Postbuses collect insects for biodiversity throughout Austria

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Valentina Corieri (center), Gabriel Kluckner (far back l.) and colleagues collec
Valentina Corieri (center), Gabriel Kluckner (far back l.) and colleagues collect flying insects from postal buses throughout Austria. Pictured with bus drivers Abdullah Edris, Emina Dedic (left) and Bijin Jose (right) © University of Innsbruck
From the bus window to the DNA laboratory: Postbuses make the diversity of flying insects in Austria visible. The University of Innsbruck is launching an innovative project to record insect biodiversity.

Wipe and know which insects fly in Austria: In the new biodiversity project of the Institute of Zoology at the University of Innsbruck, public transport in Tyrol, Carinthia, Lower Austria and Upper Austria is helping to study the diversity of microorganisms. Insect residues on postal buses are the starting material. DNA samples are taken from these and decoded. The new method (DNA trace analysis) saves resources and time, and also covers larger areas for the first time.

Flies, mosquitoes, bees and many other species, as well as introduced (invasive) species, can be identified in the course of the "Insect Bus Monitoring" project in the selected different areas (farmland and grassland, forest, settlement areas). "We can see what state our insect world is in in Austria and how species diversity and insect communities are changing," says project manager Michael Traugott from the Institute of Zoology at the University of Innsbruck.

"As part of the largest climate protection company, we as ÖBB Postbus support this research project, as it makes a significant contribution to the study of biodiversity and the preservation of our ecosystem and thus to the protection of our environment," says Alfred Loidl, CEO of Österreichische Postbus AG.

Test period from April to September 2024

Samples will be taken three times a month along four bus routes in each participating province (T, K, Lower Austria, Upper Austria) until September 2024. In Tyrol, samples are taken more intensively and additional traps are set up along the bus routes. Dry and warm conditions are a prerequisite for this modern detection method. Insects do not fly in wet weather. Windshield wipers should also not be in use during the day.

"During their journeys, public transportation vehicles ’collect’ large numbers of insects, which hit the front areas and windscreens of the vehicles and leave their DNA traces there. In this way, these vehicles generate valuable information on the occurrence of insects in the areas they regularly drive through without having to harm other insects for monitoring purposes," explains zoologist Michael Traugott.

Since April, project employees have been sampling the front areas of the Postbuses with microfiber cloths several times a month in the evening. These are washed out. The insect DNA is extracted from the water using special filters. The so-called eDNA (environmental DNA) will be preserved and analyzed at the Institute of Zoology at the University of Innsbruck in collaboration with Sinsoma GmbH from autumn 2024.

In order to subsequently identify insect species, the researchers compare the existing DNA sequences with international databases. In a 2021 pilot project in Tyrol, they were able to identify a "broad spectrum of hundreds of insect species", including the hoverfly and its relatives as well as mosquitoes, grasshoppers, butterflies and wild bees.

The method at a glance

  1. Insect remains are collected in the evening from windscreens and lower front areas of post buses using microfiber cloths.
  2. The cloths with the insect remains are washed out several times. Insect DNA (so-called eDNA) is extracted from the water using special DNA filters.
  3. The insect DNA is extracted, amplified and sequenced in the laboratory.
  4. The collected data is compared with international DNA databases and assigned to insect species.

For the first time, the bus monitoring approach is being used to study insect diversity over larger areas. According to Michael Traugott, there has been no comprehensive data or similar projects worldwide to date. "The DNA methods that allow us to comprehensively monitor insects from such environmental samples have only been available for a few years. The approach saves resources and time. We analyze so-called roadkill, i.e. flying insects captured in road traffic. We also use public transport to collect the samples."

Research results in fall 2025

The results on the biodiversity of flying insects will be published in fall 2025. The Austrian Biodiversity Fund, the Ministry of Climate Protection and the European Union are funding the project.

Insect bus monitoring can provide important insights into the country’s biodiversity and the effects of climate change on it. The project also serves to raise awareness among the population by showing which insects are present in the areas surveyed and what roles they play.

Insects are important for the ecosystem

"Insects are extremely important for the ecosystem," explains zoologist Michael Traugott. "80 percent of flowering plants need insects as pollinators. Insects are also very important as antagonists of pests. Larvae of the hoverflies, for example, eat aphids. Insects are also an essential basic food source for many other animals, such as birds." However, recent studies have found that a marked decline in insects has been observed in many ecosystems around the world.

Detailed information on the website:­ology/ibm/

About the person

Project leader Michael Traugott is Professor of Applied Zoology and Head of the Department of Applied Animal Ecology at the Institute of Zoology at the University of Innsbruck. He has been conducting international research in the field of entomology for 25 years. He and his team have over 20 years of experience in the development and use of DNA trace analysis and in the study of insects in various habitats.