Smoky Mountain Insects

Oh wow, it’s been a month since I last posted anything.  Whoops!  Can only say that it’s been a REALLY busy month and work with a lot of long hours and evening programs. But things slow down for a little while and that means I have the time and energy to blog!

Last weekend I went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and helped one of my coworkers lead an educator trek.  At the museum where I work, educator treks are open to formal and informal educators (people who work at museums, zoos, environmental education centers, and the like) and take them out into the field for one to seven days to learn about nature and science firsthand.  For this particular three-day trip, we spent a day at the facility at Purchase Knob learning from the rangers about citizen science efforts that are being done at the park and getting some hands on experience.  It’s a spectacularly beautiful place:

We looked at the status of a bunch of trees for the Nature’s Notebook project and did a leaf litter arthropod study that the park oversees.  The latter involved putting leaf litter into a shaker box, shaking it vigorously, and then using an aspirator (also known as a pooter or, as our ranger calls them, “suckie upper thingies”) to transfer any animals to a vial for examination back in the classroom.  It was fun watching the teachers respond to the insects they caught once they were projected onto a big screen with a video microscope:

In the afternoon, we walked a very long way down a very steep mountain to get to a stream to check for salamanders along some transect lines the park has set up in the area.  I know next to nothing about salamanders, but apparently the pygmy salamanders we saw are very interesting and we saw 7 species altogether.  As the last group finished measuring the salamanders they’d caught and recorded their data, the rest of the group wandered down to the stream to look for more salamanders.  Now I love salamanders, but you all know I’m much more into stream insects than anything with  a backbone.  We found a bunch of flat-headed mayflies clinging to rocks and someone brought over this stonefly:

I think it’s a perlodid stonefly, but honestly I didn’t look at the mouthparts because I was partly in charge of the group.  One of the teachers was looking for salamanders in a little puddle between a big rock and the shore and found one of these:

A roach-like stonefly!!!  I did a little happy stonefly dance and may have yelled a little as I tried to get everyone else excited about it.  Sadly, most of the group was much more interested in the salamanders to care about this amazing stonefly, but it didn’t diminish my excitement over it.  The same teacher found another one too.  I’ve seen specimens, but never a live one, so it was very, very exciting for me.  It’s hard to describe the joy you get from seeing something in the wild that you’ve been hoping to see for a while. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.

After the long trek back up the hill, we went on a wildflower hike.  The Smokies are known for their amazing wildflowers and there were many species in bloom.  We had the group do some nature journaling so they could just sit and look at the flowers for a while. Totally by accident, the trillium that I chose to sketch had insects on it:

Two longhorn beetles that ended up getting frisky as I drew my flower and a teenie, tiny caterpillar was starting to make a tiny hole in the petal when I left.  Insects always improve flowers as far as I’m concerned, even one as awesome as a trillium.

It had apparently been unusually dry in the Smokies for a while, but it rained hard our second night there.  We went to Cataloochee Valley the last day to hike a bit, look for elk, and learn about human impacts in Great Smoky and everything smelled clean and bright.  When we arrived back at the vans, we were treated to a HUGE group of butterflies puddling in the damp dirt:

This photo doesn’t even begin to do justice to the number of swallowtails in the area!  I suspect that because it had been dry for a relatively long time, the butterflies may have been hard up for the salts and minerals that they usually suck out of the soil when they “puddle.”  Dry weather means dry soils and limited puddling opportunities, but the rain seems to have brought the butterflies out in force.  I have never seen so many large butterflies in one place at one time in the wild and they were swirling all around us.  It was amazing!  One of the teachers wandered off a bit and came across this:

That’s a big bunch of butterflies on a big pile of scat, happily sucking nutrients from the wet surface.  If you look closely, you’ll also see a burying beetle.  The butterflies were doing a pretty good job keeping it away from the scat as they fed, so at one point it climbed right over the top of their wings in an unsuccessful attempt to find a place where it could feed also.  The beetle made the whole amazing butterfly experience even better!

