It has always been my dream as an entomologist to collect insects in the tropics. Whether that be the neotropics or the tropics of eastern Asia, I would have been contempt with either. Fortunately, I was invited by the Bohart Museum of Entomology to participate in an entomological bio blitz within the Stann Creek district of Belize. I accepted the invitation immediately and prepared for the trip that was eventually set to be from June 20th to July 1st. My dream of experiencing the tropics had finally come true and as an added bonus I would be joining many of my colleagues from the museum. I knew this adventure was going to be amazing from the start.
You Better Belize It!
In order to prepare for my trip I needed to purchase quite a few things that were absolutely necessary for adventuring in the tropics. The list of required items included sturdy rain/mud boots, a variety of insect repellents, field pants/shirts, new headlamps, and a good umbrella. Luckily these items did not cost a whole lot and were easy to obtain and within the months leading up to the trip I was all set and ready to go.
Upon landing in Belize City and walking off the plane, I felt the difference in humidity and temperature immediately. The change in climate did not bother me very much since I can acclimate to these changes pretty easily. After my colleagues and I retrieved our bags, we waited patiently for our taxi to arrive and escort us to T.R.E.E.S, the research station in which we would be staying at for the remainder of the trip. During our brief car ride to T.R.E.E.S we saw a number of villages and fruit orchards along the way. Our taxi driver was a very kind and expressive woman who told us stories about herself and made sure we knew how delicious and diverse mangoes are in Belize.
After a very interesting night drive to the research station we finally made it to our destination. We were greeted by the kind owners of the property and by the rest of our colleagues who had made it to the station before us. Once we ate dinner and were introduced to all the staff who work at T.R.E.E.S, we were then given a short presentation of what to expect to see and what to be weary of on the property. The most dangerous animals we were told to keep an eye out for were the jaguar, jumping pit-viper, and Fer de Lance, all of which had been previously found around the property. As soon as the briefing ended everyone made their way over to the black lights and from that point on, the bioblitz was now in full force.
The Insects Are Everywhere!
For the next day everyone was taken on a tour of the property that the research station is on and we were able see what the jungles had to offer. Once the tour was over they let everyone go and officially begin the bioblitz. For those that would like to know, a bioblitz is an intense period of biological surveying in an area in order to record the diversity of species living within it by scientists, naturalists, and volunteers. In our case it was an entomological survey of the area in and around the research station in order to obtain a thorough understanding of what kind of insect diversity is present here.
The amount of insect diversity I saw within the first hour of exploring the around property was incredible! I couldn’t decide whether to take photos or catch insects and ended up somehow doing both, but I know for sure that I collected more insects than I took photographs of. The area I found myself in was a part of an orchard that the property owns and it bordered the more “untamed” jungle. Every few minutes or so I would see a large metallic blue butterfly emerge from the forest and then quickly make its way across the orchard until it was once again back in the jungle. I knew exactly that it was in fact a blue morpho butterfly (Morpho sp.) and was in awe of the vibrant blue color that would flash every time it flapped its wings. There are quite a few species of morpho butterflies found in Belize including the Peleides Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides montezuma), the White Morpho (Morpho polyphemus luna), and the Theseus Morpho (Morpho theseus justitiae), all of which fly high in the canopy and are large in size.
After a long day collecting in the hot sun we all returned to the dining hall for dinner and prepared for our first night of black-lighting with the mercury vapor lights on. Everyone was very excited to see what would show up on to the sheet with these bright lights on display. For those who are unfamiliar with entomological terms, black-lighting and black-light traps refer to a type of collecting technique used in order to survey the diversity of nocturnal insects that one would otherwise never see during the day. This was where a good majority of the insects I collected came from and it is one of the collecting techniques that I enjoy the most.
It’s Not the Tropics Without Rain
During the next morning after the group’s first full night of black-lighting, we ate breakfast and were ready to start the day fresh. Unfortunately, as we geared up to begin our exploration the sound of thunder echoed into the dining hall and soon after that began the downpour of rain. The rain was a nice break from both the heat of the sun and the almost suffocating humidity, making the trip much more enjoyable for those not used to the tropical weather. After about a half an hour to an hour of on and off rain, the skies finally cleared and it was time to explore again.
I spent the rest of the day exploring more of the areas around the outskirts of the property that bordered the jungle. As I walked around and explored the edges of the jungle I came across a multitude of different insect species. Some of the species I found were flannel moth caterpillars (Megalopygidae), swallowtail caterpillars (Papilionidae), and tortoiseshell beetles (Cassidinae). Before I headed back to the dining hall for dinner, I assisted in setting up some pan traps along one of the more frequently used trails in order to capture insects that are attracted to the different colored bowls. The main color used for this technique is yellow, but for this trip white and red bowls were also used to possibly trap insects attracted those colors.
