Bioblitz beginner's guide: how to get started
All you need to know about bioblitzing, including how to start
How many species of animal can you find in an ordinary garden? We offer top tips on how to plan your own wildlife survey this summer.
What is a bioblitz?
Bioblitzes are a blend of hands-on scientific surveying of wildlife with a family-friendly, festival atmosphere, enabling zoologists, botanists, mycologists and other experts to share their knowledge and passion.
Many events include practical demonstrations – of bird ringing or moth trapping, for example – as well as craft activities or food stalls.
When was the first bioblitz?
The first ever bioblitz took place over 24 hours in a city park in Washington DC in 1996. It was a great success, and the idea quickly caught on as a means of engaging the public in biological field studies – one of the most enthusiastic supporters has been American entomologist EO Wilson, best known for his work on ants.
The first UK bioblitz was held in Bristol in 2009.
In the UK, most bioblitzes take place in late spring or early summer, when the widest variety of species can be expected.
How to plan a bioblitz
Bioblitzes work best as a group activity, so start by inviting friends and neighbours – it doesn’t matter if some people stay only for part of the survey.
To ensure that you use your time effectively and cover the entire garden, split into groups, each of which focuses on a different area.
It’s a good idea to label all the key habitats on a sketch. If some areas are out of bounds, make sure everyone knows this in advance.
Many public bioblitzes are carried out over a 24-hour period, and some last a whole weekend or even longer, but there are no hard and fast rules.
You could ‘blitz’ for just a few hours or you could organise several survey sessions at different times of day. Above all, enjoy yourselves!
How to start your bioblitz and maximise your species total
Identify your targets
Before starting your bioblitz, make a hit list of target species and where in the garden you have seen them in the past.
Remember that every species will contribute to your total – a bioblitz is about measuring overall biodiversity, so don’t just hunt for rare or unusual creatures.
Different animals are active at different times. For a day-long bioblitz, begin by listening to the dawn chorus, then open your moth trap.
Now check any pitfall traps, footprint tunnels and bait set up the previous evening, before turning your attention to the rest of the garden.
Finish the bioblitz at dusk by looking out for emerging bats.
Don't forget to look up
Always keep an eye out for birds flying over your garden.
Some insects, such as dragonflies, may fly higher than you expect, too.
If you need help to identify mystery species, show your bioblitz photographs to a local natural-history museum or society, or post them online.
Share your records
Posts on iSpot and iRecord are shared with national recording schemes; other websites for reporting your finds include BTO BirdTrack, ARG UK, The National Mammal Atlas Project and Butterfly Conservation.
How to record moths
Moths make up a large proportion of the insect diversity in a typical garden.
Most are nocturnal, so you need some form of lure or trap to record the maximum number of species.
You could simply use a sticky, sugary bait or hang up a white sheet with a light shining on it, but these techniques won’t lure moths from far away and you’ll have to keep popping outside after dark to see what you’ve attracted.
You will have more success if you use a moth trap – essentially a container with a light source.
It also keeps your catch safe until the morning, when moths tend to be still and thus easier to observe and photograph.
Find out more about choosing a moth trap.
How to sample minibeasts
A sweep, or butterfly, net is an essential piece of kit for any bioblitz.
In fact, you need two types – one with a black, lightweight mesh for catching flying insects in midair, and another with a heavy frame and white mesh for sweeping through long vegetation.
Slowly move the net in wide arcs – avoid sudden swipes as this can damage insects’ fragile wings and legs.
Carefully transfer your catches to transparent pots one at a time so that you can view and, if necessary, photograph them.
Using a beating tray
As its name suggests, a beating tray is used to catch invertebrates dislodged from branches or foliage by gentle tapping.
Alternatively, simply spread a white sheet or handkerchief out on the ground below.
How to record garden mammals
1 Search for nests
Check logpiles, compost heaps, banks and sheds for the nests of mice, voles and rats.
2 Record footprints
A ‘footprint tunnel’ uses bait to tempt small mammals inside and across an ink pad, leaving prints on a sheet of paper.
3 Collect droppings
Hunt for scats in flowerbeds and along garden boundaries. The droppings of foxes, badgers, rats and hedgehogs are fairly easy to identify.
4 Look for tunnels
Lift logs and rocks to look for the runways of voles and mice (but do cover them up again). Molehills count towards your total, too!
Other bioblitz techniques
A pooter is a safe way to catch small insects without harming them. You breathe in through the mouthpiece, sucking creatures down a second tube into the viewing chamber.
Lures and bait
Tempt a wolf spider from its burrow in a wall or bank by brushing its silk ‘tripwires’ very gently with a blade of grass. To catch aquatic flatworms, tie liver onto a string and lower it into a pond overnight. Attract moths by coating fences or branches with a sweet-smelling brown-sugar paste.
More like this
To collect terrestrial invertebrates, bury a plastic cup in soil and leave it overnight. A raised cover will stop your catches drowning if it rains.
Main image: Base camp at a BioBlitz in Auckland, New Zealand. © Gadfium/Wikicommons/Public domain