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Big science from small insects: 50 years of the Rothamsted Insect Survey

Big science with small bugs: 50 years of the Rothamsted Insect Survey. Copyright: RIS

2014 saw the fiftieth anniversary of the Rothamsted Insect Survey (RIS). It has collected and catalogued more than 30M insects across the UK – information that informs farmers of when pest species might hit their crops, what animal disease vectors are flying, and is used by ecologists detecting insecticide resistance as well as the patterns that underpin the structure of biological communities.

"The Rothamsted Insect Survey has amassed an incredible wealth of data and is now widely regarded as the most comprehensive and continual database in the world on terrestrial invertebrates," says RIS Project Leader Dr Richard Harrington from Rothamsted Research, an institute that receives strategic funding from BBSRC.

Data breakout

£300M+ Estimated cost of a 10% yield loss in the UK’s cereal production due to insects
18M Total number of aphids catalogues by the Rothamsted Insect Survey
1964 Year the first suction trap at Rothamsted entered continuous operation (on 29 April)

Supporting the survey’s work into the 21st century, RIS is now funded as a BBSRC National Capability – an institute-based resource intended to benefit the wider scientific community. It designates the RIS as a repository of data and expertise that can be used by scientists in the UK and across the world.

As a changing climate alters the distribution and abundance of important crop pests, continued monitoring of new insect threats to economically important crops such as cereals is crucial. Many of the insects, principally aphids, also carry viral diseases that infect plants and further undermine aspects of the UK’s food security.

Insect suction-traps of the RIS design are spreading across the world as other countries develop similar surveillance and warning mechanisms, opening opportunities for collaboration (similar to the previous EU EXAMINE project) between growers and industry with entomologists interested in the fundamental mechanisms behind the spread of insect populations.