The July 16 "Great Bee Count Day" draws near

With a sunflower and a half-hour each month, you could help San Francisco State University scientist Gretchen LeBuhn learn more about the lives of pollinating bees and the essential services they provide for humans.

photo of a large sunflower by Ginny Stibolt

Photo credit: Ginny Stibolt

LeBuhn leads a coast-to-coast corps of nearly 100,000 citizen scientists in The Great Sunflower Project, now in its fourth year. Participants all over the country are planting a sunflower in their yards, balconies and community gardens, in order to observe how many bees they see on the plant during two 15-minute observations each month. They then report their data via LeBuhn’s website.

On July 16, LeBuhn and her colleagues are asking the participants to upload their data for a “Great Bee Count Day” that they hope will generate further enthusiasm for the unique and popular project.

In the United States, the value of pollination services provided to humans by bees is estimated at $4 to $6 billion per year. But urbanization, climate change, and a mysterious syndrome called “colony collapse disorder” threaten these essential animals and the ecosystems they share with humans, LeBuhn said.

Photo of Gretchen LeBuhn, associate professor of biology, directs the Great Sunflower Project.  Photo credit: Noah Berger

Gretchen LeBuhn, associate professor of biology, directs the Great Sunflower Project. Photo credit: Noah Berger

The Great Sunflower Project has two goals: To collect more information on the whereabouts and activity of pollinating bees, and to provide the bees with more pollen resources. The project encourages planting ‘Lemon Queen’ Sunflowers -- which, according to LeBuhn, are “wildly attractive to bees” and can be grown in all areas of the country. Since 2008 the project has also included bee balm, cosmos, rosemary, tickseed and purple coneflower.

“With every type of flower and even within sunflowers, there are different rewards for bees as they collect pollen and sip nectar,” said LeBuhn. Controlling the kinds of flowers observed in the study, she explained, also controls the effect that different types of pollen and nectar have on the bees’ visits. This makes the data on pollination easier to compare from site to site around the country.

On average, the volunteer gardeners report seeing a bee pollinate the plants every 2.6 minutes, with more than 20 percent of the participants never seeing a bee at all.

At the beginning of the project, “people didn’t want to report their data if they didn’t see any bees,” LeBuhn recalled, “when in fact, that’s the most important data of all because it means they were receiving no pollinator services.”

LeBuhn said participants don’t have to report the kinds of bees they are seeing on their plants, but that kind of data can be useful in places where honey bees have been devastated by colony collapse disorder. “For those who can distinguish a honey or a bumble or a carpenter bee, that can help us ask whether we are seeing more pollination coming from bees other than honey bees, or whether we’re seeing a decrease in the service overall.”

Four years into the project, there have been some surprises. LeBuhn expected urban environments “to have much lower pollinator services,” but that hasn’t been the case with data reported by the citizen scientists. It’s a trend that she wants to explore further, to see if it holds up with more sophisticated maps of population.

And she would like to see more participation in rural areas all across the country. “The more people we can have anywhere, the better, because we can start to ask finer-scale questions about where wild pollinators are doing well or poorly.”

LeBuhn, an associate professor of biology, studies the effects that climate change and urbanization have on pollinators. Although she started The Great Sunflower Project with research in mind, the tremendous interest and flood of questions from participants has her thinking about the educational aspects of the project.

The project receives detailed e-mails from school children around the country, asking about everything from how to get “dud” seeds to grow to whether bees leave footprints on flowers. “We’re getting everything from questions about evolution to basic biology,” LeBuhn said, “and what an amazing thing to see them make that leap to those really interesting scientific questions.”

She hopes the project can evolve from collecting data to providing new guidelines -- and inspiration -- for conservation. “We want to encourage people to include just one more square foot of new pollinator habitat in their yards, and really get people to think about how to manage landscapes and their own personal space.”

Honeybees may grab the headlines, but there are 4,000 species of bee in the United States -- about a third of which live in California.

“When we talk about pollination, we’re talking about 3,999 other species that also make these contributions,” LeBuhn said. “I’d like to leave people with a sense of wonder that there’s this big group of insects out there working for us.”

To join The Great Sunflower Project, visit the website at or follow the project on Twitter: @GreatSunflower.

-- Becky Ham