A brief history
Conker Tree Science is a citizen science project, in which anyone could get invovled in real science by participating in three 'missions' to find out about the horse-chestnut leaf-mining moth (Cameraria ohridella). The main data collection began in 2010 and finished in 2013 and one scientific paper about the results has been published so far.
Since 2014, Conker Tree Science changed, so that rather than addressing scientific questions through the missions, anyone can record leaf damage to horse-chestnut ('conker') trees.
A longer history
The beginnings: 'Our web of life' (2009)
Conker Tree Science had its beginnings in 2009 when we (Michael Pocock and Darren Evans, then at the University of Bristol) conducted an event for people to engage with science in a Bristol city centre shopping centre during National Science and Engineering Week. They gave out pots with the instructions for people to "look after these alien insects". The insect inside was a leaf-miner (the Pyracantha leaf-miner Phyllonorycter leucographella) and it may have been attacked by a 'natural pest controller'. All that people needed to do was wait for 6 weeks, then log on to report what came out. About 2000 people were spoken to during the weekend and about a dozen postgraduate students helped out communicating under the theme of 'we rely on nature, and nature relies on us'.
The Conker Tree Science trial
Following from the success of 'Our web of life', we worked with 10 primary schools in Bristol. A couple of assistants gathered horse-chestnut leaves from across southern England (Devon to London) and then we put them in bags. We asked the children to "look after our alien insects" - alien because the leaf miners were not native to Britain, but also, in a way, because the parasitoid wasps (what we called 'natural pest controllers') had life styles that seemed so gruesome to many people! A team of us visited schools across Bristol and engaged about 1000 school children.
We did a lot of learning on this project, but we realised that the timing of the pest controller mission was perfect to fit into the last two weeks of the school term, and received very positive commments from teachers and received interest from the media. We therefore thought that it could appeal to people across the country.
This project was funded by a grant from the Bristol Ecological Society.
Conker Tree Science begins
It was at the end of 2009 that we were successful in receiving a grant from the Natural Environment Research Council to develop the project further and roll it out across the country.
Our main focus was to give people the opportunity to rear the parasitoid wasps ('natural pest controllers'), but we realised that the time was so limited (people had to start participation in the Mission: Pest Controllers over a one-week period) that it would be valuable to create another Mission: Alien Moths which anyone could take part in over the whole summer.
In 2010, we trained nine enthusiastic volunteers across the country to go into schools to run the Mission: Pest Controllers with about 2000 school children (aged 8-11). We also advertised them through our website for anyone to take part.
We found that one of the challenges was verifying that the records submitted through the Mission: Alien Moths were actually correct, especially where they represented new records for that location. In 2011, we worked to produce the LeafWatch recording app for smartphones, one of the first of its kind, with the NatureLocator team and with funding from JISC.
We continued to promote the project, and it continued to get attention from the media. We found several people were contacting us saying they had watched birds feed on the leaf-miners and wondering if birds might be the saviours of our horse-chestnut trees? We decided to develop a third mission, the Mission: Bird Attacks to try and answer this question, and so launched this at the end of 2012.
By the end of 2013, we realised that Conker Tree Science had addressed the key questions that we had set out to address, as summarised in the scientific paper about the project. We therefore decided to change the focus of the project and re-develop the website so that the focus (for now) was not so much on the missions, but through the Biological Records Centre, we could provide a secure way of recording the continued spread of the leaf-miner for years to come.