This month Dr Archie Murchie AFBI Entomologist talks about his role within AFBI

I work as an Entomologist, although I also work on earthworms, flatworms, mites and occasionally slugs (I’m effectively multi-phylum).

My main interest is in integrated pest management, which is not about killing pests but rather managing them in the most sustainable manner. Nature is incredibly robust and there is always a level of natural pest control within a crop, provided by predators, parasitic wasps and pathogens. We need to learn to use this control (which can be effectively free) in harmony with direct interventions if necessary.

Dr Archie Murchie, AFBI Entomologist
Dr Archie Murchie, AFBI Entomologist
There are many cases where ill-judged and over-reliance on pesticides have created more problems, than there were to start with. I would have to state clearly though that synthetic pesticides are an immensely important tool in modern agriculture (and vector management) and we should not take them for granted: either by demonising them or by using them indiscriminately. If we can work to an ecosystem-based approach to pest management, so much the better. But we have a long way to go.

In the last few years, I have also worked on insect vectors of disease. This was because of the bluetongue virus outbreak in 2006-2009. We have lots of biting midges in Northern Ireland (the vector of bluetongue) and a high density of disease-naïve hosts, so an outbreak would be devastating. My group is also monitoring Belfast International airport and Belfast Port for non-indigenous mosquitoes, as potential vectors of Zika virus and other diseases. Some people don’t realise we have about 18 species of native mosquito in Ireland. For example, the salt-marsh mosquito (Ochlerotatus detritus) was first described from specimens collected in Holywood, Co. Down, back in 1833.

Our Newforge site has a 12m suction trap, unique in Ireland, that we use to monitor migrating aphids from what is termed the ‘aerial plankton’. This provides an early warning system for potential problems in cereals, especially aphid-vectored diseases such as barley yellow dwarf virus.

Insects are incredibly diverse. I like to point out to my livestock colleagues that there is as much complexity in a bee hive as there is in a dairy unit, just at a much smaller scale. But you have the same problems with feed, diseases, fertility, housing etc. Insects also go through different life stages, usually egg, larva and adult that have completely different habitats and requirements. For some aphid species, there are many different morphs or body types and they range from winged to non-winged, sexual to asexual and depend on whether the aphid is on the summer or winter host plant. Consequently, the work is very diverse and we deal with issues in crops (grass, orchards, cereals, oilseed rape, mushrooms, forestry), livestock (mainly insects as disease-vectors), public health (including mosquitoes or nuisance flies) and not forgetting the beneficial aspects of insects as pollinators, decomposers and indicators of biodiversity. I work with colleagues at all AFBI sites: Newforge, VSD, Crossnacreevy, Hillsborough, Loughgall, Omagh. I haven’t yet sampled insects from the RV Corystes but given the interest in wind-borne midges, give it time.

Facts about Dr Archie Murchie:

What is your favourite film?

For escapism and fun, my most watched DVD is ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.

For emotional impact – the Japanese anime ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is an incredibly powerful film about the impact of allied bombing on Japan at the end of WW2.

I have high hopes for ‘Minuscule - la vallée des fourmis perdues’.

Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?

A happy, smiling lift engineer.

Who is the last person you would like to be stuck in a lift with?

A very nervous and worried-looking lift engineer.

If you were stuck on a desert island and you could bring along 3 people – who would you bring?

Depends on the desert island. As Sheldon Cooper said to Amy Farrah Fowler, ‘If I’m going to a barren, lifeless environment where the chances for survival are slim to none, I want you there with me.’  Outside of my family: Hedy Lamarr – for a combination of talents, Ray Mears – he seems a bit chubbier than Bear Grylls, which is good for a survival expert, and less prone to drinking his own urine, the Lift Engineer. We bonded over the previous crisis.