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The First Insect Census

Scientists set out to count the world's creepy-crawlies.

By Laura Leigh Davidson

hibiscus harlequin bug
Scientists estimate there may be up to 30 million insect species not yet classified. The scientists working on the census gathered creepy-crawlies representing 6,100 species. (Magdalena B)

Have you ever tried counting the different types of bugs that can be found where you live? It would be tricky to count them all. There are a lot! Now imagine trying to count every insect in the entire world. That’s exactly what scientist Yves Basset from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute began doing 10 years ago.

The world has millions of insects. Entomologists (scientists who study insects) have named close to 1 million types of insect species. But they also estimate that between 2 million and 30 million have not yet been classified.

So Basset and a team of entomologists from all over the world took a shot at beginning the seemingly impossible bug-counting mission. They started their count in a rainforest in the country of Panama.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE?

Many thought that counting the arthropods —insects, spiders, mites, and other creepy-crawlies with six-plus legs—in just a small part of Panama’s San Lorenzo Rainforest would be impossible. But Basset and his team came up with inventive ways to count the rainforest habitat’s smallest members.

“We sampled every arthropod from the soil to the top of the forest—we call that the canopy ,” Basset told National Public Radio (NPR).

To get a view of the high-flying insects in the canopy, researchers had to find a way to reach the rainforest’s tall treetops. That’s no easy task. Trees in the San Lorenzo Rainforest can grow as high as 13 stories above the forest floor—that’s about 130 feet.

Professional tree climbers were able to help the researchers. The team also caught rides on helium balloons to fly above the trees. The scientists even hung an “air boat” from the top of the forest to help the team see what they needed.

The first part of the counting mission involved gathering samples of the insects. This process took two years. The samples were then sent to more than 100 scientists around the world, who studied the insects’ anatomy and used DNA analysis to describe and name them.

Describing the insects took another eight years. The results showed that Basset and his team had collected 130,000 arthropods and about 6,100 species in all. The results were published last month in the journal Science .

The Panama study is just the beginning of an overall census of the insects that live on Earth. Scientists believe it is a good start on a counting mission that may not be impossible after all.


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