Image: Screenshot from DigiVol website
A blog post on the website of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia talks about a fascinating project to digitise the records of Australian bees, using digital volunteers.
CSIRO’s insect collection in Canberra holds over 50,000 bee specimens, each bee tells a part of the story of Australia’s more than 1500 bee species. The specimens collected all over Australia during the past 80 years show where each bee lives, how their distributions have changed over time, and what plants they live on and pollinate.
Bees are a critical part of any ecosystem helping pollinate plants and agricultural crops. Plants depend on animals, like bees, as well as other insects, birds and bats, who visit plants to feed, shelter or reproduce. They get pollen stuck to their bodies and move it en from male parts to female parts of flowers, enabling plants to produce seed. Both native plants and food crops face risks when their pollinators are threatened by habitat loss, pesticides, diseases and climate change.
The study of bees plays an important role in predicting future trends in pollinator abundance and activity and understanding what this will mean for both native our biodiversity and our pollinator-dependent industries.
To speed up research, CSIRO is in the process of digitising its bee collection and making the bee biodiversity data available worldwide. This involves high-resolution imaging of specimens and capturing metadata, the information associated with each specimen, like when and where it was collected and what plants were growing nearby.
Volunteers and students have joined the effort, speeding up the project and gaining skills in curation and digitisation. Citizen scientists are transcribing the bees’ specimen labels using the online volunteering portal DigiVol. DigiVol is a crowdsourcing platform developed by the Australian Museum in collaboration with the Atlas of Living Australia. DigiVol is used by many institutions around the world as a way of combining the efforts of many volunteers to digitise their data, in the form of museum object labels, field notebooks and diaries, recording sheets, registers or photographs.
Till date, around 36,000 of the bee specimens have been digitised, for a cost of around $1 per specimen. It’s part of a worldwide effort to understand bee diversity that includes partners such as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
The Australian Museum helped CSIRO to curate the bee collection. Bush Blitz, Australia’s largest nature discovery project is funding the project. BushBlitz is a multi-million dollar partnership between the Australian Government through Parks Australia and the Australian Biological Resources Study, BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities and Earthwatch Australia to document plants and animals across Australia.
CSIRO’s digitised natural history collection data, from bees to butterflyfish, is freely available worldwide through the Atlas of Living Australia. People who want to become digital volunteers can click here.