Scientists use radar to make detailed maps of bugs and track the insects' decline

Scientists use radar to make detailed maps of bugs and track the insects' decline

As meteorologists know, not everything that appears on their radars is weather related. Sometimes, it's a flock of geese or a traffic jam. In other cases, the suspicious storm turns out to be a mass migration of grasshoppers. Millions of mayflies hatch at one time or Angry crowd of flying ants.

While forecasters usually try to eliminate errors from their data, a group of meteorologists is now collaborating with insect researchers to study them. The collaboration, called BioDAR, has an ambitious goal: to monitor flying insect activity levels in near real-time across the entire UK. If all goes well, they hope to expand this effort to other countries.

By harnessing the observational powers of modern meteorology to influence errors, researchers hope to create a new line of data that can inform basic science, pest management, and environmental conservation efforts.

The idea for the project came in December 2016, when Christopher Hassall, an insect ecologist at the University of Leeds, and atmospheric scientist Ryan Neely III, were speaking at a gathering of academics from various disciplines.

“I work on bees, and Neely said, ‘I see bees in my radar data all the time,’ and we throw that away,” Hassall recalls.

“I think it was this moment of terror for me that marked the beginning of the collaboration,” Hassall said in an interview.

Neely agreed that it would be better to use the faulty radar data rather than ignore it.

Three years later, the two have brought together dozens of collaborators and partners in institutions around the world. They have received nearly $1 million in funding from the UK's Natural Environment Research Council to spend the next three years developing algorithms that use radar data to characterize and track insect populations.

With some additional seed funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the researchers are also collaborating with national weather agencies in Rwanda, Mali and South Africa to try to use local radar data to track crop pests like fall armyworm.

In a typical radar setup, an antenna is used to emit invisible microwave radiation through the air. When these microwaves hit particles, such as raindrops, they bounce, creating echoes that are picked up by radar. These echoes reveal information about the number, size and speed of particles, all of which is fed through algorithms that tell forecasters what type of weather event to look for.

As Neely says, moving from algorithms that classify rain, sleet and snow to algorithms that can distinguish different types of insect blobs is not a giant leap.

Work to achieve this is moving along several tracks simultaneously. Insects come in many shapes and sizes, and to get a better understanding of what all this diversity looks like on a radar screen, PhD student Thomas Daly performs micro-CT scans of dozens of specimens housed at the Natural History Museum in London.

“This allows us to create a 3D map of the insect's exoskeleton, which we can then use to inform the algorithm they use to train radar systems,” Daly said.

From “Helicite” to “Biblical Apocalypse”

The researchers also plan to hunt the insects in the wild with the help of a Helikite, a hybrid of a kite and a weather balloon. The kite, which will be flown from various locations across the UK over the next few summers, flies about 3,000 feet off the ground using a long rope.

A series of nets strung along the rope will catch insects from dawn to dusk. By matching what helichtails catch with local radar scans, researchers will be able to double-check their classifications and learn more about the types of insects found at different altitudes.

It is also important to understand what the radar will see if a large swarm of insects appears. That's why, in what has been aptly dubbed the “biblical apocalypse” phase of the project next summer, researchers will release about 100,000 flies into the air, training their radar instruments on the crowd when it is unleashed.

“This is the main test of this method,” Hassall said. “It will allow us to see what the radar sees when a large number of animals enter the air column.” While 100,000 flies may seem like a lot, Hassall emphasized that it's really just “a few shoeboxes” full, and that the environmental impacts of the insect decline are expected to be minimal. The worst scenario he could imagine was that all the flies would die during transport.

Neely's team will feed all this field data into algorithms that tell insect researchers what their radar scans mean. Although they won't be able to identify insects down to the species level, Freya Addison, a weather radar PhD student working with Nellie, will use the size and shape of insect populations to estimate the total biomass buzzing through the air – something vital and essential. An understudied aspect of insect ecology.

Through the British radar network that scans the country's skies every five minutes, the aim is to produce a constantly updated map of flying insects across the country.

“The ultimate goal is a map of insects in the UK, a weather map of insects,” Hassall said. Stretch goal? Deliver their algorithms to other countries to make that map global.

The researchers hope that such maps will help monitor the decline in insect populations, which scientists around the world have observed in recent years and which has been linked to a variety of phenomena, including pesticide overuse and climate change.

Christy BahleyRecent studies that report declines often “are talking about very specific species and extrapolating from them,” said the insect ecologist at Kent State University.

“This will take place more at the community level,” Bhallai, who was not involved in the project, said of BioDAR. “So I'm really fascinated by this.”

Manu SaundersAn insect ecologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, warns that there is no silver bullet when it comes to understanding insect population declines and that there is a great deal of insect diversity that we can observe from the air. Saunders was not involved in the project.

“So, this method is mostly useful for detecting high-flying insects that fly in large groups, for example, mass emergence of aquatic insects, or migratory insects such as locusts, moths or hoverflies,” Saunders said in an email. “It won't tell us anything about insects that are very small, solitary, ground-dwelling, subterranean, or flightless.”

But she said she believes the project has the potential to “contribute more knowledge about the spatial and ecological aspects of insect migration,” which may help researchers understand the value of these ecosystems.

Ultimately, this collaboration may help forecasters spot strange shapes appearing on their radar screens. Neely is crowdsourcing examples of insect collections to the weather community so he can begin creating a catalogue.

“We have a guide for meteorologists about hail, snow and rain,” he said. “Hopefully we can now say if the radar range is this, then it is definitely butterflies, ants or bees.”

Perhaps this will also allow the National Weather Service to issue bug warnings, so you can take cover before a grasshopper storm hits.

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