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Flying Insect Classification with Inexpensive Sensors


The ability to use inexpensive, noninvasive sensors to accurately classify flying insects would have significant implications for entomological research, and allow for the development of many useful applications in vector control for both medical and agricultural entomology. Given this, the last sixty years have seen many research efforts on this task. To date, however, none of this research has had a lasting impact. In this work, we explain this lack of progress. We attribute the stagnation on this problem to several factors, including the use of acoustic sensing devices, the overreliance on the single feature of wingbeat frequency, and the attempts to learn complex models with relatively little data. In contrast, we show that pseudo-acoustic optical sensors can produce vastly superior data, that we can exploit additional features, both intrinsic and extrinsic to the insect’s flight behavior, and that a Bayesian classification approach allows us to efficiently learn classification models that are very robust to overfitting. We demonstrate our findings with large scale experiments, as measured both by the number of insects and the number of species considered.

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  1. 1.

    An even earlier paper (Reed et al. 1941) makes a similar suggestion. However, these authors determined the wingbeat frequencies manually, aided by a stroboscope.

  2. 2.

    A commercially available rotator bottle trap made by BioQuip® (2850) does allow researchers to measure the time of arrival at a granularity of hours. However, as we shall show in Section Additional Feature: Circadian Rhythm of Flight Activity, we can measure the time of arrival at a sub-second granularity and exploit this to improve classification accuracy.

  3. 3.

    While there is a formal framework to define the complexity of a classification model (i.e. the VC dimension (Vapnik and Chervonenkis 1971)), informally we can think of a complicated or complex model as one that requires many parameters to be set or learned.

  4. 4.

    Many large insects, i.e. most members of Odonata and/or Lepidoptera, have wingbeat frequencies that are significantly slower than 100 Hz; our choice of truncation level reflects our special interest in Culicidae.


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We would like to thank the Vodafone Americas Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) for funding this research, and the many faculties from the Department of Entomology at UCR that offered advice and expertise.

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Correspondence to Yanping Chen.

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Chen, Y., Why, A., Batista, G. et al. Flying Insect Classification with Inexpensive Sensors. J Insect Behav 27, 657–677 (2014).

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  • Automate insect classification
  • insect flight sound
  • insect wingbeat
  • Bayesian classifier
  • flight activity circadian rhythm