Tag Archives: collecting insects

Entomological classics – the pitfall trap

Pitfall arghh I would be amazed if there are any entomologists who have not deployed a pitfall trap or two at some stage in their career. I would also hazard a guess that quite a few non-entomological ecologists have come across the joys of pitfall trap setting and catch sorting as part of their undergraduate training; most field courses seem to include a pitfall trap day, and rightly so.  Pitfall trapping is after all, probably the simplest and most efficient way of collecting data, and not always insects 😉 Pitfall - tapir

Tapir pitfall trap

More seriously though, pitfall traps are a remarkably simple and incredibly versatile way of sampling insects, particularly those that are active on the soil surface (epigeal) e.g carabid beetles. Pitfall forest They can be used in most habitats where you are able to dig into the soil,

Pitfall traps cheap

are very cheap as they can be made from easily obtainable household materials Pitfall traps and can be modified easily depending on your objectives and sampling conditions.  It is very important however, that the lip of the trap is either flush with or below the soil surface.  Not very many beetles or other invertebrates,  are willing to climb up the steep sides  to allow you to capture them. Pitfall - spatial patterns They are also amenable to being deployed in a variety of statistically meaningful ways. (Figure ‘borrowed’ from Woodcock (2005)). Pitfall traps - catch a lot They are of course not perfect.   Some of my students complain that they catch too much!

There has been, and continues to be, much debate about what the catch actually represents.  Are they a measure of activity or of density, i.e. do the trap catches represent the most active and careless beetles, rather than the most abundant?  Southwood (1966) in the first edition of Ecological Methods is fairly dismissive of their use except as a way of studying the activity, seasonal incidence and dispersion of single species and considered them to be of no use whatsoever in comparing communities.  Other authors argue however, that if the trapping is carried out over a long period of time then the data collected can be representative of actual abundance (e.g. Gist & Crossley, 1973; Baars, 1979) and despite Southwood’s comments, they are probably most often used to compare communities (e.g. Rich et al., 2013; Zmihorski et al., 2013;  Wang et al., 2014) For a very thorough account of the use and abuse of pitfall traps see Ben Woodcock’s excellent 2005 article (and I am not just saying that because he is one of my former students). You might expect, given the fact that pitfalls were used by our remote ancestors to trap their vertebrate prey, that entomologists would have adopted this method of trapping very early on, especially given the fact that nature got there first, e.g. as used by larvae of the antlion. Antlion trap

Antlion ‘pitfall traps’.

I was therefore surprised when I started researching this article to find that the earliest reference I could find in the scientific literature was Barber (1931).  I found this very hard to believe so resorted to Twitter.  Richard Jones suggested that a sentence in Pitfall silver sand reference

Notes on Collecting and Preserving Natural History Objects

referring to silver sand pits might be a reference to an early form of pitfall trap.  On further research however, it turned out that sand pits were the results of sand mining operations and were used opportunistically by entomologists.  They worked in a very similar way to Pitfall - St Austell

St Austell Ruddle Moor Sand Pit http://www.cornwall-opc.org/Par_new/a_d/austell_st.php

intercept traps (the subject of a future post).   Interestingly, in some parts of the world, sand pits are now being restored in some places as conservation tools for digger wasp sand bees. Pitfall Bohemia

Sand pit restoration – Bohemia.  http://www.outdoorconservation.eu/project-detail.cfm?projectid=17

  But, I digress.  My next port of call was The Insect Hunter’s Companion (Greene, 1880) which I felt certain would mention pitfall traps.  To my surprise, in the 1880s, entomologists intent on capturing beetles, either pursued them with nets, turned over stones and logs, removed bark from trees, used beating trays or even dug holes in the ground, but never used pitfall traps!  So all very active and energetic methods – no sit and wait in those days 😉 So it seems that Barber’s 1931 description of a pitfall trap does indeed commemorate the first scientific use of a pitfall trap. Barber trap

The Barber trap (Barber, 1931).

