Citizen Science Saturday: Blog 2- ‘The birds and the bees’ of Citizen Science

Citizen science is a way for everybody to contribute to the world of science. By using the power of huge numbers of volunteer amateur scientists, rather than only a small number of professionals, a much more extensive, exciting and impactful dataset can be put together! The projects can range from astronomy to ecology to oceanography and might involve looking at images on a computer, manipulating molecules in a simulator, or venturing outdoors. By taking part, you’re contributing important information to the scientific community that could lead to exciting discoveries about the world around us or inform policy making, both of which could never have been possible by scientists, or even computing, alone.  

Citizen Science programs involving identification and logging of wildlife have additional benefits – connecting us to our local environment. During the pandemic, we’ve had to spend a lot more time close to home, but luckily these projects only require you to access your back garden, local park or even just a window! By getting the public involved, not only can the datasets be bigger, but data that would be inaccessible or too expensive to scientists, such as covering a wide geographical area or accessing private gardens, is available. Collecting data and developing awareness about wildlife identification is accessible for everyone from beginners to pros, and is a great way to explore and learn more about your local environment whilst playing a part in scientific research! 

Two of the main species researched in Citizen Science are both pollinators: birds and bees. Both species are accessible in your back garden or local park, and both are in decline. Pollinators are essential for the health of our ecosystems and for biodiversity so their decline can cause the loss of plant species that depend on them for reproduction. 78% of wild flower species and 84% of crop species depend on insects, such as bees, to produce seeds. This extends beyond wild areas to farming and food security, with loss of these species leading to a reduction in crop production. With an ever-growing world population, food production and security are more important than ever. Collecting data about these species is incredibly important for our understanding of their decline, and can inform behavioural and policy changes to help restore these species. This would not be possible on this scale without Citizen Science. 

Citizen Science Bee Projects 

Started in 2017, Blooms for Bees is an app-based project, aiming to promote and improve gardening for bumblebees. It’s simple and quick to use, asking you to identify and log all the bees that interact with your chosen flower or plant over a 5 minute period. Images of both the plant and the bees are submitted alongside your identification so your data can be verified.  

The main research question asked in this project is which plants or flowers are best for bees. Many flowers have been bred to look pretty, but during this process they often lose their ability to produce pollen and nectar, or their dense petals make them inaccessible to bees. Data from this project can be used to identify which plants are best for what type of bee, and inform recommendations for bee-friendly planting. You can download the app here: http://www.bloomsforbees.co.uk/gardening/flowers/ 

A second bee project, BeeWatch, is an online tool run by the University of Aberdeen in collaboration with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT). It’s aimed more towards those specifically interested in bumblebees but is still accessible to beginners. For this project, a photo of the bee, a location and identification are needed. Data from this project is helping us better understand the distribution of different bee species across the country.  

Unfortunately, at the time of posting, submission of bee photos is suspended while BeeWatch update their platform, but in the meantime, you can help verify identifications by other users, practise identification using their online tool and look through the Bumblebee Map, showing all the bee species identified so far. Hopefully the platform will be up and running again soon! Access BeeWatch here: https://beewatch.abdn.ac.uk/beewatch/index.php?r=user/auth  

A paper on the impact of both these projects was published in 2019, showing that high quality data was produced by them, despite bees being notoriously difficult to identify. Even more encouraging was that identification of bees improved over time, indicating users were learning to better identify bees by taking part. Spring has begun and flowers are beginning to bloom, so why not take a trip to your local park and take part in these projects, or take the advice from Blooms for Bees and plant some bee-friendly flowers in your own garden. 

Citizen Science Bird Projects 

One you may have already heard of, the RSPBs Big Garden BirdWatch (BGBW), has been running every year since 1979 and is the UKs largest Citizen Science project! Once a year, participants spend an hour identifying birds in their gardens and log them on the RSPB website. Unfortunately, it takes place in January, so this blog is a bit late for 2021, but the data from this years’ study will be available in April on the RSPB website and the website is full of useful advice about bird identification, so there are plenty of resources to develop your ornithological skills ready for BGBW 2022! 

In the meantime, there is a global Citizen Science project for bird identification: eBird, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the US. Unlike the other projects mentioned, this project is worldwide and doesn’t have specific aims. Instead, their focus is on producing extensive bird datasets that other researchers can access to help answer their own questions. This means that your data could inform multiple projects! The reach of this Citizen Science project is epic, contributing to hundreds of conservation projects and thousands of student projects, with the data both published in scientific journals and used to inform policy making.  

To take part in eBird, you need to input both the bird species you’ve identified and exactly where you saw it, either by selecting a location and zooming in on a map to pinpoint where, or by providing latitude and longitude. This project also requires some more specific information alongside a photograph of the bird, including the date you observed it and what ‘type’ of observation it was. This can seem daunting, but it’s all pretty self-explanatory and there are guides on the website, and there are links to ‘eBird essentials’ online trainings get you started ( https://academy.allaboutbirds.org). If you’re not sure you’re quite up to this yet, the website has lots of cool visualisations, such as species maps, and a map of hotspots which perhaps you could use to scout out good bird-watching locations. There is also lots of information about bird identification, including sound clips of different species! This section of the website is definitely worth an explore, and can be found here: https://ebird.org/explore

Also, all the data from eBird is completely free to access, so if you’re into coding, perhaps you could try playing around with these data! There’s some useful advice to get started with this on the eBird website: https://ebird.org/science/use-ebird-data 

There is quite a lot to do here, but this is by no means an exhaustive list of ecological Citizen Science projects, so if none of these take your fancy, there are plenty more to choose from! Citizen Science is designed to be fun and engaging, but it also contributes important and impactful data to the science community, so why not have a go!