Calling all pollinator fans: University of Illinois seeks citizen scientists

MENDOTA - For the second year, University of Illinois Extension is calling all lovers of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators that keep our crops and gardens growing to join scientists in tracking their distribution and habitat use across the state. As social distancing advisories remain in effect for Illinois, volunteers have an opportunity to gather critical information on pollinators in Illinois from the comfort of their home. 

I-Pollinate is a citizen-science research initiative through the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with support from Illinois Farm Bureau. Volunteers can join up to three research projects: planting a “study” garden to observe which ornamental flowers pollinators prefer, tracking monarch butterfly egg and caterpillar abundance, or recording bumblebee and honeybee sightings to help create accurate distribution maps for Illinois.

The results may help declining insect populations, including critical pollinators of crops and flowering plants. Previous research has estimated that 40 percent of all insect species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades, a decline driven primarily by habitat loss.

These at-risk species include the monarch butterfly. I-Pollinate volunteers gather critical data that Dr. David Zaya of the Illinois Natural History Survey use for monarch conservation research.

Science at home, with friends and family

Previous volunteers say I-Pollinate is a great excuse to spend time outdoors and is easy enough to be a family activity with children. Some shared their new-found research skills and pollinator knowledge with others in their schools, church or community groups.

Extension Horticulture Educator Kelly Allsup worked with a number of Extension Master Gardener volunteers on I-Pollinate last summer. “We learned how to identify what’s in our gardens, but also about the scientific process,” said Allsup. “Even no data is data that the scientists need to make recommendations on what plants can support pollinators.”

In one of the I-Pollinate projects, designed by entomology professor Dr. Alex Harmon-Threatt, volunteers are producing some of the first-ever research on ornamental plants as pollinator food. “Instead of relying on internet sources that may not always be based on science, we’re contributing to new research that shows, for example, plant sweet alyssum instead of marigolds for the bees,” said Allsup.

Citizen scientists from rural areas play an important role

I-Pollinate scientists agree there is a particular need for data from rural areas. Many volunteers come from population centers which, while providing important data, also leaves blank spots on the map.

“We hope more residents in rural areas will join us this year,” said Michael McKelvey, who manages the BeeSpotter project within I-Pollinate. “And if you are traveling within Illinois, Indiana, Missouri or Ohio, you can still snap a photo of that bumblebee you see and submit it to BeeSpotter. For creatures as small and hard to spot as bees, flies, and moths, there’s really no substitute for citizen scientists.”

Learn more

To learn more about becoming a citizen scientist, visit Prospective volunteers are encouraged to attend the I-Pollinate informational webinar on May 7 and can register to attend online. If space for the webinar fills up, a recording will be available soon after.

I-Pollinate is a collaboration between U of I Department of Entomology, Illinois Extension, Illinois Natural History Survey, and the Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education.