Friday, June 2, 2017 Bug BioBlitz: getting kids into nature for fun with a purpose

Jonathan Carpenter, an experienced BioBlitz organizer, explains how to turn groups of kids into citizen scientists on a grand day out in nature

Connect with nature

Nature is a teacher, an endless provider of educational material. The equivalent of a 24-hour lifetime library card is available to anyone who takes a little time to learn how to explore and to discover. Tapping this source is the purpose of the Bug BioBlitz, a hands-on citizen science experience that helps kids to connect with nature, make a real contribution to conservation – and have a lot of fun in the process.

What is a BioBlitz?

A BioBlitz is an attempt to find and document the plants, animals or other organisms found in a given place at a particular time. It can be held anywhere from a schoolyard to a national park. It can be as short as a lunch-break (for bleary office workers) or as long as a week (for bug nerds with too much spare time).

A BioBlitz can be focused around specific groups of organisms – insects, in our case – or they can attempt to document whatever is encountered, including plants, animals, birds, even bacteria.

These events are usually open to the public and welcome any willing participants. However, I find they are particularly good for getting young people off the sofa and into the outdoors.

Inspiring leadership

Kids are born naturalists.  Young people fuel their mental growth through discovery and experimentation. One happy consequence of this is that you, the organizer, don’t need to be an authority on all things natural. The biodiversity itself can be the star of the show!

Still, a large dose of enthusiasm is a must. Confronted with a novel-looking insect, for example, you could say: “Look how long this cricket’s antennae are,” or “Check out those mouthparts, this critter has power,” or “Wow, the colours appear to be changing as I turn this butterfly.” No great biological insight is coursing through these observations. But, the students will be looking wide-eyed at your specimen, or their specimen, wondering, and connecting with nature.

This approach is best because ecology is complicated and difficult to observe in the short period of time that makes up the BioBlitz. Biodiversity, in contrast, is tangible. It is observable at close range and in the moment, which means instant gratification and motivated kids.

Why focus on bugs?

By bugs, I mean small critters without backbones – the invertebrates.  They are amazingly diverse, super weird in a cool way, and abundant. They are literally everywhere and can often be easily caught and held in small containers. The geography of invertebrates is largely still being unraveled, giving young explorers a real opportunity to contribute to the science of the ‘inverts’ they find. BioBlitzers can discover species previously unknown to that region – or even to the world!

To collect your bugs, you’ll need a lot of containers.  Anything clear and sealable will work, even sandwich bags. Before you let the kids loose with them, there are some rules to keep in mind:

  • Warn everyone to watch out for snakes, spiders, poison ivy and fuzzy caterpillars; take particular care with kids who are allergic to bee and wasp stings
  • Put only one captured animal in each container
  • Compare what you’ve got with your peers
  • Bring the containers back to a central display table (I call it the mini-zoo)
  • Examine the other specimens at the mini-zoo

It will only take a few minutes before everyone starts finding stuff nonstop.  Soon most kids will be asking for more containers.

Turning finds into data

For the data collection stage, you will need a camera or smartphone (having several will speed things up) and a cooler with ice. Most invertebrates are ectothermic, meaning that their body temperature depends on their surroundings. And the cooler they are, the slower they move. So chilling your specimens for a few minutes will help you get the photos without them flying away or scurrying off as soon as the container is opened. Make sure to keep the containers out of the melting ice. Taking the photos with a white background does a fine job of bringing out the details. A white paper plate will work in a pinch. Snapping them from different angles will help with identification later. As soon as you have their mug-shots, release the bugs back into their wild world.

The next step is crucial: getting the photos online and into the hands of experts. The iNaturalist.org platform works extremely well for this. It allows anyone to document all types of living species, from micro-organisms to whales. If you cannot identify your finds, that’s fine because there are many people in the iNaturalist community that curate the database by voluntarily adding IDs. You’ll even receive notifications about your submissions. iNaturalist is much more than an incredible, open-source database; it functions as an elaborate social network, education platform, and can even generate field guides of whatever you want!

A Bug BioBlitz is a great example of how citizen science can empower everyone to contribute to the collective knowledge of our world. Once you get started, you might discover that it is addictive! Try it out this World Environment Day and give some young folks (and yourself) the opportunity to be explorers.

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