Students on the hunt for a new insect species

by MICHELE STERNBERG

Mantids, leafhoppers, ladybugs, butterflies, wasps, beetles, spiders or a completely new species.

Students at one Sunny Coast high school are hoping to find them all, especially the latter so they have the honour of naming a new critter.

Beerwah State High is one of 50 schools throughout Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia chosen to participate in the national Insect Investigators science project being run by the University of South Australia and co-ordinated locally by insect ecologist Dr Andy Howe at the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Forest Research Institute.

With possibly more than 70 per cent of Australia’s insects going unnamed because they haven’t been formally identified, it’s a chance for the kids to make their mark in the scientific world.

Dr Howe says there is certainly an opportunity for the students to discover a new species because when the program started in Adelaide in 2019-20, four new species were identified.

“We are hoping to get 30-50 new species through this program,” he says.

“The schools that have been chosen are in a range of habitat types and climate zones that contain an estimated 200-250,000 species.

“Now only about 30 per cent of those have been named so this program is trying to fill that gap.

“We’re not looking at environmental change. It’s about getting the kids to do on-site monitoring to get a deeper understanding of the insects in the environment and hopefully, through fostering an interest in science, inspire some future scientists along the way.

“What we’re hoping the kids get out of it is a connection to nature and an understanding of stewardship.

“We are also creating networking opportunities because if the students don’t find novel or new species, they can follow neighbouring schools that have.”

Specimens will eventually end up in the collections of the Queensland, South Australian or Western Australian museums as a long-term source of data for historical reference and future research.

Schools have been supplied with nets and a Malaise trap, which is like a tent that captures flying and crawling insects and spiders by funnelling them into a jar. They will photograph and document the process before sending off their catch to be examined, analysed and DNA tested.

The goal is to figure out what makes each species unique, and that could be anything: from the shape of the head to the numbers of hairs on the legs to unimaginably tiny changes to the DNA of the insect. These minute differences allow the species to be placed within the broader tree of life and give clues about their biology and ecology.

The students aren’t sure what they’ll trap, but they’re certainly keen to find out what’s living in the forest behind their classrooms.

Beerwah State High School head of science Paul Schneider says the school backs onto a nature reserve along the upper reaches of Coochin Creek, which leads to the Pumicestone Passage, so he is confident the Year 7 class involved in the project will uncover a broad range of insect life.

“Imagine the thrill if we were one of the schools to find a new species and have the opportunity to name it,” Mr Schneider says.

“We will set the Malaise trap up in a set position in the forest for four weeks and once a week we’ll collect the jar and mail it to Adelaide.

“We are not targeting anything specifically but we do have native bee hives around the school so we will be making sure the traps are far away from those.

“Basically, we are looking for any species we can get.”

Mr Schneider said Dr Howe had offered to provide educational support and would visit to speak to the junior school to involve all students and educate them on how real research occurred.

“This is how real science happens and they are playing a part in that,” he says. “Every school involved in Queensland is collecting on the same day at the same time and following a scientific method that real scientists would.

“It’s good hands-on experience for them to be documenting the process and seeing the results.

“We are trying to nurture kids to get involved in science and the environment.”

However, it’s not only kids who can get involved in projects such as this. 

Dr Howe says amateur naturalists can share their own findings through the iNaturalist app or find a citizen science project to join at citizenscience.org.au/ala-project-finder.

What is a Malaise trap?

A Malaise trap is a black and white tent-like structure used to collect flying insects and provide information on the diversity of insects in an area. 

It was invented by Swedish entomologist Rene Malaise in 1934.

There is a black mesh panel that runs up the central axis of the tent. When insects hit this panel they naturally move upwards towards the white roof. They keep climbing up until they reach the top point of the tent where they end up in the collection bottle that is filled with propylene glycol, which humanely kills them while preserving their bodies and DNA for later scientific research. The bottle is replaced regularly (for Insect Investigators this will be weekly).

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