Friday 5: Things I Learned At the PPSR Conference

20120810-230808.jpgLast weekend I attended the Public Participation in Scientific Research Conference. It was the first conference of its kind and was billed as a workshop that was part of the Ecological Society of America rather than its own separate event, but it was fantastic! There were about 300 people there – not bad for a first attempt at a meeting like this. Those 300 people were the most open, social, wonderfully supportive people I’ve ever encountered at a conference too. They were genuinely interested in everything presented at the meeting, be it a talk or a poster. I came home feeling so good about what I’ve done and with a ton of new ideas for the future. That’s exactly how I want to feel when I leave a conference, but that doesn’t always end up being the case.

I learned a lot of great things while I was at PPSR. Here are 5 random facts I came home with:

Wisconsin has an extensive citizen-based environmental monitoring program.

If you’ve never done a citizen science project, you might not understand how it feels when someone tells you that your data isn’t reliable because it wasn’t collected by trained professionals. There is a fair amount of resistance to citizens performing real, rigorous scientific data collection among the scientific community. In my experience, this seems to be particularly strong amongst the state agencies that monitor land use, water quality, or air quality. Citizens are more than capable of collecting this sort of data with the proper training, but these agencies are often unwilling to train people because they don’t believe that citizens can contribute anything worthwhile. Learning that Wisconsin has a successful, HUGE citizen based monitoring program was fantastic! That’s a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned and I hope other states take notice. There are great things happening in Wisconsin!

One citizen science program collects stories from fishermen for use in phenology studies.

Phenology is the study of recurring plant and animal cycles and their relationship to climate and weather. Tracking the phenology of aquatic insect emergences can provide valuable information about the quality of a stream or changes in the climate. River’s Calendar is a citizen science project that takes advantage of a great group of people who are out in the field often and pay close attention to which insects are emerging from a stream at any given time: fishermen! Fishermen who participate in the project send in information about the aquatic insects they see in the areas where they fish and help track the phenology of several insect species over a large area. The project is just getting started as far as I can tell, but I think this is a brilliant idea. I hope the project is successful!

FoldIt users have solved protein folding problems that have stumped scientists for years.

FoldIt is a citizen science project disguised as a fun game! Players go through a series of tutorials and then dive right into the world of protein folding. They do a few things as they play – fold proteins based on genetic codes or code the genetics that create a particular protein shape. They’re solving real problems too! And, by crowd sourcing these tasks in the game, the project developers have accomplished some amazing things. The thing I was most impressed with: FoldIt players determined the structure of the protein that causes AIDS in rhesus monkeys, a problem that scientists spent years trying to work out, in something like three weeks. Amazing!

Native Americans are an excellent source of ecological and environmental information.

There were talks by both a Native American and a scientist who works with Native Americans at the meeting. It seems obvious now that I think about it, but both speakers promoted working with Native Americans to benefit from their long-term knowledge of the environment in the areas where they live. It makes total sense. Native Americans are attached to their environment in a way most other Americans will never be and have a history of storytelling that allows them to develop a great cultural memory. I might never have an opportunity to talk to a Native American while in the pursuit of science, but I hope that more of the partnerships between the tribes and scientists that the two speakers described will continue.

Smart phone apps are a fantastic tool for citizen science!

There still aren’t a ton of smart phone citizen science apps available (apparently a lack of scientist technical experience plagues many citizen science projects), but boy are they useful! There were a couple of people from OPAL in the UK at the meeting and showed me their iPhone app for their Bug Count. It was great! People can upload photos with GPS information attached the moment they see an insect – so easy! The possibilities for what can be done with smart phones are pretty impressive, and definitely something I want to look into getting involved in in the future.

One of the things that everyone discussed at the meeting was the possibility of making an official society for citizen science and having an annual meeting. After attending this meeting, I really hope it happens! The feeling of camaraderie among the attendees and the truly collaborative feel of it all were awesome to experience. I can’t wait to do it again!


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

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!

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.)


