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Mass insect migrations in UK skies

Copyright: Inzyx, iStock
News from: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
News from: University of Exeter
News from: Rothamsted Research

For the first time, scientists have measured the movements of high-flying insects in the skies over southern England – and found that about 3.5 trillion migrate over the region every year.

Scientists recorded movement above radar sites in southern England and found large seasonal differences, with mass migrations of insects generally going northwards in spring and southwards in autumn. Until now, radar studies have measured migrations of relatively few nocturnal species of agricultural pests, and no study previously examined the vast numbers of daytime migrants.

Researchers from the University of Exeter and Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from the BBSRC, captured the movement of 3,200 tons of biomass, using specialised radar techniques. This movement is more than seven times the mass of the 30 million songbirds which depart the UK for Africa each autumn. It is also the equivalent of about 20,000 flying reindeer. The study is published today (22 December 2016) in the journal Science.

Dr Jason Chapman, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall, said: “Insect bodies are rich in nutrients and the importance of these movements is underappreciated.”

“If the densities observed over southern UK are extrapolated to the airspace above all continental landmasses, high-altitude insect migration represents the most important annual animal movement in ecosystems on land, comparable to the most significant oceanic migrations.”

Although the origin and destination of each insect was not recorded, evidence from previous research suggests many will have been travelling to and from the UK over the English Channel and North Sea.

The scientists recorded movement above radar sites in southern England and found large seasonal differences, with mass migrations of insects generally going northwards in spring and southwards in autumn.

Until now, radar studies have measured migrations of relatively few nocturnal species of agricultural pests, and no study previously examined the vast numbers of daytime migrants.

The study found seasonal variations from year to year, but overall the net northward spring movements of larger insects were almost exactly cancelled out by net southward movements in autumn over the 10-year research period.

Dr Gao Hu, a visiting scholar with Dr Chapman from Nanjing Agricultural University, China, led the analyses of the radar data.

He said: “Many of the insects we studied provide important ecological services which are essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems, such as pollination, predation of crop pests and providing food for insectivorous birds and bats.”

Co-author Dr Ka S (Jason) Lim, of the Radar Entomology Unit of the AgroEcology Department at Rothamsted Research, said migratory insects can serve as indicators of global environmental condition.

“Animal migration, especially in insects, is a very complex behaviour which takes millions of year to evolve and is very sensitive to climatic condition,” he said.

ENDS

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £473 million in world-class bioscience, people and research infrastructure in 2015-16. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

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Tags: fundamental bioscience research Rothamsted Research press release