Even though I was with a group and didn’t get to spend nearly as much time poking around for insects as I would have if left to myself, the whole trip was just fabulous. The teachers we had with use were amazing and very excited to get out into the mountains and we saw a lot of really excellent wildlife.  The insects were just a happy bonus!  But they make me want to go back and explore more.  Planning another trip there this summer!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

Searching for Lost Ladybugs

Seven spot ladybug

Seven spot ladybug

I do a ton of citizen science outreach programs in my job.  I like different citizen science projects for a variety of reasons, but when I’m working with kids, you can’t beat the Lost Ladybug Project.  Lost Ladybug is great!  It appeals to little kids because all of them have interacted with ladybugs at some point in their lives and very few kids, even girls, are scared of them.  Also, when you ask the typical 5-year-old what their favorite insect is, ladybugs are right up there in the top two, just behind butterflies. Citizen science programs are often hard to do with young kids because they have only the vaguest idea of what science is, so trying to convince them that they should do science, that they can help scientists learn more about a subject, is a really hard sell.  But not with Lost Ladybug!  In my experience, kids LOVE that project.  They understand why they should do it (that they are helping scientists learn more about native and non-native ladybugs and their interactions) and no one beats a 5-year-old as a ladybug spotter.  Lost Ladybug is, I think, the very best citizen science project you can do with the really little guys.  I teach a lot of people about it.  A LOT.

Kids at Homeschool Day

Kids at the Homeschool Day bird lesson

My museum had a Homeschool Day on Monday, a day where homeschool families could bring their kids to Prairie Ridge for a variety of nature-themed lessons taught by several different educators at the museum.  I was scheduled to teach my Lost Ladybug lesson during my session for 7-9 year olds.  I had no idea what to expect!  I had done the same lesson just a few days before and we hadn’t found a single ladybug in the hour that we looked.  I had even looked at the bronze fennel in the Prairie Ridge garden, the place I can almost always find ladybugs, and we STILL didn’t find any!  It’s all well and good when you’re leading a small group on a free walk, but when you’ve got a larger group and they’ve paid to learn something from you, well…  It would suck if you didn’t find anything!  So, I scooped a couple of larvae I found into the magnifier boxes and hoped for the best.

ladybug 1I had about 10 kids in my group, and I started by telling them about the Lost Ladybug Project, what we were going to be doing, and handed out some identification guides for the ladybugs they were most likely to see.  The plan was that they would spread out in the prairie and look for ladybugs.  If they found any, they would bring the ladybug to me or my awesome volunteer and we would record some basic information on the data sheets I created for the project.  Then we would snap a photo and release the ladybug back into the field when we were done.  I had 6 magnifier boxes with me, but I had little hope we would find that many.  And things started off slowly as expected.  We walked out into the field and everyone started looking for ladybugs.  The kids looked really hard and were so excited!  Eventually one kid yelled, “I found one!” and we all rushed over to see.  It was just a ladybug pupa, so my volunteer and I talked about the ladybug life cycle a bit and showed off the larvae, then sent the kids back out to look.  It wasn’t looking good.

Asian multicolored ladybeetle

Asian multicolored ladybeetle

A few minutes later, another kid yelled, “I found one!” and came running over with hands cupped in that way that can only mean they’re holding something that’s likely to get away.  I grabbed a magnifier box and we carefully transferred our first ladybug into the box.  A few kids came over to see, so we all looked at the ID guide, counted the spots, and learned that our first find was a seven spotted ladybug.  It’s a non-native species, so the kids all said, “awwww!” in a very disappointed manner, then went back out to look for more.  Soon another kid came running over, hand carefully cupped around a ladybug.  Into a box it went, and before we’d even finished, a mom brought over another.  Soon it was all we could do to keep up with the flow of ladybugs!  Kids were running to us from all over the field.  My six boxes weren’t nearly enough, so we started doubling up, then tripling, the ladybugs in the boxes.  My volunteer and I gave up trying to record the data as the data was the same for every ladybug and there was no way to keep up with the photos.  Eventually, we took photos of two ladybugs just so the kids could see us doing it, then we gave up and decided to finish photographing ladybugs after everyone left.