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

Swarm Sunday: Winter

Dragonfly Swarm Project logo

I’m taking a break in the Science Sunday posts this week to share a few late breaking dragonfly swarm tidbits.  A Swarm Sunday!  In the middle of the winter!  I’m excited.  Are you excited?  :)

First, the dragonfly swarm activity (at least based on the reports that I get from mostly English-speaking people) seems to be heaviest over Central America recently.  A few weeks after the end of the US and Canadian seasons, I started to get reports from Central America.  I can’t say for sure that the swarms that left the US mainland in October ended up in Belize, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Honduras a few weeks later, but…  There might be a connection between the two.  Mark recapture studies or radio tracker studies would be necessary to confirm this, but there are published accounts of dragonflies flying out over the water in the southern US during the migration season and other scientists have hypothesized that they are likely to end up somewhere in Central America.  It will be interesting to see if this pattern of US migration followed by a surge in dragonfly activity in Central America continues over the next few years as this is the second year I’ve observed the pattern.  Dare I hope that my data might even suggest possible places where these dragonflies are overwintering?  That would be incredibly exciting!

I wanted to highlight one recent Central American swarm.  My aunt rented a condo in Costa Rica this month and she invited nearly her whole family down to visit while she was there.  My sister went for a week, then sent me a video last weekend, out of the blue, that she’d taken of a massive dragonfly swarm that had formed right over the condo.  It had lasted three days and likely involved millions of dragonflies!  I was seriously jealous, especially considering I was the only person invited who wasn’t able to go to Costa Rica and missed out an enormous dragonfly swarm on the beach too.  But then my aunt’s brother-in-law (who’s renting a nearby condo) sent me photos of the swarm yesterday that made me swoon a little.  Check them out:

Dragonfly swarm

Dragonfly swarm in Costa Rica. Photo by David Alexander.

Dragonfly swarm

Dragonfly swarm in Costa Rica. Photo by David Alexander.

Sunset.  Beach.  Ocean.  Dragonflies!  Oh, I wish I’d been able to see this one!  Look how beautiful it was!  (Granted, if I had been there I would have spent the entire three days making scientific observations, but I’m an entomologist with an interest in natural history and behavior.  That’s what we do!)  I love these photos beyond their aesthetic appeal though.  For one, the dragonflies are so much more distinct than in most of the photos I’ve seen of this behavior – or even taken myself!  This is an incredibly difficult behavior to capture photographically because there is so much movement and so much depth.  You can only see silhouettes in these photos, but you can tell without a doubt that they’re dragonflies.  I also like that the photos are taken at sunset as that is the time of day this behavior is most commonly observed.  Most of the photos people have sent me understandably show daytime swarms.  Sunset swarms are much, much more common though, so it’s nice to see a few shots of a swarm in a more typical setting.  These photos are thus an excellent representation of the behavior.  Exciting!

The Australian swarming season should be starting up soon too.  Last year, I got several reports in February and March, so I’m hoping to get a repeat of that.  Granted, there was a ton of flooding in Australia last year, which may have led to the surge in dragonflies reported in many Australian news reports (yes, I watch Australian news reports about dragonflies.  Doesn’t everyone?) as well as the boom in swarming activity/reports.  It’s going to be interesting to see what happens this year!

It’s exciting to see data flow in even during the northern hemisphere’s winter.  Reminds me that the next US dragonfly swarming season is just 5 months away.  I can’t wait to see what happens next!


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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Science Sunday: Online Citizen Science and Scientific Research

The dragonfly swarming season is over, but I want to keep the Sunday posts going. From now until the swarming season starts up again in June, Sunday will become Science Sunday!  There is likely to be a rather random assortment of post types here, but they’ll all relate to insect science.  I might not post every week, but I hope you’ll enjoy it!

For my first Science Sunday, I’m going to contribute to Morgan Jackson’s Scientists and Social Media series on his excellent Biodiversity in Focus blog by discussing internet-based citizen science and how these projects can help scientists study biological problems that are difficult to research.  My dragonfly swarm project has given me some experience in this area and I already talked about it briefly in my last year-end summary for my project, but I find had more to say.  I shall do so now!

