all Canadians.


Diapause is a dormant state during which all development is interrupted. The diapause of insects:

  • Can occur in summer or winter
  • Allows the insect to survive predicable seasonal unfavourable conditions
  • Is triggered by environmental factors such as temperature or length of day
  • Always occurs at the same life stage of each species. For instance, the spruce budworm makes its diapause at the second larval stage, the silkworm makes its diapause at the egg stage
  • Is common in many insects, including spruce budworm, emerald ash borer and monarch butterfly
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