Volume 28 Issue 4, Fall 2023
by Tami Carlow
A beautiful, quickly moving, metallic insect catches my eye. I throw my insect-collecting equipment down and fumble with my phone to open the camera, but it’s too late. The creature has flown off and landed on something 10 feet away. I run over to try again, and I get the shot, but it’s blurry. I won’t give up just yet. Third time’s the charm, and I get the photo I need for the survey.
I’ve been to JK Black Oak Wildlife Sanctuary to survey the insect diversity three times for three hours at each visit and have barely touched the surface. So far, 115 insects have been observed and uploaded to iNaturalist, of which 50 have been identified to species. iNaturalist records the exact location of the photo and enables you to obtain a list of insect species for a particular area. (You can see these insect observations in the JK Black Oak Wildlife Sanctuary project.)
Experts on certain taxa or groups of insects can help identify them very quickly. My daughter, Shea Ill, an entomologist like myself, volunteered to help identify insects and take fast photographs. My eyes and fast actions are not what they used to be. It’s great to work as a team.
In order to get a comprehensive insect survey, many methods are needed. These methods depend on the types of insects one is looking for. There are terrestrial and aquatic insects, soil-dwelling and flying insects, diurnal and nocturnal insects. It would be difficult to collect all types of insects in one trip.
At Black Oak, I have used my phone camera, my hands, a sweep net, and a beating sheet. I have looked under bark, in wood, in grass, on the ground, and on trees. If I know what I’m looking at, and the insect is slow or still, I use my hands.
The sweep net that one sees most often is a mesh net used especially by butterfly collectors. It’s good for delicate insects and insects that you might want to see before handling. The disadvantage to this type of net is that it will get torn apart by thorny plants. I prefer to use a canvas net for this reason. I take my canvas sweep net and glide it back and forth across vegetation 10 to 12 times, or catch something flying by. The disadvantage of using a canvas net is you can’t see what you have until you slowly open it up. What fascinating creatures will appear?
The beating sheet collecting method is great for finding insects on small, woody shrubs or low-hanging tree branches, or insects not easy to catch with a canvas net. The beating sheet consists of a nylon sheet suspended from 4 PVC poles that one holds under the vegetation. A stick 2-3 feet long is used to lightly beat the vegetation over the beating sheet, and the insects fall onto the sheet. Some will immediately fly off, while others will stay on the sheet for me to admire, take photographs, and hopefully identify. I noticed that I did not get as many insects as I would have 30 years ago. This ties in with the rapid decline in insect species around the world.
There are many more methods in an entomologist’s tool kit, which I plan to use at JK Black Oak Wildlife Sanctuary. Why go to all of this trouble? For entomologists, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. For everyone else, it’s extremely important to have these sanctuaries and wildlife-safe havens to better understand the fauna of the region. It’s even more important now because of the dramatic decline in insect species.
When most people think of animals that are in trouble due to human activity, they think of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, or amphibians. Most would not think of insects as being in trouble or even care. We tend to take insects for granted or sometimes get annoyed by them.
The fact is, insects make life on this planet possible. Insects are the dominant animals on Earth, with approximately 1 million named species. There may be an equal number or more species yet to be described. They pollinate our food crops; break down materials; clean up our environment; provide food for birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals; keep weeds and destructive insect populations in check; and so much more.
JK Black Oak Wildlife Sanctuary is an important place to survey insects as well as all of its flora and fauna. Surveying insects helps to monitor insect populations, determine insect biomass, determine the distribution of insect species, and ascertain the presence and status of pest and invasive species.
Tami Carlow has a degree in entomology from Cornell University