Despite their late addition to the entomological armoury and despite the many criticisms levelled at their use, they continue to be perhaps the most widely used method of insect sampling ever; for example if you enter Beetle* AND pitfall* AND trap*  into the Web of Science you will return 1168 hits since 2000, which is more than one a week.  If you further refine your search to exclude beetle but add insect* you can add another 320 hits. If by some chance you have never used a pitfall trap, then I heartily recommend that you set one or two up in a convenient flower bed or even your lawn, and then sit back and wait and see what exciting beasties are roaming your garden.

Post script

Since this post was published I have discovered an earlier reference to the use of pitfall traps (Hertz, 1927).  Many thanks to Jari Niemelä  of Helsinki University for sending me a copy of the reference and many thanks to my eldest daughter for translating the relevant bit, which follows –  “The traps were made of meticulously cleaned tin cans (the rectangle ones used for e.g.  sardines) dug into the ground so deep that the top of the tin was absolutely level with the ground…… it is an ideal way to catch the beetles; with their careless way of running around, they easily fell into the deathtraps, and had no time to use their wings (if they have any)”.  The phrase deathtraps is particularly fine.  The majority of the paper is about the species he caught in different locations and he highlights the fact that he caught seven very rare species using this method.

So this is now the oldest known reference to the use of pitfall traps in the literature, although he does mention that he was using this method to catch beetles in 1914.  But if anyone comes across an earlier reference do let me know.

 

References

Baars, M.A. (1979) Catches in pitfall traps in relation to mean densities of carabid beetles. Oecologia, 41, 25-46.

Barber, H.S. (1931) Traps for cave inhabiting insects.  Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, 46, 259-266.

Gist, C.S. & Crossley, J.D.A. (1973) A method for quantifying pitfall trapsEnvironmental Entomology, 2, 951-952.

Greene, J. (1880) The Insect Hunter’s Companion: Being Instructions for Collecting and Describing Butterflies, Moths, Beetles, Bees, Flies, Etc.  

Hertz, M. (1927) Huomioita petokuoriaisten olinpaikoista.  Luonnon Ystävä, 31, 218-222

Rich, M.C., Gough, L., & Boelman, N.T. (2013) Arctic arthropod assemblages in habitats of differing shrub dominance. Ecography, 36, 994-1003.

Southwood, T.R.E. (1966) Ecological Methods, Chapman & Hall, London.

Wang, X.P., Müller, J., An, L., Ji, L., Liu, Y., Wang, X., & Hao, Z. (2014) Intra-annual variations in abundance and speceis composition of carabid beetles in a temperate forest in Northeast China. Journal of Insect Conservation, 18, 85-98.

Woodcock, B.A. (2005) Pitfall trapping in ecological studies.  Pp 37-57 [In] Insect Sampling in Forest Ecosystems, ed S.R. Leather, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Zmihorski, M., Sienkiewicz, P., & Tryjanowski, P. (2013) Neverending story: a lesson in using sampling efficieny methods with ground beetles. Journal of Insect Conservation, 17, 333-337.

 

Post post script

Pitfall traps are even more versatile than you might think. Mark Telfer has developed a nifty subterranean version http://markgtelfer.co.uk/beetles/techniques-for-studying-beetles/subterranean-pitfall-traps-for-beetles/  and at the opposite end of the spectrum, pitfall traps have also been used in trees to sample spiders (Pinzon & Spence, 2008).

Reference Pinzon, J. & Spence, J. (2008) Performance of two arboreal pitfall trap designs in sampling cursorial spiders from tree trunks.  Journal of Arachnology, 36, 280-286

 

Post post script And for those of you who have had to suffer sitting through the Pokémon movie as I did many years ago, there is also a Pokémon version of the antlion! Pitfall Pokemon

http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Trapinch_(Pok%C3%A9mon)

 and don’t forget Winnie the Pooh and his heffalump trap 😉  Hopefully you will use them more carefully than he did. Pitfall trap - Heffalump

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Entomological classics – The Malaise Trap

More years ago than I care to remember, my friends and I were playing the now, very non-PC game of Cowboys and Indians, when we saw through the trees, what we thought was a tent. On sneaking up to it we found that, if it was a tent, it wasn’t very watertight!  There were no sides, instead there was a central panel and the whole thing was made of netting.  What we had actually found, was of course a Malaise trap, although of course we did not know this at the time.  It was only later as an undergraduate that I realised what we had found all those years before.

