Researchers enlist public to sort more than 1 million bugs online

Essig Museum of Entomology/Courtesy

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Insect aficionados from across the world can now become part of a UC Berkeley entomology research team through a new citizen science project, which officially launched last Wednesday.

CalBug, a project initiated by UC Berkeley’s Essig Museum of Entomology to digitize insect specimens, will employ volunteer archivists to catalog and sort through more than one million samples. CalBug will collaborate with Notes from Nature, an online crowdsourcing platform, to speed up the digitization of the immense collection.

CalBug was first created in 2010 by a small team at the Museum of Entomology in collaboration with eight other museums, including the California Academy of Sciences and the Los Angeles County Museum. The project aims to digitize 1 million species in five years.

According to CalBug project coordinator Peter Oboyski, the original process, which included photographing each species and manually inputting antique label information for the one million specimens, was impossible with his small staff.

“It was basically one person working full-time and four part-time,” Oboyski said.

A couple months into the project, it became clear to the CalBug team that they needed more help. Team member Joan Ball, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the department of environmental science, policy and management reached out to Zooniverse, a citizen science Web portal that now hosts more than a dozen projects.

On Zooniverse, laypeople can help research projects by volunteering to complete laborious tasks in bite-sized chunks. Ball contacted Zooniverse about a year ago to make CalBug a citizen science project after hearing about the group’s success with the Old Weather project, a task that employed 100,000 volunteers in digitizing weather logs from Royal Navy ships.

Zooniverse helped create Notes from Nature to complete the original goal of digitizing 1 million bugs in five years. The project made its beta launch this spring and rapidly gained experienced participants from the Zooniverse community.

“Before Notes from Nature, database collection was impossible,” Oboyski said.

Volunteers transcribe labels of species from these collections through high-resolution images and greatly speed up the digitization process. Already more than 50 percent of the collection, which contains 1 million species, has been transcribed.

Currently, UC Berkeley research assistants take photos of specimen for the CalBugs project, but Ball said she hopes to see students also contribute online to Notes from Nature.

“We’re hoping to eventually get classes and students on the UC Berkeley campus more involved,” Ball said.

CalBug’s digitized database of California insects is a valuable resource for UC Berkeley researchers Professors Todd Dawson and Neil Tsutsui, who analyze behavioral changes in honeybees due to environmental change in order to forecast how insects will respond to future changes in ecosystems.

According to Dawson, CalBug adds rigor to the collection’s information and makes sure collections are documented well.

Contact J. Hannah Lee at [email protected]