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The Growing Utility of Online Photo Sharing for Entomology Research

Closeup of a butterfly perched on thin green leaves with its wings spread wide. The butterfly's wings have an orange base color with black veins and bordering, and small white spots within the black border and in the top middle of its forewings.

he increasing volume of insect photo observations shared on iNaturalist and similar sites can no longer be ignored, and entomologists are finding ways to use it. A review in Annals of the Entomological Society of America digs into best practices for bolstering entomological research with this growing body of citizen-science data. Among various findings, the researchers note an over-representation among online photo sharing of butterflies and moths (order Lepidoptera) and of arthropods from the Northern Hemisphere, particularly North America—such as this image of a viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) taken in Benton County, Washington, USA. (Photo by Lisa Hill via iNaturalist, CC BY-NC 4.0)

By Grant Bolton, Ph.D.

Grant Bolton, Ph.D.

Grant Bolton, Ph.D.

With a smartphone in so many pockets, everyone is taking pictures of the world and sharing them online. Believe it or not, in 2022 alone, there were 1.72 trillion photos taken, and 92.5 percent of those pictures were taken with a mobile phone!

But, what does that have to do with entomology?

If you’ve ever declared yourself a professional or amateur entomologist, then you know that people love sharing blurry pictures of insects with you, hoping for a quick ID. Instead of hunting down your local entomologist, for naturalists and nature-loving hobbyists, dozens of apps and websites now allow people to share pictures of plants and animals and get accurate identification from experts and enthusiasts.

Some of the most popular platforms and apps in the U.S. include iNaturalist and BugGuide, but there are many options internationally as well

In a research review published in August in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, entomologists Michael Skvarla, Ph.D., and Ray Fisher, Ph.D., reviewed the impact that photo-sharing platforms have on the entomology community and some of the best practices for using the plethora of data out there to supplement different areas of study.

Skvarla, an assistant research professor of arthropod identification at Penn State University, and Fisher, a research associate at Mississippi State University and the Mississippi Entomological Museum, reviewed 2,123 entomology-based publications that used community photographs and metadata from 77 online photo-sharing portals, including community science apps, social media, and media-sharing sites.

“I use BugGuide and iNaturalist a lot for IDs and personal use,” Skvarla says. “I tried using that photo data in publications and got pushback from editors years ago. However, I started getting less of that pushback recently, and it was becoming more accepted in the scientific literature. I figured it was time to do a review on it.”

What Skvarla and Fisher found was that there has been an exponential growth in the number of publications that used community photos since 2006, with iNaturalist seeing a majority of that growth. With access to this body of citizen-science observations, researchers can potentially expand their pool of data and design studies to answer new questions about insects.

Figure with two charts. Left axis labeled "Number of publications" and bottom axis labeled with even-numbered years from 2004 through 2021. Top chart shows black dots for each year starting with 2006, which move slowly upward from 0 to 200 as years progress until 2016, when the slope increases greatly from 200 to over 500 by 2021. Bottom chart shows stacks of colored dots for each year starting in 2006 through 2021. The dots are bunched closely together every year starting in 2006 through 2019, when the blue dot for iNaturalist rises from below 50 to ~225 by 2021. The other dots spread apart slightly in those years but all remain at roughly 50 or below.

The number of entomological research publications that use community-derived photograph data every year is growing rapidly. Chart A shows the total number of publications per year, and chart B shows the number of publications per year for the five most-used websites. (BG: BugGuide; BV: Biodiversidad Virtual; iNat: iNaturalist; LF: Lepiforum; OIF: Observation International Foundation. (Figures originally published in Skvarla and Fisher 2023, Annals of the Entomological Society of America)

However, using this data does have its limitations. Skvarla and Fisher show in their study that clear biases exist when it comes to which insects are represented in these photos.

“A lot of the papers out there that use citizen-science data focus on big, showy insects,” Skvarla says, “because those are the ones that are most photographed or most easily identifiable. But this does show that there are gaps in the citizen science data that we can address and projects can be built around.”

