First posted on 07-13-2012
Every third bite of food we eat came a plant pollinated by bees.
Thanks to the efforts of nearly 100,000 citizen scientist volunteers, Gretchen LeBuhn and her team of researchers assembled what is now the largest single body of information on bee activity in North America. Now LeBuhn wants to add to the data.
LeBuhn, a biologist at San Francisco State University, launched The Great Sunflower Project in 2008, hoping to gather information about the decline of pollinators and their associated ecosystems. Volunteers across North America observed and counted bees they discovered in their gardens and backyards. The volunteers counted bees during two 15 minute periods twice a month.
While volunteers may contribute to the study at any time, LeBuhn and her team are trying to increase awareness in The Great Sunflower Project by designating August 11 as the day of a “Great Bee Count.” On the 11th, citizen scientists from around the country will participate by counting bees at the same time.
The previous compilation armed LeBuhn with observations from 12,000 gardens across the continent. She discovered that bee numbers were low in urban areas, indicating stress to bee populations from habitat decline. This year, LeBuhn hopes to gather enough information to better pinpoint what is occurring in urban areas. She also wants to find out how bees are faring across a range of habitats.
“We’re really interested in doing deeper comparisons of rural and urban and suburban areas, and what that means for pollinators,” she said.
That deeper look will include habitat fragmentation, where usual bee habitats are disrupted by buildings, highways and other man-made features that disturb a bee’s movements. When that happens, bees have a difficult time finding the resources they need to survive.
LeBuhn wants to determine the “tipping point” at which this fragmentation occurs at enough frequency that bee populations decline.
Some urban communities have healthy, thriving bee populations and LeBuhn believes this may be attributable to urban gardens. “We were surprised that community gardens had such high visitation rates,” LeBuhn said, “but that’s good news because they’re important sources of food production, and we want to make sure they’re getting enough pollinators.”
She also wants to look more closely at deserts, where bee diversity exceeds that found in forests, or wooded areas. “We know that desert systems are centers of species diversity for bees,” she said.
Sign up for the study is quick and easy at The Great Sunflower Project website. Instructions are clear and easy to follow, and a bee identification chart helps everyone decide which types of bees frequent a garden.
Once logged on, volunteers find a map of bee sightings across the U.S., color coded for the number of sightings in a given period.
“The results map that’s now on the website is pretty powerful,” LeBuhn said. “For those who already participate, this can help them look at the area around them and see if there’s anyone else they can encourage to join.”
Bee sightings range from zero to 30 bees per hour depending on the size of the garden, with larger gardens typically getting more visits. Zoom in on the map to find out what’s happening around the corner, or where more information is needed. Data is there from the current study as well as for the four previous years.
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