Science, in your own backyard

Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Dana Powell

Have you wondered whether bees in our area are suffering from colony collapse disorder?  Do you know what fly fishing’s aquatic insects can tell us about water quality? Entomologists (insect scientists) are no longer the only people watching bugs. Like many branches of natural science, entomology has reached out to citizen scientists for help in understanding the world around us.

A citizen scientist might be a grade school student measuring water temperature in a stream near her school. A hobbyist may have detailed notes on the birds visiting his backyard feeder. Their individual observations are compiled into large online databases. These treasure troves of information provide researchers with detailed data from across a whole region or continent.

One of the most pressing questions citizen scientists are tackling is the decline in bee populations around the world. Beekeeper reports show that honeybees declined again last year by 30 percent. The causes are still not fully understood. Scientists have struggled to record even basic observations on where and how other bees are threatened. The Great Sunflower Project is one of several citizen scientist movements that aim to improve bee monitoring. Participants plant sunflowers in backyards or balconies and spend 15 minutes watching the flowers for pollinating bees. They report bee visits online, where research teams can use the data to map bee populations across the country. Similar projects have inspired backyard birders to track threatened species, with some data sets going back centuries to the early birding societies in Europe.

For citizen scientists who prefer exploring waterways, the Division of Water Resources of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources coordinates aquatic programs like Stream Watch. Participants monitor water quality of adopted streams, reporting problems such as garbage dumping. They learn to identify aquatic organisms that signify different pollution levels. Stream Watchers are encouraged to become more involved in cleaning their stream and advocating for its protection. Often participants live or work near the stream they adopt. The program benefits stream health by fostering local support for cleaner water and by rounding up new scientific data from the people nearest the source.

People who participate in citizen science projects in entomology and other fields might learn about storm drain systems, bird migration or insect lifecycles. They also learn to engage with the living, breathing world in a way that can’t be taught remotely. Exploring the world directly teaches new perspectives that are increasingly important in a changing environment. Where would we be without the basic understanding of ecosystems that keeps our drinking water drinkable and our farms productive?

 This knowledge is too important for a small group of professionals to carry alone. Citizen science shows us that environmental literacy can be a more universal goal.

 If you want to pick up a clipboard and join in the fun:

Dana Powell wrote this article while interning for the LandTrust for Central North Carolina in 2011. At the time she was a student at Duke University.

Photograph from the U.S. Forest Service