Skip to content. Skip to navigation

Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Beetle Busters

Using technology to build a search image for spotting one invasive species.

Beetle Busters logo

When a larger-than-life beetle struts onto the screen, seeming at once likeable and slightly villainous, it is captivating in a way that makes it hard to stop watching.

A memorable image is exactly what is needed to help people recognize an invasive species. Beetle Busters puts page viewers face-to-face with the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB), a species that poses a serious threat to hardwood trees in the north eastern United States. Attentive observers can help track the spread of the beetle, but that depends on:
1) inspiring people to be on the lookout, and; 2) making sure people know what to look for.

Biologists are familiar with the term search image... attentiveness to a certain combination of visual features that help make a particular object "pop" into view. Generally a good search image takes time and familiarity to develop. In the case of invasive species, where observers are on the lookout for something new, time is an unavailable luxury.The Beetle Busters animations, and accompanying whiteground photos, seem especially effective at creating a search image (it also can't hurt that the ALB is a striking black-and-white, with especially generous antennae).

To put that to a test, an online game challenges players pick out the ALB from other beetles in a backyard setting, to "freeze" and send to the USDA (points lost for freezing the wrong species!). Freezing suspected ALBs (for identification purposes) is exactly what USDA hopes observers will do in their real backyards, along with taking digital photos and calling in the observation. A nice use of a simple game to reinforce both search image and what to do if a beetle is seen.

Citizen science is making major contributions to invasive species monitoring. Here are a few other beetle projects, in particular, that take different approaches to involving volunteer observers:

BugWatchME (sharing information and updates via Facebook)

NY Sentinel Tree Project (intensive activity of attracting Emerald Ash Borers, depends on dedicated volunteers with woodlots, skills, and willingness to sacrifice a tree)

Viburnum Leaf Beetles (uses an online comment system to connect with observers in urban areas)

Search image and digital technologies also help spot long-lost native species, through the Lost Ladybug Project.


Is your project (about beetles, invasive species, or otherwise) listed in our Project Registry? Share details here!

Citizen science, volunteer monitoring, participatory action research... this site supports organizers of all initiatives where public participants are involved in scientific research.

More about this...