Image: Erika Tucker

It was a “bug party” of all sorts starring crawling ants, jumping grasshoppers, soaring butterflies and more. The insects living in the front lawn of the Research Museums Center (RMC) were a primary focal point for those who attended the outreach event on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018 in Ann Arbor.

“The goal of the prairie restoration project is to restore part of the RMC grounds to a pollinator friendly prairie with Michigan native plants,” said Dr. Erika Tucker, Insect Division collection manager at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology. “In addition to helping restore the environment and providing habitat for many insects and other smaller animals, the project will lend itself to local research projects examining succession, biodiversity, and I'm sure many other things. I plan on examining the biodiversity of bees and wasps throughout the different successional stages of the prairie and I hope other staff and students will take the opportunity as well. The prairie will cover two-thirds of the front grounds of the RMC, which is about a one-and-a-half acre piece of land.”

The day buzzed right along, with cooperative weather and about 25 volunteers. “The goal of this event was to collect baseline data on what insects, plants and other organisms are currently in the RMC front lot,” Tucker said. The plant survey, conducted by U-M Herbarium curator of vascular plants, Dr. Tony Reznicek, found 39 different plant species in the RMC front lawn and abutting brush line. The composition was largely of grass and weeds, 25 of which are non-native species.

“The kids that attended were awesome at collecting insects and I think everyone learned a lot,” said Tucker. They collected nearly 200 specimens. Most were grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, spiders and leafhoppers. They also spotted a mouse, a falcon and a deer.

Image: Erika Tucker

Participants helped scientists collect data, engaged in active learning and had outdoor fun all rolled into one. Activities included a plant hunt: document the current flora on site so changes can be monitored; bowling for bees: sample the local bee and pollinator community to help develop better conservation practices specific to Ann Arbor; sweeping extravaganza: learn how to use different nets to catch insects in the air and weeds; brush piñata: many insects and arthropods are great at hiding, help scientists find them by beating the scrubby trees and shrubs on site – like a piñata filled with bugs; vertebrate search: scout the land and air for small mammals, reptiles and birds to document what’s currently living there; build a life cycle spinner of a bee to take home; seed dissection: open up seeds to discover their parts and how they become plants.

“Once the insects are processed, the specimens will be databased so we can compare the data to what is collected when the prairie is established,” Tucker explained. All insects are in the process of being identified and the associated collection information will be digitized in the museum database for scientific study. A small portion of the specimens collected will be loaned and/or donated to the public U-M Museum of Natural History for their exhibit on local backyard bugs (coming in 2019) and the rest will be deposited in the UMMZ collection.

“The pre-restoration event was the first of many steps in the restoration project,” she said. The plan is to remove the grass and weeds from the site this fall (look forward to a cleanup/raking event), plant an annual cover crop in the spring (seed planting event planned), late summer remove cover crop and any weeds that were missed the first time around, and plant the prairie seeds in fall 2019 (look for a big planting event around then). “After the prairie seedlings establish, we will have more insect collecting events.”

Image: Chris Dick

“Many thanks to Erika for organizing this outreach event,” said Professor Chris Dick, curator and associate chair for museum collections. “Thanks also to Siena McKim, insect division technician and the UMMNH volunteers: Ryan McGowan, Kellyn Mcknight, Hannah Tanner and Kira Berman, UMMNH director of education, who all helped to make the event run smoothly.”

“I really enjoyed opening people's eyes to the world of insects,” said McKim, a fall intern for Tucker. “Interactions with these insects doesn't happen very often. When people see how many different types of insects there are, their eyes light up and they become more curious of what else they haven't discovered yet.” She thinks that through these events, people gain new perspectives and build more positive relationships with insects rather than relying on negative stereotypes.”

Children and others were able to look at insects up close, learn about them and gain insights into what scientists do in the field.

“When we were using aspirators to suck up some leaf dwelling insects, one kid got really excited and start yelling ‘BUG PARTY!!’ That got the other kids really excited to find more bugs, which was great for our survey,” said McKim. “I look forward to helping more with these events in the future and hope to see more friendly faces out catching insects!”

This project is being funded by the UMMZ Insect Division and additional funding sources are being sought. Tucker, who is also an assistant research scientist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is the project chair and the project committee includes: Lacey Knowles, professor and curator of insects; Reznicek, and Sasha Bishop, EEB graduate student.