The great potential of citizen science – an opportunity to work together more in the name of preserving insects in 2021

Wednesday 28th July 2021

The third in a short series of posts from Radoslav Valkov, born in Sofia, Bulgaria. In 2010 he won CIWEM’s prestigious British award “Young Environmental Photographer of the Year” with the highly artistic work “The Fortune Teller” that received wide international exposure. He studied Zoology at the University of Roehampton, London before returning to Byala Slatina, Bulgaria. A member of the Flemish Entomological Society, he is focused on plant-insect interactions and citizen science. His first article On the importance of inconspicuous flowering plants – how a “noxious weed” sustains valuable insects appeared in the Society’s journal, Phegea.

Unjustified choices what groups of organisms should be given extra conservation priorities, based on unclear assumptions addressing the visual appearance of animals, fear, or instilled irrational phobia is comparable in their uselessness and impracticality with complete lack of conservation interest in any living creature on our planet. Problems across all taxa have exceeded disturbing levels of urgent conservation necessity. There is a big issue with reaching targets due to the fact that when approaching various aspects of a given conservation goal, some details that are difficult to notice and observe at first glance could be omitted or insufficiently addressed. The reason is painfully evident; seemingly small gaps in knowledge can actually generate huge deficiency in our understanding of the immediate significance of insects. I noticed that evidence-based fieldwork on the importance of individual responses of insects to changes in their habitats is gaining traction but we are still through the process of recommendations, rather than speedy implementation. A knowledge gap can degrade the quality of any conservation measure, as this inevitably leads to replication of previous practice that proved partially successful. This eats up time we do not have.

2020 was inconceivably difficult in any sense. Prioritising insect conservation efforts and ecosystem services in 2021 should be among the greatest environmental priorities. It is essential to detect meaningful data and extract the best useful bits. The issue, though arises from the level of precision required to reveal detailed information, which also applies to small-scale studies. This takes effort and persistent observation, i.e. time. Dissemination and exchange of robust data through citizen science can greatly increase the overall potential for increased success rate of any conservation measure since we need to compensate against loss of time through increased pace of conservation activity and particularly reinforced outreach to the wider public.

The more expanded the range of entomological interests among various scientific communities, conservation organisations and individuals worldwide, the wider the prospect to successfully deliver the protection insects deserve. One issue remains to undermine insect conservation, namely the catastrophic impact of climate change that sometimes introduces inconsistent observations and increased risk of misinterpretation of data due to the large volume of observable behaviour, environmental variable dynamics and impact of climate anomalies that disrupt recently established natural pest control practices. Recording wildlife must be accompanied by additional extended observations. The presence / absence / decline of a given species or population is indicative but does not necessarily reflect hard to detect functional relationships with direct financial implications to agriculture and forestry.

Since micro moths is my favourite area of scientific interest, I was very keen to search for a shared behavioural trait from their life history that may help. Thanks to a survey of Veronica plants I conducted in 2020, there was a great number of different micro moth species to observe. The current state of affairs is that any potential ecosystem service aid must be used at its full potential in order to facilitate environmentally sustainable agriculture, as we are running out of feasible options. The ability of Veronica plants to act as beneficial plants further confirmed that toxic input to limit “weeding”, instead of implementing measures for controlled dispersal of the plant and employing its potential as a ready food source for insects, used for natural pest control or crop pollination, is detrimental.

There are other really important take-home messages that this observation conveyed.

Episyrphus balteatus: Episyrphus balteatus is among the most important aphidophagous syrphids, feeding on Zinnia on 27 October 2020

The destructive effect of removing beneficial flowering plants on entomofauna is self-evident, even solely judging by the evidence-based study that demonstrated the enormous benefit they generate. Not only is the concept of poisoning plants and soil, the very source of plant and insect life on the planet equal to ecological ignorance, but also an unthinkable injury to ecosystems with largely unpredictable consequences to our human health. In addition, there is another sane conclusion regarding what species of plants are significantly more beneficial than others. Polarised views on this matter do not help. It is indeed rational to regard certain species of garden plants as unsuitable and delivering zero contribution. However, there are certain species that, although being among the very well-known ornamental trivia, act as temporary nutrition buffers that sustain the demanding needs of many garden inhabitants at times where wildflowers cease to provide nutrition, particularly important to migratory insects in the autumn, such as aphidophagous hoverflies.  Rudbeckia, Zinnia and Aster are good choices, for instance. Microlepidoptera make no exception. Most interestingly, their brilliant generalist feeding preferences make them suitable organisms to be tested against potential for crop pollination.

Pancalia leuwenhoekella [on Cow parsley]
Much earlier before seeing the moth Nemophora fasciella in 2007, I remember that we had a little strawberry allotment that was visited by Pancalia leuwenhoekella for which identification I was not sufficiently aware (well, not a huge surprise, this is a childhood memory from 2000, I was 9 and did not have the resources to find out what the species was, despite my curiousity about insects). Not surprisingly, the image of it is still so clear in my memory. The species is perceived as unique by the senior curator of Microlepidoptera at the Natural History Museum, London, Dr David Lees. I have recently read a great article on the commercial significance of hoverflies to pollinate strawberry crops. This rang the bell about generalist micro moths. The Cosmopterigid Pancalia leuwenhoekella is a very persistent garden resident which larvae feed on Violaceae plants. What immediately catches your attention is its tendency to visit every single species of a flowering wildflower in the garden. Then you realise there are many individuals doing the same at the same time. This is rather good news, a species that established a population with high density. We have already obtained research evidence on the importance of nocturnal moths (mostly large species) and their contribution to pollen transport. However, we have not referred to the significance of diurnal moth species which are very agile and diligent during the day.

Olethreutes arcuella

Could microlepidopteran fauna have its own subtle ecosystem service functions? Not just tiny obscure creatures, but also possible agri-environmental friends? I am inclined to think diurnal Microlepidoptera could be a great innovative choice for some added pollination benefit. Knowing more about the biology of micro moths can surely reveal exciting details to reflect on. Finding a very specific morphological adaptation of the mouthparts of the scarce (both in the UK and across Europe) micro moth Olethreutes arcuella (Arched marble) was another surprise to me in May 2020. It possesses a fairly unusual proboscis with spiny structures that have not been discussed in literature to date. Little is known about the precise function of micro moth mouthparts, let alone in regard to their pollination potential. We have not exhausted all available options to say it is too complex, neither have we examined more abstract possibilities within the scope of optimising ecosystem services.

Olethreutes arcuella

Nothing is insignificant is the world of insect-plant interactions. This is why collection of scientifically meaningful observations should be prioritised. Recording wildlife must be credited much larger significance and reliance upon data obtained through any recording activity should be expanded. The days when entomologists remind why recording insects is important are long gone and it is time to upgrade the well-established mechanisms to more acceptable confidence threshold. This implies the process would involve elevated responsibilities when recording wildlife. Remote collection of various observations greatly facilitates exchange of information and sound conclusions. However, knowledge gaps occur since a single observation of an insect that, for example, rests on a given plant would deliver information on a single occurrence with the risk of excluding specific circumstances that could be otherwise indicative. The value of entomological science should be promoted much further, which also requires wide interdisciplinary and international collaboration, a matter that is not subject to optional approval, but immediate practical necessity.