I think that scientists are just beginning to understand the power of internet-based citizen science projects and the new avenues of research that these projects open to scientists.  Although not all scientists are ready to accept that non-scientists can contribute meaningful and valuable scientific data (I am not one of them!), many are beginning to make use of a science-hungry, enthusiastic public to tackle scientific goals that might not have been otherwise possible.  Consider a few scenarios:

1) You wish to study a plant or animal that is rare or you suspect is extinct.
2) You wish to study a behavior that is rarely observed in nature.
3) You wish to track movements/migrations of animals over large geographic areas.
4) You wish to study an organism/behavior that has an extreme seasonality or is dependent on unpredictable weather patterns or other conditions.
5) You wish to determine the natural distribution of an organism, or track changes in its distribution over time.
6) You wish to document every species within a geographic area of interest.
7) You wish to study biological phenomena that occur either regularly or irregularly over long periods of time (i.e. there are many months/years between events).

These sorts of problems, and many like them, are exactly suited to internet-based citizen science!  In each case, these studies require many people, lots of money, lots of time, or some combination of the three.  Let’s consider a scenario where a researcher is interested in, say, an insect that they suspect has been extinct because the last known sighting of it was in the 1930’s.  Where does that researcher even look for the insect?  If there is decent geographical data for the species (unlikely), you can start where it used to be.  But what if climate change or some other driver of environmental change has destroyed its traditional range?  The researcher might look to see if there was information about its habitat requirements, look for areas that meet those requirements, and start looking for the species there, assuming that information is available.

And what if there are only 5 specimens of that species left in the entire world?  Can you really expect one person to find even one member of a species that has so few individuals?  Think about how much time, money, and effort a researcher would have to put into tracking down the species of interest just to say whether it is extinct or not.  Imagine too how little chance that researcher has of convincing a funding agency that it’s worth confirming that the species is extinct or not.  Why would that agency want to pay for something (especially if the work is expensive) when there’s a real likelihood that the researcher will fail?

I believe that these sorts of impediments create an enormous barrier that prevents scientists from pursuing many areas of research.  Honestly, if you had a choice between an easy project that is sure to be funded and will generate good results, why would you ever consider doing a project that might not produce any results?  Justifiably, scientists often go the easy, fundable route and only dream about how they would tackle some of those impossible problems if only there was an easier way to do it…

That’s where internet-based citizen science projects come into play!  These projects allow researchers to actually pursue some of those difficult or nigh-impossible research problems, and much more easily/cheaply than if they use the traditional model of scientific research.  Let’s continue with the problem of determining whether an insect is extinct or not and consider it as a citizen science project instead.

The researcher makes information about the project and the species of interest available on a webpage and provides participants with a means for reporting data.  She might then promote the project at science outreach events, to her colleagues, to her students, on Twitter and Facebook, so that people start to learn about the project and visit the website for more information, sign up to participate if necessary.  Over time, the researcher builds up a network of people who read the information on the website (their training!), know what they’re looking for, and know how to report sightings.  These people are likely spread over a wide area and will be out and about at different times according to their personal schedules, maximizing the chance that they’ll come across an individual if it’s not extinct.  The odds of 100, 1000, even 3000 people finding that one individual (maybe even 3 or 4!) in five are much greater than a researcher working alone.  The chances of project success are greatly improved too!  Meanwhile, all the researcher has to do is sort through the data coming in, determine which data are useful and which are not, and keep the website going, maybe provide some results so participants can see how their data has contributed to the project.  Later, she’ll publish the results, making the information available to other scientists.  And, she can do all this rather easily with a small group of project administrators (maybe only one!), very little money (sometimes none!), and with very little time and effort.