So exactly what is a Malaise trap and how did it come into being? The Malaise Trap is a relatively new invention.  It was invented by the Swedish entomologist, Dr René Malaise in the 1930s (hence the name) and revealed to a more general entomological audience in 1937 (Malaise, 1937).  It was actually designed as a replacement for the traditional hand-held collecting net, which as Malaise states in the introduction to his paper ‘”Since the time of Linneaus, the technique of catching insects has not improved very much, and we are to-day using the same kind of net as then for our main instrument”.

I was amused, when reading on further, to find that my childhood gaffe of confusing a Malaise Trap with a net was fully justified. Malaise, later in the same paper writes, ”During my extensive travels I have repeatedly found that insects happened to enter my tent, and that they always accumulated at the ceiling-corners in vain efforts to escape at that place without paying any attention to the open tent door”. He then goes on to describe how he conjectured that “a trap made as invisible as possible and put up at a place where insect are wont to patrol back and forth, might catch them much better than any tent, and perhaps better than a man with a net, as a trap could catch them all the time, by night as by day, and never be forced to quit catching when it was best because dinner-time was at hand”.

He thus set about constructing a trap based on the idea of an open tent with a collecting device attached to the central end pole to take advantage of the fact that most insects when encountering an obstacle tend to fly upwards. On reaching the apex of the tent, the only way out is into the collecting device which is filled with a killing agent.  It is in effect, a flight intercept trap, but unlike window traps (subject of a later post), the insects instead of falling into a collecting device, head upwards and collect themselves. Malaise tested his first version of the trap on an expedition to Burma and found them to be a great success “every day’s catch from the traps grew larger and larger, and sorting it required more and more time”. He found the traps particularly good for Diptera and Hymenoptera but also very good for Coleoptera and Noctuid and Sphingid moths.  He also mentions catching Hemiptera.

In outward form, the Malaise Trap has remained fairly unchanged since its invention. The first versions were apparently fairly heavy, having a brass insect collecting cylinder and also only had one opening.  Malaise recognised the disadvantages of the single entrance version and suggested in the 1937 paper that a bilateral model would be more effective.  These followed in due course. Modified versions using plastic cylinders and different netting material were  invented in the 1960s (Gressit & Gressit, 1962; Townes, 1962; Butler, 1965).  Townes’s paper gives a very detailed description of the construction and use of modified Malaise traps (90 pages) in contrast to Butler’s three page description of a cheap and cheerful version made from a modified bed-net.

Nowadays, entomologists world-wide, particularly Dipterists and Hymenopterists, use Malaise traps of various designs and colours, and cost.  In the UK they are available from commercial outlets at prices ranging from £60 to £165. They are extremely effective and we use them to collect insects for our practical classes in the Entomology MSc based at Harper Adams University.

    Malaise traps

Malaise trap in operation, Harper Adams University, Shropshire, UK.

 

References

Butler, G.D. 91965) A modified Malaise insect trap. The Pan-Pacific Entomologist, 41, 51-53

Gressitt, J.L. & Gressitt, M.K. (1962) An improved Malaise Trap. Pacific Insects, 4, 87-90

Malaise, R. (1937) A new insect-trap.  Entomologisk Tidskrift, Stockholm, 58, 148-160

Townes, H. (1962) Design for a Malaise trap. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of  Washington, 64, 162-253

 

Post script

Malaise was not just an entomologist; he was an explorer and a passionate believer in the existence of Atlantis. A detailed biography of this extraordinary character can be found here, including a photograph of the original Malaise trap.

 

Post post script

I was amused to find in the 1949 edition of Instructions for Collectors No. 4a, Insects (Smart, 1949), this somewhat dismissive comment about the Malaise Trap “It is a very novel idea and captures large numbers of insects, but as at present designed is rather cumbersome, and since its design will probably be modified with experience it is not described here

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