These two friends navigated university together and went on to discover a beetle fight club

An off-chance meeting on the first day of New Student Orientation (NSO) in 2015 led to a friendship that has sustained Nick Hassink (BSc ’19) and James Eaton (BSc ’20) throughout their undergraduate studies.

“I moved to Lethbridge from Cochrane and I didn’t know anybody,” says Hassink, who’s now working on a master of science. “At NSO, we were grabbing lunch and I didn’t want to be the guy who’s just off in the corner eating by himself. James was talking to a girl, but I just went up and said ‘Hi’ anyway. We’ve been friends ever since.”

“We were talking and it turned out that we were both taking environmental science,” says Eaton, who’s from Calgary. “We took a lot of the same courses.”

Their shared interest in environmental science and similar course loads cemented their friendship and the strength of it became obvious when Eaton suffered with health issues.

“Through three quarters of university, I was constantly sick,” says Eaton. “I had such horrible gut issues I could barely make it to lectures in the morning. It became kind of a joke because it was unavoidable. Nick covered for me a lot. I’d miss class or something and I’d have to ask him for notes.”

“Being friends with James all this time, I knew that sometimes his gut would take him out of the equation. I was happy to help,” says Nick.

“After doctors quit trying to figure out what the problem was, my mom looked up possibilities and she pointed me in the direction of the FODMAP diet,” says Eaton. “It took a lot of figuring out, but it turns out it’s just a simple garlic allergy and now that I’ve cut that out, I’m 90 per cent better.”

Last fall, the two enrolled in Dr. Cam Goater’s (Department of Biological Sciences) field biology course. Students in this course spend 10 days in the Cypress Hills to learn field biology techniques and, with a partner, conduct a research project. Hassink and Eaton came up with a project they initially called Beetle Fight Club. The pair had noticed abundant populations of an invasive ground beetle in the area (Pterostichus melanarius or strawberry ground beetle). What struck them was how hostile the beetles were with each other and other insects.

“We noticed they were really aggressive with each other whenever we trapped them,” says Hassink. “We started off by trying to starve small groups of them, but that didn’t really seem to trigger any kind of aggressive or cannibalistic behaviour. By the third day, we started panicking because we thought we weren’t going to have a project. Then we realized there was a pungent odour in our collection traps which seemed to coincide with their cannibalistic behaviour.”

Goater and grad students on the course helped the pair conduct a trial to see if there was a chemical the beetles released that influenced their behaviour. That turned out to be the case. When one beetle was injured or crushed, others in the trap went wild and started attacking each other.

“Our initial idea was to call it Beetle Fight Club because we were trying to get them to go after each other,” says Eaton. “Then our research evolved and the most successful stage was when we — it was really gross — crushed up a bunch of beetles and made a liquid out of them. We put it on a paper towel with the beetles and then counted how many beetles lived to see the next day. It actually worked. The pheromone chemical cue caused them to cannibalize each other.”

“It turned from Beetle Fight Club to Beetle Dinner Party,” says Hassink. “Cypress Hills is home to all kinds of native snails, birds and terrestrial arthropods, so having this new, highly aggressive ground beetle really threatens these endemic, endangered species.”

The beetles in question are nocturnal which meant Eaton and Hassink had some very early mornings counting bad-smelling beetles on an empty stomach. Their hard work paid off and could one day lead to a way of reducing numbers of these beetles.

While their time together was halted when classes went online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two plan on staying in touch. Hassink is doing field work in Castle Provincial Park this summer as he investigates the influences of microclimate on the distribution, emergence, timing and activity of prominent arthropod species. Eaton is currently in Fort St. John where his girlfriend lives and applying for jobs.

“I’m sure Nick and I will hang out once COVID is over and we’ll stay buddies,” says Eaton.

“If James comes down south he knows he has a place to stay,” says Hassink. “Our hometowns are pretty close so I’m sure we’ll see each other.”