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Master Gardener: My experience counting bees – Become a citizen scientist

Jay Johnson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

If you are an active gardener who loves growing all kinds of produce, or if you love to grow flowers and want to help support a national project as a citizen scientist and learn about the kind of native bees, bumblebees and other pollinators that may visit your garden, then you may find the following fun, useful and interesting. Or, if you are interested in science and the plight of bees and are thinking about starting a garden, I recommend you investigate a project I recently joined.

My journey started this year on one of my regular visits to the library, visits that include reading Horticulture. I live in Meeker and am fortunate enough that they carry the magazine. In the March/April 2018 issue of Horticulture, the cover caught my eye: a picture of 2 sunflowers and the caption, “Be a Citizen Scientist in The Great Sunflower Project.” Intrigued, I checked out the magazine.

The Great Sunflower Project was started by researcher Dr. Gretchen LeBuhn of San Francisco State University. At first LeBuhn wanted to find out the state of native bees — over 4,000 — in the U.S. and Canada. The article continues to say she wanted to focus on bees since bees are queens of pollination and little is known how they are doing. With one research project only focusing on a small area at any time, she created the GSP.

The basis of the GSP is to count pollinator visits per hour per flower on the same kind of plant across the country. LeBuhn focuses on sunflowers because they are easy to grow and are visited by many kinds of pollinators. Some of the visitors are the most interesting in the bee world, in particular those in the genus Melissodes. The male has long antennae, and they are called long-horned bees.

The GSP began in 2008, when LeBuhn sent an email to people in the southeastern U.S. asking them to plant specifically lemon queen sunflowers. LeBuhn didn’t ask them to be scientists such as an entomologist; they simply needed to be able to count. Therefore, anyone can join the project. I myself do not have entomological experience, but I love to grow flowers, though I hadn’t ever successfully grown sunflowers before 2018.

A critical part of the GSP is growing the correct variety of lemon queen sunflowers, of which there are two. The one needed for this project is an annual, a cultivar of Helianthus annuus. Also critical to the project is that neither the seeds nor the plants are treated with pesticides. They should also be neonicotinoid-free.

If you are interested in the project, there are three seed companies I would trust to provide the correct kind of seed: Botanical Interests, Beauty Beyond Belief and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed. Botanical Interests has a bit of information on the GSP on the back of the lemon queen sunflower seed packet. I am also willing to share seeds with anyone interested in the project.

Armed with the seed buying information, I set out to participate in the project. I ordered seed and shared with friends who either were willing to plant the sunflowers for the project or were just interested in growing the flowers. Fortunately, I was able to secure an extra plot at the Meeker Community Garden just for the sunflowers and planted in the June timeframe. As of the date of writing this article, Sept. 8, I have been counting bees since August. I started on Aug. 26 and have counted nine times so far. Though I haven’t been able to identify individual species to this point, I’ve noted mostly bumblebees, honeybees and other types of bee visitors.

The user friendly GSP website greatsunflower.org is where you go to submit your data, once you have registered.  Data to record includes: counts, plant species — as other flowers may be used if they meet certain criteria, number of flowers on the spike/bunch, date, time of day, number of minutes counted and name of pollinator only if certain of the name. The website also has tools to help you identify species if you are interested, as well as other information related to the project.

Overall, this has been a very fun and positive experience for me.  I would kindly ask you to join me this year if you have flowers that meet the criteria, or join me in 2019. It is a wonderful opportunity to learn and teach someone of any age about sunflowers and native bees. Happy gardening.

Jay Johnson grew up in North Dakota and moved to Colorado in 2007. He works in Natural Resource Management. John graduated from Master Gardener training through CSU Extension in 2017.


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