Noelle Kramer hadn’t planned to delve into citizen science, but her students were rather persuasive. As her third and fourth graders in Dixon, California read aloud from Time for Kids, something sparked their interest. “An article on a citizen science program called The Lost Ladybug Project asked kids to become ladybug spotters in order to help scientists find a native species that had nearly disappeared,” says Noelle. (She adds that the insects are actually beetles, not bugs.) Her young detectives were eager to sign up. After all, they could take part in real research that mattered; track down, capture, and take photos of familiar creatures; and have their findings published online for all to see.
“After discussing the project, we realized that our first step would be to learn about ladybug life cycles,” says Noelle. (Good thing, too, because that topic was part of her grade level learning standards.) Small student groups worked together to read a ladybug book and materials from the Lost Ladybug Project website. Among other discoveries, they made the connection that these beetles had life stories that paralleled those of another insect they’d studied: butterflies.
Armed with some basic knowledge, the class next uncovered the hows and whys of collecting, identifying, and photographing ladybugs in their schoolyard and neighborhood. Then one spring day, with little bug nets in hand, students roamed through a nearby field. Each time a ladybug was spotted and snatched, says Noelle, she heard screams. “The boys were just as excited as the girls. Maybe because we were involved in real research, the boys didn’t view ladybugs as the ‘girly things’ they might have otherwise.” With beetle-filled jars in hand, the young sleuths went back to class to identify their captives.
Small groups closely observed each beetle’s coloring, spots, and other markings, then used the project’s field guide to discover which species they had in hand. “We found some very common types,” says Noelle. “The students were a bit disappointed that they didn't uncover any of the disappearing nine-spotted lady beetles, though.” (See sidebar.) But their data was still valuable, so the students prepared to take their ladybug mug shots. How hard could it be to photograph an insect? Plenty, says Noelle. Fortunately, the project offered tips on how to get a ladybug to (literally) chill out and slow down long enough to snap a picture. Word has it that placing them in a freezer for up to 5 minutes, or in a fridge or cooler with ice packs for half an hour, does the trick. Finally, the group uploaded the images – along with data on the type of habitat and weather conditions where the creatures were found – to the Lost Ladybug Project website.
Inspired by their experiences, Noelle’s students wrote ladybug-inspired haiku complete with loads of vivid verbs. But their enthusiasm didn’t end there. “They were insistent that we hunt for ladybugs again,” says Noelle. So they walked to a nearby park and repeated the process.
Digging Deeper (How They Grew)
“Early on, we talked about the fact that the nine-spotted lady beetle was thought to be on the verge of extinction, while some types that came from places like Asia were expanding,” says Noelle. This piqued students’ curiosity. They brainstormed ways in which nonnative bugs along with other animals and plants might get to this country: On produce, in ships, by being purchased for garden pest patrol, and so on. This generated lots of questions about why some species survive better than others, and how nonnative species could affect resident ones – by competing for food, for instance. That led to discussions about food webs and the ecological role of ladybugs. “When students learned that ladybugs eat some plant pests, such as aphids, they wondered how our destroying habitats or growing more native plants might affect ladybug populations,” says Noelle.
These tiny beetles inspired Noelle’s young scientists to grapple with some pretty big issues. But she explains that students connected to these concepts, and began to apply them to other contexts because they’d had the concrete experiences. “Students also felt quite famous having their stuff published on the Internet,” says Noelle. What’s more, they talked to parents about their role in the project and in some cases, roped families into being spotters, too!
Learn more with How to Find a Ladybug.
The Tale of the Lost Ladybugs
Once the state insect of New York, the nine-spotted ladybug population diminished until it all but disappeared from the radar. In fact when some youngsters spotted one of them near their Virginia home in 2006, it was the first of that species seen in the Eastern United States in 14 years! John Losey and other scientists at Cornell University figured that if lots of eyes scoured the country, they might help find more of them along with some other native lady beetles that were also disappearing. And so, the Lost Ladybug Project was born. But it wasn’t just about documenting locals. Scientists – and many homeowners – noticed that populations of other ladybugs were exploding. This included the orangey Asian lady beetle, which was introduced in this country to control pests. Have these imports excluded the native species from their habitats? This is one of the questions that scientists are exploring, thanks to a growing team of citizen scientists.