Over the last few centuries, natural history collections worldwide have amassed over a billion insect specimens. Although most of these specimens are carefully pinned and labeled, the documentation and digitization of each specimen necessary to bring these collections into the 21st Century through digital photography and meticulous data entry has moved at a snail’s pace.
In 2010, the Essig Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Berkeley, kicked off the CalBug project, which focuses on insect and spider specimens collected in or around California between 1880 and the present. CalBug represents a collaborative effort between Essig and eight other California museums to digitize and geo-reference their over one million entomological specimens. And more recently, they’ve turned to crowdsourcing the effort through the Zooniverse citizen science project, Notes from Nature.
Citizen science projects like Notes from Nature harvest the idle hands and minds of the public to accomplish Herculean goals through menial tasks. Volunteer transcriptionists are presented with a high-resolution digital image of a pinned specimen together with any relevant labels. Your task is simple – carefully enter the data as it appears on the labels: country, state, county, locality, collection date(s), collector, and other specifics. You don’t need to be an entomologist or curator or Ph.D. to lend a hand; there are forums to post questions if you hit a puzzler, and each field has detailed instructions to guide the uninitiated.
CalBug is one of three current Notes from Nature projects. At 44% completion, CalBug is already nearing the half-way mark, while Herbarium (28%) and Ornithological (coming soon) are comparatively still in their infancy.
As you slog through specimens, you may be surprised to find a kaleidoscope of butterflies and other insects collected from your home town or somewhere close by. If that isn’t incentive enough, those that register (registration is optional) can track their progress and earn badges: an ‘egg’ for every record, a ‘caterpillar’ for every 25 records, and a ‘butterfly’ for every 100. The average data entry time for each specimen averages 3 minutes, which when multiplied by the masses, shaves years off the goal of logging every specimen for future study. Even if you can only spare one evening, every little bit helps; what the specimens lack in size, they make up for in numbers.