Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Citizen scientists ensure the success of the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey

A guest blog from Dr Helen Roy with initial results from the first ever national farm pollinator survey, which took place in June 2012 as part of Open Farm Sunday
16,380 insects counted in just one day … that is an incredible number, particularly when that day (Sunday 17 June 2012) was slightly overcast and followed weeks of unprecedented torrential rain.  The magic of Open Farm Sunday coupled with the enthusiasm of hundreds of citizen scientists, in all their many guises, ensured that the first ever national pollinator survey on farms was lots of fun and a huge success.
But why do we consider the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey such a success? 
Is it simply the volume of data that was rapidly accumulated across a large geographic region? A dataset of 16,380 observations gathered from 36 farms across 23 counties in about 6 hours is impressive.  
Or the quality of the data that people gathered?  Each participant was provided with detailed information on how to carry out the survey.  We found the data contributed by people new to counting insects was extremely similar to the data gathered by experts.

Surveying for pollinators in a farm crop. Photo by Barnaby Smith/CEH.

Or is it just the memories of people coming together with a common purpose and enjoying the opportunity to get involved in “real” science? The atmosphere on the two farms I visited was simply amazing and witnessing the excitement of people of all ages in their quest to count insects visiting flowers was unbeatable.  Expert ecologists worked alongside the visitors on the farms but all did so as volunteers and with huge amounts of enthusiasm.
Or perhaps it was the opportunity to engage with people in discussing complex ecological questions?  There is no doubt that standing in a field, with insects playing out so many subtle and intricate interactions literally at your feet, provides the perfect back drop for such discussions.
What about the way in which the data might inform science, conservation or political strategy? Certainly many people were intrigued about the value of their data within a wider context and citizen science can provide datasets that have unprecedented value for research and analysis.  We hope that surveys such as this, coupled with other scientific work, will provide evidence on which effective decisions about land management can be based. 
There are clearly many ways of measuring the success of a citizen science initiative such as the Open Farm Sunday and that in itself highlights the value of citizen science. I never imagined that more than 16,000 insects would be counted on one (not so sunny) day in June by people across the country. 
Today (Tuesday 18 December)  we have the pleasure of presenting the results of the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey at the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting.  But we are also beginning to look forward.  The enthusiastic involvement of so many people in 2012 has inspired me to begin to consider how we can extend the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey in future years ... to gather even more data to improve our understanding of the ecological communities which provide such valuable ecosystem services on farms ... but most importantly to have fun! 
Additional information
Dr Helen Roy is an ecological entomologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. She was a co-author on two recent publications examining citizen science projects.

More details about CEH science at the 2012 British Ecological Society Annual Meeting

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