Biodiversity, Environment, Headlines, North America

Citizen Scientists on the Trail of Disappearing Bees

Enrique Gili* - IPS/IFEJ

SAN DIEGO, California, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - It’s the world’s worst-kept secret: bees are in a state of crisis. One of nature’s most benign pollinators is dying in record numbers, much to the alarm of beekeepers and gardeners.

Sunflowers are "wildly attractive to bees", explains biologist Gretchen Lebuhn.  Credit: Enrique Gili/IPS

Sunflowers are "wildly attractive to bees", explains biologist Gretchen Lebuhn. Credit: Enrique Gili/IPS

Spurred by the mystifying phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), Gretchen Lebuhn, a San Francisco State University biologist, has enlisted the help of thousands of backyard naturalists, sometimes called “citizen scientists”, to help researchers develop a better understanding of the forces impacting bees and perhaps aid in restoring bee populations.

In 2006, commercial beekeepers discovered their hives were languishing. They reported that up to 50 to 60 percent of their honeybees had died, or that worker bees had flown off, leaving larvae stranded.

Although the cause of CCD remains unclear, there’s evidence to suggest the bees are falling victim to the vicissitudes of modern life, including a debilitating combination of environmental stress and noxious chemicals that are interfering with the orderly life of the hive.

Despite their pastoral image, the burden placed on domesticated honeybees is a heavy one. Bred for their non-aggressive demeanour and ample honey production, they’re expected to help propagate tens upon of thousands of acres of flower-pollinated crops on farms throughout the United States and Europe.

Trucked from state to state, they’ve become the troubled rock stars of the pollinating world. Led on marathon road trips, they float from one farm to the next, often under the influence of toxic chemicals they’ve unwittingly ingested.

Although domesticated honeybees are media darlings, not much is known about their native counterparts or feral honeybees that have colonised cities and suburban areas.

The Great Sunflower Project was born out of Lebuhn’s frustration with the absence of bees visiting her own backyard in the suburbs of San Francisco. She envisioned the project as a way to improve her garden’s health and to advance science. “I was shocked at the number of people that wanted to get involved,” she said in an interview.

The premise is simple. Lebuhn sends seed packets of Lemon Queen sunflowers to people that wish to plant them in their yards. This hardy plant grows extensively throughout North America and, most importantly, is “wildly attractive to bees”, she said.

Once the flower blooms, the volunteers report back what they observe, taking the pulse of their garden’s bee activity twice over the course of the growing season.

In 2009, 55,000 volunteers from all 50 U.S. states and Canada’s provinces signed up to participate. Even more volunteers are expected to join this year.

There are an estimated 1,500 native bee species in California, with perhaps 2,500 more bee species distributed across the continent, ranging in size from several millimetres to the massive bumblebee.

The goal is develop a census of bee life by mapping the range and diversity of native bee populations throughout the United States and Canada, which according to Lebuhn would be an impossible task without the aid of citizen scientists.

She welcomes the wealth of data that the volunteers can provide. In order to discover bees’ favourite haunts and habitats, a lot of eyeballs are needed. On the downside, “People are afraid to report when they don’t see any bees,” said Lebuhn. “Volunteers feel they have failed, without understanding that in science a zero can be important.”

Ecologists and agricultural economists estimate the value of wild pollinators in the U.S. to be four to six billion dollars per year. Domesticated bees pollinate an additional 18 billion dollars in crops annually.

Yields increase when bees visit plants more often, providing an invaluable environmental service to farmers as well as gardeners that would be difficult if not impossible to duplicate should bee populations continue to decline.

Ultimately, the data collected from the Great Sunflower Project could be used to develop effective strategies to preserve native bee populations and to encourage the propagation of pollinating plants beneficial to bees.

Bee collapses have occurred in prior decades and the causes have been just as perplexing. Filling such gaps in knowledge is important, said Victoria Wojcik, an ecologist for the Pollinator Partnership, a non-profit advocacy group based in San Francisco. “No one has been keeping very good tabs on them,” she said, referring to native bees.

Even without CCD, bee populations have been declining since the 1970s. Bees face threats from multiple sources, like increased urban density and the fragmenting of rural land. Parasitic mites have decimated hives, and given the number of pesticides currently in use, it’s difficult to track down one culprit.

In 2008, the U.S. Congress revised the Farm Bill with provisions to improve bee pollinator habitats, with several million dollars in research grants set aside to further study bee colony collapse. The bill also opened the door to alternative farming practices such as integrated pest management, which rely less on chemicals.

Rather than wait, some gardeners are taking immediate action, planting native plants and fruit trees that bees find attractive. They are all too aware that when gardens fall silent, it’s an ominous sign.

*This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by IPS, CGIAR/Biodiversity International, IFEJ and UNEP/CBD, members of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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