Researchers from Utah State University’s biology department and ecology center are inviting science enthusiasts of all ages to contribute data to a research project examining the interactions of various insects with alfalfa plants.
USU Biology Lecturer and Lab Coordinator Lauren Lucas and Assistant Professor Zach Gompert are asking community members to take photos of insects on alfalfa plants and upload them to the “Bugs on Alfalfa” iNaturalist page as part of the citizen science project.
“The community members would be doing this fun thing by doing the citizens science project, but they’d also be informing this other real research project,” Lucas said.
The project is USU’s response to the National Science Foundation’s inquiry for researchers to think about biodiversity in new ways, according to Lucas.
“Alfalfa is important to us because it’s everywhere, especially in Cache Valley,” Lucas said.
Alfalfa is cultivated in the valley, but wild alfalfa also grows in many places locally, making it a “nice plant to focus on for this kind of biodiversity awareness project,” according to Lucas.
Because the researchers have bug vacuums that they use to suck up insects on alfalfa plants that they study, they can gather the numbers of different species and complete a spreadsheet, but Lucas said having the community participate could give a better idea of patterns of different plants in different parts of the valley.
With the submissions, the researchers hope to gather enough data to study the interaction between bug and plant, note patterns and possibly categorize which bugs are good or bad for the plants to assist farmers.
“From the pictures that people contribute, then we can summarize the data,” Lucas said. “We can summarize differences in the numbers or types of species across alfalfa sites.”
Lucas said they are hoping to gather data for the project for a few years so they can compare the findings over the years.
The researchers will also observe how fast the community learns to identify the various critters they find on the plants.
Community members that submit a photo are not required to identify the critter because iNaturalist can identify them or other people on the website can help to identify them.
For more information, pictures of alfalfa plants or to upload photos, visit https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/bugs-on-alfalfa.
“It’s addicting,” Lucas said. “It can be fun once you get into it.”