Photo Credit: University of Haifa Spokesperson’s office
The first insect radar of its kind in Israel.

The first insect radar of its kind in Israel offers a chance to gauge the number of insects in Israel’s skies, something that could not previously be calculated.

The new radar was installed close to Hula lake, north of the Kinneret, by researchers from the Department of Evolutionary and Environmental Biology at the University of Haifa. The device will allow researchers to estimate the density, direction, and speed of migration, elevation, and body size of the insects, and to assess factors influencing the insects that fly in this area.

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“This is the only radar capable of providing us with comprehensive information about the movement of insects in the air,” explained Prof. Nir Sapir of the Department of Evolutionary and Environmental Biology at the University of Haifa. “We will be able to measure the flow of insects that migrate in huge numbers for much of the year. We will also be able to identify pollinating insects that are of great importance to wild plants and agriculture, as well as other insects that cause damage to agriculture, such as various species of moth.”

One of the first studies undertaken by the researchers with the help of the insect radar seeks to monitor the Fall Armyworm, an invasive species of moth that arrived in Israel recently from South America. Prof. Sapir explained that this species is one of the most harmful in the world and is known to cause damage to more than 350 species of plants.

“The crop that’s worst affected by the Fall Armyworm larvae is maize,” said Prof. Sapir, and added that “in cooperation with Dr. Liora Shaltiel-Harpaz of Tel-Hai College and MIGAL, and with other researchers from various institutions, we have begun to use the radar to understand the movement of these moths, as a first step toward controlling their spread.”

Insects are very small creatures that cannot easily be identified using regular radars such as those used to monitor birds. “The unique feature of the insect radar is that it emits a very narrow ray capable of concentrating a large quantity of energy in a limited area, together with a vertical ray directed upward to prevent rebounds from the surroundings,” Prof. Sapir explained.

Using variables such as size, flight speed, wing movement pattern, and body shape––obtained from the new radar, the researchers plan to apply a classification tool based on “teaching” the machine to identify groups of insects and later on specific species, such as the Fall Armyworm, with the help of the radar.

Insects’ bodies usually contain 10% nitrogen and 1% phosphor. This makes them excellent fertilizer for plants and crops, and nutritious fodder for insect-eaters such as birds and bats. Many insects provide vital services for maintaining ecosystems, such as pollination, natural pest control, and supply of food for small animals of prey.

A previous study involving Prof. Sapir, which was published in the journal Science (Mass seasonal bioflows of high-flying insect migrants), found that insect migration is the largest migration in terrestrial environments. In Britain alone, some 3.5 trillion insects migrate every year, creating biomass almost eight times greater than that of migrating birds.

Prof. Sapir expects insect migration in Israel to be on an even larger scale. “In northern areas such as England, there is no insect activity in winter. In our region, there are large insect populations year-round. Conditions for the development of large populations are much more favorable here. Thanks to the radar, we will be able within a few years to calculate the quantities of insects of each given size and group that cross Israel – something that was impossible with the previous tools. We will be able to understand if temperature and other environmental conditions, such as wind, affect the insect population. We will be able to gauge the impact of global warming on the number of insects. This is important because insects are a major part of vital ecological interactions in many ecosystems,” Prof. Sapir concluded.

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