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Citizen Science

By Helen Dickinson, Surveys & GIS Officer

There has been a 'buzz' around the words citizen science for quite some time and the involvement of members of the public in scientific monitoring and research is increasingly relevant in a world with increasing demands for data around the continued loss of biodiversity. Citizen science is an incredibly important way individuals can contribute to conservation in the UK and across the globe. The large quantity of data required to get a good understanding of what’s happening to our habitats and species is something that we need as many people as possible out recording.

There is an ever growing number of ways that people can get involved in citizen science biological recording: from seaweed searches to ladybird counts, to bat roost monitoring and commitments from one off, to monthly, to annually, means that the range of schemes available provides something for everyone. See detailed list of surveys.

There are many reasons why people choose to become citizen scientists, including to support scientific research, to get fresh air, to develop identification skills, to meet like-minded people and the benefits to people as well as the schemes they contribute to, are becoming increasingly evident.

Volunteer recording links people to their local natural areas, encouraging a greater interest and equipping amateur scientists to monitor their changing environment and play a role in the natural world. Having a better understanding of local species and habitats empowers people to take on guardianship roles and increase awareness in their own communities. 

The benefits of being outside and engaging in the natural world are highlighted more and more, with positive impacts on mental as well as physical health. It’s wonderful to have a reason to observe the changes in the season and get better acquainted with the wild world on our doorstep, and doing so whilst contributing to scientific research is a win-win!

You don’t necessarily have to be an official part of a recording scheme either, there are many ways you can now submit all types of wildlife records that you may encounter in your garden of when you’re out and about. If you’re really new to identifying species iSpot is your first port of call. You can upload photos and get help on identification of all types of flora and fauna from the UK, and you can also help identify other photos on the website which is a great way to get involved whilst improving your own identification skills!

If you’re ready to get recording iRecord is an online portal where you can submit all your wildlife records in one place, where they will be collated and checked by experts and made available for research and policy making, all via the National Biodiversity Network (NBN). This data is also shared with National Recording Schemes and Local Environmental Records Centres (LERCs). These LERCs are often a great local resource and you can often submit records directly to them for your local area.

There is a balancing act in play when creating citizen science projects, with a need to ensure schemes are accessible for the amateur scientist whilst also ensuring collected data is accurate and usable from a scientific perspective. This is hugely important, particularly for national monitoring schemes like the Trust's BeeWalk scheme, and this is why there can seem to be a frustrating set of criteria that need to be met to submit data!

Particularly for people completely new to biological recording, there can be obstacles and the set methods required to be followed can occasionally feel daunting and unnecessary. This is where adequate resources and support comes in: it can be easy for those running schemes to forget how alien things like counting insects and submitting data to an online portal can be to people doing it for the first time!  At the Trust, we have been working hard behind the scenes and we are now able to offer more support than ever for our own BeeWalker citizen scientists. A big part of my role as Surveys and GIS Officer for the Trust is to support BeeWalkers through the process and be on hand to offer advice and assistance when required.  If you think this is you, please do get in touch via beewalk@bumblebeeconservation.org. We will soon be uploading a set of video guides to complement our manual and help guide people through the online side of the scheme. We are also trialling a BeeWalk Mentors scheme, where experienced BeeWalkers offer support to other BeeWalkers in their area.

BeeWalk is the only standardised national recording scheme for bumblebees, but it’s still a relatively new scheme.  It began as a University of Stirling PhD project, undertaken by Leanne Casey (supervised by Professor Dave Goulson) entitled 'Using citizen science to monitor bumblebee populations'.  The scheme was opened up to Trust members in 2010 and then to the general public. The early years began with just 1 transect walked in 2008 with 226 individual bumblebees recorded: this has now grown to 373 transects, with over 18,000 records of more than 54,000 individual bumblebees received in 2016.

The aims of the recording scheme are to:

• collect long-term data on bumblebee distribution and abundance
• analyse data to identify population trends
• use findings to inform BBCT projects and policy work
• improve understanding of forage plants preferences
• identify impacts of habitat and climate change
• identify impacts of management
• encourage public understanding of bumblebees and the changes they are facing.

The ability to monitor population trends for bumblebee species enables us to detect population declines over time, meaning the scheme can act as an early warning system to changes in species abundance. Holding up-to-date national population data allows us to better target our conservation activities and ensure that the advice we provide, including to governmental organisations, results in policies such as National Pollinator Strategies, which reflect the current needs of our bumblebee populations.

We have a fantastic group of regular BeeWalkers but we need more, could you help? Bumblebee monitoring involves choosing a set route, generally of around 1-2 miles (although it can be any length!), setting this up on the BeeWalk website, then walking it once a month between March and October and counting and identifying the bumblebees you see. Basic knowledge of how to identify common bumblebees is required, you can find help with this on the Trust website Identification and also keep an eye out on our events page for identification workshops throughout the summer.

Our citizen scientists contribute a massive number of hours to BeeWalk every year, and we really couldn’t run the scheme without them, it’s an incredibly important way you can contribute to bumblebee conservation, if you’d like to find out more please see www.beewalk.org or email beewalk@bumblebeeconservation.org.

If you would like to monitor bumblebees in Ireland, there is a separate monitoring scheme running in parallel with BeeWalk.

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