Insect monitoring

What insects tell us about the state of Polesia's wetlands

by Adham Ashton-Butt and Corinna Van Cayzeele

Alongside our restoration of mires in the core of Polesia, we are monitoring insect communities to understand the impact of our activities on ecosystem health. Our field team has just retrieved the first samples of insects from Malaise traps installed last month.

Polesia is among the largest landscapes of natural wetlands in Europe. However, the biodiversity and stability of this ecosystem complex suffers from the draining of mires. Drainage channels that were dug for the so-called “reclamation” of land for agriculture during Soviet times continue to drain large parts of Polesia’s wetlands. The drained mires make the area less resilient to droughts and fires and eliminate important ecological processes and habitat. Part of our project, therefore, is the restoration of 6,000 hectares of drained mires in the core area of Polesia.

But how do we know where restoration is needed and whether it has the desired effects?

To ensure that our activities benefit all aspects of the ecosystem, we need sound ecological knowledge. More specifically, we need data on insects. Insects are excellent indicators of ecosystem health as they are very sensitive to environmental change and respond quickly to disturbances or restoration, due to their short lifecycles. Therefore, certain assemblages of insects can be associated with different habitats, or different states of ecosystem health.

They are also at the heart of food webs that sustain the ecosystem, providing sustenance for birds, bats and small land mammals. We are looking at numbers and composition of insects to better understand

  1. the importance of undisturbed habitats,
  2. the impact of drainage, wildfires and seasonal changes, and
  3. The effect of our restoration activities on mire ecosystems.

In May, our field team started installing Malaise traps (tent-like structures that capture insects) to sample flying insects. The traps are being installed in near-pristine mires, drained mires (from heavily drained to slightly drained), restoration sites and sites affected by fire. We expect to catch mostly Hymenoptera (bees and wasps), Diptera (flies and relatives), Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), some Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), Ephemeroptera (mayflies) and some small Coleoptera (beetles).

Malaise trap ©Alexey Semeniak

Last week, the ecologists started collecting the first samples that had been caught. And with this starts the tricky part: species identification. Having specialist taxonomists identify each individual would be very time consuming. Moreover, many insects, especially many flies, have not yet been classified to species level. Therefore, identifying large numbers of samples across broad taxonomic groups is very difficult, if not impossible.

Collecting the first samples ©Alexey Semeniak

We are largely resolving this problem by using DNA metabarcoding to identify insects. DNA will be extracted from insect samples, sequenced to reveal its genetic code and identified by comparing against freely available genetic libraries. Some species will still not be able to be identified to species as their genetic code has not been stored in DNA libraries. However, these species can still be differentiated from one another genetically and can be labelled as “Species A” or “Species B”. This way, the presence of these species can still be compared across samples and sites. The biomass of each sample will also be measured, in order to compare the abundance of insects present between sites.

Sampling will continue over the next four years. Over this period, we will be able to analyze the response of insects to changes while taking into account different weather conditions between seasons and years. For example, it may be that in “good” years with cold winters and large spring floods, insect communities do not differ much between natural and drained sites. However, in years of drought, they might change more in sites that are degraded, as those sites do not have the environmental buffers provided by a “healthier” ecosystem.

Besides monitoring the effect of restoration, this study will help predict the consequences for biodiversity if draining is not stopped. We may lose certain types of insects and, consequently, associated plants and larger animals that depend on them for food and pollination. We will know the results after these four years. In the meantime, we will start blocking drainage channels to rewet mires and adjust our activities according to our findings along the way.

Dr. Adham Ashton-Butt is a Senior Research Ecologist at the BTO. Corinna Van Cayzeele is a Communications Assistant at FZS.

The project “Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders” is part of the Endangered Landscapes Programme and is funded by Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. The project is coordinated by Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and implemented in collaboration with APB-Birdlife Belarus, the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).


Sunset at the Turov Meadows. © Elleni Vendras

Maksim-wolf: a beloved colleague and friend

Maksim-wolf: a beloved colleague and friend

by Elleni Vendras

To our great sadness, our fieldwork assistant and dear friend Maksim Belotsky passed away on Friday, May 22. Maksim was only 35 years old.

In our team we used to call him Maksim-wolf because of his fascination for wolves.

