Using Citizen Science to Track Insects Across the U.S.
By Richard Levine
Yesterday during the annual meeting of the National Science Writers Association, I sat in on a presentation by University of Florida entomologists Andrea Lucky and Jiri Hulcr about their “Citizen Science” projects. Basically, the idea is to get non-scientists, especially children, involved in collecting and sending insects they find to the university, so they can be used in mapping projects. This allows them to get samples from the entire United States without traveling and spending a fortune, and as an added bonus it stimulates interest in science and entomology among the general public.
Dr. Lucky is an evolutionary biologist who focuses on the evolution of ants, using tools that range from insect morphology to phylogenetic statistics to remote sensing. But she also specializes in teaching and encouraging regular citizens to “do” science. The best known of her projects is the “School of Ants,” which is mapping ant diversity and species ranges across North America. The School of Ants website shows how to make an ant collecting kit by putting a cookie in a plastic vial for an hour. Then participatns are instructed to freeze the specimens and then mail them.
This video shows how you can participate in the School of Ants Project, and how you can send your specimens to Dr. Lucky:
Dr. Hulcr is a forest entomologist who is studying ambrosia beetles, which are destroying American pines and other trees. Recently, they discovered a threat to avocado trees from the redbay ambrosia beetle, which carries a fungus that kills the trees. Dr. Hulcr’s lab created an online tool for owners of avocado trees to determine whether their trees are infected called the Laurel Wilt ID Tool.
He also works on bark beetles, which have destroyed 80 percent of forests in British Columbia, and are threatening walnut and other trees in places like California and Colorado.
His Citizen Science project is called Backyard Bark Beetles. Like the School of Ants project, this one invites people to collect bark beetles in their yards using inexpensive, everyday materials like plastic bottles and hand sanitizer. After cutting a hole in the bottle, it is hung and filled with the hand sanitizer, which attracts the tiny beetles because it contains ethanol, which to the beetles smells like rotting wood, their favorite food. Participants are then asked to send the insects from their homemade traps to the university.
This video shows you can participate by making a bark beetle trap in your own backyard, and how you can send the specimens you capture to Dr. Hulcr:
A nice thing about both projects is that after you send your insect specimens, your involvment does not stop there. Afterwards, you can go online and track yourself and other participants on an online map, and you can interact with the scientists by sending them questions.
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Richard Levine is Communications Program Manager at the Entomological Society of America and editor of the Entomology Today Blog.