Convergent ladybug

Convergent ladybug

One of the other museum people went to find more bug boxes for us, and soon my pockets were full of ladybug boxes.  My assistant was carrying even more in my lunchbag.  We counted our ladybugs and learned that we found 28 of them.  And it was great!  The kids were having a ton of fun.  Their parents were getting really into it too.  Every time a kid would bring a ladybug over, they would say, “It’s just another seven spot…” and sigh heavily before running off to find more.  I even heard a few kids whine, “ANOTHER non-native ladybug!  Are there ANY native ladybugs out here??”  That’s the sort of thing that makes your heart leap a bit when you’re doing a program, a kid that has voluntarily demonstrated that they understand what you’re doing.  I even had a few kids teach one of the other museum educators what a ladybug pupa looked like because she hadn’t ever seen one.  The kids knew just where to find one and were really happy to share their new knowledge.

Polished ladybug

Polished ladybug

After making a quick trip to the garden to look at the larvae on the fennel plants, we gathered together to discuss our findings.  Of the 28 ladybugs we found, 25 were the non-native seven spots.  One was another non-native, the Asian multicolored ladybeetle.  Considering how very many of them make their way into the trailer where the Prairie Ridge offices are during the winter, I was quite surprised that we found only one in the field.  Happily, we did find two native species, one convergent ladybug and one polished ladybug.  The kids that found those were incredibly excited because they’d found something special – they’d found native ladybugs in a sea of non-natives.

Seven spot ladybug

Seven spot ladybug

We finished up the session with a discussion of warning coloration in ladybugs and what it means, then I gave each kid a coloring sheet so they could draw a ladybug with warning coloration (real or imaginary) and had them write down what kind of animal the coloration protected them from.  We had a great mix of realistic and imaginary ladybugs, then all the kids proudly took their art, a Lost Ladybug bookmark, and an ID sheet home so they could continue finding and submitting ladybugs on their own.  I’ve told thousands of people about Lost Ladybug, but this was the first time I’d ever really felt like most or all the people in the group would go home and actually do the project.  It was a great feeling!

Days like this are the reason why I love my job and why I love teaching people about insects.  Getting a bunch of kids out in the field collecting bugs…  There’s really nothing better!  Seeing that excitement and energy directed toward something you’re passionate about is incredible.  And I’m teaching this lesson again this Saturday!  We’ll be collecting in downtown Raleigh this time, not at the field station, so it will be interesting to see if there are differences in the things we find or not.  And this time, I’ll bring a LOT more boxes, just in case.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Friday 5: Things I’ve Learned at Science Online 2013

Science Online started Wednesday and hundreds of incredibly talented science writers descended on my city for it. This is my first year at Science Online and I’m having a blast! I’ve gotten to meet a few of my science writing heroes, talked about citizen science with a lot of people, and have learned all sorts of new things in the sessions. There are several bug bloggers here (more about that shortly) and all five of my photo submissions made it into the SciArt show. Super fun! Then there is the swag… Oh, the swag! I wish all conferences gave you science books! That’s a whole lot better, at least to me, than all the water bottles I never use and bags that I end up giving away because I have too many. Free science books are always welcome!

But let’s go back to the things I’ve learned. I’ve been live tweeting as much as possible while trying to check Twitter and write notes and send an occasional e mail (Scio13’ers seem to be masters of online multitasking!), so if you’ve been following me on Twitter the last few days you know that I’ve had some revelations. I’ll try not to repeat too many of those here, but let’s start with this one:

1. Science raps done by a white guy with a degree in medieval literature are darned funny!

Baba Brinkman, performing one of his raps at the Scio13 open mike night

Baba Brinkman, performing one of his raps at the Scio13 open mike night

Baba Brinkman performed some of his science raps today during the morning session as well as last night during the open mike. I absolutely loved them! They were witty, had an excellent beat, and were shockingly educational. I will be the first to admit that I am not a lover of rap. At all. But I think I’m going to buy one – possibly all – of Baba’s albums because his songs are awesome. We had a room of 450 mostly white people yelling “I a African!” That’s really something to see – and it even made sense based on the lesson about evolution conveyed in the song. :)

2. Using personal narrative in science writing can be a great way to bring people into the story and make them appreciate science.

