Building the Urban Farmers’ Almanac through Citizen Science

Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Citizen science projects connect urban growers to the who, what, when, and where of urban insects.

Whether you consider yourself an amateur gardener or an urban-farming warrior, web-based citizen science programs can provide a digital toolkit to help effectively manage pests, support pollinators and other beneficial insects, and, ultimately, turn your backyard green space into a biodiversity hotspot.

In a new article published in the open-access journal insects, University of Arizona researchers outline three web-based citizen science programs that connect urban growers with social networks, insect identification, and phenology data essential to integrated pest management (IPM) efforts.

“Less research is done on urban farms so this could be a cost effective way to grow knowledge and connect growers” said Katy Prudic, lead author of the article and an associate professor in the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Urban farming presents unique challenges and opportunities

Interest in producing food in city landscapes has grown substantially in recent decades, with an estimated 30% of urban populations engaging in some form of cultivation, and there’s good reason for that—urban farms not only enhance biodiversity but provide important green space and food security for both humans and wildlife.

Most agricultural research has and continues to be done on or surrounding rural farms. On top of limited access to land and soil contamination, one of the biggest challenges urban farmers face is access to information about local species and ecological patterns specific to urban areas.

“Imagine you’re an urban farmer in a large metropolitan area, how long has it been since this area was farmed? Are the same beneficial and insect pest species still present in the area? Are the phenological changes the same? Probably not,” said Keaton Wilson, a research scientist in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

“This is where citizen science web platforms can be incredibly beneficial. They give urban farmers a modern toolkit to address some of these challenges, on platforms that incorporate historic and current data, and are also constantly being updated and improved,” Wilson said.

Integrated Pest Management

In agricultural systems, insects play many different roles. They may be pests that negatively affect the yield or quality of crops, beneficial in their consumption of other insects, or pollinators essential to plant fertilization.

Effectively controlling these populations can be complex. In efforts to limit the impact of destructive insects, growers often turn to chemically-based solutions. Unfortunately, excessive use of pesticides can not only be costly but also degrade water, air, and soil quality. Not to mention, broad-spectrum pesticides may have unintended consequences for beneficials, pollinators, pets, as well humans.

IPM aims to control insect populations through environmentally sensitive approaches. Under this method, agricultural structures are treated as whole living systems. Successful IPM frameworks are dependent upon current and comprehensive information on insect life cycles and their complex relationships within an ecological system.

Putting citizen science to work for urban growers

Citizen science projects directly rely on professional and non-professional observation in large scale data collection. Unlike traditional agricultural research, a significant portion of citizen science data is gathered within urban areas. Urban growers can use these platforms to aid in insect identification, to see what insect species are present, predict when insects will be most vulnerable to treatment, and connect with enthusiasts and experts alike.

Three platforms that support biodiversity and aim to help followers identify species, store data, and tap into patterns of diversity are iNaturalist, eButterfly, and Nature’s Notebook.

iNaturalist is a home for biodiversity enthusiasts, who photograph and observe all organisms, while eButterfly specifically focuses on butterflies within North America. Nature’s Notebook, the phenology observing system for the USA National Phenology Network, supports scientific discovery, natural resource management decisions, and public education by collecting and sharing phenology information.

“Phenology refers to the timing of seasonal events in plants and animals, such as when plants put on leaves or flowers open, when birds migrate, and when insects hatch. Phenology is very relevant to urban farming,” said Theresa Crimmins, Assistant Director of the USA National Phenology Network. “Tens of thousands of professional and volunteer scientists are using Nature's Notebook to track and report on phenology of plants and animals at thousands of locations across the United States.”

These platforms create what researchers refer to as human-computer networks. They allow urban farmers to tap into a regional wealth of data. Using artificial intelligence algorithms and feedback from a community of subscribers and contributors, these citizen science programs can not only quickly identify insect species, but also serve as data collection and storage systems to help manage and visualize huge swaths of information.

“Through citizen participation, we’re able to suss out how the complex landscape of urban living—skyscrapers, public parks, backyard gardens, roads, vacant lots, etc.—influences insect abundance and dynamics,” Prudic said. “This in turn will inform how we help growers optimize their efforts and provide more healthy foods for their communities.”

Rose Brandt
Media Relations Manager, CALS