_Urban Bug Trap

The Swann Memorial Fountain in Center City is a place for coin tossing and feet splashing — but scientists also collect specimens there to learn more about the urban insect population.

Last year, Drexel’s Isabella Betancourt spent part of each day in Philadelphia’s Logan Circle, splashing around in Swann Memorial Fountain. The former curatorial assistant at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University cataloged Philadelphia’s insect diversity by using the fountain as a giant insect trap. Her urban entomology biodiversity project tracked the variations and populations of insects to create data about how green Philadelphia’s environment really is.

Betancourt dreamed up the project soon after she started working at the Academy in 2012. “It was hard being inside all the time and working with so many dead insects in the collection,” she says. “I wanted to go in the sun and work with living insects.”

By cataloging the types of insects and their presence in the fountain, researchers can then use them as bioindicators to investigate the city’s environmental conditions. The data can reveal the natural history — the life cycles, habits and environmental requirements — of those insects and how it’s evolved in Philadelphia. If the water becomes polluted, aquatic insect diversity will drop; if the water becomes cleaner, diversity will increase.

Everything Betancourt collected joined the Academy’s specimens, including a species of cuckoo wasp not previously held in the collection.