'UFO' behind UDairy Creamery identified as insect research balloon

10.12.14 HELIKITENatalie Pesetsky/THE REVIEW
Research associate Jaclyn Smolinsky releases an insect-catching helikite into the air behind Charles C. Allen Jr. Biotechnology Laboratory.


A “UFO” can be seen hovering over the farm fields behind UDairy Creamery, speckled in blinking red lights against the full moon sky. The balloon-shaped device has garnered attention from police, public safety and the Federal Aviation Administration with curiosity surrounding its presence.

The unidentified flying object comes from a university-based project looking into insect migration. Every autumn, masses of North American birds migrate south to feed and reproduce, but professor Jeff Buler, an entomologist and wildlife ecologist, is more focused on the insects.

“Of course, I’m interested in looking at birds,” Buler said. “But sometimes there are insects up there as well. And so this project stemmed out of my interest in trying to understand how much insect contamination I get in the radar data, that I’m hoping is mostly birds.”

Scientists studying migrations like Buler usually depend on archived Doppler radar data to track movements of nocturnal songbirds and pest/non-pest insects. But because both organisms are detected as water vapor by the tracking system, Buler is conducting fieldwork to capture insect samples and determine what kinds of species are migrating.

“We get so many weird looks like when we’re driving out,” research associate Jaclyn Smolinsky said. “Like a few people will ask us, but most people are like, ‘What is that guy sitting in the car with a balloon for, what is that?’ You know you could just imagine what people’s thoughts are.”

With the help of university entomology expert Chuck Mason and research associates Smolinsky and Matthew Levendosky, Buler is using a helikite, a 7-cubic-meter helium balloon kite crossover as the vehicle for the insect-catching contraption attached to its base.

Engineering students crafted the add-on from flexible PVC pipe, mosquito netting and a smaller black collection bag attached to the back.

Nearly every weeknight at dusk, the entire craft is transported to the field behind Charles C. Allen Jr. Biotechnology Laboratory.

The scientists release the device 500 feet into the air at twilight, when the birds and bugs are most active. For four hours, the device collects insects like lacewings, aphids and the noctuid and snout-nosed moth, which are known to migrate at night.

“We can come up with estimates of densities of insects in the air,” Buler said. “I don’t know what our maximum density is that we’ve found so far, but some of the early nights we were getting over 100,000 insects per cubic kilometer.”

Little is known in the United States about these autumn migrations because to the agricultural community, spring and summer migration data is of higher importance. Using the data, scientists are able to actively anticipate the arrival of the pest-insects posing a significant threat to crops.

“There hasn’t been a lot of research done on migrating insects, especially in this area,” Smolinsky said. “So it’s pretty novel in that way.”

At the end of the night, Levendosky and Smolinsky will place the collection bag in the freezer. In the morning, all of the bugs are catalogued by vial with dates and heights at which they have been caught. They are then received by Mason, who identifies them down to family.

Buler is not the first to conduct such a study, or use a helikite to collect migrating insect samples, but his findings have attracted the attention of British entomologists Jason Chapman and Don Reynolds, who began conducting insect migration studies in India, Europe and China in the early 1990s.

“It’s interesting because we’re getting many of the same families of insects they’re catching,” Buler said. “They’ve been in contact with me kind of giving me advice and pointers on how to do this, and they’re curious about what we might find.”

Buler’s study ended Oct. 10.

Correction: The balloon flies at 500 feet above ground, not 500 meters, as was stated in a previous version of this article.

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  • comment-avatar
    Jeff Buler 5 years

    A correction: We fly our balloon at 500 feet above the ground – not 500 meters.

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    Stephanie Ann 5 years

    Very interesting!

  • comment-avatar
    Coyote 5 years

    The word is vial, not vile

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