Monday meltdown – disaster edition

Today was an absolute disaster, that started off with a couple of different Monday meltdown events. Or well. Heatwave meltdowns of the weekend that culminated in this horror show that was today.

It could have been a wonderful day. A meeting on the final designs for the summer experiments. Another meeting with a new collaborator in Vienna that can help us with very cool measurements of plant traits. A brief visit to our local field site. Two meetings with student groups about their summer projects. And the proverbial cherry on the pie: a seminar at the university of Bielefeld. A pretty full schedule, but only good things.

And that’s the weird thing. All these meetings went well, and even generally as planned. Most meetings were productive and fun.

So why the meltdown?

After our first meeting, we discovered that we had an aphid situation. All my work at the moment involves insects, and predominantly aphids. Aphids are tiny ectotherm animals, meaning that they depend on their surroundings for regulating their temperature. They have little means to regulate their body temperature, other than behaviorally. And aphid behavior, well, is not filled with options. Their means of behavioral thermoregulation are few. In the field, they could walk to a shady part of their host plant, and in the short term, that’s about it… But what if the plant is nowhere near shade? Or what if the plant is caged in a closed environment? You can guess what… It’s a death sentence for these little buggers.

In the past week, we have had to emergency harvest a student experiment on Friday. Aphids were dying as they were feeding on their host plant. The pot surfaces looked like little mass graves, littered with deceased aphid carcasses. The plants were caged, and watered daily, but the vegetation hall they were in received sunlight, and one of my students measured close to 40 degrees centigrade in the cages on Friday. There’s no surviving a day of 40 degrees if you have no means to cool off. The plants survived, as they were well-watered, but I doubt they would have survived the weekend, as the temperatures skyrocketed even further.

We also found out this morning that our tansy aphid colonies, all four of them, had suffered great losses. The labs and office where they were kept got boiling hot over the weekend. I didn’t like being there all day today, and I had a fan on and a window open… Our climate cabinet, which we usually have available to keep stable conditions for our colonies, broke down weeks ago. There are shortages in replacement parts, and we had no other way to keep our colonies happy then to keep them under growth lights at room temperature. This is fine, if room temperature is room temperature, and not some boiling heatwave temperature that already ruined the season, before the summer even started. Again, the plants seemed okay, as they were well-watered. The aphids, though, literally were fried to death, often in their feeding position. I have never seen anything like it.

Solutions, I thought. We need solutions. With the two tansy PhDs, I cycled to our field site, hoping to find at least a small handful of healthy tansy aphids that we could use to boost our colonies. What we found instead were plants that clearly had seen many aphids, but were now devoid of plant-sucking life. Instead, they had a rich and colorful predator community, with ladybugs and predatory bugs running up and down the stems. They were slurping down whatever the heatwave had fried on the plants. They were feasting. It was, again, u like anything I’ve ever seen.

Our hopes are now with our Jena tansy experiment. If there are still any aphids present around there, that could save our summer experiments. My boss told me Jena was the hottest city in Germany, with air temperatures reaching 36 centigrade.

This isn’t fucking normal.

It’s no fun either.

I guess I could end this here, and dwell in negativity, but instead I want to end it on a positive note: The new collaborations established today will make it possible to work with the plants that we have growing now, and allow us to generate novel and exciting data relatively quickly. That’s cool, regardless of whether we have aphids or not. I also gave this seminar at Bielefeld uni a couple hours ago and found it a pleasurable experience, with a very fun and lively discussion about some of my work on light pollution. It was a pleasure.

Don’t get me wrong, this day was an absolute goddamn disaster, but I have many things to still be grateful for, and I am exactly that..

Published by Robin Heinen

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

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