Crawlers and fliers – how to study forest insects

Studying insects is interesting yet challenging. Determining individuals to the species level


The presence of birch bark beetles can be detected by their unique eating patterns. ©Stella Thompson

nearly always requires capturing them first, although some species, such as the birch bark beetle (Scolytus ratzeburgi), can be identified by the unique pattern they leave on tree trunks. However, it is almost always necessary to use various types of traps to capture individuals if identifying the insect species present at a certain site is the main objective of a study. For example, butterflies are trapped during the night using light traps, and the occurrence of certain protected species can be confirmed using feromone traps that use synthetic lures as bait. Traps can be dug into the ground, lifted high up into tree canopies, or attached to the insides of hollow tree trunks.

As my PhD research I am assessing how beavers affect forest beetle populations. I have several research questions:  do beaver-induced flood zones have different beetle species assemblages than other areas, do the increased moisture and sunlight conditions in the flood zone affect species assemblage, and do beaver areas advance or hinder potential forest pest or protected species. My research combines a game species with widespread effects on its surroundings and forest beetles, several species of which have become scarce and require protection. Beaver-induced flooding and the species’ habit of felling tree trunks may locally disturb forest owners, but my study is looking into whether beavers’ actions facilitate or disturb forest pests. Combining game and insect research is cool, and generates new information on which to base decision-making for future protection measures, beaver population management, and even for using beavers as a natural tool for restoring degraded wetlands and forests.

Window traps are widely used for determining the insect assemblages of sites. Window traps cannot be used to capture specific insect groups, because all sorts of invertebrates ranging from flies to pseudoscorpions and wasps to beetles creep or fly into them. Window traps are very simple: the trap is attached to a tree trunk or set to hang between two trees. Insects crawl or fly into the plastic plexiglas frame and then fall through the funnel into a liquid-filled container at the bottom. The container is filled halfway with water, dishwashing fluid, and salt. The dishwashing fluid prevents the insects from regaining flight, consequently drowning them. The salt helps preserve the insects until the trap is emptied out, which happens about once a month. I have 120 traps spread out at several sites, so every summer I collect about 600 samples.

Unfortunately other creatures may sometimes end up caught in the window traps. So far I have inadvertently captured a few common lizards and a bat. This is always disappointing, because an individual dying for nothing does not advance research or science in any way. In the same way it is frustrating if you unintentionally set up a trap on a tree trunk that an ant colony uses as its route. Hundreds or even thousands of ants may drown in the window trap. As my own study focuses on beetles, I cannot utilize the ants in any way. At least this does not happen very often.

After the trap container has been emptied the gathered sample is sifted through using tweezers and a microscope, to separate the insect groups that I am interest in. Next the individuals are determined to the necessary level. Sometimes determining the family level is enough, but if making conservation decisions or gaining new information on certain species is the goal, it is usually necessary to determine individual insects to the species level. How this is done depends on the order in question, e.g. beetles are often recognized by their ankles and genitals.

Occasionally you come across data deficient species, i.e. species that are not well known or understood. Species, genera, and families are determined using identification keys, which are sometimes incomplete. For example, currently the best key for identifying Finnish rove beetles is in German, and for several families the most complete keys are in Russian. So I’m currently kind of happy that I studied German in middle and high school. I guess next I should begin uncovering the secrets of Russian vocabulary.


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