Pollinator project founder talks about expanding beyond bees

Through the participation of more than 100,000 citizen scientists the Great Sunflower Project has compiled the single largest database of information on pollinator populations in North America. The project’s annual Great Bee Count -- this year on August 17 -- and a recent expansion of sampling options continue to draw citizen scientists to the project. University Communications spoke to the project’s founder, Professor of Biology Gretchen LeBuhn, about how to get involved this bee season.

University Communications: How does the Great Sunflower Project work?

Photo of Professor of Biology Gretchen LeBuhn

Professor of Biology Gretchen LeBuhn.

Gretchen LeBuhn: We started the project by asking participants to plant Lemon Queen sunflowers in their backyards. We then asked participants to observe their flower twice a month, for 15 minutes each time, and count how many bees visited the flower during these times. This year we expanded to all plants and all pollinators wherever they are found.

UC: Why have you added these new ways to collect data for the project?

GL: We are interested in finding the areas where pollinators are doing poorly -- not just in backyards -- so we can push for conservation. We also are very interested in identifying the plants that are good resources for different types of pollinators.

UC: Are you still encouraging people to plant sunflowers?

GL: Absolutely. We think of the Lemon Queen sunflower as our gold standard. We have the most data from this species, so our ability to compare across yards is best for this plant. It also provides resources for all sorts of bees and then once it goes to seed, it’s a great resource for birds.

UC: Tell me more about some of the other ways I can collect data for the project.

GL: Starting in summer 2013, our website will be ready to receive other types of observations:

  • Casual Observations: All we need is the date that you observed the bee.
  • Stationary or Single Count Observations: Record how many bees you saw while watching any single plant for a length of time.
  • Traveling or Multiple Plant Species Observations: Count the bees you see during a hike on a local trail, just note how much distance you covered.
  • Area Observations: Include all the bees you see while thoroughly searching a location, like a city park.

UC: What if I don’t see any bees? Should I still report that?

GL: Yes, we want to hear from you even if you didn’t see any bees during your observations. This is the most important data! Places where we don’t have bees may be the ones where we need conservation measures.

UC: You keep mentioning bees. Are there other kinds of pollinators that I can count?

GL: You can count bees, bats, butterflies, birds, beetles, flies...Anything that you think is a pollinator.

UC: What’s so important about counting pollinators?

GL: We don't know where pollinators are doing well or poorly so we don't have any idea where to direct our conservation efforts. We also have a lot of anecdotal evidence about what conservation actions help pollinators but less scientific evidence. By identifying the critical resources, we will be able to do smarter conservation.

UC: How can I attract more pollinators to my garden?

GL: Anecdotally, we know there seem to be some flowers that attract bees to the garden. These are the flowers we encourage our participants to plant in their gardens, including the Lemon Queen sunflower, bee balm, cosmos, tickseed, phacelia and purple coneflower.

But as our project has continued, we realized that there isn’t a lot of research on the specific kinds of plants and other garden features -- like mulching or water -- that support pollinators. Some of our participants are helping us with a pilot study of garden habitats that we hope will tell us more about what kinds of plants pollinators like to visit.

UC: How can I join the project?

GL: Joining the project is easy. All you need is a valid email address, and a computer with Internet access to register as a participant and upload your observations. You can sign up now at http://www.greatsunflower.org/user/register

-- University Communications