I believe that citizen science projects are the key to tackling many difficult biological problems such as those I listed above.  By generating networks of trained volunteers, scientists can remotely, simply, and cheaply collect data on subjects that might be otherwise too expensive, too time consuming, or too likely to fail using traditional scientific practices.  I know firsthand that scientists can benefit hugely from citizen scientists!  I am currently the sole administrator of the Dragonfly Swarm Project, a project I do in my minimal free time and without any funding – and I’m collecting a ton of data.  Citizen scientists benefit by increasing their knowledge of the biological phenomenon of interest and the warm fuzzy feeling they get from knowing they’re contributing to science without getting a science degree.   They get to interact with other citizen scientists and the researcher(s) administering the project.  Science in general benefits from citizen science too as projects increase scientific literacy and support for scientists and science funding.  It’s a win-win-win situation!

Not every scientific problem is going to be solved via citizen science as many problems require highly specialized knowledge that one can only acquire through years of training.  I couldn’t, for example, train 1000 people to use an electron microscope to study the structure of aquatic insects eggs.  However, there are many areas of research that are currently being ignored by biologists where I think citizen science can play an invaluable role.  In fact, citizen science projects are already making a difference!  Look at School of Ants or the Lost Ladybug Project!  School of Ants researchers are learning so much about the distribution of ants in urban environments and the Lost Ladybug Project uncovered a rare ladybug that no one had seen in nearly 30 years!  Projects like these probably wouldn’t be nearly as successful or as scientifically valuable without the help of the citizen scientists who participate and they’re perfect examples of the power of internet-based citizen science.

I predict that the recent rise in the number of citizen science projects will continue to climb as researchers begin to realize how powerful these projects can be.  In the meantime, I intend to continue with my own citizen science project and contributing to others so that we can all start to understand those dark, undiscovered corners of our world a little better.


If you’re interested in how blogs and other forms of social media are improving science, I encourage you to visit Morgan Jackson’s first Scientists and Social Media post!


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Morning in the Sonoran Desert

It was an exciting weekend for Tucson and its natural wonders.  Each year, National Geographic and the U.S. Park Service choose a park in which to hold a BioBlitz, a 24-hour frenzy of biological documentation, collection, and mayhem.  The event has several goals, but it gets a giant hoard of non-scientists involved in performing a massive biological survey (it’s a citizen science project!), brings positive attention to the national parks and the services they provide, and creates a list of species that are found in the parks where the BioBlitzes take place.    This year, Tucson’s own Saguaro National Park was chosen for this event!  Over the past 12 months or so, scientists have been volunteering to lead non-scientists out into Saguaro to collect and/or document the life forms that they are most familiar with.  More recently, citizen scientists could look through a very long list of surveying activities and sign up to participate in as many as they wished.  Last Friday and Saturday, the two groups came together and several thousand people went out into the desert to work!

My sister is a park ranger, currently at the Grand Canyon, so the BioBlitz in Arizona was a really big deal to the people she works with.  Some of her friends and co-workers came down to Tucson to work at the event this weekend, but she was not one of them.  She decided to come down anyway, however, and participate as a citizen scientist.  I let her choose an event for us and, much to my pleasure, she settled on a bee survey.  So, Saturday morning found us getting up way too early in the morning, picking up some breakfast at a local deli, and driving out to Saguaro West to survey bees.


The survey team, walking between traps

The BioBlitz headquarters, and many of the events, were located at Saguaro West on the west side of the Tucson Mountains.  Due to the lack of parking there, participants had to park at Old Tucson Studios and ride a shuttle to the park.  My sister and I parked at 7:30 AM, leaving what we thought would be plenty of time to get to our bee survey before 8 AM.  Not so much!  By the time we signed in (and there was a whopping one person in front of us – and 3 volunteers behind the table), signed our liability waivers, and climbed onto a big yellow school bus for the ride over to the park, it was 7:50.  It was 8 AM by the time we got to the park.  We asked where we needed to go and were directed to the wrong place.  By the time we finally figured out where we were really supposed to go, it was already 8:15 and we were sure we had missed it.  It was crazy how long everything took!  Thankfully, our group was just heading out when we arrived, so we joined in and marched out into the desert to collect bees from traps that had been laid out overnight.

