Bee spotters join forces

To help combat dwindling bee populations, volunteer "citizen scientists" are counting the little buzzers in parks and their back yards.

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University of Minnesota Entomologist Elaine Evans is studying biodiversity of native bees and volunteers with the Great Sunflower Project, which is sponsoring a national count Saturday.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Every now and then, we need to stop and smell the roses -- and while we're at it, count the bees.

On Saturday, more than 1,200 Minnesotans will be doing just that as part of a national project aimed at reversing a disturbing drop in the number of bees over the past decade because of habitat loss, pesticides and disease.

The California-based Great Sunflower Project has enlisted "citizen scientists" to help with professional bee research by including bee-friendly plants, like sunflowers, in their gardens and counting the bees that show up. So far, more than 100,000 gardeners and others nationwide have signed on, but new volunteers are welcome to take part Saturday in their own gardens.

Bees do a lot more than annoy us by dive-bombing our fruity beverages on outdoor patios. One out of every three bites of food a consumer takes can be traced back to bees' pollination of plants -- not just fruits and vegetables, but also alfalfa and other livestock feed necessary for us to get milk and meat, said Elaine Evans, an entomologist with the University of Minnesota and dedicated bee-spotter. Evans, who has also been involved with the Sunflower Project as a volunteer, is working toward a doctorate by studying native bee biodiversity and abundance.

No one has ever monitored the hundreds of species of native bees in Minnesota, but surveys have helped fill some of the gaps. Evans has done survey work with several park districts in the Twin Cities -- including a Minnesota Bumblebee Survey -- which enlists volunteers to look for the 13 bumblebee species native to the state. "There are several species I used to see around here fairly frequently and 10 years ago I stopped seeing them at all," she said.

These days, Evans is hot on the trail of the now-rare rusty-patched bumblebee, one of an estimated 300 bee species once native to Minnesota. So how exactly does one get a bee to hold still long enough to determine its species, other than killing it, which would be counterproductive to the mission's purpose?

"When a volunteer, who's not expected to be able to identify the kind of bee, points one out, I come over with my net and drop it over the bee, then try to sort of face it the right way to get a good look," Evans said. Then, a little dab of paint before setting it free ensures that the busy little flitterer won't be counted twice.

"My son started helping out when he was 5 by putting plastic cups over a bee till I could get to it," she said.

The most commonly recognized bees are striped honeybees and roly-poly, fuzzy-wuzzy bumblebees, but there are a total of seven different families, Evans said. Other types include leafcutter, sweat and miner bees.

"Green metallic sweat bees are gorgeous," she said. "Not all bees are hairy, and some are really small and dark, but they still perform important ecological services, collecting pollen and pollinating flowers."

Counting across America

While Evans and her colleagues are focusing on bee health in Minnesota, the Great Sunflower Project was launched five years ago by San Francisco State Prof. Gretchen LeBuhn to get a better handle on the long-term health of bees in the United States and Canada. On Saturday, a day LeBuhn is dubbing "The Great Bee Count," the project is hoping for mass participation that will boost the number of people counting bees nationwide as well as raise awareness.

After planting their bee-drawing bounty, observers are asked to record, twice a month for 15 minutes, how many little visitors buzz by.

The data collected can't be compared with professional research, but on this grand a scale, its importance will grow over time because it can reveal widespread trends, LeBuhn said.

A bee-friendly garden

You don't have to be a bee-spotter to help reverse the population decline -- just plant some flowers and reduce pesticide use, says Marla Spivak, a University of Minnesota entomologist and winner of a MacArthur genius grant for her bee research.

"What's really striking a chord with people is learning what to plant," she said. "The flowers that are pretty to us aren't necessarily attractive to bees. They can't get what they need from just any old flower."

Besides sunflowers, some sure bets are California poppies, rosemary and -- of course -- bee balm. Go to www.xerces.org/bumblebees for an extensive list of suggestions.

Spivak also advocates looking for opportunities to plant large tracts of native flowers along roadsides and farmland crop borders.

"Native flowers help native bees, as well as honeybees," she said. "Clover and alfalfa are both good honey plants."

The more diverse your bee-attracting plantings, the better. Bees need not only pollen, which provides their protein, and nectar, which gives them carbohydrates, but a wide variety of these nutrient sources to thrive.

"You can't live for a whole summer on just chicken," Evans said. "It's the same for bees."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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