Bzzz. Bzzzzzzz. Bzzzz. That's the sound of a house fly slowly driving you insane, but it's music to the ears of a team of computer scientists and entomologists at UC Riverside. These meticulous folks came up with a way to collect data on insects by tracking the distinct melodies of their wings in flight.
No, it's not the start of some kind of wild new let's-get-small-style bug band (though that could be pretty cool). Popular Science has the scoop on the project, which, if refined to the point of reliability in field tests, could be a major boon to people whose livelihoods depend on knowing what kind of insects are loitering where (think farmers battling a concentration of pests, or health care workers localising efforts to prevent disease outbreaks).
Previous efforts to ID specimens in the wild have relied on luring them with synthetic pheromones into a sticky trap or killing jar, but once the little things are caught it's near impossible to tell what the heck they were when they were alive, while attempts to record with a microphone resulted in audio that was too full of ambient noise and interference.
But it's even more complex than that. "Wing beat frequency is one clue, but it's not enough," Eamonn Keogh, computer scientist at UC Riverside and lead researcher on the project tells PopSci. "If I hit a middle C on a piano, it's the same frequency as a middle C on a violin. But it sounds different. So beyond the fundamental frequency of an insect flying, there is a colour, texture, or musicality — a more complex signal. And we have ways of extracting that."
Click over to PopSci to hear incredibly short clips from a quintet of different species and see if you can tell them apart. [Popular Science]