Mothing for the greater good


I love citizen science projects. I try to participate in the ones that I’m able, when I can, and if I remember (not always a given if I’m busy). The phrase citizen science refers to projects that rely on the input of volunteer participants to collect the data, usually from the comfort of their own homes or local region. Such projects have a long history – for instance, the Christmas Bird Count is effectively a citizen science project that dates back to the early 1900s. Other bird projects that rely on citizen science are the Great Backyard Bird Count and Project Feederwatch, and the data organization website eBird is entirely a citizen science undertaking.

There are other similar projects that deal with other organisms or ecosystems as a whole, as well. There are versions of the Christmas Bird Count for both butterflies and dragonflies. The development of the blogging community has added a twist to citizen science, in that bloggers are encouraged to participate in particular projects and then write about their experience. Examples might be the Blogger Bio Blitz or International Rock-flipping Day. These projects go a long way toward developing databases and expanding our knowledge about various species.

Map of moth checklists

I have been working a bit recently on the maps for the moth field guide. I’ve been learning GIS software so that I can use that to plot the maps. One of the things I did this morning was sit down and map all of the locations for which I currently have data. Last year I had solicited checklists and data from the contributors to Moth Photographers Group, with the intention of compiling these resources to map ranges for the moths in the book. This field guide will be the first to offer range maps for species in the region the book covers, which we’re excited about.

However, key to making good range maps is having data. Although I got a lot of great lists from the MPG photographers, when I plotted them on a map they still left considerable gaps in coverage and data. Even some of the couple dozen points that are shown actually only have less than a couple dozen species for that point, the result of a moth’er’s visit to a friend’s place, or while on a trip.


So as I sat there figuring out where the additional data would come from, and then why there isn’t much data in the first place, my thoughts began to form themselves into an idea. Why not create a citizen science project for moths? I could almost guarantee that I’m not the only one looking for good data, and the information collected from such a project would have far-reaching applications.

And so this afternoon I sat down and created the North American Moths Backyard Inventory project, NAMBI for short. I really hope that NAMBI will become as popular as other blogger initiatives I’ve participated in and/or know about. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it has the potential to make some great discoveries, since there’s so little known about moths and so few people paying attention to them relative to other groups of organisms. Examples would be Wanderin’ Weeta’s Shy Cosmet record, a provincial first, or Roundtop Ruminations’ Black Witch discovery, a county first and state second. Chances are these moths have occurred in these regions before, possibly quite regularly in the case of the Cosmet – just no one’s been out looking.

I invite all my readers to join in over the course of this year and submit their moth observations to NAMBI. Participating is easy. There’s no set date, weekend or week. Participate as often or as infrequently as you like. Simply check your back porch light, set up a sheet and blacklight, or put out a light trap or sugar goop if you want. Invite some friends over and make a social event of it, or enjoy the peace and quiet by yourself. Set up in your backyard, go down the street to your neighbourhood nature patch, or see what you get while you’re out camping. How you go about it is completely up to you!

I intend for the NAMBI blog to be open to all participants (although I think I have to add you as an author first), and I really hope that folks will start contributing their photos and stories to create a dynamic website. I have also created a NAMBI Flickr Group where people can share their photos (both of moths and moth’ers), get identifications, and ask questions and share anecdotes in the group’s discussion boards.

Sure, I stand to benefit tremendously from the data contributed to the project, and my motivation for starting it was partially driven by selfish reasons. However, I think that this is something that has a much broader application than simply some range maps for a book, just the way that eBird is being used for science projects and research on birds. Not to mention that I think people will really have fun mothing once they’ve tried it…

And of course, spread the word! Encourage others to participate, put a banner up on your blog. As the saying goes – the more the merrier!