In the 21st century you no longer need a fancy degree or an expensive lab to help contribute to science. In fact, all you need is a working smart phone and a connection to the internet. Citizen-science is a term used to describe a kind of crowd-sourced scientific research, where people with all different kinds of backgrounds from all around the world help to collect data for research that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to obtain. Programs like iNatrualist, where users can take pictures of animals and share the species and location to a large database, let scientists know where organisms are or where they could be. And these kinds of data are helping researchers learn just how endangered important animals are.
The bumble bee is often cited as “keystone species” or species that are vital to a healthy ecosystem. Without their constant pollination, it would be much harder for many plants to reproduce. Animals that rely on these plants to live would begin to struggle as plant populations dropped, and so would animals that rely on those animals. It is also believed to be shrinking in population, making it more likely for extinction. Unfortunately it’s difficult to gauge the current range of the species alone, and even more difficult to see if that range is expanding or shrinking over time. Victoria MacPhail is a PhD student at York University and a pollination biologist who wanted to solve this problem with citizen science.
Bumble Bee Watch is an online database where users can upload pictures of sited bumble bees anywhere in North America online or through an app. All of the data collected are verified by experts to ensure it’s an accurate reflection. Using this, the Bumble Bees of North America database, and her own field work, MacPhail had a large amount dating back to 1907 to look at the bumble bee species Bombus pensylvanicus. And what she found wasn’t comforting.
According to her research, B. pensylvanicus in Canada may be more at risk than previously thought. Between 2007 and 2016 the relative abundance of the bumble bee has decreased by almost 86 percent, compared to 1907 to 2006. What’s more is it seems that the total range of the bumble bee species range has decreased by nearly 37 percent. The researchers determined that the risk for extinction was actually much higher than previously thought. Officially classified as a special concern, MacPhail’s data suggest that it is critically endangered, one step before extinction.
While the data may be bleak, it’s important to have the most accurate information possible to make the best decisions for the future. As MacPhail’s research suggests, drastic measures must be taken soon to lessen or eliminate the decline of B. pensylvanicus, or it may soon be extinct in Canada.
Data like this is only possible with citizen science apps like Bumble Bee Watch, which accounted for nearly 20 percent of the siting data, and 36 percent or the range data, despite only have been launched in 2014. As technology improves and we become more connected, citizen science data becomes more prevalent and more important. Who knows, maybe you’ll help save the bee population with a few pictures.
Edit: Previously this article said that bumblebee population declined by nearly 70%. This was incorrect as the 70% figure refers to the total range of the bee population. We have since corrected this to reflect the true range decrease of the bumblebee population, around 37%.
The article was also incorrectly attributed to another institution and authors, and has been corrected.