ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's the holiday season. Lots of people are taking to the air. We're flying off to see family or go on vacation. But when it comes to seasonal travel, insects put us humans to shame. A new study reveals just how many insects fly above us each year in their seasonal migrations. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Scientists who study animal migration tend to focus on the cool animals like wildebeests in the Serengeti or the Arctic tern, which makes an insanely long flight from Greenland to Antarctica. Except for standouts like the monarch butterfly, insect migration is mostly ignored.
JASON CHAPMAN: The insects have really not being studied in the way that they should have been.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jason Chapman is an entomologist at the University of Exeter in the U.K. He says migrating insects can cause huge problems or bring real benefits. Consider the marmalade hover fly, a small, insignificant-looking creature.
CHAPMAN: It's only about a centimeter long. It's orange with black stripes. But it's a hugely abundant migrant, and it actually does some very important jobs.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It eats harmful aphids, pollinates both crops and wildflowers. It spends the winter in the Mediterranean, but comes to England in the spring. Chapman and his colleagues have spent about a decade monitoring the seasonal movement of insects like this one. They use specialized tools, including narrow beams of radar. The radar points straight up, spotting the bigger insects that fly overhead. Smaller bugs have to be sampled using nets, which the researchers send up on little blimps. All of this lets them see who flies up high, traveling with the fast-moving air currents.
CHAPMAN: And those insects of the genuine long-range migrants. They will be traveling at great speed and traveling for hundreds of kilometers in a single flight.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It turns out there's a lot of them.
CHAPMAN: In any one year, something like 3 trillion, so that's 3,000 billion individuals will fly overhead.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And that's just in Chapman's corner of the world. He notes that England is cold and damp.
CHAPMAN: So if you were to repeat this study almost anywhere else, I guarantee that you would exceed those numbers.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Chapman's team describes their work in the journal Science, and it impressed Hugh Dingle, an expert on animal migration with the University of California, Davis.
HUGH DINGLE: It's just an awfully good study using the techniques which they have developed.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says it reveals the magnitude of what's flying around, which hasn't been well-understood, even by some scientists who do study insect migration. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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