An Online Identification Tool for Butterflies of Alexandria, VA

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Dear User,

Thank you for taking the time to visit ButterSpy!

I've spent many summers of my life as a camper and counselor at Nature Camp in Vesuvius, VA, where we spend our days outdoors, learning and teaching about the world around us and about the importance of protecting it. Nature Camp is special in many ways, but one of it's most special features is that the counselors teach classes like limnology, botany, and herpetology as opposed to canoeing and arts and crafts (though those classes are indeed awesome.) The campers leave at the end of the session not only with many friendship bracelets and pictures, but also with heads full of information about our planet and an enthusiasm for conservation.

The summer of 2020 was different from past summers in just about every way possible. For us at Nature Camp, it meant that we were now facing the task of hosting a camp that emphasises a step away from technology online. How were we going to communicate the importance of spending time out-of-doors from our computers? How would we teach a class about freshwater ecosystems to campers living in big cities? Would anyone even come?

This project was born from that chaos of the pandemic and the adjustments we all had to make to our regular lives. I taught entomology (the study of insects) that summer, and my teaching partner and I mourned the loss of getting to go on hikes and identify butterflies with campers, or making up ridiculously fake scientific names for caterpillars when we didn't know the actual one. Entomology was one of the luckier classes in that it was an easy transition to online. There are many insect identification websites and apps, but I found that none of them were really able to simulate the feeling of crouching over a bee and flipping through a field guide. Most apps involve a camera, which provides the user with the instant gratification of an identification, but that's not quite the same thing. The excitement of identifying a Red-spotted Purple on your own is a feeling you can't achieve when the answer is given to you.

ButterSpy removes that aspect of instant gratification by removing the camera. Users are encouraged to practice their observational skills by entering colors and features they see and are then presented with potential matches. The more observations you enter, the narrower your results get! While not a perfect match, ButterSpy makes you work a tiny bit harder to find the answers you are looking for, in the hopes that you will build your observational skills and increase your identification skill!

This is the first version of ButterSpy and currently only includes 43 butterflies (from the BAMONA database.) In the future, I hope to expand the project to include markings and wing shape, as well as the number of butterflies the system can identify.

Hope you enjoy!

Sarah Riddell

P.S. For anyone wondering, as it turns out, the love that Nature Camp fosters in people who are connected is stronger than even the coronavirus. Though attendance for the summer of 2020 was understandably less than a normal summer, it exceeded our expectations in every way, and "Online Nature Camp" was a blast :)


Sarah Riddell is a senior at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. She is a computer science major, and has completed this project as part of the Honors Program Capstone requirement. Sarah would like to give a massive thank you to Katy Laser for designing the Butterspy Logo and to Jeff Pippen for graciously allowing the use of his personal photograph of an Appalachain Azure! In her spare time, Sarah likes to sing and watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine with her roommate.