We may just pull this off! (They all laughed at our plans.)

A couple of weeks ago, a new side-project was thrown in my lap.

“Remember that guy I told you about? The dentist? We should talk about this soon, his experiment is coming up in May, and we still need to have a look at the final design. It would be good if he could include some aphid work,” my boss said to me.

I did not remember the guy, and I am most certain my boss never told me about him or the project before. I would have remembered, because both are memorable. I should add that it was also April 28, and this experiment – which had only a rough but far from final design – would start in a week or so.

The dentist turned out to be a very friendly, driven and hard-working middle-aged man that could not resist the urge to obtain a second PhD, in ecology, after completing a medical PhD years ago. The dentist had read a lot on the matter, and it was clear from his e-mails that he had done his research on the project. It was also clear that he had no background in the experimental design of ecological experiments. His project would be a fun mix of bits and pieces of microbiomes, fungal pathogens, and pesticides in barley. Throw in a couple of aphids, and it totally makes sense that my boss asked me for my input. And so we did! Together the dentist and I would navigate this experiment from a thought to a final product.

The design was not crystal clear yet, but after a session with the dentist, my boss, and myself, we quickly came up with an interesting and well-replicated design. It would be a high risk, high gain project. The risky part was of course that the person doing the job had little experience, and that we were (are) expecting a baby in the third and final, perhaps most critical month of the experiment. But it was also tricky in the sense that we needed to keep plants healthy and clean of aphids for about three months in an open-sided greenhouse surrounded by barley fields. At the very least, they should be kept clean until our pathogen and fungicide treatments would be applied. Everyone laughed at our plans, and none of the greenhouse staff took us seriously. You could read on their faces what they were thinking. (Crazy ecologists and their fondness for bugs) It was as the Dutch proverb goes “like mopping the floor with the tap open“*, or as they (apparently) say in English, “to try to empty the ocean with a thimble“. Or – in my personal choice of words – “that is a fucking dumb idea.” But alas, the gardeners accepted our fucking dumb idea and were helpful nonetheless. They helped us realize every crazy request that we had. We all fully embraced our challenge and had a plan. The dentist, my student assistant and myself would take turns in checking all 210 plants on a regular basis for the presence of winged aphids that had flown in, which were then swiftly exterminated, so that they could not form colonies. Labour-intensive, this task, but we all deemed it worth our efforts.

I, too, was still skeptic around three weeks ago, when the first aphids were already flying in. Note the awkwardly spacious distancing of pots!

Fast-forward one and a half month, to this afternoon. Our plants have been treated with fungicide this week, and the fungal pathogen is incubating for application next week, when the plants will have reached their optimal stage for infection. The plants looked amazingly good, and although we had to remove a fair bunch of winged aphids, only a small handful of tiny new colonies had to be removed in all these weeks. That means, our efforts of removing winged colonizers has been super successful!

The pots look more substantial, and the ‘social distancing’ at least isn’t that awkward any more. It is important that the plants don’t touch, both for dispersal of aphids and to avoid cross-contamination of treatments.

In two weeks, I will be starting my aphid work. Let’s see what our cereal aphids, Sitobion avenae, think of our plants and treatments.

I just love to see how someone with little background in a subject, but with a good dose of motivation, has pulled this off this far. Sure, we are not there yet, but I am fairly confident that we will make it through the final weeks unscathed. This will be a good one. I just feel it!

July is going to be an exciting month!


*(Rutger this fantastic ‘Dutchism’ is for you, man!)

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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