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Celebration of Scholarship and Creative Activity 2021

Building air handlers are an effective and low-cost method for sampling insect diversity in urban areas

Brandi Dickinson

Senior, Biology


Insects represent more than half of all species, but their sheer abundance makes the determination of species diversity in an area difficult. To solve this issue, we are studying the effectiveness of using building air handlers (essentially, giant vacuums) as a method to constantly sample from local insect populations. We hypothesized that any insects approaching the intake of the air handler would be trapped by the suction and preserved in the filter, creating a diverse sample of local species. To test our hypothesis, we obtained a sample from the UW Oshkosh Blackhawk Commons HVAC air handler filter that was in use from June-December 2019. The sample contained hundreds of thousands of insect specimens, so we collected three sub-samples of 15 cm³ each. We identified 131 likely species of insects across three subsamples, spanning 48 families and five orders. However, the number of species increased dramatically with each subsample, and each subsample overlapped by less than half of its species content, suggesting that our sampling was insufficient to capture the true diversity of the filter. Nevertheless, these findings revealed a high diversity of insects on the UWO campus and provide a model for similar studies in urban areas around the world.

Project Background 

After taking Dr. Mitchell’s Entomology class, I knew I wanted to continue working with insects. When I mentioned my interest, he mentioned that he had just received a bucket of dried insects delivered by someone from facilities who cleaned out an air handler filter at Blackhawk commons. Everything seemed to fall into place for me, and my project began. To mount the insects on pins, we had to first rehydrate them all or else they would be too brittle to stick a pin through. After being rehydrated in an ethanol chamber for a week, I was able to mount each insect for identification. The identification process consisted of copious amounts of microscope work looking at the wings, eyes, antenna, body, and/or legs of insects and working through taxonomic keys (and cross-referencing online resources) for each one to try and find its identity. Some took minutes, but some could take hours. Each insect had to be checked over and given a different label if it was in the same family but not the same species. At least half of the semester was spent on identification alone. After finishing identification, we were able to create rarefaction curves that showed us that we had not captured the true species diversity in the area from such few samples that we had taken. This means more subsamples will have to be taken in the future from the Blackhawk commons sample to truly capture the species diversity in the area.

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1 Comment

  1. Kelly Lippert

    Great job, Brandi!!!! I’m so proud of you!!


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