If you’re a bug nerd, the federal government needs your help.
Natural Resources Canada is looking for so-called citizen scientists to help in its battle against spruce budworm, a moth that has devastated forests in parts of Eastern Canada.
The program, spearheaded by the Canadian Forest Services, is entering its third summer and now has more than 400 members of the public counting bugs in six provinces and Maine, U.S. The endeavour is part of a collaboration with various ministries, businesses and universities.
“The idea is to use people to help us form an early warning system to know where the moths are,” said Chris MacQuarrie, a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada. After an outbreak, the moths devour spruce and fir trees.
The science is pretty simple, MacQuarrie said. After signing up on www.Budwormtracker.ca, a trap will arrive in the mail to be hung from black and white spruce trees, and their favourite conifer, the balsam fir.
A pheromone — a sex hormone — inside the small green bin lures in unsuspecting male moths.
“It’s a little thing you hang that makes it smell like a female moth,” explained MacQuarrie.
“We only get the males. It turns out female moths are really hard to catch, but males are much easier and they fly right into the trap.”
Citizen scientists then count the dead moths every week and upload that information on an app. The bugs are also sent to the department’s main research laboratory in Fredericton, N.B.
The results are already paying off just two years in.
“The data are showing us that moths are dispersing to many more places than we previously thought, but when they arrive they don’t always kick off an outbreak,” MacQuarrie said.
“This tells us we still have a lot to understand about the biology of the insect.”
Currently, there are outbreaks in New Brunswick and parts of Quebec, which usually come about every 30 years, he said. Previous outbreaks in those provinces were so massive that they were captured on radar.
The weekly data collection has also added a real-time component previously unavailable to researchers.
“For me to do that as a scientist, I’d have to take a summer student and stick them in the woods somewhere to empty a trap for every week and that’s expensive and time consuming and probably not great for the student,” MacQuarrie said.
He also said the growing network of bug enthusiasts has allowed rapid responses to calls to collect moths in a “mass-dispersal event,” like what happened in Campbellton, N.B. last summer, when millions of moths emerged from their caterpillar state and descended on the area, covering trees, roads, cars and people.
First, like Batman’s bat signal, “the program activated the budworm tracker network” to scramble citizen scientists to collect moths, he said.
“Having a large group of people on the ground willing to help makes it easier to collect a bunch of data quickly so we can better understand what the insect was doing,” MacQuarrie said.
“Previously to have collected a large number of insects from a bunch of places would have meant we’d need to send crews roaming about the province looking for bugs. Now we have ‘boots on the ground’ that we can call on when we need to.”
MacQuarrie hopes to get more interest in the program in Ontario, which only has 34 members, mainly in Sault Ste. Marie, where one of the Natural Resources laboratories is located.
“This year we’re trying to expand it a little more into the northwest and northeast,” he said, adding that it isn’t as great a concern in the south.
But they also want more in Ontario because they’re waiting for the big one — the massive outbreak that occurs every 30 years — because it’s overdue.