SF State News {University Communications}

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Critical buzz on bees to be captured by SF State

March 18, 2008 -- In her effort to shed light on the health of native pollinating bees, Associate Professor of Biology Gretchen LeBuhn is soliciting the help of thousands of "citizen scientists" nationwide. The "Great Sunflower Project," the first coast-to-coast study of bee pollination, will store and analyze the data at San Francisco State University.

A color photo of a bee pollinating a yellow sunflower.

"Our project is going to use data collected by the general public to produce the first real map of the state of bees in the continental United States," LeBuhnsaid. "We'll do this by giving out sunflower seeds to as many people as we can and have them keep records of the numbers and kinds of bees attracted to their sunflowers. The commitment of time is no more than 30 minutes, twice a month. We will be like sunflower thermometers measuring the temperature of pollination."

Buzz about the project has already attracted interest from Alaska to Florida through word-of-mouth and podcasts. LeBuhn wants to involve citizen scientists of all ages who live in a variety of urban, suburban and rural environments. She urges gardening clubs, civic groups, nature museums and public school classrooms to get involved. SF State biologists will observe sunflowers planted on campus.

"We need to know where bees are doing well and how parks, gardens, natural areas and all sorts of habitats affect our bees," LeBuhn said. "Once we get a good picture of where bees are pollinating poorly, we can start to design ways to help them."

LeBuhn said that the non-native species known as the "honeybee" has historically been the pollinator of choice for commercial growers because they are easy to cultivate in hives. But this species recently suffered a decline, which prompted scientists to identify where bees in general were doing poorly. The data collected for the Great Sunflower Project, however, will be much more specific.

"It might sound a little strange, but the most important data we collect may be the locations where no bees visit the sunflowers," LeBuhn said. She hopes to capture information from areas devoted to farming, manufacturing and energy production to city streets and suburban and rural gardens. "It will be interesting to see what environmental factors may affect native bee populations," LeBuhn said.

LeBuhn plans to collect three years of data that will contribute to new theories about bee pollination, behavior and survival. She believes the capability of native bees is underestimated.

Everyone who signs up for the project will receive a kit containing data forms for reporting the observed bees, a guide to gardening for pollinators, educational materials about bee species and a special packet of sunflower seeds. Kits are available in English, Spanish and Mandarin.

Initial funding for the Great Sunflower Project was provided with a $4,000 grant from SF State. LeBuhn is seeking more funding to produce more sunflower kits and fund postage. Ten thousand kits are ready to send out to participants in time for the plants to flower by National Pollinators Week scheduled for June 23 to 28.

"Having healthy pollinators is important for both natural systems and our food supply," LeBuhn said. "We can thank bees for every third bite of food we take."

To participate in this study visit the Great Sunflower Project's Web Site or call (415) 847-1716.

-- Denize Springer


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