Swarm Sunday: 2011 Year End Report, Part 4

Dragonfly Swarm Project logoThis will be the last Swarm Sunday of the year.  Feels a little strange to think that year 2 of data collection is already over!   The last few weeks, I’ve gone over some of the findings for this year: the demographics, the distribution of swarms, and some conclusions I’ve drawn from the data.  Today I want to switch the focus a bit and discuss the “other observations” that people submit (their feelings and stories) and comment on the success of this project and what it means for science.  I love this part of the project, so I feel like I should share it with the rest of you!

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Personal Experiences with Dragonfly Swarms

As I said in my Friday 5 of dragonfly swarm stories, I hadn’t expected for people to continue sharing their swarm stories when I switched from blog comment-based swarm reporting to an official report form, but boy was I surprised.  I was downright shocked by how many people wanted to share their thoughts and feelings, not to mention how much they wrote!  I noticed a few trends though.  First, there are three main types of responses to dragonfly swarms:

1) Awe.  These people commented, often at length, on how amazing nature and/or God is for creating something like a dragonfly swarm.  This group included the sort of people who said things like, “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen” or “standing out in the middle of the swarm made me appreciate the beauty of our world.”  In other words, their lives were changed for the better when they witnessed their swarm.

2) Mildly indifferent.  These people were interested enough to look the behavior up online and report what they saw, but they approached the “other observations” question without much feeling.  These people reported facts, but didn’t get into any of the wishy-washy stuff.  A lot of these people live in areas where they get swarms year after year, so it doesn’t strike them as a particularly singular experience or worthy of gushing about.

3) Terror.  This third group was horrified by the dragonflies in their yards/workplaces/outdoor spaces and generally wanted to know if the dragonflies could hurt/kill their children/dogs or themselves.  Most of these people said they were extremely relieved when the dragonflies left and hoped they wouldn’t come back.  Some of them were even trapped in their houses until the dragonflies went away, too scared to go outside while the dragonflies were flying.

I clearly fall into category 1.  Actually, most people fall into category 1 and, in the spirit of sharing our feelings, I have to say this makes me happy.  I understand how they feel!  I try to understand the category 3’s.  Dragonflies are big insects and there are a lot of old and scary myths surrounding them.  Having a whole lot of them in one place can be intimidating to people who are already a little scared.  I do, however, try to allay people’s fears by reminding them as often as possible that you won’t be bitten if you leave them alone and it’s very unlikely that you’ll even feel one brush past you, even if you stand right out in the middle of a huge swarm.  There were very few category 3 reports this year, though the category 2’s were rather abundant.  I haven’t run the stats yet, but I’d say that about 65%, 30%, and 5% of reports fell into categories 1, 2, and 3 respectively.

There are two other things I’ve gleaned from the “other observations” question.  First, most people see very few of these swarms in their lifetimes.  Some people live along migratory corridors and see swarms every year, but most reporters say something to the effect of, “I’m (insert age between 30 and 95) years old and I’ve never seen anything like it!”  I get an unbelievable number of these statements!  With nearly 1800 reports gathered over 2 years, dragonfly swarming is clearly not a rare behavior.  It is, however, rarely observed.

The other interesting thing I’ve learned is just how ephemeral these behaviors are.  Most people (over 92%!) only see dragonflies swarming their areas for one day.  Less than 4% see swarms 2 days in a row, and about 2% see swarm 3 days or 4 or more in a row.  Swarms form and disappear quickly, which suggests that many of them probably go unnoticed by humans.

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the Dragonfly Swarm Project and the Power of Citizen Science

The moment I saw my first dragonfly swarm, I knew I was witnessing something unusual.  I hadn’t ever heard about dragonflies congregating in mixed-species groups – and I actually read the dragonfly scientific literature!  When I started looking for information, I thought a moment and realized: I pay close attention to dragonflies in my area and I hadn’t ever seen a swarm before.  There was also hardly anything in the scientific literature about the behavior.  That likely meant that these behaviors are rarely observed, and that makes them hard to study!

I think the reason this project has been successful lies in the fact that these swarms aren’t something that everyone sees, but something unusual.  Dragonfly swarms are an impressive sight and a lot of people want to know more about them upon seeing them, including me.  But, how does one study a behavior when witnessing it is nearly always serendipitous?  If we don’t know enough to predict where dragonfly swarms are likely to be, how can I follow swarms around to study them?  That’s where all of you come in: I’m crowd-sourcing the data collection!  By combining the information from the nearly 1800 people who have participated so far, I have been able to paint a clearer picture of what’s happening when dragonflies swarms, why they swarm where they do, how long these swarms last, etc.

I think this model can help other scientists too.  Many rare/rarely observed phenomena go undocumented simply because the traditional model of science, with one scientist (or a small team) working with their students and other scientists to collect data, simply isn’t possible.  The amount of money, time, and effort required to study rare or rarely observed phenomena with this model are astronomical!  Most scientists, and justifiably so, prefer to pursue easier problems that give a bigger bang for the buck over problems that cost a fortune and require thousands of man hours for very little return.  In some cases, relying on a huge network of people spread over a very large area can make collecting data vastly easier and less expensive.  That’s just what I’ve done!  As a result, data that would cost an insane amount of money and many people to collect is possible with only a single administrator (me!) with zero funding.  The model that I have used (similar to other citizen science projects online) has proven to be an excellent means of studying biological problems that require a lot of people to complete and/or involve behaviors that are rarely observed.  Online citizen science projects are proving to be a valuable and powerful new tool for studying complicated biological problems, and I hope more scientists will embrace them and start to tackle some of those difficult questions.

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Looking Into the Future

I want to end with just a brief comment about where I’m going next.  My main goal for next year is to secure funds (less than $5000 I imagine – tiny by scientific standards!) to have someone build an official website for my project.  I haven’t decided exactly how I’m going to collect the funds, but the Dragonfly Swarm Project needs its own home – and I’m not capable of writing the code for the website I envision.  Hopefully sometime next year I’ll be able to direct you to a shiny new Dragonfly Swarm Project page and start the new season off right!

And with that, the year is over!  See you in 2012!


Have you seen a dragonfly swarm?

I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes!



Want more information?

Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!


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