Researchers recruiting citizen-scientists for 'Great Pumpkin Project'

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A researcher in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences is reaching out to Master Gardeners, teachers, students and other interested parties to participate in a citizen-science project that ultimately could benefit growers, crops, pollinators and the environment.

Margarita Lopez-Uribe, assistant professor of entomology, is working with collaborators at North Carolina State University on "The Great Pumpkin Project," which is aimed at describing the geographic distribution of important crop plants and the insects and microbes with which they interact. Data collected could help farmers one day to improve plant health and crop yields.

"By examining the complex associations among plants, herbivores, pollinators and pathogens, we hope to gain a better understanding of how crop domestication for food production is changing ecological interactions across the landscape," she said.

The project is focusing on cucurbits such as pumpkin, squash, cucumber and melon, which explains its name, according to Lopez-Uribe.

"We are looking for citizens and students who are willing to grow plants as food, watch the progress from seed to maturity and observe the related ecological processes," she said. "We hope to raise awareness of the connections between humans, nature and food production, while studying how organisms move and co-evolve in the environment."

The project has several facets. For example, a major focus of one researcher at North Carolina State is recruiting citizen-scientists to collect data on the location, abundance and persistence of a pest beetle that transmits bacterial wilt of cucurbits. The objective is to examine how relationships between plants, insects and microbes vary from place to place and what that means for plant health, crop productivity and resistance to pests.

Lopez-Uribe's contributions to the project will center on her primary research interest: understanding how environmental change -- such as shifts in land use and climate -- and management practices influence changes in the population and health of wild and managed bee species. "My ultimate goal is to develop informed strategies for conservation and restoration of bee populations and the ecosystem services they provide," she said.

She noted that she's interested in having citizen-scientists help map the distribution and abundance of bees and other beneficial insects in relation to where cucurbits are grown.

"For example, a lot of bees and herbivores have been moving with squash as it was domesticated across North America," Lopez-Uribe said. "Previous studies have shown that one species, the squash bee, is an invader from Mexico, where the plant is native, and there's a strong indication of recent population expansion of that bee. But other bees visit these plants as well, so we want to collect samples, look at their evolutionary history and learn how bee communities vary across the United States."

Mining bee

Entomologist Margarita Lopez-Uribe is looking for help in finding ground-nesting bees, such as this one from the genus Andrena (mining bee), as part of a research project examining bee diseases.

Image: Margarita Lopez-Uribe

Another Penn State researcher, David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology and biology, will assist The Great Pumpkin Project by utilizing the PlantVillage application that he co-developed. PlantVillage is a web-based and mobile platform designed to help growers, gardeners, extension specialists and others around the world to identify crop diseases and other plant-health issues.

Users can upload photographs of plant disease symptoms or insects and receive feedback and advice from other users and experts in the virtual community. Using machine learning tools and artificial intelligence, Hughes and colleagues also are training neural networks of computers to recognize and identify crop diseases.

"Incorporating our platform into this new project will allow students, teachers and other participants to ask questions about the pests, pathogens and other stressors that may be affecting their plants and get advice on how to solve these problems," he said. "Although our machine learning effort has been focused on disease symptoms on the leaf, there is no reason it can't identify pollinators and other insects -- if a human can spot the difference, so can a machine. So, we hope this project helps us get better images for training machines."

Hughes believes the project also will be valuable in connecting students and other youth researchers to food production. "We hope it will help them realize that growing food -- whether in a farm field, schoolyard or garden -- is easier if we share our knowledge," he said. "Through PlantVillage and the Great Pumpkin Project, we want to expand the available data about plants and plant health and make it easy for kids and others to ask questions about their crops."

Seeking ground-nesting bees

As part of a related project, named "Bee Germs," Lopez-Uribe is looking for homeowners in the greater State College, Pennsylvania, area who have a nest of ground-nesting bees in their yard, with an eye toward collecting samples and studying diseases that affect these native species.

"When it comes to crop production, European honey bees may be best known as pollinators," she said. "But with honey bees in decline, native bee species make important contributions to pollination in both crops and natural ecosystems. By mapping populations of native, ground-nesting bees and quantifying the pathogens they carry, we hope to conserve and improve their habitat and enhance their disease resistance."

Local residents who have ground-nesting bees on their property can find out how to assist this research by contacting Lopez-Uribe by email at mml64@psu.edu.

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Last Updated May 15, 2017