Command central is a red barn filled with folding tables, microscopes, petri dishes, plant- and animal-identification books, bug lights, live traps, four pallets of bottled water, and three pallets of Oreo cookies. Everything one needs, apparently, for the Bell Museum’s annual BioBlitz, in which hundreds of volunteers join scientists from the University of Minnesota for 24 hours to seek and catalog any living thing—plant, animal, or fungi—in a few square miles.
“It’s a race against time,” says George Weiblen, an assistant professor of plant biology, curator of flowering plants at the Bell, and a leader of the event. The goal is largely to build an appreciation of what Weiblen calls “backyard biodiversity”—the proliferation of life right under our noses. Last year, the search area was a mix of farmland, private residences, and soccer fields on the university’s St. Paul campus—the future site of the new Bell Museum. But nearly five hours into the event, the area had yet to yield any Amazonian-style abundance.
“Found anything living?” asks an arriving volunteer. A dry-erase board, where a running tally is kept, notes just 37 plant species and a handful of critters. Time for the team to deploy its secret weapon: middle-school students.
A cadre of scientists sporting headlamps and hiking boots moves out with a brigade of seventh-graders from Groves Academy in St. Louis Park. They’re armed with sonar detectors (for finding bats) and an Identiflyer (a gadget that plays animal sounds to help identify noises in the night). At the edge of a field, the kids create a light trap: They toss a white sheet over a clothesline and aim their bug lights at it, hoping to lure insects to the brightness, where they can be spotted and tossed into baby-food jars. In past years, says Weiblen, the traps drew so many insects “you couldn’t see the sheet,” as it was dark with bug bodies. “We plug our ears with cotton because so much stuff”—meaning creepy, crawly bugs—“flies in.”
“Come to the light!” a student intones. Only a few mosquitoes are stopping by. The boys grow restless and begin wrestling in the grass (inadvertently rousing some bugs). “Here we witness the behavior of the adolescent homosapien,” cracks their teacher. By 12:45 a.m., the group calls it quits.
At 5 a.m., the barn is buzzing again. Birdwatchers head out, then fungi seekers. By the end of the event, BioBlitzers will have counted more than 850 species, including one fungus never seen in the state before and a tulip tree that’s not supposed to thrive in this growing zone, a possible harbinger of climate change. But mostly the group will have found itself—that is, itself in relation to all the other urban organisms carrying on around us, things rarely noticed, never counted, until now.
The 2007 BioBlitz will run for 24 hours beginning at 5 p.m. on June 8 at Warner Nature Center in Washington County. Visit www.bellmuseum.org/bioblitz for more information.
Tim Gihring is senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.