Personal narrative illustration

The doodle from the personal narrative session highlighting some of the stories and points made – click to expand!

I went to a session on the role of personal narrative in science writing and I loved it! Partly I was excited because I was sitting two seat back from Carl Zimmer, only a few seats away from Ed Yong, and Alex Wild was directly in my line of sight, but it was great to hear so many well-respected, amazingly skilled science writers talk about how they have used personal stories to draw people into the science and see the relevance of the science to their own lives. I think I enjoyed this session partly because I like to tell these kinds of stories already, though I have a new idea about how to write them that I’m going to try. Having so many very well-respected science writers validate a writing style that I love to use, however, made it seem so much more legitimate.

3. The ethics surrounding citizen science are Much more complicated than I would have expected – and it is something that all citizen science project leaders should think about.


This has nothing to do with ethics, but this little guy is the official mascot of Scio13 – SciOctopus!

I am very aware of privacy issues related to my Dragonfly Swarm Project and all personal data that I collect is seen by me and no one else, and never will be shared with others. That said, we discussed several things that I hadn’t ever even thought about in the session about ethics in citizen science. For example, if you have people sign consent forms, they often don’t read them, yet sign them. (Guilty!) There are tricks you can employ to force people to read the forms, such as giving a test based on what they read, but I hadn’t ever really considered that you might need to do that. A lot of what we talked about in the session  were related to studies that involve human subjects (such as the face mite project I participated in on Wednesday – had my face scraped with a little metal spatula to try to find mites in my pores for the newest and upcoming Your Wild Life project), but I came away with a lot of new things to think about.

4. People who have been blogging a long time have great ideas for how to keep your blog going strong

Blogging for the long haul moderators

Blogging for the long haul, moderated by Dr. Zen (in kilt/feather mask) and SciCurious (in black mask)

I love blogging and hope I will be able to do it for a long time. But, every now and then you just don’t feel like writing, life gets in the way, or you can’t find the time. I attended a session on blogging for the long haul yesterday that offered a lot of great tips. These included carving out special time for blogging, blogging according to a schedule (I do this!), keeping lists of ideas when they come to you and writing about your favorite, and making the most of super productive times when you write a ton of posts by spreading them out over several weeks or months so that they give you a buffer against writer’s block. I thought this session was incredibly helpful, and the Scio13 organizers recorded it. I don’t know if/when/where it will go up online, but I’ll post the link if it goes online. A lot of people could benefit from it.  I took copious notes too, so let me know if you want to hear any more of the tips shared!

5. Bug bloggers are an incredibly fun group of people!

Alex and Matt laughing

Alex Wild and Matt Bertone – this is what most of us looked like during our outing

There are a lot of familiar faces at Scio13, especially bug bloggers that I have either met in person (largely via Bug Shot) or have been following online. We got together for dinner tonight and it might be the highlight of the conference for me. There’s something about sitting down with a group of people who all have the same eclectic interest as you, who get all the seriously nerdy jokes you tell, and who understand why you do the kinds of things that you do, that is just indescribable. We had to scream across the table to be heard at the noisy bar, but we laughed so hard my stomach muscles still ache. Cheers especially to Alex Wild, Bug Girl, Morgan Jackson, Maryanne Alleyne, Matt Bertone, and Holly Menninger for the great evening!

