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At A Rocha Kenya, we’re big supporters of citizen science: projects through which ordinary people, non-scientists, can contribute to scientific knowledge of biodiversity through their own observations. One citizen science project we run as regularly as we can at our Mwamba office in Watamu is the moth survey. A lepidopterist/Aurelian is a person who practises Lepidopterology which is a branch of entomology concerning the scientific study of moths and the three superfamilies of butterflies. Not every language has a unique word for ‘moth’ – in several languages, they’re known as ‘night butterflies’. Many people find moths mysterious or unpleasant, perhaps because many of them (not all!) fly at night-time and are attracted to light sources such as flames and bright light bulbs, especially ultraviolet light. However, when volunteers and guests at A Rocha participate in the moth survey, many of them consider the moths they see to be more beautiful and interesting than they’d ever thought.

We carry out the survey using a ‘moth trap’, but it’s not a trap that hurts or kills them. We use a fluorescent light bulb to attract the moths, relying on the way they tend to spiral downwards as they approach light sources. The roof of the trap tilts down, guiding the moths inwards so that they enter a medium-sized box through the opening around the lightbulb. Inside the box they find a pile of old egg cartons offering little crevices in which they can spend the night. The following morning, with the lightbulb switched off, we count the moths, noting how many of each species we have even when we don’t know the species name, and take photos of any moths we haven’t seen before. Then they flutter away. Photos of each species we see get uploaded to a ‘Virtual Museum’ managed by the University of Cape Town, contributing to a map of biodiversity across Africa. Moth experts then get to see the photos, and if it’s possible to identify the species, they post a comment to identify it. That’s the beauty of citizen science projects like this: none of our volunteers are moth experts, but technology makes it easy to share data with experts so our knowledge base can grow.

Imitating buff-tip, Phalera imitata

I love the creative ways that citizen science projects offer opportunities for almost anyone to come into closer contact with the world around them.

Catherine, Volunteer at A Rocha Kenya

The project was set up by a previous volunteer at A Rocha Kenya and has been running since then whenever there’s been someone available to do it. At the moment our resident anthropologist is working with us for 18 months, which is a nice long time to be collecting data. Catherine, who is volunteering with ARK while also carrying out her Anthropology PhD field work here, started the moth survey in October 2019 and has been carrying it out two or three times a week since then, sometimes accompanied by other volunteers or guests who want to see the moths or help out. Catherine’s seen over 100 species of moths already, plus a couple of butterflies and a lacewing she wasn’t expecting to find!

Catherine with a Hawk moth

Catherine told us, “I came here to study people, not insects of any kind. I was so ignorant of moth diversity when I came, and had my doubts about how interesting it would be when Colin the director asked me to pick up the moth survey. But now I’m captivated by them, especially hawk moths, and can easily spend hours trying to find an ID for a species. Every time I see an expert has given one of my photos an ID, it’s exciting. I’ve found a book so I can learn more about moth biology, life cycles and so on, and moth trapping is definitely something I plan to continue when I go back home to the UK next year.

“I love the creative ways that citizen science projects offer opportunities for almost anyone to come into closer contact with the world around them and use their experiences as ‘data’ that can teach us more about the diversity of creatures around us, or how our environments are changing – and suffering in many cases. I hope that these projects can produce collaborative knowledge that leads to policy and behaviour changes that solve problems and help other species flourish. But even if they don’t, or it takes a long time, I think that paying more attention to the world around us can teach us to care more deeply for non-humans and our common home. That’s got to be part of our response to the eco-crisis we’re facing, hasn’t it?”