OPINION: How worried should we be about insect declines? Community science is vital for gathering information about arthropods.
The alien harlequin ladybug may look cute, but it is a voracious insect and one of today’s fastest-spreading invasive alien species. It is now found on every continent other than Australia and Antarctica, causing havoc by invading homes in large numbers, munching on insects including other ladybugs and, by invading grape orchards, changing the taste of wine.
Much of the understanding of the global threat caused by this little beetle comes from community science: everyday people who share their observations and record their sightings online. There are many such tales of people contributing to insect science. As entomologists ourselves, we are hugely grateful for the data collected by volunteers: We couldn’t do our work without them.
But there’s a problem: There’s a huge imbalance in the data being collected.
When we trawled through the publication record from 2007 onwards, we found 245 published citizen-science studies about arthropods (the scientific category that includes insects and spiders). The vast majority were from the Northern Hemisphere; nearly half of them were from the United States and the United Kingdom, and most of the rest were from Europe. Likewise, there was way more attention paid to “friendly” bugs than the seemingly “creepy” ones: 29 percent of the studies were on butterflies or moths, compared with only 6 percent on mites and spiders. This needs to change.
There are good reasons to get more information, from all over the world. Insects are incredibly important to humanity. They pollinate crops, keep pest insects in check and tidy up the natural world by decomposing fallen leaves. The data we have suggest that insects around the world are in trouble: You can find plenty of newspaper stories about the “insect apocalypse” or “insectageddon.” Data on more than a million bees and hoverflies collected by volunteers across the UK and the Netherlands, for example, show that the number of types of bees (their diversity) has dropped since 1980. But the full scale of the problem, and its details, remain murky. We need more information to work out what’s going on with insects and to help them thrive in this rapidly changing world.
More than a million species of insects have been identified so far, but it’s thought there might be 10 times as many on the planet. Most of them go almost entirely unnoticed. There are always new discoveries to be made even in your own backyard. From 2013 to 2016, for example, an urban biodiversity project in Los Angeles collected more than 2,500 specimens and discovered three new species of minute scavenger flies.
It is particularly exciting to see inspiring projects when they come out of the Global South. In 1992, community scientists in Chile rediscovered the thick-headed fly, unseen for 46 years since its first description. Back in the 1980s at the Refugio Amazonas Lodge in a national rainforest reserve in Peru, guests trawling through light collection traps turned up a new species of moth. More projects like these would be welcome.
There is huge value in co-developing projects to coordinate bug hunting around the globe, building a more complete picture of where insects are found and how this is changing. Local projects are important in addressing the questions that are important to local communities. In a study out of Wisconsin a few years ago, for example, people curious about the impacts of mowing their lawns discovered that biodiversity was five times higher in the month of May if they left their lawns to grow.
People don’t need to wait for researchers to start projects for them: Anyone can coordinate their own short-term efforts, or “bioblitzes,” to catalog as much of the biodiversity in their neighborhood as they can, and contribute on websites like iNaturalist. Scientists, in turn, need to be open to working with communities from the start — not just asking them to collect data, but collaborating to determine which questions should be answered and what kind of information to collect. The information gathered needs to be shared openly and fairly so everyone can make use of it.
Only together can we work out what’s happening with the world’s insects in the face of climate change, habitat destruction and more. We need all hands on deck — or down on the lawn — to understand the plight of insects and think of ways to help them out.
This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.