The little things that run the world
Insects are the little things that run the world. They pollinate the plants we depend on for survival, they are food for many other animals, and they recycle nutrients. Without insects, there would be no humans, and yet the resources we’ve dedicated to studying them in Australia are limited.
There is an estimated 225,000 different insect species in Australia, and we only have scientific names for around a third of them. There’s so much diversity to document and learn about, and we think that schools can help us do that!
Inspired by the Canadian School Malaise trap project, and trialled in 2019-2020 with four wonderful SA schools (Macclesfield PS, Waikerie PS, Ramco PS and Cowell Area School), in 2022 we launched Insect Investigators with citizen science funding from the Australian Government. Led by the South Australian Museum, the project involves many partner organisations (including SASTA!) across South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia.
This year we are working with 50 regional schools, including 17 in South Australia. In February we sent each of the schools a piece of professional insect collecting equipment called a Malaise trap. Reminiscent of a small tent, the trap is passive, meaning it doesn’t attract insects but rather is used to survey the general insect biodiversity at a site. Flying insects are collected into a bottle of preserving liquid, which helps keep the specimens from decomposing, and also preserves DNA.
Our amazing teachers and students set up their Malaise traps on the 1 March, and each week for four weeks they swapped the collecting bottle for a fresh one, and sent us the samples. We’re currently sorting the insects in the lab at The University of Adelaide, and we’ll soon send nearly 300 specimens per school to be DNA barcoded at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics in Guelph, Canada. DNA barcoding sequences a small part of the genome to help identify species, and building up the database of Australian insect DNA barcodes will provide baseline data for better monitoring.
Read about what the SA schools are up to on the Insect Investigators Discussion Board here.
What happens next?
When we get the insects back from Canada, we’ll be sending them out to taxonomists (scientists who name and describe species) to see if they can identify any new species of the groups they are currently working on. With the number of undescribed insect species, it’s pretty much guaranteed that all schools will have caught specimens of species that are new to science. What is tricky is that there just aren’t enough taxonomists, and for many of the schools they may not have caught the sorts of insects that we have experts currently studying. All the specimens go into the state museums, however, and will be used by researchers for tens or hundreds of years into the future!
If one of our taxonomists does spot a new species, they’ll work with the school to choose the scientific name, which is a really exciting prospect!
One of the biggest challenges of this kind of citizen science project in schools is that it takes time. We need around six weeks to sort the traps, and then it might be three months before we get the specimens back from Canada, then we need to send the specimens out to the individual experts on the different insect groups and wait to hear back from them. We’re pushing to try and get some proper results back to schools before the end of the year, so that students or teachers who move schools don’t miss out on being involved in the results phase, but it’s definitely a push!
How you can be involved
You don’t have to be one of the 50 schools participating this year to investigate insects. We’ve got lots of resources available for any teacher who is keen to bring some more six-legged science into the classroom!
We worked alongside SASTA and some great developers to create an Insect Investigators Teacher Resource with lesson plan ideas and worksheets. It’s linked to the curriculum for years 4-7, but has lots of material that could be adapted for any year level.
We’ve made a video about insect collecting, students can use our identification guide to try and identify the common groups of insects and their relatives, and we recommend taking images and uploading them to iNaturalist on the Bush Blitz Species Discovery project, where experts can help identify them further.
We’re also running a Meet the Taxonomist Webinar series, which schools can join live to meet a scientist and ask questions, or you can watch the recording. Our first webinar, with Dr Mark Harvey from the Western Australian Museum, was all about spiders and other arachnids. The recording is up online, and join the mailing list to hear about when our May webinar will be!
You can find all our resources and learn more about the project on the Insect Investigators website!
Happy Insect Investigating!
Dr Erinn Fagan-Jeffries
ABRS Postdoctoral Fellow
The University of Adelaide