From the Literature: The Power of Citizen Science

Ladybugs mating

Ladybugs mating

Last year’s Entomological Society of America Meeting featured several talks about citizen science and social media in entomology that I was very sorry to miss.  (I missed out on meeting Bug Girl in person!  Sad, though you can see her talk here.)  I honestly don’t go to the ESA meetings very often because it tends to be agricultural and pest management heavy and when you only get to attend one to two meetings a year you really need to make them count and go to the ones most applicable to your field.  Still, I was thrilled that they were featuring these sorts of topics!  And, even though I missed the talks themselves, the latest issue of American Entomologist, ESA’s quarterly journal, features articles about several of the citizen science projects that were presented at the meeting.  As a citizen science fanatic, I have really enjoyed reading about them!  One article especially caught my attention and I wanted to discuss it today.  Let’s talk ladybugs!

I’ve mentioned the Lost Ladybug Project a few times in the past as I consider it one of the most successful online citizen science projects dealing with insects.  It pops up in the news from time to time as citizen scientists keep finding rare and unusual ladybugs and it gets a lot of publicity.  I’ve talked about what I think the benefits of online citizen science projects are before so I’m not going to rehash it all now, but I think the Lost Ladybug Project is one of those projects that is perfectly suited for online citizen science because the information they seek benefits from having a lot of participants.  And they get a lot of participants!  Over 12,000 so far in fact.  The project is harnessing the power of the public to answer questions about ladybugs and it is a successful project as a result.

According to the American Entomologist article by Lost Ladybug organizers John Losey, Leslie Allee, and Rebecca Smyth, ladybugs studies are important because the colorful, well-loved, and easily recognizable beetles are also voracious predators of native and invasive pests and sensitive to environmental conditions.  Indeed, some researchers have proposed that they be used as indicator species for environmental change.  By tracking the location of populations via the online Lost Ladybug Project, the team hoped to learn something about what shifts in ladybug populations might say about environmental change in North America.  But those conclusions aren’t the focus of their article.  Instead, they’ve focused on the level of success of the project as an online citizen science project relative to what scientists have been able to glean without help.  The results as quite interesting.

First the authors detailed how they selected a group of the 12,000+ Lost Ladybug submissions for the comparison.  They included only ladybug sightings/photos verified by the team, counted overwintering groups of ladybugs as a single sighting, and counted sightings in the same location at least 24 hours apart as separate sightings.  They also described the data used for the scientist side of things.  Data were taken from a scientific review paper for data from 1991-2006 and from published scientific papers from 2006-present.  Then they compared the number of beetles observed and the distribution of the ladybugs reported by both scientists and citizen scientists, and made some detailed observations about a few rare ladybug species of particular interest.

What they found was, I think, amazing!  Scientists typically gathered more ladybugs per sighting than citizen scientists.  Most Lost Ladybug participants report a single ladybug at a time whereas scientists often collect over 1000 beetles in one go.  Scientists clearly collect more data about specific populations of ladybugs (especially in agricultural settings) and have collected more ladybugs since 1991 than the Lost Ladybug participants have since the project went online in 2008.  This isn’t particularly surprising as scientists know where to look and are trained in sampling techniques that will allow them to collect thoroughly in an area while most Lost Ladybug sightings are serendipitous findings and come in one by one.

However, Lost Ladybug participants, and in only four years, have collected over 60 times the total number of samples relative to pro scientists!  They might not collect as many individuals per sample, but the total number of sampling events is far, far greater.  Also, the sightings are much more widespread.  While the pros tend to stick to agricultural settings, the Lost Ladybug participants are spread far and wide in a variety of habitats.  There are a lot of eyes on the ground in any given area of North America out looking for ladybugs and the citizen scientists do a better job of sampling this larger area than the scientists ever could.  Citizen scientists are also better at finding rare species than career scientists.  Additionally, citizen scientists have collected more total species and have a higher average number of species per 1000 ladybug individuals than the pros.  In essence, citizen scientists are collecting better data than the pros when it comes to widespread sampling, cataloging species distributions, and finding rare species, essential information if one wants to compare current distributions and ladybug abundance  with those in the past.

The team thinks the reason their project has been more efficient than traditional science has less to do with the total number of individual participants and more to do with how widespread their observers are and the variation in habitat types that the participants sample.  Lost Ladybug participants have sampled a much greater area of the US, Mexico, and Canada than scientists ever have, or really every could.  As a result, the researchers have learned a great deal about the current distribution of ladybugs in North America and are starting to make inferences about habitat shifts and the causes of ladybug declines in the past few decades.  Though they don’t think that citizen science projects such as the Lost Ladybug Project is appropriate in every situation, they’ve collected valuable data simply by educating the public about ladybugs and asking them to report sightings, data that would be nearly impossible to collect without the help of enthusiastic volunteers who want to participate in science.

For more information about the Lost Ladybug Project and to get involved, please see their website at http://www.lostladybug.org/index.php!

Literature Cited:

John Losey, Leslie Allee, & Rebecca Smyth (2012). The Lost Ladybug Project: Citizen Spotting Surpasses Scientist’s Surveys American Entomologist, 58 (1), 22-24

(Want to read this article?  It’s available online for free!  Hooray for open access journal articles.)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth
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4 thoughts on “From the Literature: The Power of Citizen Science

  1. We have similar schemes run in the UK, we have a Springwatch campaign for the general public to report the first indicators of spring arriving, and we have several others to monitor specific species, or indicators of migration etc

    • Good to hear! These sorts of projects are really taking off and are generating mutually beneficial experiences between scientists and the public. The US has tons of these projects (I run one myself!) and they’ve generated some really great data. Go citizen science!

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