Additionally, most of these publications used data that represent species from the Palearctic and Nearctic regions—in other words, primarily the northern hemisphere. That can limit the scope of certain research projects that want to focus on the diversity and population distributions of certain insect groups. But, with countries and communities in the tropics and southern hemisphere adopting and using more of this technology, there is tremendous potential for expanding the data to include a greater diversity of insects in those regions.

World map with countries shaded in blue according to a legend, with faint blue representing 1 and progressively darker shades representing 2-5, 6-10, 11-50, 50-200, and 201+. On the map, the United States and Spain are the darkest shades, closely followed by Canada, India, Russia, and much of Europe. Australia, South America, China, and South Africa are medium blue. Southern Afrida is lighter blue, while much of northern Africa is pale blue or white. Greenland and Antarctica are also white.

A clear bias exists in the origin of photos shared on online citizen-science observation websites such as iNaturalist, with greater representation of species from the Palearctic and Nearctic regions—in other words, primarily the northern hemisphere. This map charts the number of publications that used community-derived photographic data per country, as found in a review of 2,123 entomology-based publications that used community photographs and metadata from 77 online photo-sharing portals. (Figure originally published in Skvarla and Fisher 2023, Annals of the Entomological Society of America)

Much of the data on these photo-sharing platforms is being used in distinct categories, including:

  • behavior, ecology, and natural history
  • color patterns
  • host plant ID
  • new genera and species
  • identification
  • rediscoveries.

And that’s just using the photographs themselves. Beyond that, metadata from these sites (i.e., the info that accompanies every picture, such as location, timestamps, etc.) can be used to study:

  • distribution
  • monitoring and surveillance
  • abundance
  • changes in species richness
  • habitat, distribution, niche, and occupancy modeling
  • population modeling
  • and more.

With a little creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, researchers can use these underutilized data and information to explore and explain these patterns and trends in entomology.

So, what are some things researchers should keep in mind when considering community photo data?

These platforms offer a huge source of information, but researchers need to use it with caveats and understand the pitfalls of the platform. An example Skvarla and Fisher share in their review demonstrates this bias. A study reported a substantial increase in photographs of monarch butterflies on the west coast of California and a mistaken correlation with “unprecedented breeding activity” among the population. However, in the same time period, there was an exponential increase in monarch butterfly submissions on iNaturalist.

Additionally, researchers should consider “trends in photo-sharing, biases in when and where photographs are taken, and accuracy of identifications” when using photo-sharing data.

In sum, Skvarla and Fisher conclude that, while this data can be unstructured and prone to bias, there are opportunities to use community-generated data to supplement and reinforce future publications.

And for those getting started with photo-sharing platforms, it’s a great way to better understand the flora and fauna near you.

“If you’re interested in learning more about the world around you and want to know what’s out there, start taking pictures of what you see,” Skvarla says.  “I’ve learned about what I have growing in my yard and in the woods because I take photos of them and put them on iNaturalist. Then people identify them for me. And don’t forget to take good-quality photos. Blurry ones don’t help as much.”

Grant Bolton, Ph.D., is a freelance writer and voice actor with a Ph.D. in entomology based in western Missouri. Email:


  1. Many of the photos may be posted by ‘citizen scientists’ but the identifications end up being made by people having expertise in the individual taxa, because incorrect identifications are usually discovered by the specialists and corrected. iNaturalist, in particular, has many people posting from most areas of the world.

    I first reaction when I saw the title was “Duhhh–what would you expect?” given the wealth of data on these websites, but I understand it takes time for the professional people (LOL–I guess we ALL make our livings as people–but I digress) to accept them as worthwhile. Although I’m trained and have had a professional career in entomology, I have friends/colleagues who haven’t but who meticulous in reporting data with some having considerable taxonomic expertise.

  2. The level of correct identifications from photos probably should be researched. Test photos of specimens posed in the wild, but identified by DNA or under a microscope could be uploaded to citizen science sites. That could give more of an idea of the accuracy. I Moderate and Edit I contribute ID thoughts on BugGuide. We know, at least with spiders, that we are giving a best guess instead of a firm scientific answer.
    We don’t seek to be used for research on SpiderID. Our goal is to encourage interest, learning, and empathy toward other species of animals.
    The other volunteers and I have a variety of educations and careers. The enthusiasm to learn and teach can be more valuable than specific formal education in the current era.

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