Fresh Pond Insect Study Helps Cambridge Understand the Importance of Biodiversity

Fresh Pond Insect Study Helps Cambridge Understand the Importance of Biodiversity

A local organization is putting science in the hands of the public but what is Cambridge willing to do with what it learns?

Fifteen years ago, the area of open space now known as Lusitania Field was a soccer complex. Today, it is a dense meadow of wildflowers woven with walking paths well trodden by local joggers, walkers, and bicyclists. The area acts as a buffer between Fresh Pond and the surrounding city, soaking up pollutants before they can run into the reservoir that serves as one of Cambridge’s three sources of drinking water. In addition, the meadow is home to numerous insect populations, many of which are important pollinators for the urban landscape. Just how numerous are these populations, though? Which specific types of insects can be found in and around the meadow, and why should we care? These are the questions that were being asked by the leaders of a citizen science experiment led by the nature conservation group Earthwise Aware on Thursday night.

The group met at 8pm at the entrance to Fresh Pond Reservation across from Wheeler street in Cambridge. Attendees were greeted by Claire O’Neill, founder of Earthwise Aware. She started the group in 2016 because she wanted to spread awareness of ethical standards in science. “There is not enough discussion about ecological ethics at many different levels...public...individual...organizational, even environmental organizations aren’t necessarily doing ethical things. Just out of ignorance, out of [lack of] resources...So I wanted to bring ethics back into the picture and I always had in my mind... to combine [this with]...citizen science because I think that it’s really one of the fantastic means to bring people together.”

The idea of citizen science is one that will be stressed many times throughout the night and Claire is eager for her audience to understand that it is not a new term, “[it] comes from the 90’s and has been defined independently in England and in America...this is about participatory science so we really try to bring people into the scientific context.” She says that, at Earthwise Aware, their goal is to get the public involved in every level of a scientific project from creating the experiment to reporting the data so that the future of the environment may lie in the hands of the public rather than a few highly educated individuals.

Once out in the field, the group meets with Teá Kestin- Handly, an entomologist and graduate student at Umass Boston. She is setting up two white sheets. Behind each, she places a light. As the sun sets, the ultraviolet light will draw insects to land on the sheets where they can be observed and documented. Teá tells the group that the ideal conditions for this experiment would be, “very still” air, “no moon, cloud cover,” and “a little bit of humidity.” Tonight, the wind is a bit stronger than desirable. She points out the way the sheets are moving and explains that this means some of the insects may be blown off of the sheet before they can be documented.

Tonight’s goal is to observe and record the insects that do make it to the sheets so that this information can be used in understanding the biodiversity of the area. Teá describes two ways in which the data can be collected, “a lot of it is photography and specimen collection...most insects you can’t readily identify just from photographing so in order to [get] really accurate survey counts, collect everything and sort through it at the end”. However, in some cases photography is the only option, “especially in urban areas where [they] aren’t so heavy on the numbers of the insects.” She also explains that she will most often focus only on a few groups of insects at a time in order to obtain counts with the greatest accuracy.

When using photography, images can then be uploaded to a site called INaturalist, a global international database where the science community can share and use each other’s observations. Claire explains that this system helps scientists to find data trends, “having just one set of data is not enough...we need a volume...repeated data, and actually it’s even better if you can mix your data with other’s data.” In addition, this method of data pooling can help with the mapping of flora and fauna, “you see what is there, but [also] where it is so that you can also start seeing movement”.

Around 9:15pm, a little over an hour into the 2 hour event, Teá gives a few thoughts on what has been seen so far. “It is still very early so it’s very hard to say. I will say that I have been here once before and the diversity is fairly low.” She explains that this is to be expected because there is so much light pollution in the area.
While this alone is not enough information to draw definite conclusions about the health of the environment, Teá says that such urban spaces are less than ideal for insect populations. “Because there is a lot more ambient light in a lot of these habitats it has been shown to sort of disrupt the mating of a lot of insects and so, therefore, it probably is inadvertently reducing their populations.”

Claire backs up Teá’s ideas in an email to me after the event. She explains that one big reason why she is concerned about conducting arthropod surveys is that insects are so closely connected to our food system and, therefore, to food security. “If we lose the insects,” she writes, “we are jeopardizing entire ecosystems and, ultimately, the base of the food chain.” This is a scary concept in a time when about 40% of insect species are seeing declines as a result of factors including habitat loss/destruction, pesticides, and climate change (Biological Conservation).

While the area and inhabitants of Lusitania Field do much for the Cambridge Community, it seems that the human beneficiaries may need to take greater steps to reciprocate the love. When I ask Teá what is being done to counteract the insect decline she says very little, “I believe there are some small movements...there are groups...that try to have everyone turn off their lights for at least one night during the year….but I don’t know of any large scale projects to reduce that.”.

Of course, recognizing a trend as dangerous is the first step towards solution. Groups like Earthwise Aware are helping to promote citizen science in and around Cambridge. What will be done with the information we gather? That’s up to us.

Images and data collected from Thursday’s field study can be found here
More extensive sets are available on INaturalist. For information on upcoming surveys and citizen science events, checkout the EwA events calendar.