sample cups

The plastic cups that were used as bee traps

The traps ended up being very simple, though our group leader, a pollination biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Flagstaff AZ, has used them for many years for his work with great success.  Each stop had two 2 ounce disposable plastic condiment cups, one blue and one yellow.  The colors apparently mimic the colors of flowers and lure the bees in from the surrounding area.  The cups were filled with a mixture of soapy water and propylene glycol.  The soap in the water decreases the surface tension so that, when the bees try to sip the “nectar” from the “flowers,”  they tend to slip into the cups.  The propylene glycol acts as a killing agent and preservative so that the bees can’t get back out once they fall in.

our route

The desert along the route we took, from the science building to the base of the mountains and back, about 2 miles altogether.

Our job was to check each trap at about 30 stops ranging over a mile of desert.  At each stop, we would pour the contents through a strainer to separate the insects, transfer the insects from the strainer to a sample bag, and then refill the cups for the afternoon group that would be doing the whole thing all over again.  As we went, our very amiable scientist told all sorts of amusing stories about sampling and citizen science projects he’s run/participated in, and the crazy people he sometimes encounters in the process.  The morning was a reasonable temperature, the people in the group were very excited about getting involved, and the walk was lovely, so it was a surprisingly pleasant way to spend the morning.


Processing samples. The bees were removed from the sample container before being washed and dried for pinning.

Once we got back to the base camp, we watched as our guide washed and dried the bees we had collected before he showed us an example of bees he’d pinned from the samples other surveyors had collected the day before.  And then, just like that, our 2 hour bee survey was over and we left our guide with the much more difficult task of pinning, identifying, and labeling all the specimens we’d collected – all before the end of the event later that day.

Apart from the obvious organizational difficulties that resulted in our being late to our event (one of my sister’s ranger friends who worked at the event – a woman who is a very soft-spoken and proper lady – described the event as “one huge clusterf***), I was really impressed by the BioBlitz!  There were a ton of activities to choose from, ranging from quick and easy projects like the one I participated in to much more rigorous projects that involved miles of hard-core hiking in mountainous terrain.  The day was beautiful.  We got swag – good swag!  And I got to spend a morning with my fabulous little sister, an entomologist (granted, I do that all the time), and 3 very nice strangers doing science in one of the most beautiful places in the world.  It was a wonderful experience, and one I highly recommend if you happen to be lucky enough to live near a national park that is home to a BioBlitz in the future.


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School of Ants

I’ve been talking about citizen science a lot recently, but I’m going to do it again today.  I think citizen science is a great thing!  Some of the projects are incredibly simple and require very little effort on the participant’s part, but produce massive results for the scientists.  I especially love those projects and I try to participate in as many as I can.

One of these super easy projects that I recently participated in was School of Ants.  Other entomo-bloggers have gotten involved in this project, so you may have already heard about it from other insect blogs (such as Myrmecos or Wild About Ants), but I’m going to share my experience anyway.  I think the project is fantastic and I want to get the word out to as many people as possible.

When I first asked to participate in School of Ants, all you did was fill out a form online so the administrators could send you a project kit.  A few weeks later, I got my kit in the mail!  When I opened the package, this is what was lurking inside:

the kit

The School of Ants kit

One little bag full of colorfully lidded vials and a sheet of paper:

The kit unpacked

The kit unpacked

The sheet of paper had the instructions on one side and space to record data on the back.  It explained the three different types of vials.  The blue capped vials are for green areas.  The red capped vials are for paved areas.  The orange capped vial gives people who aren’t entomologists an incentive to participate.  I’ll get to that vial in a moment.