Maksim Belotsky during fieldwork. © Maksim Belotsky
Maksim Belotsky during fieldwork. © Maksim Belotsky

Maksim was an extremely motivated, passionate and engaged colleague. He started to work for APB-BirdLife Belarus back in 2018. The fact that at first, he was denied the job he had applied for did not demotivate him: He offered to become a volunteer for the organisation instead, or as he described it, “I try to help to the best of my humble powers”. Being himself native to Polesia, he followed the GPS-collared wolves through the mires and forests of this beautiful landscape in all weather conditions and at any time of day. He was truly in love with nature and most fascinated by wolves. In his free time, Maksim ran a blog (Instagram @info_wolf) about his numerous adventures following the wolves and not only that. He was a big fan of wildlife, outdoor activities and equipment, and what he called forest cuisine. By profession, Maksim was an IT-specialist.

In the project, Maksim was mainly responsible for wildlife monitoring with camera traps, acoustic soundrecorder monitoring, hydrological monitoring and of course for tracking wolves. The data from this wolf tracking was published on the website vouk.by. Maksim was very happy about every new task and challenge. He lived and worked “to the fullest” – there wasn’t anything that he would do half-heartedly. His big dream was that people would stop hunt wolves and other wildlife.

 

For a long time, Maksim was treated for pain in his shoulder, but finally, he was diagnosed with cancer. Our thoughts and deepest condolences are with his family and loved ones. We are eternally grateful that we have met Maksim with his contagious enthusiasm. He will always stay in our hearts.

… only a hike, only a route through the wild Polesian nature, taught me to appreciate and to celebrate the little things. And on the route this joy turns out to be sincere, occupying your whole world and all consciousness.

– Maksim Belotsky

Maksim Belotsky showing a wolf footprint. © Maksim Belotsky
Maksim Belotsky showing a wolf footprint. © Maksim Belotsky
Maksim Belotsky - we will always remember you. All film material was recorded by Maksim himself.
Elleni Vendras is a Project Coordinator at FZS.
Here you can read more about Maksim's wolf work and  his exciting adventures in his personal blog on Instagram.

The project “Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders” is part of the Endangered Landscapes Programme and is funded by Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. The project is coordinated by Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and implemented in collaboration with APB-Birdlife Belarus, the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).


Return of Greater Spotted Eagles

All tagged Greater Spotted Eagles have returned to their breeding grounds in Polesia

by Adham Ashton-Butt

Last July, we satellite tagged the fifteenth Greater Spotted Eagle in Polesia. Since then, the eagles have spent the winter in Southern Europe or Africa before returning to their breeding grounds this spring and despite the chaos caused by COVID-19, data collection on their breeding ecology has begun. Luckily, social distancing is not too difficult in the remote mires of Polesia…

A young Greater Spotted Eagle. © Adham Ashton-Butt

Greater Spotted Eagles are classed as endangered in Europe, with less than one thousand pairs remaining (IUCN 2015). Twenty percent of Europe’s Greater Spotted Eagles breed in Ukraine and Belarus, the majority of those in Polesia (78% breed in Russia and just 2% in the rest of Europe). Compared to Western Europe, where Greater Spotted Eagles are virtually extinct, Polesia still has large areas of intact forest and wetlands; the preferred habitat for this charismatic species. Worryingly, even in Polesia, eagles are declining, with fewer pairs breeding in the region each year.

As part of the “Wilderness Without Borders” project, we at the BTO are working with Belarusian eagle expert Valery Dombrovski and colleagues from the Estonian University of Life Sciences to devise a conservation plan to halt Greater Spotted Eagle decline.

The first task is to find out the reasons behind this decline. Are adults dying prematurely or are chicks failing to reach maturity, and why? We hope to answer these questions using a two-pronged approach:

Firstly, adult eagles are fitted with lightweight GPS tags, allowing us to see what habitats the eagles use most, where they go during the winter, how many survive and where mortality occurs.

Secondly, we are placing camera traps at nests along a gradient of habitat disturbance. This ranges from breeding territories in natural habitats to ones in habitats that are highly modified through human activity, such as intensive agriculture. The camera traps will record type and regularity of the food adults bring to their chicks and what proportion of chicks leave the nest successfully. This information will reveal how well chicks develop during the breeding season and whether the habitat surrounding the nest site affects the food availability and survival of chicks.

Greater Spotted Eagles are migratory birds and are known to winter in Southern Europe and Africa. However, before this project, very little was known about their migratory route or if there are any distinct migratory patterns or differences between populations.

Click to meet the eagles and see where they have travelled!

