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Hamelin bioblitz: Sticks & pooters

Published 18 Oct 2016 by Kayla Larson

"There’s a bug on my lens, do you mind sucking it up?"

This comes from one of our newest recruits to the Bio blitz, a media guest who’ll be tagging along with the convoy of scientists and volunteers. Their camera has attracted a small insect, but it's quickly vacuumed down the catcher’s tube.

Nik Tatarnic (curator of invertebrates at the WA Museum) and Paige Maroni (Nik's PhD student) are leading the day’s exploits. And Nik and Paige are just what you’d hope for in a entomologist; vivacious, well-prepared and carrying sticks and pooters.

Sticks and pooters (or aspirators as they’re also known) aren’t just for show, but form part of an entomologist’s critter-trapping tool set. Thwacking a stick against bushes, shrubs and plants while holding an insect net underneath seems like an easy task, but it’s also only half the job.

Nik and Paige also have one mouth over their respective two-tubed pooters. They aim the latter tube over their nets and using a thick plastic test tube below for capture, suck until sufficiently filled with tiny bodies. Nik holds up the test tube, alive with activity.

He points inside and explains that there are a lot of ants trying to mimic bugs, and bugs trying to mimic ants. He’s also pretty sure that he can see a new insect, previously unknown to science.

There’s a mountain of work to do, considering the size of insects and how few people there are in this field; both for collecting, sorting and cataloguing later.

Currently, Nik’s team have described 400 species of an estimated 3,000. They’ve also been working pretty closely with the Wildflower Society to set up quadrats (aka square botany sample spaces) to collect data. This will inform part of an inventory list; plus samples that will become part of the field herbarium.

But it isn’t just 30-degree heat that this lot work in. Later that evening, we head out again, with pooters at the ready. Nik has set up a bed sheet not far from the Hamelin Station Stay, strung together between two bushes, while a flood light and head torches attract the nocturnal insects to the material.

The question on everyone’s mind is aired: Does the thread count matter?

It’s either the natural way of the scientist, or perhaps the West Australian heat, but the answer is pretty dry, and pretty valid. A white sheet is proven to work better versus a blue or yellow one. These other colours don’t allow the UV to work so well, as it’s the mercury vapour in the white light that attracts the bugs.

Little wind and a lack of moonlight are also ideal for the night-time bug foray. In fact, full moons aren’t an ideal time for scientists to go pitfall trapping either, which is what’s on the agenda for the morning. Too much light at night tends to keep nocturnal critters under cover; making it less likely we’d find them scurrying about near our traps.

We slumber soundly that night in our bugless cotton sheets, feeling our chances of success are high for our next tag-along trapping trip.

Learning how entomologist Nik and PhD student Paige sample the area for bugs. Learning how entomologist Nik and PhD student Paige sample the area for bugs.
Lichen on trees at Hamelin. Lichen on trees at Hamelin.
Nik Tatarnic, curator of invertebrates at the WA Museum. Nik Tatarnic, curator of invertebrates at the WA Museum.
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