I am an aquatic entomologist. Though most of my research so far has focused on giant water bugs, I am passionate about dragonflies. I love watching them and I can’t get enough! A few years ago, a friend and I happened upon a glorious scene: hundreds and hundreds of dragonflies of multiple species swarming over a grassy hill next to a lake where we worked. I wrote a blog post about it to share what I’d seen with others. I was simply stunned by this behavior and spent a good part of the next week going back out to the lake to watch the swarm. Then the dragonflies vanished! I found this behavior more interesting than any other insect behavior I’d ever seen, so I knew I had to learn more about it.
To my surprise, there was very little information about this behavior in the scientific literature and next to nothing online. Dragonfly researchers know that dragonflies swarm. They also know that there are two different kinds of swarms, static feeding swarms (the dragonflies fly repeatedly over a well-defined area and fairly close to the ground, usually feeding on clouds of small insects) and migratory swarms (hundreds to millions of dragonflies flying in a single direction in massive groups, often 50-100 feet above the ground). However, these swarms are very difficult to study because they are incredibly ephemeral events. You have to be in the right place at the right time to see one and many people will go their entire lives without ever witnessing a swarm. So, although I could find some information about these swarms in the scientific literature, I was still left with a lot of questions.
In the meantime, people started leaving comments on my blog posts saying that they’d seen similar events in their yards or in their cities or while driving from one rural area to another. There were a lot of people, and a lot of people who didn’t normally read my blog, so I wondered where all of these people were coming from. Sure enough, when I searched for dragonfly swarm online, my blog entries were popping up at the top of the search. I apparently had one of the only online resources for information about an insect behavior that a lot of people were curious about – and that meant that a lot of people were seeing these swarms all over the U.S. and sometimes in other countries. Though it was difficult for any one person to see many swarms, the behaviors were actually pretty common.
So, I wanted to learn more about this behavior. I also had people visiting my blog by the thousands to figure out why there were suddenly so many dragonflies in their yards. It occurred to me that I might be able to both satisfy my own curiosity about the swarms and start collecting scientific data to explain this fascinating behavior if I requested information from the thousands of people visiting my blog looking for information. Perhaps I could turn this into a symbiotic relationship: in exchange for providing information about dragonfly swarms to my blog visitors, they might provide the data I wanted. It was just crazy enough to work!
Thus, the Dragonfly Swarm Project was born. I started asking people to submit reports of dragonfly swarms on my blog or via my contact form in 2010. And people responded! Lots of people! The first summer I received about 650 reports from across North America, about three times what I had hoped to get. In 2011, I began collecting data via an online form and received over 1100 reports! I am thus successfully collecting scientific data via my blog and have turned my quest for knowledge about swarming dragonflies into a online citizen science project.
Because the success of this project depends entirely on the kind contributions of Dragonfly Swarm Project participants, I like to give something back. In addition to the dragonfly swarm information that I’ve posted on my blog (I’ve gathered all my posts together on a single page here), I provide reports so that everyone can see what I’m doing and how the project is progressing. I post yearly reports on my blog at the end of the swarming season. As of 2011, I post weekly reports during the swarming season that contain the location of all swarms reported for the previous week and links to other online dragonfly swarm news and information. I also intend to publish at least two scientific papers after 5 years of data collection, though I plan to collect data for many years beyond to generate a long-term data set.
With the help of my readers, I have been able to do what I never thought possible: I’ve collected data on thousands of swarms throughout the world. What is normally an ephemeral event that any one person might be lucky to see once in their lifetime becomes downright common when you have thousands of people sharing information together. Project participants are turning an epic data collection task into a project that is easily managed by one person. I can’t imagine any greater reward than seeing this little idea of mine explode into the project it has become! If I spent an entire lifetime studying this behavior on my own, I couldn’t hope to collect more than a tiny fraction of the information that I’ve accumulated through the project already. I am unbelievably happy that this project has been so successful, and I believe my participants are having a positive experience as well.
Thank you for your interest in my project! If you would like to participate, consider reading more about dragonfly swarms on the Explore page. Then, keep an eye out for swarms between May and October! If you see one, I hope you’ll come back and share what you’ve seen by filling out a dragonfly swarm report. With your help, I will be able to collect enough data to tell a really great science story about dragonfly swarms!
Have you seen a dragonfly swarm?
I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior. If you see one, I’d love to hear from you! Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form. It only takes a few minutes!