It’s hard to summarize all the things I’ve learned and discovered at this conference in five bullet points, but this is a taste of what I’ve been doing for the last few days. I’m having a great time, but I’m learning so much at the same time. What a great experience! I’m so happy I am a part of it this year.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth


Swarm Sunday: 2012 Year End Report, Part 1

Dragonfly Swarm Project logoIt’s that time of year again, time for the Dragonfly Swarm Project year-end report!  As usual, the report will take the form of a series of posts.  Today’s post will focus on some of the demographic data and overall trends in the swarm data, a very general overview of the success of the project over the 2012 season.  Next week (or maybe the week after that as it’s going to require some work and I have a very busy week ahead of me) will highlight the distributional data and swarm maps for the year.  The third post will discuss the year’s findings and the conclusions we can draw from the data you have contributed over the last three seasons.  Then I’m going to end the year-end report like I did last year, with some of the interesting social, psychological, and personal results that I cull from the Other Observations part of the report form.  It seems only fair to share some of the best and most interesting stories with the rest of the world.  But first, let’s consider those overall data trends for the year!

dragonfly graphicChanges to the Project This Year

I had wanted to move the Dragonfly Swarm Project to its own website, but hasn’t happened yet.  I’ve got the domain and have started work on it, however, so look for the Dragonfly Swarm Project make its big move before the US 2013 season!

dragonfly graphic


This year I received 705 reports of dragonfly swarms.  This is fewer than last year’s numbers (1140), but more than the first year’s (652).  I had thought last year that the participation in the project had gone up, but I think there was really just more dragonfly activity last year than usually occurs.  It seems that getting 650 or 700 swarms in a year is normal (that’s about 20% of the people who visit my dragonfly swarm pages) and last year might have been a bit special.  But, that’s why I’m collecting data for 5 years before I publish the results!  It’s hard to see patterns in the data from year to year if it you only a have observations from a few years.

The men were not outnumbered by the women quite as badly this year as they have been in previous years!  Of the reports made by people with names that were obviously one sex or the other, 27% were male and 73% were female.  The women are still ruling the dragonfly swarming data collection, but the men made some strong headway this year.

dragonfly graphic

Distribution of Swarms

You’ll be able to see this information visually when I present the maps in the next post in the results series, but here’s an overview of what the data looked like this year:

  • Swarms have now been reported from 16 countries.  Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and England were added to the list for the first time!  As in previous years, the number of reports in the US outnumbered all other countries combined, but Canada made its usual strong showing.  There were very few south Asian reports and reports from Australia compared to previous years, however.
  • Most swarms were reported in the eastern US this year, similar to last year.
  • There are still reports coming in from both rural and urban areas.  Some of the urban areas are VERY urban, like New York City and Chicago, while some sightings were truly in the middle of nowhere.
  • There were 80 migratory swarms reported this year.  The US states with the greatest number of migratory swarm reports were Florida (12), Texas (9), New Jersey (6), and 4 each in Illinois, New York, and Wisconsin.
  • There were 625 static swarms.  The states with the strongest showings were New York (45), Illinois (45), New Jersey (41), Colorado (33), and Florida (32).  Colorado’s making it into the top 5 is amazing!
  • The fewest swarms were reported in Alaska (1), North Dakota (1), Nebraska (1), West Virginia (1), South Carolina (2), and Nevada (1).  It’s strange to see South Carolina and West Virginia on this list considering last year’s very strong showing in both states.
  • There were swarms reported in 46 of 50 US states and 45 of the 48 contiguous states this year.  There were no swarms reported in Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, or Wyoming, though Alaska made it onto the map for the first time!  Five Canadian provinces/territories also made it onto the map this year.

dragonfly graphic

The Swarms

Most of the swarms reported were, as usual, static swarms.  The migratory season was very strange this year, but I have an idea for why that might be the case that I will share in the post about the project conclusions for the year.  The usual dragonfly species were reported, when species identifications could be made at all: mostly green darners (Anax junius), followed by wandering gliders (Pantala flavescens), black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), Carolina saddlebags (Tramea carolina), and blue dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) in the east, and variegated meadowhawks (Sympetrum corruptum) in the west.

