The Coast News Group
Team members prepare a malaise trap to capture aerial insects in the San Dieguito River Park. A year long preliminary study of the insect community in San Diego County is believed to be the first of its kind. Photo courtesy of David O’Connor
Team members prepare a malaise trap to capture aerial insects in the San Dieguito River Park. A year long preliminary study of the insect community in San Diego County is believed to be the first of its kind. Photo courtesy of David O’Connor
Rancho Santa Fe Lead Story

Study rounds up county’s aerial insects

REGION — The most numerous species caught were flies, followed by butterflies and then wasps.

These were just some of the preliminary results found in malaise traps intended to capture aerial insects in San Diego County.

Beginning in August of last year, six malaise traps were set up throughout the San Dieguito River Park.

The sampling will end later this August, though there are hopes of continuing on with the project beyond this year, explained conservation ecologist David O’Connor.

O’Connor, a former conservation manager with the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy, will soon begin work as a contract conservation biologist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

The Institute is one of the local agencies, along with UCSD, the San Dieguito River Park and the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy, collaborating on the insect trap project.

One of the goals of the project is to help build the library of IBoL the (International Barcode of Life) project, a worldwide effort to build a DNA library of everything from flora and fauna to insects and other organisms.

San Diego County is considered to be the most bio-diverse county in the lower 48 states, O’Connor explained.

And that’s why the San Dieguito River Valley, which threads a quarter of a million acres and stretches over most of the east, west ridge of the county, was chosen as a spot for the project.

“It really does contain most of the habitats that are found within San Diego County,” O’Connor said. “It’s just a diverse system,” he added.

The collected samples are being sent to the University of Guelph Biodiversity Institute in Ontario, Canada.

The idea behind DNA bar coding is using a small piece of the DNA that every organism has to identify its species, explained Dirk Steinke, director of education and outreach for IBoL.

“As far as we know, this will be the first time such a study is done in this region,” O’Connor said.

The benefits of the study will yield detailed information on the insect communities in San Diego.

As the data increases over the years, O’Connor is hopeful that they’ll be able to notice changes in the insect community. This will allow them to see if something strange or good is happening in the ecosystem, such as climate change or if habitat restoration projects are working.

In just one week of sampling, O’Connor said preliminary results found more than 730 different species. “That was hugely surprising,” he added.

Of the more than 730 species that were sent to IBoL, there were some 245 species that were new to that database, O’Connor said. “That was the first time they’ve even been put into that database.”

He said that was somewhat to be expected because this hasn’t been done before, adding that it also means they may have found new species.

The library has been compiling species information for at least 10 years, Steinke said.

The database is available to the public and is already being used by several agencies, including here in the U.S., according to Steinke.

He said groups are using the database to help identify any pests that may be traveling across borders. The FDA uses the database as their official method of testing seafood to control what kinds of species are sold.

The use of the malaise traps is becoming a worldwide thing, Steinke said. “We have several people across the planet that are willing to put up a trap like that over a course of an entire year and collect and ship the samples here,” he said.

In Canada, which has a rougher climate, people tend to think the insect diversity is not as great as would be found in a warmer region like San Diego’s, Steinke explained. “We think 70,000 species haven’t been discovered in Canada,” he said. “And the more you go towards the tropics, the worse that might get; so the numbers get higher. There’s a good chance that half of what you encounter could be new at some point.”

There aren’t any traps on the ground now, O’Connor explained. The traps have been set quarterly with the latest traps being removed this February. They expect to set the traps once more later this May.

O’Connor said that a long-term goal would be to create a San Diego region barcode of life database.

Creating a county, or even statewide, database will help the institute better understand the region and grow smartly in the future, he said.

They are looking for biotech companies in the area to help create the barcode database in the future and are seeking other support to conduct and grow the project beyond this year. Contact O’Connor at [email protected] for more information.