A citizen science project that tracks spruce budworm activity in eastern Canada and Maine is expanding this year and needs more volunteers.

The effort is part of a bigger, four-year Budworm Tracker project funded by the federal government.

Spruce budworm feed on balsam fir and spruce trees. Outbreaks have already destroyed millions of hectares of forest in Quebec.

New Brunswick hasn't had a budworm outbreak in 35 years, but the pest is heading east and scientists have identified a hotspot of activity near Campbellton. 

Rob Johns is a forest insect ecologist with the Canadian Forest Service in Fredericton and is leading the project.

"We are trying to understand the extent to which moth migrations coming from these areas where we have these large populations is driving the spread of the outbreak itself," he said.

The project began last year with 300 traps. This year, the scientists are sending 550 traps to volunteers to cover some of the less populated areas in New Brunswick.  

The traps come with easy to follow instructions and are sent to volunteers in the mail for free.

People bait the traps with a pheromone from the insect. They can check the traps as little as once a week, but Johns says they hope some or most will check traps three times a week.

Volunteers empty the trap into a paper bag provided, date it and then put samples in their freezer until the scientists can collect them.

Johns said the province collects samples once a year near the end of the summer, but collecting samples more often can help identify the moths' migration pattern.

He said the insects collected can also be genetically tested to confirm their origin.

The program also uses a smartphone app. 

Volunteers can scan their information on the spot and log it in. Last year they had an app available for android devices only, but this year, it's also available for Apple users. 

Origin of the citizen science project

The Budworm Tracker project is part of the $18-million early intervention strategy for spruce budwork, which started two years ago in New Brunswick. The program now includes Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario and soon Maine.

Johns and biologist Drew Carlton monitored the migration of spruce budworm moths in New Brunswick.  

They set a dozen traps — each costing $2,000  — spread across the province.

Every two days they would drive around the entire province to collect the trapped moths and study them. The whole process was very expensive, so they turned to the citizen science project.

By using volunteers to set and check traps, they saved money and increased the amount of data collected.