Federal wildlife officials are asking the public to help count mayflies, the ubiquitous and stinky bugs that swarm the banks of the Mississippi River each summer.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is recruiting “citizen scientists” to gather field data in an effort to better predict the annual emergence, when millions of the insects hatch and take to the air.
The agency has partnered with the USA-National Phenology Network, a partnership of federal agencies, universities and nonprofit organizations based in Arizona that monitors the influences of climate on the life cycles of plants, animals and the landscape.
“It’s things like when do plants put on their leaves, or when do their leaves change color; when do birds migrate,” said Theresa Crimmins, partnership and outreach coordinator for USA-NPN.
USA-NPN has developed a website and smart phone apps – dubbed Nature’s Notebook — that allow volunteers to gather and submit field observations on everything from feeding habits of the Acadian flycatcher to the blooming of Yoshino cherry trees.
Using this relatively new technology, regular folks with just a little training can record standardized observations that are uploaded to public databases available to scientists like Mark Steingraeber, a fishery biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Onalaska.
The approach serves a two-fold purpose, said Cindy Samples, chief visitor services manager for the Upper Mississippi River Fish and Wildlife Refuge: gathering data and getting people out on the 240,000-acre refuge.
“We want to connect people to nature,” she said. “What better way than some critter people wonder about?”
‘Hatch, mate, die’
Mayfly hatches are a common – and at times apocalyptic – phenomenon on the Upper Mississippi River.
Swarms show up on radar. A well-lighted gas station near the river can quickly become a seething mass of the winged creatures. Last year they were even blamed for a three-car crash in Pepin County.
The insects spend most of their lives as larvae, burrowed in the mud of the riverbed. Once mature, they emerge with wings and fly upstream in a mass mating ritual.
They have no mouth and only hours to live.
“Hatch, mate, die,” Samples said. “That’s it.”
Steingraeber said much of what is known about the Mississippi River species, known as hexagenia bilineata, is a result of research by the late Cal Fremling, a professor of biology at Winona State University.
When Fremling began his research in the 1950s, Steingraeber said, mayflies were so abundant there was talk of eradicating them. His research helped head that off.
“He really keyed in on the fact that these mayflies are good indicators of water quality,” Steingraeber said. “They don’t bite. They don’t sting. They’re great fish food.”
Over the years, Steingraeber has been a go-to source for people interested in the flies – from brides planning riverside ceremonies to photographers and filmmakers from around the world who want to document the annual swarms.
Every year they ask, when should we show up?
Generally he tells them the Fourth of July – plus or minus 10 days, but an early hatch in 2008 prompted him to wonder if there was a better way to forecast the big hatch.
He found a model developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that relies on cumulative growing-degree days to predict when they will emerge.
Steingraeber said the model was accurate to within one day in three years, but in others it was off. He hopes data provided by citizen scientists will help him refine the model.
Rise of the citizen scientist
Citizen scientists aren’t new. Fremling relied on tow boat pilots and lock and dam operators for some of his data.
“The concept of citizen science has been around for centuries, if not longer,” Crimmins said. “People who weren’t formally trained were the first citizen scientists,” Crimmins said.
But there’s been exponential growth in the opportunities in the past decade, Crimmins said.
Researchers have become more sophisticated in how to best use volunteers, and advancing technology has made data collection easier.
Last year volunteers reported more than 3.1 million bird observations through eBird, an online data collection program launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2002.
Nature’s Notebook was launched in 2009 in response to a report by the Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change. Crimmins said changes in plant and animal life cycles is one of the simplest ways to document how species are responding to climate change.
More than 15,000 people have registered with the site; about a third have submitted observation.
Sue Anderson had never considered herself a citizen scientist, but on a whim she attended a meeting on the mayfly watch in Winona and decided to give it a try.
A retired teacher, Anderson said she first encountered mayflies when she moved to Winona in the 1970s. Now she’s got the app on her phone and has alerted a friend who lives on the river to call her as soon as she sees one.
“It sounds like fun,” she said. “I’m excited.”
Crimmins said data gathered by citizen scientists is used increasingly by land managers and policy makers who need to make decisions on timing.
A recent project run by the University of Minnesota enlisted 40 volunteers in an effort to study how best to keep leaves out of Twin Cities lakes.
U of M scientist Chris Buyarski hypothesized that – since phosphorous-based fertilizers are illegal in Minnesota – the water was being polluted by nutrients from decaying leaves that washed into storm sewers. Buyarski had residents track their boulevard trees, documenting leaf out, flowering, leaf coloring and leaf fall, among other variables.
His hope is that the city could eventually use that data to put street sweepers in neighborhoods once the leaves have fallen.
Steingraeber said there are practical applications for mayfly prediction too. Last year – during a particularly thick emergence – he got calls from transportation officials, who’ve used everything from street sweepers to snowplows to remove insect carcasses from the roadway.
“It really slicks things up,” said Mike Dougherty, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
While crews can turn off lights that attract the insects on key stretches of freeway, Dougherty said that also presents a hazard. Having an accurate hatch prediction would minimize the amount of time the lights were off.
“It would be helpful to make sure we’ve got folks on point,” he said.
So when will the mayflies hatch this year?
“It’s a little bit too early to tell,” Steingraeber said.