If you live in St. Louis and have a backyard (or access to a local park), you can become a citizen scientist.
By Charlotte Renner
To bee or not to bee, that is the question– but not for some Webster biology majors like Jessica Clones and Briana Robles. Each biology student has to complete a senior thesis research project. This year most of them revolve around studying bees through a project that gets St. Louisans directly involved in scientific research.
“They [biology students] have to be contributing to what we know about the world, which is awesome,” professor Nicole Miller-Struttmann said.
Struttmann is well known in the science community for her research on bees and community engagement in science. Right now, she and her students are working on Shutterbee, a community science project researching how bees respond to urbanization.
Shutterbee has a lot of moving parts, but here’s the gist: people’s yards have different ‘conservation statuses,’ ranging from rural (farmland) to urban (city). Community participants in the project determine the conservation status of their yard. Struttmann and her students train the participants on how to spot and photograph bees on plants. The participants then regularly go out to their backyards, take photos of the bees present and upload these photos to a website called iNaturalist.
Finally, biology students analyze the data provided to find out how bees respond to different environments. They look at things like which bee species are present, how the bees interact with different plants and how these things are affected by a yard’s conservation status.
Senior thesis students each fulfill different roles in the research. Senior biology major Jessica Clones is analyzing plant pollinator networks. Clones explained networks as being the interactions between plants and bees in an area– in this case, people’s yards.
“Networks can have certain characteristics. Those characteristics can make them more or less susceptible to extinction,” Clones said. “It’s just looking at how the interactions build upon each other and protect one another from going extinct.”
Clones was drawn to Shutterbee because of the community science, science communication and data analysis aspects of the project. These experiences will give her an edge after graduation; not all undergraduates get the chance to be directly involved in real-world research.
Briana Robles’s senior thesis was focused more on conservation awareness. Instead of analyzing bee behavior like Clones, Robles looks at Shutterbee’s impact on human behavior.
Robles analyzes how participants’ ecological identities and conservation practices changed after being involved in a community science project (in this case, Shutterbee).
An ecological identity is how connected a person feels to nature. Shutterbee participants fill out a survey before and after the project. Robles examines the data for changes in how they feel about the environment.
The hypothesis is that if people are involved in community science, then they will feel more connected to nature. Robles thinks this is very important to achieve in order to encourage better conservation practices.
“In the U.S. we have a lot of private property. If we were to transition just a fraction of that to habitats that are welcoming to native insects and animals,” Robles said, “we could foster a lot of conservation from a home level without having to designate huge areas to bring back the bees.”
Clones also enjoys impacting the community through Shutterbee. She believes that the project helps get people involved in conservation starting from their own backyards.
“The way to further conservation efforts is to get the public to care,” Clones said. “The way to get them to care is to show them all of the cool stuff that’s literally in their yard. I think that’s more important than it being about bees.”
On the surface, Shutterbee is a project about bees. At the heart, its deeper purpose is to spread better conservation practices in St. Louis. Struttmann said that you don’t need to have a yard to have a good influence on the environment– every Webster student has the capacity to make a difference.
“People can put flowers out on their patio and bees will show up,” Struttmann said. “That really makes you feel like you can do something. It’s empowering.”
To get involved for this summer’s session of Shutterbee, email email@example.com.