dragonfly graphic

Dragonfly Swarms Online and In the News

Dragonfly swarms pop up online every now and again and I highlighted several specific stories during the weekly swarm reports.  However, one great report just appeared in the New Yorker, a piece by Richard Preston in the Dec 3, 2012 issue (pg 40-42 if you’re interested).  It’s a great story that highlights the magic of dragonfly swarms and how urbanites in a city as large as New York City can take a moment to appreciate an amazing spectacle of nature.  The blog post I did for SciStarter last year continues to get a lot of hits and I was able to collect data from quite a few people there this year.  I like that people are sharing their stories, even when they are not explicitly asked to!  And, I keep adding swarm videos to my YouTube dragonfly swarm playlist.  It’s a month or two out of date now, but it currently boasts 157 videos.

Look for a notice next year about an article that I wrote about dragonfly swarms that will come out in June 2013!

dragonfly graphic

Project Promotion

I was able to do a lot more in-person promotion of the Dragonfly Swarm Project this year than in previous years because I both moved to the east coast and started a job working with citizen science.  I’ve handed out my brochure to a lot of people, wandered through the field station where I work looking for dragonfly swarms with many people, and talked about the project at some of the big events at my museum like BugFest.  The project will soon be added to the museum’s citizen science exhibit.  I also presented my findings at the Public Participation in Scientific Research conference in Portland, OR in August.  It was a ton of fun sharing what I’ve learned with other citizen science loving researchers!  I came away with a lot of new contacts and new supporters, so I consider it a successful trip.

Pachydiplax longipennsi female cleared and stamped


Thank You!

I’m going to end this post with my yearly THANK YOU to everyone who has been involved in this project.  I am continually astounded by how many reports of swarms I get and I couldn’t do this research without you.  Talking to other researchers this year, I’ve come to learn that you all are doing something very special: you’re studying behavior as citizen scientists.  You’re also finding and contributing to the project because you’re curious about an amazing thing you’ve seen and want to learn more.  That’s not typically how citizen science projects are done.  Normally you’d go out armed with knowledge and collect specific data on a specific topic, but you all are looking for information after you’ve already made your observations.  That’s just cool.  You also have an unusually personal connection with the data you submit.  The stories you share of your experiences are fantastic and make this project more fun than I ever would have expected.  And, we are learning awesome things about this behavior together!  I can’t thank you enough for making this possible.  I value each and every one of you and I hope that you will continue making reports and spreading the word long into the future.

I might not get the maps up next weekend, but they’ll be up by the following weekend for sure.  Until then, enjoy your week!


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! Thanks!


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


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Friday 5: Tips for Citizen Scientists

I spend a huge part of my time thinking about citizen science these days.  I think a lot about how to engage participants and provide them the best experience too.  As part of that, I’ve come up with a list of tips for citizen scientists to maximize their enjoyment as they participate in the scientific process.  These include…

1. Be Patient

Citizen science projects work in part because a very large number of individuals work together to collect data on a specific topic.  Some projects have immediate gratification and your contributions to the project will appear online as soon as you submit them.  However, if you’re submitting a sample of any sort, sending in a paper data sheet, sending your data in via e mail, or there is no interactive online component on the project’s website, SOMEONE at the project’s headquarters is going to have to process your sample/data before it appears online.  If your sample involves identifying something (insects, bacteria, parasites, etc) and is not a part of a crowdsourcing effort (such as Project Noah or iNaturalist), it may take a long time to see your specific results.  Trust me: the scientists running these projects really appreciate your efforts and cannot do the project without you, even if processing is slow.  Be patient!  You’ll be a much happier citizen scientist if you have realistic expectations for sample/data processing times.

2. Follow the Protocol

Citizen science projects typically include a protocol for how to collect data.  Those protocols were developed specifically so that the scientists running the projects can compare data collected by hundreds or thousands of different people.  If you don’t follow the protocol, your sample is no longer comparable to other samples in the project, making them less valuable, if not entirely worthless.  If you’re going to spend the time and effort to participate in a project, follow the instructions.  If you cannot or don’t want to follow the instructions, I recommend that you either a) let the scientists know how deviated from the protocol so they can decide whether your data is still useful or not or b) pick a different project.  There are so many projects out there that there’s no reason to do a complicated, fidgety project if you aren’t the type of person who will enjoy it.