Although it is too early to make any definitive conclusions, our early results suggest that it is problems on the breeding grounds in Polesia that are causing declines. Of the fifteen adult Greater Spotted Eagles tagged in 2017 (six) and 2019 (nine), all fifteen are still alive. However, none of the chicks from last year fledged and some adults did not even attempt to breed. This could have been because of food shortages or human disturbance near the nest. This year, with the help of extra funds from the British Ecological Society, we have placed cameras on twenty more nests. This is no mean feat, accessing a nest can involve a three-hour trek through a bog and a hair raising twenty metre climb up a tree, but it is key to understanding why chicks are not successfully fledging.

We will need to monitor tagged birds and their nests for a further three years before we are able to make robust conclusions about why Greater Spotted Eagles are declining. Only with this solid data, can we formulate an effective action plan to save this iconic wetland predator.

Dr. Adham Ashton-Butt is a Senior Research Ecologist at the BTO.
See where our tagged eagles have travelled here.

The project “Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders” is part of the Endangered Landscapes Programme and is funded by Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. The project is coordinated by Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and implemented in collaboration with APB-Birdlife Belarus, the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).


Burnt areas and fires on Turov Meadows. © Maksim Belotsky

Fighting fires through wetland restoration

Fighting fires through wetland restoration

by Alina Lepeshkina, Corinna Van Cayzeele, Elleni Vendras, and Adam Gristwood

Following a devastating wildfire season in Polesia, action should upsurge to restore mires – an effective measure to stem even more frequent and destructive fires in the future.

This April, vast wildfires that raged across Polesia in Ukraine and Belarus made news worldwide. The restoration of important mire systems could help stem devastating increases in the frequency and intensity of the wildfires.

Burnt areas and fires on Turov Meadows. © Maksim Belotsky
Burnt areas and fires on Turov Meadows. © Maksim Belotsky

News that fires were tearing across the Chernobyl exclusion zone, situated in Polesia, captured international attention. The enormous fires were a harrowing reminder of the world’s largest nuclear disaster that happened decades earlier and lives on through radiation in the ground. But while the threat of radiation becoming airborne and spreading as a consequence of forest fires is thought to be minimal, the fires were an alarming demonstration of the threat that climate change is causing in the here and now.

Years of drought and drainage of wetlands by humans had created a perfect storm. Seasonal fires are not uncommon in the area and wildfires consuming forest, grass and bushland flare up roughly once every two years. But in recent years, fires have increased dramatically and seriously threaten the residents and wilderness of Polesia.

Polesia is often compared to the Amazon because of its expanse and rich biodiversity, a diverse landscape dominated by the vast meandering Pripyat and Dnieper rivers. But extensive spring floods have decreased year on year, while ‘land reclamation’ policies in past decades have drained areas of land crucial to blocking the spread of fires. The most serious and difficult to extinguish fires in the region occur in dry floodplains or on drained and disturbed peatlands. Untouched wetlands are far more resistant.

As climate change increases temperatures and droughts, wildfires are set to get worse in future unless there are positive changes in land management. Researchers from the area have proposed the restoration of key mires and peatlands as a powerful form of defense against future wildfire outbreaks. A fire raging over hundreds of hectares is difficult to extinguish by human firefighters alone. Apart from increasing and improving the direct protection for villages and their inhabitants, it is essential to apply an effective way to combat spring fires. Natural barriers will help to stop a large forest fire, explains Maxim Nemchinov from APB-BirdLife Belarus:

“When draining wetlands, violating the water regime with canals and dams, straightening and canalizing rivers,[people] deprive nature, and thereby themselves, of the most reliable defense line.”

The “Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders” project works towards the restoration of over 6000 hectares of previously drained mires. More initiatives to restore disturbed wetland could serve to reduce the threat of devastating fires in Polesia.

Alina Lepeshkina and Corinna Van Cayzeele are Communication Officers at APB-BirdLife and FZS, respectively.
Elleni Vendras is the Project Coordinator at FZS. Adam Gristwood is a freelance science writer.

Peatlands and CO2-emissions

Drained peatlands can accelerate and magnify fires. Once aflame, peat fires often burn for weeks and are difficult to extinguish. But damaged peatlands not only pose a special fire risk, they also release high amounts of carbon dioxide. Peatlands store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined and damaged peatlands contribute significantly to global antropogenic CO2 emissions. Hence, restoring peatlands is not only an effective way to avert stem consequences of climate change, but also to address the larger problem.

The project “Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders” is part of the Endangered Landscapes Programme and is funded by Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. The project is coordinated by Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and implemented in collaboration with the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB), APB-Birdlife Belarus, and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).