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Colorado Kids Act as Citizen Scientists in National Lady Bug Hunt

July 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Some Colorado kids have become citizen scientists as part of a nationwide effort to catalog lady bug species. Cornell University scientists are trying to understand why some species have vanished and others have appeared. Correspondent Tom Bearden reports on the lady bug hunt that might help students discover careers in science.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, some unlikely scientists try to solve the mystery of lost bugs.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden joined them on their hunt.

TOM BEARDEN: Gail Starr is a star ladybug detective.

GAIL STARR, The Lost Ladybug Project: And I’m glad you could come today, because the ladybugs are hopping out here, as you can see.

TOM BEARDEN: She is a top performer in The Lost Ladybug Project, a national research study that is trying to find out why some native species of ladybugs have been disappearing.

GAIL STARR: What did you get, Maddox?

CHILD: I got four.

GAIL STARR: Oh, let me see.

CHILD: You want to see?

GAIL STARR: They’re — they’re beauties.

CHILD: I’m going to keep those.

(LAUGHTER)

GAIL STARR: No. We can’t keep them, sweetie. We’re just going to take their picture.

TOM BEARDEN: Starr’s day job is teaching third grade at Springs Ranch Elementary in Colorado Springs. But ladybugs are her hobby and her passion. For the last three years, she’s enlisted her students to help in the search.

CHILD: I got three.

TOM BEARDEN: On this warm day in the shadow of Pikes Peak, about two dozen kids and their parents heeded her call, even though school was out for the summer.

CHILD: Yes, I found one.

TOM BEARDEN: Starr and 4,000 other citizen scientists are helping professional scientists survey the entire country by collecting ladybug specimens, photographing them, and e-mailing the pictures to Cornell University. Nobody has submitted more pictures than Starr. And she’s found quite a few rare species.

GAIL STARR: We have put them on ice for a minute to chill them, to try to calm them down a bit. Otherwise, they run. And the pictures are blurred.

TOM BEARDEN: Cornell University’s Dr. John Losey is The Lost Ladybug Project director. He says that in the late ’70s and early ’80s, scientists began noticing that native ladybug species were disappearing and that foreign species were taking over in some places. Losey says knowing why that’s happening is important, because ladybugs are voracious predators that eat insects that attack food crops.

DR. JOHN LOSEY, The Lost Ladybug Project: Without ladybugs out there doing their job, we could not grow the food and fiber that we need. So they’re absolutely essential for us to be able to practice agriculture in the way that we do now.

TOM BEARDEN: Losey says the decline was precipitous. The New York State insect, the nine-spotted ladybug, hadn’t been seen there in 15 years. But they didn’t have the manpower to find out why this was happening.

DR. JOHN LOSEY: And there weren’t enough scientists to go out to all the different places where these ladybugs could be. And so we wanted to recruit people from all over the country to help us look.

TOM BEARDEN: So they decided to use the citizen science approach, getting people to volunteer to collect information in the field.

DR. JOHN LOSEY: With all these young people and their parents out there looking for these ladybugs, they have been able to find a lot more than the scientists and in a much shorter period of time. And it just means a lot of hands and a lot of eyes out there can really do the job.

TOM BEARDEN: They have sent in more than 11,000 pictures so far, all of which have been plotted on interactive maps available on the Internet.

Two non-native species were deliberately introduced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a pest control measure in the ’60s and ’70s. But Losey says it’s too early to tell if they’re responsible for the loss of native ladybugs or whether they’re just filling in the gap.

DR. JOHN LOSEY: We’re hoping that we can figure out why they have declined and maybe prevent them from declining further, and maybe prevent it from happening to other species.

GAIL STARR: Those are the aphids. That’s what the ladybugs eat. That’s why we’re like ladybugs.

TOM BEARDEN: Back in Colorado, Starr says the children are proud of their contributions to science.

GAIL STARR: They just enjoy getting out and doing things. And they know that their — the picture of their ladybug is going to a project and that scientists are going to look at it, and it’s going to be on their website.

TOM BEARDEN: Both Starr and Losey hope that exposure to projects like this will encourage young people to consider science careers.

Sixth grader Jason Hepperle is thinking about it.

JASON HEPPERLE, sixth grader: I do find this very interesting and I do find this very fun.

TOM BEARDEN: Have you thought about maybe pursuing a career in science as a result of this?

JASON HEPPERLE: Yes. I — science is my favorite subject. And for a long time, it will be, for sure.

TOM BEARDEN: The project has another year of National Science Foundation funding, and Losey hopes it will be extended. He says there’s still plenty of room for more citizen scientists to join up.