Citizen naturalists keep watch over at-risk dragonflies, butterflies, bugs

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When I was a kid on road trips with my family, the bugs splattered on our windshield were such a distraction for my dad, who was driving, that we had to scrape them off when we stopped for gas. Today, when I stop for fuel, the unused squeegees are a poignant reminder of the environmental changes that have harmed animal populations, glaciers, forests — and insects.

For more than 25 years, Jim Waggener of Alexandria, Va., has been paying attention to the environment and documenting changes, keeping careful watch over insects. What began as a survey to count odonatans and lepidopterans (dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, caterpillars and moths) quickly grew to a group of citizen scientists who meet every week from the first Friday in April to the last Friday in October to count many different insect species found in Occoquan Bay and Meadowood parks in Northern Virginia.

This group of over a dozen senior citizens can name almost every single species of dragonfly, damselfly and butterfly, and discuss with authority the different subclasses of flies, which they do regularly over a post-survey feast at a rotating list of favorite local restaurants.

Although pandemic precautions have interrupted their group outings recently, they have begun a cautious and individual return to the open parks.

The Ries Lab, a team from Georgetown University that studies butterflies, has recently started collecting and analyzing Jim’s data to determine how it might enhance understanding of climate change and protection of species. They put his team’s data on a national network so researchers worldwide can access it.

Jim also produces a weekly report for every survey that goes to the participants as well as land managers. Different members of the survey group regularly post photos on iNaturalist, an online social network of citizen scientists and biologists who map and observe insects, plants and animals. The group has had the long-term support of the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia.

With over 43 surveys and 1,569 hours of volunteer time just in 2019, Jim hopes the data will provide insight into a catastrophic insect decline that has alarmed scientists around the world.

“Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce,” according to the Agriculture Department. Insects pollinate not only our plants but also feed many other animals. A study published in the journal Science in September reported that there has been a loss of 2.9 billion birds since 1970, a population affected by this insect decline. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one way to help bird populations is through citizen data collection.

I asked Jim, a retired Air Force colonel, about why he started keeping these records. “Once upon a time,” he said, “I read a publication by the [U.S. Geological Survey] that said if a few people will over time look at the same places over and over again, that the outcome is bound to be important.”

As spring approached, Jim and Gary Myers, a member of the survey group who lives in Springfield, Va., went out to look at early spring blooms. What they found was a surprise and shock to them — a newly emerged cabbage white butterfly feeding on a purple blooming dead nettle. In a quarter of a century, according to Jim’s surveys, the first cabbage white to be seen of the season in the area was on March 8, 2017, and here it was Feb 3, 2020. Why was it here so early in the year? What does that teach us about our environment?

Keeping records of species as well as first dates of arrival, like the cabbage white, is useful in not only tracking climate change on a local level but also sharing with our neighbors the depth of ecological diversity in our parks and the damage to our own backyards as birds and insects disappear.

Having spent time as a photographer with Jim and his team, I can say that my life has personally changed because of them. I see beauty in places I would have otherwise ignored. I have learned that conservation can start in our own homes, by planting local plants in our own yards to help these declining insect populations.

I am so grateful that even during a pandemic I can go outside and marvel at nature.

I always thought I had to go far to connect to wildlife, but I was wrong. It is here, in our own backyards.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members, freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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