3. Commit to Collecting Data

Some projects depend on repeat measurements.  If you’re doing Project Feeder Watch, for example, you are expected to check your feeders once a week.  The Dragonfly Pond Watch asks that you check your pond once a month.  If you want to do these projects, great!  They would love to have you.  However, it’s best for everyone if you commit to collecting the data as often as the project asks before you start participating.  Be realistic too.  I, for example, leave myself exactly enough time in the morning to take a shower, get dressed, make a cup of black coffee that I drink on my way to work, and dash out the door.  I sleep in on weekends.  I cannot commit to checking a CoCoRaHS rain gauge between 7 and 9am daily, so I don’t participate in the project.  Life happens and you won’t always be able to collect data according to schedule, but try your best to collect as specified by the project if you decide to participate.

4. Behold, the Power of Nothing!

One of the hardest things to make people understand is the value of nothing in citizen science.  A huge number of citizen science projects out there today are designed to map the distribution of species.  These studies can help scientists research a wide variety of topics, such as migrations, movement of invasive species, or phenology (recurring seasonal patterns).  For these types of projects, reporting that you didn’t see something is just as important as reporting that you did.  For example, I have a new citizen science project that I’m running (I’ll write more about it soon) that involves defining the habitat preferences of some water scorpion species.  Knowing where no water scorpions are found tells me that the habitat is unsuitable.  That’s incredibly valuable information!  Embrace the value of nothing.  Embrace it!

5. Don’t Go Out of Your Way – Unless You Really Want To

I have learned as I promote citizen science that people are really excited about being a part of science – so long as they don’t have to go too far outside of their daily routine to do it.  I have encountered a few people who are super gung-ho about going new places and trying new things. You guys rock!  However, most people prefer to make more casual observations in places they already go.  If you fall into the latter category, you are still important.  Consider an idea for a moment.  Let’s say you walk through the woods in your neighborhood everyday, but the nearest common milkweed patch is a 30 minute drive from your house.  It’s a lot easier to tap a few buttons on your smart phone once a week to submit data to Nature’s Notebook about a tree you encounter on your daily walk than setting up a Monarch Larva Monitoring Project site at the milkweed patch.  Most people are more likely to find excuses not to collect data for MLMP than Nature’s Notebook in this example because it’s a lot more difficult to do.  So, my suggestion is this: choose a project that fits into your schedule, your interests, and your life.  There are so many citizen science projects that there is just no need to go out of your way to collect data – unless you really want to.

I’ve got more tips, but I think these are the biggies.  Anyone want to contribute any more suggestions for people who participate in citizen science?  Ultimately, I think citizen science should be something you enjoy.  There is something for nearly everyone, so it’s all a matter of finding the project that’s right for you.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Friday 5: Report Your Monarch Sightings!

It occurs to me that although my job involves connecting people to citizen science projects, I’ve done next to nothing to promote citizen science on my very own blog apart from my own project. That changes today! It’s Friday, so it’s time for Friday 5, citizen science style!

I’ve found that when I talk to people about citizen science, there are two major criteria that make projects attractive to the majority of potential participants: they’re easy and they involve something that the general public finds appealing. Guess what a lot of people find very appealing? Butterflies! Monarchs seem to be especially popular, and there are good reasons why. Monarchs are big, showy, and beautiful insects. They’re poisonous, so they’ve got just a hint of danger about them. They also migrate thousands of miles each year from the northern US into a very restricted part of Mexico. You all probably know by now that I tend to be prejudiced against butterflies, but even I’ll admit that monarchs are pretty darned cool. Not surprisingly there are several citizen science projects that focus on monarchs to some degree, projects that tap into that general love for monarchs to do some great science. If you see monarchs in your area, please consider participating in one of these 5 projects:

