Earth Day 2023's Nature Overheard project

The Natural History Museum has created a project to study the effect of noise pollution on insects
21 April 2023

Interview with 

Abigail Lowe, Natural History Museum


Bee on a flower


People around the world are holding events to mark Earth Day 2023, as efforts continue to force the hand of decision-makers to tackle climate change. The Natural History Museum in London wants the public to join them in a major new community science project called ‘Nature Overheard’ - which aims to investigate the link between noise pollution and insect populations. With that in mind we set our colleague, Will Tingle, loose on the streets of north-west Cambridge. But first, the Natural History Museum’s Dr Abigail Lowe to explain a bit of the background…

Abigail - Nature Overheard is the Natural History Museum's latest community science project where we're asking as many people as possible to join an effort to better understand the impact of noise pollution on wildlife near roads. And so anyone can get involved by recording sound and sightings of insects near roads and streets. And we can use this information to make streets more wildlife friendly. And we launch on Earth Day April 22nd. So it's a perfect opportunity to link the two things together, do some community science, do your bit, connect to your local nature, and yeah, become a scientist. We are hoping to look at how the levels of noise pollution are affecting insect abundances and distributions, but not only that, we can work to identify insect sounds from the audio recordings. So there's been a lot of work already on training algorithms to identify bird species from audio, but we're developing the technology now to be able to do the same for insects. So it's a really exciting project for people to get involved in.

Will - Well, it sounds like we shall have to have a go...

Will - <Car driving past> Well then, James, it's time to do some more citizen science for the people.

James - My favorite.

Will - We've got a stringent checklist to go through here. Before we get started, would you mind checking for me that it's between 10am and 4pm?

James - Affirmative.

Will - Good. Are we near a road?

James - Yep.

Will - Good. Is it warmer than 13 degrees? I'll spoil it for you now. It is warmer than 13 degrees. And is it only a light wind?

James - Yeah. Verging on gusty.

Will - We'll do our best. What's left to do now then is to walk along this road, take some audio recordings for our friends at the Natural History Museum and if we spot the insects, try and call 'em out. Photograph them and ID them.

James - Let's go.

James - Oh?

Will - Oh no, you're right. You're right.

James - <laugh> They're not easy to identify when they're moving around so quickly.

Will - That's alright. You've got me James. We've got ourselves a solitary bee, a brimstone butterfly, two hoverflies. We're off to a flying start. We've got a lot of gnats flying around. More butterflies, James. What are you? Oh, that's a peacock butterfly. Delightful.

Will - Oh, now this is curious James. Look at this. It looks like a bee, but it's actually a fly. Guess what it's called?

James - <Laugh>. I don’t know. It's got a long nose though.

Will - Well, don't say nose, James. But it has a long proboscis, but it's a bee fly. It's interesting. It's a fly pretending to be a bee so that nothing will eat it.

James - How are the non-zoologically trained among us supposed to identify all these creatures? You'll be pleased to know that the Natural History Museum has handily given everyone a nice insect invertebrate guide for them to follow on the website if they want to take part in this.

James - Why are we looking for bugs and insects in particular? Why not other aspects of wildlife?

Will - Excellent question, James…

Abigail - Insects are really important for maintaining a healthy environment. They have many roles. They're predators. They're parasites. They pollinate flowers, which gives us food and crops and things like that. So insects are really important, but we don't know a lot of things about them. So we need to research more into them. And one of the things that is under researched is the impact of what noise pollution has on them. The community science program Nature Overheard is unique because it was co-designed by students across the UK. So we gathered hundreds of questions from across the UK and we narrowed them down to the question which was, 'how can we make roads better for nature?' And we ran a series of workshops to sort of refine and develop that question a little bit further. And that is how we ended up on the idea of investigating road noise pollution. And we were very lucky at the museum to have Ed Baker, who's an acoustic biology researcher. So he looks at sound recordings and tries to identify wildlife from them. So it sort of all just worked out really well. Really it was amazing that the students had identified this problem as something that they were really interested in.

Will - What are you planning to do with all of this data once you've collected it and identified what's going on in it?

Abigail - Nature over here is going to run for two years. For the first year, we're very much gonna be looking at some basic acoustic indices relating to what people are seeing on the roads. And then the technology for identifying things like birds from acoustic data is fairly well developed, but being able to identify insects from it is not quite there. And so we need to gather lots of audio recordings so that we can start to train the algorithms. The information that we collect, we'll use it to share with road developers and councils and local communities about how we can try and make the sides of roads better.

Will - Well, James, I would like to put that down as a pretty good success.

James - Yeah, it was a lovely way to spend an hour.

Will - Absolutely. And I think that hopefully the data we've collected here could be added to the mosaic that the Natural History Museum is putting together in tracking the distribution of insects near our roads.


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