Soon after setting up the pan traps it began to drizzle, which quickly turned into a downpour. Thankfully I wasn’t very far away from the cabins and was able to sprint to the closest cabin near me for cover before the rain came down. Due to the rain continuing after dinner, a majority of my colleagues and I decided it was a great opportunity to pin and organize some the insects we had previously collected. As we began to process our specimens, the property manager and our trip organizer came into the dining hall and showed everyone baby opossums that were found near the complex. From what we were told, a large snake had caught a mother opossum and killed it and the baby opossums were from that incident. It was very interesting to see such small and fragile creatures that were not insects for a change.
The More Insects the Better
After a very wet and rainy night we awoke to a beautiful sunny morning with some clouds still lingering in the sky. Once we had eaten breakfast I led a small group of my colleagues to some areas I had scouted out on the first day but hadn’t been able to thoroughly explore. As we made our way to the unexplored areas, we checked bait traps and made sure the black-light traps were still standing after the rain from the night before. Continuing on to the creek we found a few interesting insects and managed to catch a some very colorful grasshoppers (Orthoptera). We even found some caterpillars that had been parasitized, as well as some very shiny beetles. Despite many distractions, we finally manged to make it to the area I had wanted to explore.
My group and I found a huge variety of different insect species including a bagworm (Psychidae), longwing butterflies (Heliconius sp.), slug caterpillars (Limacodidae), and a few fast flying skimmer dragonflies (Libellulidae). Before we headed back to the station we stopped by a spot that was well-known for orchid bees to appear, given that we had both wintergreen and eucalyptus oils with us to use as attractants. A few drops of each oil were placed on some large banana leaves and we moved away hoping the bees would make an appearance. To our surprise the oils worked and both the metallic blue and metallic green orchid bees showed up! We attempted to take some photos but they move very quickly and ultimately we ended up collecting them instead. One of us managed to get some great video of them and that was enough for us.
Due to the fact that it had rained quite a bit the previous night, I had a very strong feeling there would be an explosion of insects that would appear on the sheets the next night. I grabbed all my gear after dinner and quickly headed to the black-lights. My prediction had come true and there was indeed an incredible amount of different insects across the sheets. I collected numerous species of sphinx moths (Sphingidae), tiger moths (Arctiidae), noctuid moths (Noctuidae), geometrid moths (Geometridae), and slug caterpillar moths (Limacodidae). I also collected quite a few beetles and katydids that made an appearance on the sheets. This night had quickly made up for the lack of insect species that had visited the sheets previously. By the end of the night I had filled my collecting jars and one of my Tupperware containers with both moths and other insects.
Whose Eyes Are Those?
Following the success of that night I knew that the trip could only get better and a well deserved break for the day made the next evening/night all the better. Before dinner I went with a friend who was on the trip to go and check the fruit baits used to attract butterflies. We didn’t necessarily know what to expect other than the possibility of some morpho butterflies or some other fast flying lepidoptera landing on the fruit for a meal. So to our surprise, we found an Owl butterfly (Caligo sp.) that had been attracted to the bait and was feeding on the rotting fruit. Luckily we managed to grab it before it noticed we were there and brought it back to the main hall for a little show and tell.
These butterfly species are some of the largest butterflies found in the jungles of Central and South America, rivaled in size only by the well-known Morpho butterflies. The large “owl eye” like spots on the underside of their wings is how these butterflies received their name by scientists. They are unique compared to other species because they are crepuscular, meaning they prefer to fly at dusk, and in turn makes them more difficult to be preyed upon by avian predators. There is a genus of Saturniidae (silk moths) that also shares the trait of having large eye spots on their wings. Automeris is a well know group of moths that all have eye spots on their hind wings, which is known to be used to deter predators. These moths are usually an uncommon species but can sometimes be more common if the time is right.
The majority of what we found at night on the sheets were moths, beetles, flies, and orthopteroids (grasshoppers, katydids, and mantids), as well as some very large cockroaches that made their way to the lights. This daily pattern of collecting during the day (rain permitting) and at night, continued for the duration of the excursion until our time in Belize ended. Thankfully there were many amazing moments during the trip and I was able to finally live the dream of an entomological expedition in the tropics. As the end of the trip grew closer the amount of insect diversity found in this relatively small area continued to grow, finding new species records almost everyday. It was incredible to know that such a small section of the Maya Mountains could harbor such a large amount of species diversity, not only with insects but also with other wildlife as well.
There and Back Again
When the time came and the trip had ended I was sad but also joyful that I was able to enjoy my time in this beautiful country. I saw many things I thought I would never see in my life or at least not until a long ways in to the future. After seeing the amount of insect diversity this place had to offer, I knew I had been part of something special and I was glad to have experienced it with other wonderful scientists. Thankfully for me the Bohart Museum is willing to do this kind of bioblitz again and is willing to include me in the next adventure. I am looking forward to returning to this place so I can see the changes that may or may not have happened between the years. Until we meet again Belize.