I tell you true, O readers—one of the most fun things I do in my garden is citizen science.
Today, I wandered around my garden with my cellphone and then sent a half-dozen butterfly and moth sightings to BAMONA.org which catalogs butterfly and moth sightings in North America.
Then my inner six-year-old danced around, chanting “I’m HELPING! I’m HELPING!” and I giggled a lot.
That’s the beauty of things like this. I also take part in Project Feederwatch and occasionally even submit something to BugGuide.net (although much more often, they’re helping ME instead!) Lots and lots of people use eBird to find where the birds are hiding out. And at the end of the day, in some teeny tiny way, contributing to these programs makes I feel like I am really truly helping contribute to our understanding of the world.
What really got me excited, though, was when I idily clicked on the “Regional Checklist” for my county at the BAMONA website…and came up with one moth sighting.
Oh, there were butterflies. But for moths, there was one…solitary…species.
Does this mean that there is only one species of moth in Chatham County, North Carolina? Heck, no! I can turn on the porch light and disabuse you of this notion any night of the year.
Some of them are the size of birds.
Others don’t show up at the porchlight much, but do come to my tomatoes…
Some of them I’ve never managed to ID…
…and some are actually pretty darn rare.
Here was a big database—one that kept coming up when I was looking for things!—and it didn’t have any local listings! Nobody in my area had ever sat down and said “Hey, these are all over! I know what they are! Let me send in a photo!”
In fact, when I plugged that spiky gent above into the database, it came back that it wasn’t just the first sighting for the county—it was only the second sighting of a Stinging Rose Caterpillar recorded for the entire state.
And you know, this doesn’t surprise me as much as it used to.
When I started really paying attention to the stuff in my yard, when I was really, truly, looking at it, going “I wonder what that is, and what it’s called…” I had this notion that some vague entity called Science of course knew all about everything in my garden already, and probably had for a hundred years. Some unknown grad student had already done their thesis on anything I saw. If I entered a scientific name on the internet, I’d come up with all the data anyone could ever want to know about the species in front of me.
Actually, as it turned out…not so much.
The more I looked into it, the more I ran into the limits of our knowledge. Our gardens are full of plants and insects that we just plain don’t know much about. What do they eat? What do they feed on? How many are there? What’s their range?
Well…we’ve got approximations.
Sometimes they’re very approximate.
If I hadn’t been out with a camera looking in one particular place at one particular time, there might not be a record in that database that this caterpillar was ever found in my county. And our hypothetical grad student might draw some conclusions based on the lack of data that weren’t true.
Plenty of our bloggers here at BWG can tell you similar stories, of interesting things they photographed and sent in and heard back that they’d never been recorded locally before. Blog readers of mine have told me about how they snapped a few random photos and later found out they’d recorded a behavior never seen before, even in very common species like the Northern Cardinal.
Scientists can’t be everywhere. But gardeners sorta can. All these little data points may not mean much by themselves, but they add up to big things.
So keep your eyes peeled. Don’t assume that everything you see has already been observed. Take some pictures. Do a little citizen science.
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