Citizen Science, Decades In Development

In Droege's lab at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, pizza boxes provide storage to thousands of pinned bee specimens. Volunteers Gene Scarpulla (in green) and Tim McMahon peer through microscopes to ID the insects.  Credit: Robert Wright

In Droege’s lab at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, pizza boxes provide storage to thousands of pinned bee specimens. Volunteers Gene Scarpulla (in green) and Tim McMahon peer through microscopes to ID the insects. Credit: Robert Wright

We started, before even knowing the terminology, paying attention to citizen science on this blog when we began to understand the parallels with entrepreneurial conservation. And now we link to stories whenever we can that help us better understand it:

Three Generations of Citizen Science: The Incubator

Once Sam Droege gets a research project up and running, he dreams up a new one–and builds it.


It was a bright, breezy day in late April, the flowering azaleas having finally shrugged off the winter that overstayed its welcome, when Sam Droege sailed onto the grounds of the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., behind the wheel of a pterodactyl. It was actually a ’98 forest-green Saturn, which Droege had painted with yellow wings and a red-and-yellow beak that tapered to a point down the center of the hood. A piece of wood, lined with a rusty crosscut saw, had been bolted to the roof: the crest. Little jingle bells, inspired by richly adorned buses in Pakistan, dangled from chains screwed into the rear bumper. Droege still had designs for neon undercarriage lights, and a mosaic of mirror shards to line the car’s ceiling–“but why stop there?” he wondered. It was a work in progress.

Droege, 56, is a biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, in Maryland. He’s an expert on both birds and pollinator species, though he doesn’t fit the mold of a government scientist. His spectacular macro portraits of bees, shot using a camera rig he devised by modifying one used by the U.S. Army, have several hundred thousand online admirers, yet he doesn’t consider himself a photographer. Relentlessly creative, he has produced a spate of grassroots programs with names like Bioblitz, Frogwatch USA, and Cricket Crawl that enlist volunteers to inventory local flora and fauna. Droege is the Johnny Appleseed of citizen science.

Four years ago Droege launched a pilot program that, if funded, would become the first survey of North America’s wild bee population. It’s another volunteer effort, supercharged by an army of biologists from the U.S. Forest Service and other land protection agencies who send Droege little plastic baggies filled with bees plucked from the deserts, dunes, sagebrush plains, and prairies where they work. Honey-bee decline is now a well-documented phenomenon, even if its precise cause remains uncertain, but data are scant about the relative status of the 4,000 known species of native bees. Droege aims to change that, although “when you have these extensive surveys all based on volunteers, if I get 50 percent [participation], that’s really high.”

On the day we met, Droege was doing his rounds, checking up on volunteers and constantly netting bees. He parked the pterodactyl by a trail that meandered into the arboretum’s native plant collection. He wore black Levi’s, hiking boots, and a vintage cardigan ski sweater. His graying blond hair lay in a skinny braid at the back of his neck.

Ever upbeat, Droege grabbed a few vials and his butterfly net from the car, and began creeping slowly down the trail. “You’re looking for a motion that’s not in sync with blowing leaves,” he said. Upon reaching a cluster of wild geraniums, he stopped. A bee darted busily among the flowers. Droege hovered closely with the net poised–the “swing ready” position. Giving it a quick snap, he scooped up the bee and cradled the net rapidly back and forth like a lacrosse stick. He then continued on. The most efficient method of bee collecting, he explained, was to accumulate several bees before transferring them into the vials. “I talk about this a lot in my lab: How does doing something increase your ‘bees per hour’?”

Droege has been obsessively counting and collecting since he was a young boy traipsing through the woods near his childhood home in suburban Maryland. He started off gathering rocks. He and a friend would crack them open with their dads’ hammers, pronouncing each one to be as valuable as the rose amethyst they’d seen in a book. He had various other hobbies–stamps, old bottles–but his first true love was birds. There weren’t any ornithology role models in the blue-collar neighborhood where he grew up, so he equipped himself with Boy Scout binoculars and set off into the forest. Because his father wouldn’t let him take his grandfather’s dated bird guide out of the house, Droege was forced to assign identification to memory.

Eventually he discovered the Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia at the local library. The book was coauthored by Chandler Robbins, a USGS biologist in Patuxent. Using the phonebook, Droege tracked down Robbins, who invited the teenager into his bird club. “It was over then,” Droege recalled. “I was surrounded by my people.”…

Read the whole article here.

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