Education met hands-on science on Boston Harbor’s Thompson Island on Oct. 9, 2006, as roughly 100 Harvard undergraduates fanned out from beach to beach collecting insects to be included in a new database of Harbor Island insect life.
The students, part of biology professors Brian Farrell and Missy Holbrook’s OEB 10 class, “Foundations of Biological Diversity,” spent a warm and sunny October day combing the island, literally beating the bushes and scooping up all types of insects in nets.
Farrell, who led the excursion, said the trip served several purposes. First, it exposed students studying biological diversity to the most diverse group of animals on the planet. The nearly 1 million known species of insects are more than all other animal species combined.
“They sampled a couple of hundred million years of diversity with a swipe of the net,” Farrell said.
The collecting also gave the students a taste of entomological fieldwork even as it furthered Farrell’s collaboration with the National Park Service to build a database of insect life on the islands that make up Boston Harbor Islands National Park.
The students brought back 100 plastic vials, each containing 30 to 40 insects, Farrell said. The vials were filled with ethanol to preserve the insects and then chilled on arrival on campus, preserving DNA for later analysis.
Farrell said he was surprised at the extent of the haul, which he said could contain as many as 200 different species, some of which could be new to science or, given Boston’s long history as a port city, to this part of the world.
“I predict we will find not only new species, but species new to the Western Hemisphere,” Farrell said.