Tiny Insects Play a Big Role in Forest Recovery

Kent State researcher leads a pioneering environmental preservation project

Header photo is one of the forest restoration sites at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Photo by Robert Boyd.

An innovative research project at Kent State University promises to make significant contributions to the field of forest recovery assessment and environmental conservation.

Robert Boyd, a first-year ecology and evolutionary biology master's student in the Bahlai Lab of Applied Computational Ecology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Kent State, is making significant strides in a pioneering research project titled "Novel Monitoring Strategies to Assess Forest Recovery Processes." This project is funded by a grant from Greenacres Foundation, a Cincinnati-based non-profit, dedicated to environmental preservation and education.

Researcher Robert Boyd holds an insect
Researcher Robert Boyd, photo by Katherine Manning

Research Team Brings Together Diverse Skills

Insects are critically important in many ecosystems, but they also require a specialized skill set and a lot of time to capture, identify and classify in a way that measures ecological function. Land managers often want to know more about the insects that are using lands they’re working on, to understand how their management strategies are impacting the environment, but many don’t have time or resources to measure this very often. Boyd hopes to change that.

Boyd, who holds a bachelor's degree in conservation biology from Kent State, brings a diverse background to the project. His prior roles include serving as an intern fish crew member with the Ohio EPA, a diver and instructor for the U.S. Navy, and an undergraduate researcher in the Bahlai, Ward (Kent State Department of Biological Sciences), and Yin (Kent State Department of Geography) labs.

Scene from inside the Kent State labs

These totes are used to test cameras in the lab. Photo by Robert Boyd

Working alongside co-Principal Investigators Dr. Christie Bahlai, Ph.D., associate professor in Kent State’s Department of Biological Sciences and Dr. Kayla Perry, Ph.D., assistant professor, Ohio State University, Department of Entomology, Boyd aims to develop two computer models using Convolutional Neural Networks and conduct a comprehensive literature review as part of the project.

“It’s rare to find a researcher who's equally excited about working on hands-on problems in the field and developing complex machine learning models,” said Bahlai. “Robert is really passionate about helping land managers make better decisions about the environment using cool, but accessible tech approaches.”

Tracking Insect Movements

Boyd’s work doesn’t keep him behind a computer screen full time: first he needs to collect data on how insects move under trail cameras. This fall, he is capturing images of three different insects – darkling beetles, hairy robot beetles, and blue death feigning beetles – inside plastic totes using Wingscape game cameras in a dark, quiet room in Cunningham Hall, where he can calibrate his methods. The images these game cameras capture will be used to create a Convolutional Neural Network model that can identify, count and estimate the density of these insects.

The next step is to place the game cameras in Cuyahoga Valley National Park as well as monitoring insects the old-fashioned way: using traps to collect them and then identifying them in the lab. The previous model from the tote images will be used to train a new model, using transfer learning to speed up and help with the accuracy of the new model for images captured at the park. Finally, the model Boyd developed will be used to create an app that will help land managers.

Diorama study model in Boyd's laboratory

Inside the totes, environments are set up for beetles to live while researchers test cameras. Photo by Robert Boyd

A Full Review is Coming Soon

In an update on the project's progress, Boyd shared, "The literature review of automated insect monitoring techniques is underway, and we anticipate having a first draft completed by Christmas. Meanwhile, I’ve been working on software that allows me to break up the audio and video data we’ve been taking into usable chunks and training it to re-identify signals. We've captured almost 10,000 images of the three different insects in the totes, and these are currently being identified by our dedicated team of undergraduates."

The Kent State undergraduates involved in the project are Sophia Rogers, Julie Gaetano and Drew Davis.

Kent State University's high level of research activity has earned the institution the prestigious top-tier R-1 designation and allows students to participate in meaningful research as early as their first year. Having more years of research experience prepares Kent State graduates for the workforce and makes them more desirable to potential employers. 

About Greenacres Foundation: Greenacres, a non-profit organization headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, is committed to preserving and celebrating the traditional environment of Indian Hill and its historical significance. Their mission is to provide opportunities for the public, particularly children, to study plant and animal life in their natural settings, encourage conservation, and promote appreciation of nature, music, and culture.

POSTED: Monday, December 4, 2023 05:26 AM
Updated: Monday, December 4, 2023 11:43 AM
Katherine Manning, Ph.D.