Crowdsourcing flies: diving into BugGuide

It’s the Victoria Day long weekend in Canada – the unofficial start of summer. Thirty years ago I would have spent the weekend outdoors, in a rowdy crowd of friends, drinking beer, and living on a diet I would rather forget. I spent a chunk of this Victoria Day weekend interacting with a very different crowd with outdoor interests. I finally took the plunge and joined up with BugGuide.net. For those who aren’t already familiar with this fantastic resource, check it out. It’s crowd-sourced natural history at its finest. A huge community of photographers, naturalists, amateur and professional entomologists interacts to fill the site with arthropod photos, often accompanied by field observations, and other participants then jump in to help provide identifications for the mystery specimens.

Some things are easy – the “charismatic megafauna” such as butterflies and dragonflies are mostly so well known that field guides allow identification of these insects on the wing. But some things are harder – the little flies that I specialize on are a case in point. As a Taxonomist of Tiny Flies, I have had an innate and automatic tendency to tell people that I need a specimen in hand before I can put a name on their flies. And as a Big University Professor my time is valuable and limited. But, have I been deluding myself? Probably. Seemed like a good time for a reality check.

So, I duly registered on BugGuide (easy!) and dove in to the surprisingly large bank of on-line photos of chloropid flies, the group I know best. “Epiphany” would not be too strong a word. This virtual community of amateur naturalists and photographers has managed to document species I barely know, doing things I was not aware of, in places I didn’t expect to find them, and usually with enough detail and clarity that I can put a name on these flies.

And so that’s what I’ve spent a few pleasant hours on this weekend – putting names on specimens I’ve never examined, from places I’ve never been, for collaborators I’ve never met. And I choose that term “collaborator” intentionally. These retired teachers and software designers and dentists and high school students and others are generating primary scientific data that will benefit my future publications on this family of flies. That is crowd-sourced science at its finest, and that is, I think, where the future of our discipline lies.

And now, I’m off to the lab. There are a few flies on BugGuide I’m curious about and I’m dying to put names on them.

And after that, of course, I may come home for some beer and a BBQ on the back deck. It is a long weekend after all . . .

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Research News and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Crowdsourcing flies: diving into BugGuide

  1. I have been more or less involved with BugGuide for several years now, but in recent months I’ve been a little stingy with my time. Thanks for reminding me that these folks truly are collaborators, and that there is mutual benefit in participating.

  2. Ted, yes BugGuide’s been a great resource for me and my students over the years – I figured it was about time I got a little more connected and contributed some IDs to the community. I’ve become increasingly aware of the great benefits we science-types can derive from all these new ways of sharing biodiversity information. It’s a win-win.

  3. Pingback: The Weekly Flypaper » Biodiversity in Focus Blog

  4. Pingback: Taxonomy with or without natural history? | Lyman Entomological Museum

  5. As one of the BugGuide contributing editors I can’t cheer you on enough! Yes, please work on those little flies, that’s one of the groups that’s really lagging behind in ids. Even the bigger ones, western Copestylum ids anyone?

    • Thanks Margarethe. I’d love to see more fly experts involved with BugGuide. We won’t be able to get names on everything, but we can keep making a dent in the pile.

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