Now I live in a desert.  We have a lot of ants.  On the other hand, “green” space can be a bit hard to come by.  I’ve actually been trying to kill the tiny little patch of obnoxious bermuda grass in my yard for the past 4 years without success.  Happily, my patch of grassy awfulness was in full swing right when my School of Ants kit arrived, so I decided to use that as my green area.  Sampling ants for the project couldn’t be easier!  You just take the lids off the blue capped vials and set them a foot apart in your green area, making sure the vials are touching the ground so the ants could find the delicious bait inside.  My green area vials looked like this:

Green area

Green area

Ah, bermuda grass and eucalyptus leaves.  It’s pretty much my worst nightmare: a yard full of little allergen factories that make me want to die come July when I can no longer breathe.  But there were lots of little ants in there!  And they were really excited about the bait.  Now you may be wondering what bait the School of Ants team puts in their vials.  According to my ant researching friends/colleagues, there is one ant bait that is the ultra mega granddaddy of all ant baits: Pecan Sandies!  All those little crumbs in the pictures above are delicious cookie crumbs!  Ants apparently find them irresistible.  The instructions for School of Ants say to leave the vials for an hour so the ants have enough time to discover the cookies inside, so I left them to feast and headed to my paved area.

Finding green spaces is a problem at my house, but paved areas are not.  I live in a complex of several duplexes and there’s one big parking lot that connects all the units.  I walked 5 feet out my front door to the end of my carport and set my vials down on the asphalt:

Paved area

Paved area

Easy!  I left those for an hour too, wondering what sort of exciting ants I was going to get.  I’d driven the fire ants out of my yard about 3 weeks before I got my kit, so I was super excited to see what ants had moved back into my yard.  When my hour was up, I rushed out back to see what I caught in my green area and saw… fire ants!  More $&$*#$@ fire ants and absolutely nothing else!  Same thing for the vials in the front.  After I capped my vials and put them in the freezer to kill the ants (the preferred method according to the instructions), I spent the next hour baby powdering my fire ants and setting up lines of diatomaceous earth along the fences to keep them from coming back in.  In spite of the fact that I didn’t find any exciting new ants in my vials, I was happy to catch the fire ants moving back in before they became a huge problem again.  And they haven’t been back since!  Woohoo!

So back to that orange capped vial.  As a thank you for participating (at least as far as I could tell), the School of Ants team included a vial in which I could put any insects I wanted to have identified.  Want to know what that fly in your house is?  Catch it, freeze it, and put it in the Everything Else vial when you send the kit back!  I briefly flirted with the idea of putting something really hard in my vials, like a blepharacerid pupa, but that would have been mean.  I am capable of identifying my own insects after all, but how great is it that they’re willing to trade some insect identification time for your ants?  Give a little, get a little – win-win for everyone!

I filled out the data sheet, froze my ants, and mailed my kit back.  The ants will be counted and identified at some point.  My location will be placed on the map on the School of Ants homepage, and – and this is really awesome – I’ll be able to look up a list of the ants that the researchers identified from my yard!  I’ll finally know for certain whether my fire ant is the native fire ant or the invasive red imported fire ant.  I think it’s the native ant, but I really want that confirmation.

School of Ants has been incredibly successful!  They quickly mailed all their kits and are mostly only supplying them to school groups now, but they’re still letting people participate.  Now they’re asking people to provide their own Pecan Sandies and place the crumbs on index cards in green and paved areas.   You then dump the card, the cookie crumbs, and any ants into plastic bags before you freeze them and mail them off.  There’s also now an online form for the datasheet.  I imagine the researchers learned what I did with my citizen science project last year – automation is good!  It can save untold hours later.

So.  School of Ants.  Do it!  A few minutes of your time, a few supplies, and a little postage can really make a difference.  And, you’ll walk away knowing what ants live in your yard.  Everybody wins!


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Friday 5: Submit Your Photos, Help Scientists and the Public!

I am a big fan of citizen science.  I love that anyone, even if you have absolutely no training as a scientist and only the smallest interest in what scientists actually do, can contribute something meaningful to science.  I myself am amazed by the results that citizen science projects can produce. I have collected nearly 1400 dragonfly swarm reports in the past two years for my own citizen science project and it’s so exciting to see the data flow in!  People who might not otherwise ever participate in science send me valuable data that is helping me really understand how dragonfly swarms work.  It’s great!

