If you see Jeff Smith this summer out in the meadow with a big insect net sweeping his way around some cage-like apparatus, stop and ask him what he’s caught. This Yale grad student is using the Nature Center and several other local properties to conduct a study into how plants and insects are influenced by the ecosystem around them.

Jeff, who is earning his master’s in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, spent May 21 at the Nature Center setting up his insect traps. In all, he has traps at 16 locations across Connecticut. Locally he is working at the Nature Center, Manatuck Preserve, Stonington Land Trust property on Taugwonk Road, Westerly Land Trust’s Avondale Farm, and Connecticut College’s Arboretum.

“While this area looks natural and forested, Mystic is actually pretty developed,” Jeff said.

He is setting up two kinds of cages, some with netting and some without. The ones with netting will allow him to see how plants grow in the absence of insect activity, while the ones without will show him how plants grow when they are being eaten by insects such as grasshoppers and aphids. About once a month Jeff will visit his cages in each location to gauge the growth of plant life and gather the insects that have been caught in nearby pitfall traps. In addition, he will do sweep netting in the vicinity of the traps. He will be looking to determine how much the surrounding landscape affects the insects and plants.

He is and will be cataloging all the insects and plants, by genus and species.

His main hypothesis is that spiders are the main predators of insects in his chosen areas, and spiders prefer to overwinter in leaf litter (found in forested areas), so will he find more spiders? Fewer grasshoppers? Bigger plants?
Jeff will be providing us with monthly updates on what he is finding, so make sure you check back here or look for links on our Facebook page.