The next invasion of insect pests will be discovered via social media

The European firebug was first discovered in North America in Utah in 2008 and has quickly expanded its range. (Shutterstock)

Paul Manning, Dalhousie University and Morgan Jackson, McGill University

In mid-July, Reddit user erako shared a photo of some exotic-looking insects, curious as to what they were.

The insects seemed out of place for Mississauga, Ont. — they were bright red, covered with black bands and spangled with white stars.

The original poster couldn’t have anticipated the panicked messages and emergency emails that would ripple out across the internet and through multiple Canadian government agencies in response.

Case of mistaken identity

The insect was swiftly and correctly identified by the Reddit community as the spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula), an invasive insect that has been spreading outward from southern Pennsylvania since its accidental introduction in 2014.

Across Canada, entomologists, conservationists, farmers and foresters have anxiously watched for it. This pest feeds on the sap of more than 70 species of trees, shrubs and vines, robbing the plant of energy and providing opportunities for fungal diseases to colonize. Costs associated with lost crops, damaged plants and pest control can be substantial, with yearly harvests or entire orchards being lost.

Fortunately, it was a case of mistaken location: the photo had originated in New Jersey, not Mississauga. For the time being, Canada has avoided another insect invader.

The incident, however, served as a successful test of the important role social media and a whole nation of community scientists are playing in the detection and identification of introduced species.

Using the power of social media for natural history

People of all ages are taking to social media to connect with other naturalists. From Whatsthisbug on Reddit (which boasts 245,000 members), to the thousands of active entomologists on Twitter, to the hundreds of groups dedicated to insect identification on Facebook such as Entomology (146,000 members) and Insect Identification (62,000 members), social media are enabling biodiversity conversations.

New scientifically unnamed species — from fungi to flowers to insects — are now regularly found via Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

Additionally, we are learning more about species familiar to us. Species’ ranges (the area where a species is found) and life histories are being monitored by a global community emboldened and enabled to share their findings for the world to enjoy. Scientists are actively participating as well, creating programs to answer questions about spiders and recruit volunteers to find bumblebees or collect forest pests.

Alongside the big social media networks, a website that has quickly established itself for natural history documentation is iNaturalist. A joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, iNaturalist has become a world-leading resource that combines observational data with artificial intelligence and community expertise to bring natural history into the digital age.

iNaturalists are already on the case

iNaturalist is already helping identify invasive urban landscape pests in Ontario. The European firebug (Pyrrhocoris apterus), a brightly coloured bug that feeds on linden trees and hibiscus plants, was first identified in Canada by Paula Oviedo Rojas, a student at the University of Guelph, in her Etobicoke, Ont., backyard in 2017. A year later across town, backyard naturalist Karen Yukich discovered the box tree moth (Cydalima perspectalis) in her garden. While this moth has been causing significant damage to boxwood shrubs across Europe, this observation marked its first known record in North America.

Both species have since been observed spreading across the Greater Toronto Area by iNaturalists whose observations are helping researchers understand how invasive species move through urban landscapes.

The European Firebug (Pyrrhocoris apterus) and Box Tree Moth (Cydalima perspectalis)
These introduced urban plant pests are examples of how community scientists are helping scientists and government agencies detect and track invasive species via social media; a) European firebug (Pyrrhocoris apterus), b) box tree moth (Cydalima perspectalis). (Morgan Jackson, Karen Yukich)

Natural history in the digital age

As natural history goes digital, it is experiencing a renaissance. Natural history — one of biology’s oldest disciplines — is often trivialized as an outdated pastime, and not a true scientific discipline, even though it underpins much of modern biology.

The proliferation of smart phones means many people have an encyclopedia of knowledge, a high-resolution digital camera and GPS in their pockets. The curious are being transformed into community scientists who contribute vital data and observations from their local parks, backyards and city streets.

Four invasive insect pests to look out for: a) The egg-cases of the woolly hemlock adelgid (Adelges tsugae); b) the spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula); c) the khapra beetle (Trogoderma granarium); d) the Asian long-horned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis). (Nicholas_T/flickr; Walthery/Wikimedia Commons; USDA /Public Domain; Arp/Wikimedia Commons)

Become an invasive species detective

Many hands make light work, the saying goes. And many naturalists make early detections more likely.

The Canadian government is constantly on the lookout for potential new arrivals that can harm natural resources or decimate crops, and social media-connected community scientists are swiftly becoming our first line of defence. Major pests like the wooly hemlock adelgid, the spotted lanternfly, the khapra beetle or the Asian long-horned beetle are all likely targets for community detection.

So, as you move through your day, take a closer look at the insects and other organisms that share your environment. When something catches your attention, take a photograph and share it with the internet — your observation could be more significant than you may realize.

Paul Manning, Postdoctoral Researcher, Faculty of Agriculture, Dalhousie University and Morgan Jackson, Postdoctoral Researcher in Entomology, McGill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

18 thoughts on “The next invasion of insect pests will be discovered via social media

  1. The good news? It’s in New Jersey. Woot-woot. We’re saved, eh? Tough beans, New Jersey.

  2. I wish that Sociology had become a real discipline, instead of being one of the earliest to be taken over by political activists. Because it has become obvious that societies don’t behave as if everyone was a clear-headed individual with only the welfare of all humanity as his prime concern.

    I suspect that, out of 100 people, if there was a proposed course of action, about 5 would actively try to undermine it just to be stubborn, or for fun, 30 would try to make money out of it, 15 would try to use it to advance their political agenda, 20 would misunderstand it and start doing the opposite, while 25 would simply ignore it. Maybe 5 would actually follow what was proposed.

    In this case someone is suggesting that people with phones act as field workers to monitor the spread of insects. Looking at my estimate of how people might react to this, can you see any problems with the proposal?

    • As one of the 5 underminers, I think your numbers are a bit off. LOL!

      I see stuff on forums all the time asking to ID a plant or insect (usually in the vein of “is this an emergency?”) all the time and that’s on forums that have nothing to do with entomology, biology or botany. So it’s nothing really new and it is educational for those that don’t know but are interested.

  3. In the same vein, here’s a really neat app for identifying plants:
    https://www.picturethisai.com
    I use it for fun and have been quite surprised at some of the stuff popping up around me. Hint: you can keep using the free app by closing the “Get Premium” pop-up page.

  4. Hmm, what are all these bee like insects in my backyard? Can’t be bees, they are almost extinct and surely I wouldn’t have an abundance of soon to be extinct insects in my yard in the middle of a city during the Insectagghedon would I?

  5. The next invasion of insect pests will be discovered via social media

    Prb’ly right, social media really bugs me.

  6. Not quite sure why you would call the European firebug an “invasive urban landscape pest”, bit over the top.

    Here in France we call them “Le Gendarme” after the first Gendarme uniform which was red and black. They live quite happily on the Lime tree in the garden which is in perfect health, and have done so for years. I also have Hibiscus around the place that has never had any bother from these guys, they have more grief from Aphids than anything else.

    • A common problem with insects from afar is that 1) plants in the new region do not have defenses to the fungi the insects harbor (e.g. oak wilt), and 2) the natural predators of those insects are not present to keep the population at reasonable levels (e.g. emerald ash borer). The ecosystem in the region of origin has evolved checks and balances to handle the impact of the insect – either as at a continuous lower endemic level or governed in a cyclical fashion. Many of the long-term responses to invasive insects involves bringing in a predator (e.g. parasitic wasps) from the region of origin. So although “Le Gendarme” may not pose a problem in France, they might pose a problem in North America or South Africa for example.

  7. AI is here and now!!!
    It is the synergy of billions of people and the internet combined!!!

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