3 September 2012
It all started with handing out 1,000 vials containing ‘alien bugs’ in Bristol’s shopping hub of Cabot Circus. Two years later, Conker Tree Science, a hypothesis-led citizen science project, has engaged thousands of people across the UK and generated important data about the spread of an invasive leaf-mining moth.
Michael Pocock and Darren Evans were both post-doctoral fellows in the School of Biological Sciencesat the University of Bristol, investigating the spread of the horse-chestnut leaf-miner moth, Cameraria ohridella, which has been spreading across the UK for the last ten years. They were looking at how far the moth has spread and how effective natural predators are at controlling it.
The leaf-miner moth is attacked by thirty different species of parasitoid wasps, which lay their eggs in the larval moth. When the eggs hatch, the larval wasps feed on the larval moth, eventually killing it. Pocock and Evans were taking moth-infected leaves and sealing them in a plastic bag. They would then record what emerged from the leaf after two weeks, a leaf-miner moth or a parasitoid wasp.
“We realised that what we were doing practically, in terms of some of the rearing of insects, was the sort of thing anyone could do,” said Pocock. “Light bulbs came on in our minds and we thought we could ask people to get involved in rearing these insects and it would engage them with science, and enable us to do useful research.”
The scientists received a £1,500 National Science and Engineering Week Award, which they used to train a dozen PhD students who joined them in handing out 1,000 vials containing moth-infected leaves. The public just had to look after the vials for a couple of weeks and then record what hatched out of the leaf, moth or wasp. The program was hugely successful and became the foundation for Conker Tree Science.
Further small investments from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the British Ecological Society enabled Pocock and Evans to extend the project into primary schools. They trained eight volunteers across the UK to work with 3rd graders in 78 different classes from around the country. The children were engaged in learning about invasive species, predator/prey interactions, and adaption, all while contributing to the first-ever broad scale study that documented rates of natural pest control of the leaf-miner moth across the UK.
Since then, Conker Tree Science has expanded into the general public. In 2011, the Smartphone application, Leaf Watch, was developed to tie photographic evidence of leaf damage to location data. Since its release, Leaf Watch has had 15,000 downloads and reached the top spot on the iTunes educational chart. Stephen Fry promoted the app to more than four million followers on Twitter with his Tweet, “Help Bristol University save the horse-chestnuts of Britain”, which then linked to the application download sites.
To date, Conker Tree Science has generated over 10,000 data points from across the UK and over 5,500 photographs documenting leaf damage. These data have resulted in scientific publications and have fed into Forest Research databases. The project has been held up as an example of a successful public engagement tool by both NERC and Research Councils UK.
“We had the opportunity to develop the project incrementally,” said Pocock. “The small pots of money, £1,500 here and £3,000 there, gave us the time and space to be creative without too much risk. I think it’s a massive shame that some funders have stopped giving out these small grants.”
Conker Tree Science continues to run and adapt as new hypotheses develop both from the results of the research as well as from anecdotal information from the participants. Evans is now a Lecturer in Conservation Biology at the University of Hull. Pocock is now an ecologist with the Centre for Environment and Hydrology, where he will continue to develop Conker Tree Science and look at new ways to make it more involving, including getting people to help interpret the data as well as collect it.