Back in 2008, biology professor Gretchen LeBuhn at San Francisco State University was growing exceedingly concerned. Her study of bee populations in Napa Valley, California, showed that the number of wild specialist bees (bees that specialize in pollinating certain species of flowers) was declining rapidly. She speculated that the decline might be due to the extensive vineyards in the area—Napa Valley is the heart of California’s wine region—but she needed more data to be certain. She was especially worried about the implications on a national level. Was this happening everywhere?
The consequences of wild specialist bees disappearing would be quite severe. One of every three bites of food you put into your mouth exists due to “animal pollination,” or the movement of insects— particularly bees—between plants. Animal pollinators play a crucial role in both flowering plant reproduction and the production of fruits and vegetables. Most plants require the assistance of pollinators to produce seeds and fruit. About 80 percent of all flowering plants and more than three-quarters of staple crop plants such as corn and wheat that feed humankind rely on animal pollinators like bees.
Scientific studies had been suggesting for some time that both honey bee and native bee populations were declining. Scientists like LeBuhn feared this would harm pollination of garden plants, crops, and wild plants. If scientists knew more about bee behavior—if they could collect enough data about bees across multiple time zones and geographic locations—they could perhaps devise ways to conserve and increase the size of the bee population.
But how could you track bees on such a large scale? Gretchen had a limited research budget—just $15,000—scavenged from various organizations and grants by her department. Although she sent a student back to Napa Valley to perform additional measurements and bee counts, even this proved too expensive and time consuming due to the distance between the San Francisco–based campus and Napa Valley. Then Gretchen had an idea. She’d gotten to know several of the Napa vineyard owners well over the course of her study. Perhaps they would collect data for her? She asked, and they agreed to perform the relatively simple task. They agreed so readily, in fact, that Gretchen got excited. If a busy vineyard owner could count bees, anyone could. An avid gardener herself, she wondered if she could recruit homeowners with gardens to join her mission.
First, Gretchen needed to come up with a simple, standardized protocol for collecting bee data that anyone could follow. “Sunflowers,” she thought. Sunflowers are easy to grow, are native to the continental forty-eight United States, and, best of all, have a large and relatively flat surface area. It’s easy to see bees on the face of a sunflower. Gretchen tested the idea on some friends at the local nature conservatory. She gave them sunflower seeds, asked them to plant and water them, and, when the flowers bloomed, to count bees for an hour at a specific time each day. Everyone objected immediately. Although willing to help, her friends were not going to gaze at sunflowers for an hour at a stretch. But even after cutting the time to fifteen minutes, Gretchen heard nothing from her volunteers. No one reported any data. She finally got on the phone and began making calls. What she heard shocked her. “I didn’t call you back because I didn’t see any bees,” her friends told her.
Alarmed, Gretchen decided to push on with the experiment, which she dubbed the Great Sunflower Project. She created a website and found volunteers by emailing a small number of master gardener coordinators in a few southern states. They, in turn, broadcast her request to their networks. Within twenty-four hours, Gretchen had 500 volunteers. By the end of the week, she had 15,000 offers to help. Eventually the website crashed due to the overwhelming response.
Gretchen’s Task Unification innovation—assigning an internal task (data collection) to an external resource (home gardeners)—had launched with a bang. Today the Great Sunflower Project has more than 100,000 volunteers who count bees and report their findings online. Gretchen uses the data to map pollinators; pollinator services use it to determine where bees are thriving and where they need help. Gretchen kept the structure of the experiment simple. Each year on a specific day in mid-July or August, volunteers go out to their gardens and watch for bees. For fifteen minutes, they count the number and types of bees that land on their sunflowers. Volunteers enter their observations online. And then they’re done for another year. But however small a role any individual volunteer plays, each bit of information adds up to a very large and rich pool of research data. With so many tens of thousands of people contributing from all over the country, researchers have created national maps of wild specialist bee populations that are helping them determine when and where to focus conservation efforts.
“Simply by taking that fifteen-minute step, these citizen scientists make a contribution to saving bees,” LeBuhn said. “It’s remarkable having all these different people willing to participate, willing to help, and interested in making the world a better place.”
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