Because I’m on a big photography kick thanks to my recent participation in BugShot 2011, I thought I should share some of my favorite citizen science projects that involve photography.  These are all projects that collect photographs of animal and plant sightings and create massive, searchable databases from the information they collect.  These databases can be a help to scientists who are interested in how biological organisms are distributed or the movement of those organisms into and out of particular areas, hence citizen science.  However, many of these are also incredibly useful if you are a non-scientist hoping to identify an insect (or plant or other animal) that you’ve seen.  So, be a do-gooder and help out by contributing your insect photos to one of my five favorite projects:

Odonata Central

Odonata Central

Odonata Central  was born out of a desire to accurately map the distribution of the dragonflies and damselflies of the US.  Now it is a fantastic resource that allows users to create species checklists for their counties, compare their sightings to the photo library as an identification aid, and learn about dragonflies.  The project is currently accepting mostly late and early season sightings of dragonflies and damselflies, new county records, and species with no photos, so you’ll probably need to know a  bit about dragonflies to participate right now.  However, progress is being made toward making this a more open system where anyone can submit any photo of any dragonfly from anywhere in the world and have their sighting added to the database.  So, save up those common dragonfly photos for now, but remember to submit them later!  And definitely make use of this amazing resource in the meantime.

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Butterflies and Moths of North America is a place where anyone can submit photos of lepidopterans they’ve sighted in North America.  User submitted photos are linked to species pages so everyone can see the range in coloration some species exhibit.  Your submissions help create invaluable information about the distribution of each species too.  If you don’t have photos to contribute, use the website as an excellent identification tool!  The photos and regional checklists make identifying your butterflies and moths relatively painless.

Bug Guide

Bug Guide

I know I rave about BugGuide, but it’s such an amazing resource!  While I think this site is less helpful to scientists than some of the others, I think it’s still well worth the effort to submit your photos because it is an invaluable resource for people who wish to identify North American insects.  If you know what species you’ve got, you can simply add your photos to the site with information about when and where you found the bug in the photo(s) and it will be added to the database.  If you don’t know what your bug is…  Submit your photo as an ID Request!  Someone might be able to tell you what it is and then add it to the appropriate species page.  Bug Guide is a great website, made possible in part by people like you.

Project Noah

Project Noah

I’ve mentioned Project Noah in another Friday 5 post, but I think it’s a great organization  and I want to point it out again.  Like Butterflies and Moths of North America, users submit photos of things they’ve seen to the site with information about the sighting.  Like Bug Guide, you can request identifications or submit your own identification if you know what you’ve photographed.  Unlike either website, Project Noah both A) deals with all biological organisms (plants AND animals) and B) has a smart phone interface that is pretty fun.  Snap a photo of an insect (or plant or other animal) with your smart phone and upload it to Project Noah and you won’t even need a computer to participate!  There are some really magnificent photos on the site (my favorite is this fruit bat), plus you can see the diversity of plants and animals that live in your area with location tools.  I encourage everyone to check it out!

Encyclopedia of Life

Encyclopedia of Life

The goal of the Encyclopedia of Life is to document all life on the planet, gathering together information from journals, databases, collections, and the public and sharing it with everyone online in an accessible way.  You can help EOL in several ways.  One is to create an account on the EOL website and send in photos, articles, etc for inclusion in the archives.  Even easier, you can contribute photos to EOL directly from Flickr (click the link for instructions!).  Public participation is essential for EOL to continue making progress toward its lofty goals, so help make it the astounding resource it has the potential to be by contributing photos!

Your photos and sightings are incredibly valuable to all of the citizen science projects listed above.  If you’re taking insect photos and are happy to share them with others already, why not make the world a better place by contributing images to one of these great organizations?  With little effort, you can help both scientists and the public can learn about, identify, and document the insects of the world.  There’s a lot of them, so let’s get photographing!


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