SF State News {University Communications}

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Volunteers stick to study like bees to honey

June 23, 2010 -- Now in its third year, The Great Sunflower Project combines the efforts of nearly 100,000 "citizen scientists" to count pollinating bees across 50 states and Canada.

A photo of the Lemon Queen sunflower.

The Lemon Queen variety is widely used in The Great Sunflower Project.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Wiggins.

The brainchild of Associate Professor of Biology Gretchen LeBuhn, the ongoing project records the number of native bee visits to sunflowers and other plants.

When the project began in the spring of 2008, LeBuhn hoped to attract about 5,000 volunteers from schools, master gardener groups and garden clubs representing all or most of the regions of the North American continent and Hawaii.  The project actually attracted 25,000 participants the first year.

At first, the study utilized only sunflowers and volunteers planted the Lemon Queen annual variety seeds to grow the plants needed to attract bees. Last year, the project expanded with the use of other plants including bee balm, cosmos, rosemary, tickseed and purple cornflower.

At last count, 91,000 people of all ages and every walk of life have signed up to plant the flowers and count the number of bees drawn to the plants over 15-minute intervals, then submit their data online.

"The overwhelming response to the call for help on this study reflects the fact that thousands of people across the country have noticed that there are far fewer bees than there used to be," LeBuhn said.  She hopes that the geographic breadth that the volunteers provide will reveal what kind of environments are best for bee pollination, which is the first step to determining what can be done to improve pollination.

Bee pollination is considered so crucial that the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated an annual National Pollinator Week to advance public awareness and scientific information about bee populations.  Since the program began three years ago, 36 states have officially adopted the designation and more states are expected to follow suit this year.

To commemorate National Pollinator Week this year, June 21 through 27, Great Sunflower Project volunteers are being asked to "add a yard to your yard," by adding a square yard of flowering plants to their gardens.

"We not only want our volunteers to observe, but to take action by increasing the amount of nectar and pollen available in their gardens," said the project's outreach coordinator Fred Bove. According to the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, loss of habitat figures prominently in the decline of the number and types of bees in the U.S.

Project leaders are currently working on a major update that will allow LeBuhn to begin sharing the first three years of data this summer.  She hopes to publish the preliminary results of her analysis as early as December. 

Seed funding for The Great Sunflower Project was provided by SF State and the Integrated Hardwoods Range Management Program. The Spring Creek Foundation and hundreds of volunteers have kept the project growing.

-- Denize Springer


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