Lab Summary

My research program extends to elements of ecology, agriculture, behaviour and neuroscience. Central to most of these research topics is the sense of olfaction, including behavioural responses to pheromones and the neurophysiology of olfactory apparatus™. My research program is divided into two broadly overlapping themes: Olfactory Behaviour and Neuroethology. From these themes, several research threads have emerged: Olfaction and Applied Insect Management, Odourant Blends, Neurohormones, Anatomy Interactive.

Olfactory Behaviour

The chemical senses (taste and olfaction), are critical in most animal species detect and process meaningful cues from their external environment (food, predators, mates). An enhanced understanding of these chemical stimuli, and the behaviors elicit within animals is critical to our understanding of the evolution of sensory systems. Insects, and particularly moths, provide excellent models for comparative studies of olfactory behavior, having highly predictable responses to conspecific pheromones and host plant odors.

Our lab currently investigates Heliothine moths as our primary model for examination of evolutionary shifts in the detection and processing of odorants. However, we also investigate a broad range of species moth (Lepidopteran) and other insects for olfactory-driven behaviors and to determine novel behaviorally-active compounds.


The insect brain provides an excellent model for investigations of olfaction. In particular, the organization of the antennal lobe, with odor-mapped glomeruli, appears to have certain functional analogies to the vertebrate olfactory lobe. This paired with the ability to track odorant responses from the peripheral sensilla, into higher brain regions, and finally with high affinity to the resultant behavior, makes the moth brain a useful neurophysiological tool.

Research Threads

Olfaction and Insect Management:

Several projects have been initiated in the Hillier lab, investigating insects of agricultural importance. The key model species’ examined in my lab are the Heliothine moths which represent significant crop pests worldwide. Furthermore, our lab is home to the Chemical Analysis and BioImaging Laboratory (or CABL, for short). This facility enables cutting-edge research on insect neurophysiology, and has facilitated a global network of collaborations. Finally, I am Primary Investigator on a multi-million dollar Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency Atlantic Innovation Fund (ACOA-AIF) project to develop and commercialize insect pheromones and semiochemicals to benefit forestry and agriculture in Canada.


• Recent research within my lab has investigated the importance of male hairpencil pheromones within Helicoverpa zea (aka Corn Earworm), an economically important pest of agricultural commodities.

• We have also been engaged in regional collaborations to examine the chemical ecology of regional blueberry pests, such as the blueberry spanworm, red striped fireworm, blueberry leaf tier and blueberry flea beetle.

• We collaborate with Dave Shutler’s lab (Acadia University) to investigate the effects of parasitism or pesticides on bee behavior. This includes olfactory conditioning of honey bees, chemical analyses of pesticide fate in honey bees, and methods for monitoring and controlling Varroa mites in hives.

• Collaborations with the Canadian Forest Service have facilitated research on the olfactory physiology and management of key invasive forest pests, including Brown Spruce Longhorn Beetle and Beech Leaf Mining Weevil.

• Research on invasive Spotted Wing Drosophila (in collaboration with Agriculture and AgriFood Canada), including host volatile analyses, olfactory neurophysiology, and behavioral and field testing of key semiochemicals.

• Collaborations with the University of Hawai’i to investigate novel pheromones for a range of invasive and endemic insect pests.

Odorant Blends:


One thread of my laboratory’s research has expanded into the field of neuromodulation. In particular, several students are examining the role of neurohormones such as octopamine within the insect body. Octopamine may function as a neurotransmitter, neurohormone or neuromodulator within insects, and is considered a functional analogue to the adrenergic system within vertebrates. This research has included investigations on relative effects of octopamine on sensory thresholds, dissociative effects/enhancement of olfactory conditioning via proboscis extension reflex, and expansion to examine effects on other physiological systems such as lipid metabolism and alcohol tolerance.

Anatomy Interactive:

On a completely unrelated stream, my lab has also been involved in the development of a learning platform, “Anatomy Interactive” which will function as a supplementary learning tool in the instruction of undergraduate Anatomy and Physiology courses. This is a module-based game, wherein students must use their knowledge of anatomy to solve mysteries. Several students have been engaged in this research thread, functioning as programmers, editors and actors.