Tufted grass, bush crickets and climate change

Based in Bern, Suz Everingham coordinates a global research network called the Bug-Network. This is the unusual story of a young biologist who has moved from the ocean in Australia to the River Aare.

© Universität Bern/ Bild: Vera Knöpfel

How does climate change affect the interaction between plants and pests? A Bernese research project with offshoots all over the world is looking for the answers to this question. The project is the brainchild of Eric Allan, Professor of Community Ecology at the University of Bern as well as Anne Kempel from The WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos. Then there’s Suz Everingham, who joined BugNet – as the scientific network is called – just over a year ago. Her task: putting the idea into practice.

The Australian biologist had responded to a call for applications for a BugNet postdoc position financed by the Oeschger Center. It wasn’t just OCCR’s interdisciplinary research environment that appealed to her; she also had exactly the right background. At the University of South Wales, her doctoral thesis was titled, “Plant trait responses to climate change.” Among other things, she tried to quantify the changes already caused by climate change.

And there’s something else that distinguishes Suz Everingham’s career; she’s a savvy communicator with a regular presence on social media. “I’ve always been very active in science communication,” she says. “I consider communicating knowledge to be an important part of my career.” Among other things, she’s active with an organization called Skype a Scientist, where she answers questions from classrooms around the world.

It’s been a year since Suz Everingham moved to Bern – her first time living abroad. It wasn’t an easy start considering the pandemic, not to mention the unfamiliar climate and her homesickness for the ocean. “Luckily, Bern has the River Aare for swimming,” she says with a smile.

© Universität Bern/ Bild: Vera Knöpfel

Extraordinary responsibility

But it’s not just the quality of life that has made the biologist feel at home in Bern. Above all, she is passionate about her work at the Institute of Plant Sciences. “The responsibility I’ve been given is quite extraordinary for a first-time postdoc position,” says Suz Everingham, who coordinates the work of about 100 BugNet collaborators in 16 countries on six continents. They have responded to calls from a range of ecological societies, scientific networks and Twitter threads.

The coordinator keeps in touch via Zoom calls as well as field visits, as was recently the case in Greece and Romania. And she evaluates the data arriving in Bern from all over the world. For example, some 25,000 insect samples, many of which require identification. Above all, however, the data relates to the inventory of plants and pests – more precisely, insects, pathogenic fungi and molluscs – from 69 research sites to date. The team documents the damage done to plants. “We’re getting excellent data material,” Suz Everingham points out. The BugNet volunteers – from students to established professors – can look forward to being named as co-authors of the high-profile publications that are in the works.

In order for the comparisons to be made, detailed protocols dictate how team members must gather the plant and pest population data. These protocols regulate, for example, how exactly to select the 10 1m2 trial plots, or how pests can be collected with the help of a leaf blower. There’s even a YouTube instructional film.

© Universität Bern/ Bild: Vera Knöpfel

“We are trading time for space”

Finally, Suz Everingham herself carries out BugNet field work at a site in Münchenbuchsee. The areas she’s studying are typical of Swiss Plateau grasslands, with species such as meadow brome, tufted grass and field scabious. On the plots surveyed on the outskirts of Bern, 1,053 insects have been found, including many spiders, grasshoppers, beetles, flies, and ants. Other Swiss test sites are located in the Jura and in Davos.

The Swiss sites illustrate the strategy of the entire project: BugNet represents different geographical regions, altitudes, and vegetation types because it’s the only way to glean data about the consequences of climate change without relying on decades’ worth of observations. “We are trading time for space,” explains Suz Everingham. In other words, looking at conditions in southern Europe, for example, shows what conditions plants and pests will be facing north of the Alps in a few decades. “In this way we can predict how attacks on plants will change alongside climate change.”

Among other things, the comparative study aims to find out how important the direct effects of climate change are compared to the indirect effects of changes in the plant community. In addition, BugNet wants to explore when insects, fungi and snails have the strongest impacts on plant communities – be it on productivity, community composition or diversity. And finally, the researchers also want to know how pests differ in their effects on plant communities. The first results are expected to be published in 2023.

Suz Everingham’s personal plans are less clear. Her postdoc position in Bern is limited to three years, and after that she would like to remain in research. “In academia I like having the freedom to ask questions,” she says, “but where that will be possible in the future, I don’t know yet.” Suz Everingham is still just at the beginning of her exciting journey into the wide world of science.

(May 2022)