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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Science one sweep at a time

Researchers gather data, often with little recognition or inkling of its eventual utility

Posted 8/11/21

When I picked up the phone at the office last week, Steve Wilson was on the other line and he sounded excited. “I’ve got a big breaking story for you,” he said, with just a slight …

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Science one sweep at a time

Researchers gather data, often with little recognition or inkling of its eventual utility

Posted

When I picked up the phone at the office last week, Steve Wilson was on the other line and he sounded excited. “I’ve got a big breaking story for you,” he said, with just a slight tone that told me there might be a catch.
But I played along and soon learned that I had the chance for what Wilson described as a “career-making” story, an interview with a research associate from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City who is, without question, one of the world’s foremost experts on… you guessed it, spittlebugs. OK, you probably didn’t guess it.
I recognize that some journalists might have passed on this opportunity, but I knew there was probably more to this story than what lay at the center of a bunch of spittle on some weeds in the ditch.
This entire tale, not surprisingly, was pure serendipity. Wilson, who has been spending most of his time this summer on his lake home renovation in Isabella, was taking a break for a roller blade down Hwy. 1, not far from the Knotted Pine Tavern. As he was cruising down the highway, he spotted a couple kindly-looking seniors in the ditch up ahead, sweeping the roadside weeds with insect nets. Steve, a wildlife biologist himself, was naturally intrigued at the confluence of unusual events— someone rollerblading on Hwy. 1, which one could argue is a nearly suicidal act, along with someone sweeping for insects along this same out-of-the-way highway.
So, he stopped to chat, which is how he came to meet Vinton Thompson and his wife Ruth, who were taking the long way on a trip from New York City to California to allow Vinton to do some insect collecting. After sweeping the roadside near the Knotted Pine, Wilson learned the couple was next on their way to Soudan to sample the spittlebug population around the wayside rest at the iron mine monument.
It all seemed pretty random until the rest of the story unfolds. It turns out, in his much younger days, back in the early 1970s, Thompson had sampled for spittlebugs in northeastern Minnesota, among many other places, and discovered that our region has the highest percentage of dark morph spittlebugs in all of North America. Who knew?
And before you ask, “Who cares?” this is exactly what is so amazing about basic science and the folks who invest so much of their lives in the pursuit of it. Thompson, who actually spent much of his career in academia as President of Metropolitan College of New York, still had his notes from his collecting efforts in the 1970s, which he had brought along for reference as he retraced his steps nearly half a century later.
The data that he collected back in the 1970s is now an invaluable resource. Recent studies have documented the overall decline in insect populations globally, both in terms of numbers and species diversity, so his systematic insect sampling over the years is one way to document that trend. While some other past sampling sites he had visited along the way had seen major declines in insect populations, mostly due to the conversion of rural lands to various human developments, this was not the case in our region, where Thompson said the insect life still appears to be as prolific as ever. He showed me a plastic bag filled with insects he and his wife had gathered while sweeping the roadside in Isabella and it was a writhing mass of diversity, which he would eventually count and catalog, insect by insect, spider by spider, as part of his efforts to document the insect life in our region. By comparing his 2021 findings with the data he gathered in the 1970s, we can see the changes that have taken place over time, changes which can tell us many things.
Among the changes Thompson will be watching for as he catalogs his latest collection over the next several months is whether the percentage of dark-morph spittlebugs has changed in our region. Thompson hypothesizes that the percentage will have declined, based on his belief that the dark morph is an adaptation that primarily benefits spittlebugs in cold climates, since a darker body will absorb more heat from sunlight, which is an advantage in a place not known for the kind of hot summers we’ve had this year.
Which brings us to the second part of his hypothesis, namely that a warming climate should reduce the percentage of dark morph spittlebugs in the population, since the advantage of a darker body largely fades away in a warmer climate. If so, it would be confirmation of just another, admittedly small, way that humans are impacting the balance of biological diversity on the planet, even if the consequences of this particular change may never be known.
We won’t know if his hypothesis bears out, of course, until he gets back to his lab and catalogs his spittlebugs. And it’s worth remembering that Thompson wouldn’t have a way to even detect a change in the makeup of the spittlebug population if he hadn’t come by with his insect nets a half century earlier to survey what was living in our roadside ditches.
Perhaps that’s why Steve Wilson stopped to talk to him last week— he recognized a fellow scientist. While most people don’t know it, Wilson has been engaged in much the same sorts of endeavors for decades. That includes getting up at 2:30 a.m. multiple mornings each spring to drive the same miles-long routes with dozens of stops to listen for the exact same period of time for the songs of breeding birds.
That’s the wonder of basic science, which involves people simply gathering data, often receiving little recognition for it, until at some point, perhaps decades in the future, their seemingly obscure data set becomes invaluable to answering any of a hundred possible questions. It’s people like Thompson and Wilson, who are devoted and methodical, who advance our understanding of our world with each sweep of an insect net or tilt of an ear. It’s often lonely work, but fortunately there are folks out there doing it every day. It’s what science is all about.

More on spittlebugs

Per the University of Minnesota Extension Service:
Spittlebugs are common in Minnesota gardens and are known for the frothy spittle mass their nymphs produce while feeding on plants. Of the 54 spittlebug species known in Minnesota, the most common is the meadow spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius), which is non-native, having been introduced from Eurasia.
Spittlebugs eggs can live through the winter in leaf litter. Nymphs come out in late April or early May and start feeding at the base of the plants. They keep moving up, to look for tender leaves and flowers.
Nymphs pump bubbles into fluid that is secreted as a foamy substance during feeding. This frothy mass protects spittlebugs from enemies and from drying out. It also protects them from pesticides.
The nymphs mature in five to eight weeks. As adults they move to nearby grassy areas, pastures or areas with broadleaf weeds.
The females return in September and October and lay clusters of eggs in plant debris or in leaves and stems. There is only one generation per year.

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