Citizen Scientist Project needs input from Texas residents

by Adam Russell, Texas A&M AgriLife Marketing and Communications

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service scientists hope you will join the ranks of Texas residents participating in a multi-state project to identify pollinator-friendly plants and ultimately help pollinator populations.

The Pollinator Citizen Science Project has been accepting new recruits for its second year as a volunteer-based information-gathering program.

The purpose of this project is to utilize volunteer “citizen-scientists” to determine the attractiveness of different commercially available annual and perennial ornamental plants to various pollinator groups in Texas and Oklahoma.

The project started as a collaboration between research and extension personnel at Texas A&M University, Tarleton State University, Texas Tech University and Oklahoma State University.

Erfan Vafaie, AgriLife Extension entomologist, Overton, said creators of the project hope to answer a long-popular question among ornamental and pollinator lovers: Which common flowers in Texas and Oklahoma do pollinators find most attractive?

“We are looking for master gardeners, master naturalists, landscapers, home garden enthusiasts and the like to participate in a citizen-science pollinator project,” Vafaie said. “Citizen scientists need to have access to outdoor flowering plants, whether it be in their own gardens or a nearby park or botanical garden, and make regular observations throughout the flowering season, at least once a week, to track pollinator visits.”

Join the Citizen Scientist Project

The project is mainly focused on southern states, but because data can be filtered by region, citizen-scientists report from anywhere in the U.S. It is also focused on introduced plant cultivars rather than native species.

Vafaie said the project asks volunteers to determine the plant species observed down to the binomial Latin name and to classify pollinators into one of many categories including honey bees, bumble bees, other bees, non-bee wasps, non-bee flies, butterflies and moths, and beetles.

Other information collected include the location, temperature and time of the observation, he said.

“These observations can be made in a backyard garden or at a botanical garden,” he said. “We want the observations to be from the same location throughout the season so we have a range of data relating to conditions and flowering, but we also want people to know they can do this at home.”

The Citizen Scientist project will provide online training modules focused on how to perform observations, identifying different pollinator groups, selecting a patch of flowering plants, and how to fill out the citizen-science survey.

“The training modules will take volunteers through the steps needed to report accurately,” he said. “It’s just as important to get reports that are consistent and accurate, whether they’re observing certain pollinators on specific plants or not seeing anything. We want the positive and negative because they both contribute to an accurate portrayal of what plants may attract pollinators and potentially why.”

The project receives no direct funding and operates through researchers’ existing programs and volunteers, Vafaie said.

Project results so far

As of April 1, there were 282 official citizen-scientist volunteers, including 172 master naturalists and 76 master gardeners, Vafaie said. But anyone who is interested in gardening, ornamental plants or pollinators and willing to commit time to the project is welcome to join.

In 2019, volunteers provided almost 8,000 contributions to the project.

Volunteer observations represented 215 plant species from 57 plant families. Some most commonly observed plant families included tickseed, purple coneflower, yarrow, black-eyed Susan, spearmint, oregano, salvia and lantana, mock verbena, frog fruit and verbena.

The 2020 observation surveys will be accepting observations through October. Vafaie said researchers hope to continue the project and collect data on pollinators into the future.

Vafaie said the Citizen Scientist project is a great opportunity for the public to participate in a scientific survey program dedicated to pollinators.

“Pollinators are getting more attention these days, and people are becoming more aware of their importance to humans and the world around us,” he said. “In the end, we hope this project helps pollinator populations.”

Anyone interested in participating in the Pollinator Project should go to the project page and complete the three-step process to become a volunteer. Volunteers will be asked to view an hour-long webinar on the project and pass a short quiz before signing up.

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