When people find out that I carry out research, they often assume that I use cutting edge and complex equipment, bristling with state-of-the-art gadgets and gizmos. Although it is certainly true that there have been huge and exciting advances in this sort of technology, expanding the scope and accuracy of ecological observations, it is still possible to collect ecological data on a shoe-string budget, without buying equipment from anywhere more specialised than a supermarket.
I was reminded of this earlier in the month, when we set up monitoring plots to measure the number and diversity of beneficial predator and parasitoid insects as part of a project, run by Julie Hinsch. Her research investigates the effectiveness of planting beneficial nectar plants as a food source for adult parasitoid wasps, which then lay their eggs on or in caterpillars eating the oil palm leaves. One of the most effective ways to catch small flying insects like these wasps is to use ‘pan traps’ – shallow, water-filled dishes that the insects fly into and get caught. These can be made easily from plastic picnic bowls. You can even adapt the bowls to make them more high-tech, by cutting small slits around their rims and covering these with mesh to prevent flooding if it rains. Julie set out several dozen of these party-plate traps as part of her research. The insects she caught are still being identified, but it is clear that the traps were extremely effective. Clearly improvisation and modified household goods are still very much a part of ecological research!