July 27, 2017
** This week's blog post was written by Jenna Florio, a research assistant in the Department of Entomology about a project she is working on at the California Academy of Sciences **
Here in California, in the heat of summer, we are reminded of afternoon swims as one of the best ways to cool off from our Golden State sunshine. Anyone who enjoys swimming in an outdoor pool has had the experience of swimming around with dozens of jewel beetles that have fallen in or, if you're like me, of desperately trying to save honey bees from drowning. It was during an afternoon swim like this that one entomologist had an idea: why not collect and identify the insects that fall in swimming pools?
One way scientists collect insects to bring back to their labs is by putting down pitfall traps. These traps are usually cups or jars that are dug into the ground so that insects unfortunate enough to walk on them fall in and get trapped. It was only a matter of time before an entomologist taking a dip had the realization that a backyard swimming pool is equivalent to a giant pitfall trap. It was through this association that a new citizen science project was created.
Inspired by the success of the BioScan Project at NHMLA, Dr. Brian Fisher at the California Academy of Sciences and Dr. Neil Tsutsui at UC Berkeley teamed up to launch the citizen science California Pools Project as part of the Backyard Biodiversity Project (website here). These entomologists both specialize in ants and have a particular interest in ant diversity in California. They piloted a protocol using a backyard pool in Marin County and, although the samples collected are still being analyzed, the results are already eye-opening. When these insects were examined by a taxonomist specializing in wasps, species from four new, undescribed genera were found. Even more exciting, they found an abundance of very rare Stigmatomma aka "Dracula Ants." These rarely seen, under-studied ants are called “Dracula Ants” because workers pierce the bodies of their own larvae and consume them for sustenance.
The Backyard Biodiversity Project is now extending this project to see if they get similar results from other pools throughout California. From the seven collections they are currently processing they already have over 1500 insects! They currently have nine participants signed up in Northern California, but are looking to expand down into Southern California where swimming pools are much more common. This is why they are now looking for your help! If this project is something that interests you, please sign up by clicking here or going to www.backyardbiodiversity.org/pools.html. They will send you all the materials you need to complete and send collections back for analysis. All they ask is for you to help them by skimming your pool once a month for a year. Additionally, you will join a community of dedicated citizen scientists. So, if you have a pool, come be a part of this fun and easy activity for people of all ages. Join their team in discovering new species that live in your backyard!