Monarch Larva Monitoring Project

MLMP is a little more involved than some of the other citizen science projects dealing with monarchs, but I did this once a week all summer and found it very rewarding. To participate, you find a patch of milkweed with 50 or more plants and monitor the patch weekly for monarchs. You count every egg, larva, and adult you see following the protocol, record the data on a datasheet, and send it off on the MLMP website. If you want to get even more involved, there are five total projects wrapped up into MLMP and you can participate in as many you’d like. This project has gone a long time and it’s produced some excellent results that are available for all to see. Everyone knows more about breeding habits of monarchs and seasonal shifts in their reproduction because citizen scientists have monitored fields in their areas and contributing data through MLMP. Plus, what’s not to love about getting outside and looking for caterpillars?

Have you ever come across a monarch with a little ID sticker attached to its wing? If so, you saw a butterfly that was being tracked by Monarch Watch! This project tracks the migration of the monarchs into Mexico every year by sending citizen scientists out to tag butterflies. To participate, you order tags from Monarch Watch, collect monarchs, affix tags to their wings, record some data about the individuals tagged, and then release the butterflies. Monarch Watch scientists can then track the progress of individual butterflies as they move from the US into Mexico. It’s a fun project and lets you handle the butterflies while you learn about migrations. I love tagging butterflies!

Journey North also tracks monarch migrations, but it does so in an easier, much less time intensive and hands on manner: participants simply report sightings of butterflies in their area. What makes Journey North fun is that you can track the southward progress of the monarchs on their website on a weekly basis to see how far the butterflies have traveled at any given time. You can then follow the progress of the return trip north in the spring. Journey North has a smart phone app, so submitting data is incredibly easy – a few taps on your screen and you’ve helped track the progress of the migrations. The project’s simplicity and easy to use web and smart phone interfaces also make this a great project to do with young kids.

Like other animals, there are many things out there that make monarchs sick. Among them is a protozoan parasite that impacts their ability to survive by inhibiting normal growth. To understand how widespread these parasites are in the wild, MonarchHealth asks participants collect samples from adult butterflies. Sampling is fairly easy. After you catch a butterfly, you use a sticky tab (they’ll send them to you!) to collect a sample from the abdomen, stick the tab onto a card with some info about the butterfly, and then send the sample off for analysis. The project leaders are great about keeping everyone informed of their progress and provide personalized information to each participant to let them know the results of their specific samples. This is another good hands on project – and really fun to do!

Nature’s Notebook is the web and smart phone based interface for the National Phenology Network. I love Nature’s Notebook and use it often on my iPhone to record sightings of seasonal shifts in several plant and animal species. While the project doesn’t specifically focus on monarchs like the other projects, this is another very easy way to help scientists learn more about monarchs. Like Journey North, a few taps on a screen or a few clicks of a mouse are all it takes to send your sightings of eggs, larvae, adults, and migrating adults off to NPN. Nature’s Notebook also has some great visualization tools and educational resources available, which make this a really fun project to participate in with tours, in classrooms, in homeschool groups, etc. This summer, I found myself pulling my iPhone out each week in our MLMP milkweed patch, then tapping away and sending valuable data off to needy scientists.  It can take less than a minute to send the data off – truly quick and easy!

That should get you all started. The monarchs are on the move right now, so get out there and collect some data!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Monitoring for Monarchs

At work we participate in the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, a great citizen science project that aims to track monarch reproduction and populations through space and time.  We have a great group of volunteers that help us monitor, so each Wednesday we make a quick trip through the milkweed patch to look for monarch eggs, larvae, and adults.  Look at them go!

Monitoring for monarchs

Monitoring for monarchs

If you happen to be in the Raleigh, NC area and are interested in learning how to participate in MLMP, one of my coworkers and I will be hosting an MLMP training workshop at Prairie Ridge this Friday from 8am-noon.  We’d love to have you!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth