Bugwood Network, 2012 Friends of IPM Award Winner
Why would anyone want to collect thousands of pictures of creepy bugs and annoying weeds and throw them up on the Internet for all to see? Ask “Bugwood Network” creators Keith Douce and David Moorhead, and they’ll tell you that those pictures have helped millions of people correctly identify some of those bugs, the first step to using integrated pest management, an environmentally-friendly form of “pest control.” Housed at the University of Georgia, the Bugwood Network (www.bugwood.org), is a searchable image library. It contains more than 100,000 images of insects, plant disease symptoms, invasive species and weeds.
The Bugwood Network, now formally known as the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, began in 1994 as a collection of a few hundred photos of forest pests. Douce, a forest entomologist, and Moorhead, a forest ecophysiologist, frequently fielded questions from county Extension agents asking about insect identification. They soon realize they needed a convenient way to give the agents the information they required. To solve their problem, they created a collection of photographs on CD. As Extension agents continued to send photos to the university, Douce and Moorhead needed a larger viewing medium that would give them the flexibility to catalog, organize and reorganize their photos.
The organization and searchability of the photos and related reading material is what sets Bugwood Network apart from other Internet image libraries. In fact, Douce and Moorhead had used many of those image libraries before and grew frustrated at the inability to narrow down search results. So when they developed Bugwood, they set a rule: each photograph had to be tagged with a title, subject, photographer, location and accurate identification, including genus and species names, life stage, and other categorical descriptors, such as “wood boring insect” or “foliage disease.”
All of Bugwood’s photos are contained in one database. That’s why identifying information is crucial; without it, Douce and Moorhead can’t classify the photos. Douce says they have hundreds of photos they still need information about, before they can add them to the system and make sure they appear in the correct categories. Often they have to contact the photographer several times before they have enough information to include the photo in the database.
“Sometimes people send only partial information, or they don’t send who took it or what growth or life stage it’s in,” Douce says. “’Pathogen on soybeans’ isn’t enough; we need to know what pathogen it is, what kind of soybeans they are, and who took the picture.”
As a result of the rule, Bugwood staff can easily organize images and Bugwood users can easily find images. Bugwood houses five different image libraries: forestry images (www.forestryimages.org); forest pests (www.forestpests.org); agricultural and household pests (www.ipjimages.org); invasive species (www.invasive.org) and insect images (www.insectimages.org). Someone who wants to know what is eating his or her tomato plants would visit IPM Images and click on “Vegetables,” and then “Tomato.” Someone else who wants to determine if the beetle defoliating trees in a state park is the emerald ash borer would go to forestpests.org and search for beetle photos under “foliage feeding” insects. Pests are categorized by site (such as crop, forest, or structure) so that people who need to identify a bug on a specific plant can do it quickly.
“People call and tell us something like, ‘There’s an insect on my eggplant,’ but don’t know what it is,” says Joseph LaForest, IPM and Forest Health Specialist for the Center. “So I tell the person to go to IPMImages.org and click on ‘Vegetables’ and then on ‘Eggplant.’ The person then has only 11 pictures to sift through instead of thousands, and he or she can usually find the pest.”
Users will also often find several different images of the same insect or weed. Douce says that’s because some people need a close-up of a particular insect, while others need a picture of the leaf it’s been eating.
“Sometimes we’re asked why we have 300 pictures of the gypsy moth,” Douce says. “There are a lot of different vantage points for the same pest. Sometimes you want a leaf with damage and sometimes you don’t. If you’re giving a presentation to cotton farmers in Georgia, and you’re showing California cotton fields with lofty mountains in the background, you lose credibility with your audience. So we provide a repertoire of pictures so people can choose the one that best fits the situation.”
A new Bugwood “Wikipedia” contains detailed information about invasive plants, plant diseases and plant diagnostic recipes for specialists who need to solve a problem before it gets out of control. The vast number of different photos has enticed educators, agricultural experts, authors, musicians, editors and many other professionals and laymen to use Bugwood’s photos for a variety of endeavors.
Bugwood is accessed every year by approximately 19 million users from around the world. Country singer Charlie Daniels used Bugwood images for the cover of his Songs from the Longleaf Pines CD. Several images appear in Whitney Cranshaw’s Garden Insects of North America. Native plant guide authors from Japan and Slovakia have used Bugwood photos of US invasive species to illustrate their books. Specialists from the US Department of Agriculture, Plant Health, Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) Division rely on the photos to identify newly identified invasive insects and weeds before the exotics can get a foothold.
The Bugwood Network has remained the fastest-growing, most widely used image database for integrated pest management because its creators listen to its users.
“Anytime I call the staff there and ask about adding or changing something, the answer is always ‘yes,’” says Carrie Harmon, Associate Director of the Southern Plant Diagnostic Network. “They have a vision about what can be done that makes it a real pleasure to work with them.”