A collection of bumblebees are pinned to a board for identification in Togus, Maine. Maine scientists say the state needs to take a broad census of its bumblebees to ensure the security of its beloved blueberry and cranberry crops, and the state is enlisting its residents to make it possible. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Want to count bumblebees? You’ll have to wait your turn!
August 11, 2015
Mad as a hornet, a bumblebee buzzes her wings in vain. She bumps against the walls of a vial. It holds her captive. She rests briefly on the paper tab showing her number. Then she resumes darting around her plastic prison.
Her warden is Shaina Helsel. She is one soldier in a citizen army. The group is taking a census of Maine's bumblebees. It's an effort to protect the future of the state's blueberries, cranberries and tomatoes. The census comes during concern about the population of pollinators.
"Time, location, elevation play a factor in what species are where," says Helsel. She is a biology student at University of Maine Augusta. "It's an interesting thing, going out and finding a bunch of different bumblebees. I've so far collected 105."
The project is among a growing number of "citizen science" efforts around the country. They are designed to inspire the public. The goal is to collect data about pollinators. The Great Pollinator Project of New York City tallied nearly 1,500 observations. They were of the city's more than 200 bee species. That was between 2007 and 2010. Scientists and students at Washington State University also have tried to spur the public to collect data about bees. And more efforts are abuzz elsewhere.
Maine's counting effort is called the Maine Bumblebee Atlas. It has a budget of about $50,000. The state has been finding volunteers. It's been very successful.
The state has signed up 106 volunteers. It has another 150 lined up. And it even had to turn people away from two booked-up training sessions, says Beth Swartz. She is a biologist for the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
She said volunteers include bankers and teachers. They also include students and retired paper mill workers. The first training session for Maine's citizen scientists was in May. Another took place in July. The next will be in spring 2016. The project is should last five years. The volunteers collect "observational data" about bumblebees and their habitats. A specialist identifies the specimens they collect, Swartz says.
The national conversation about bee die-offs has largely focused on honeybees. Those are different from the furry, chunky bumblebees. The Bee Informed Partnership said that about 5,000 beekeepers reported losing more than 40 percent of their honeybee colonies. That was during a yearlong period. The time frame ended in April.
The numbers are troubling. That's because of the billions of dollars in value honeybees provide to agriculture every year as pollinators. Scientists have named factors that could be speeding up honeybee deaths. They include parasites and pesticides. They also include poor nutrition. The poor nutrition may come from a lack of diversity in pollen and nectar sources.
In Maine, the focus is specifically on bumblebees. Officials say species that are dropping have suffered from habitat loss and pesticides. They have also gotten diseases and parasites. Those were introduced through commercially raised bumblebees.
Maine has 17 known native bumblebee species. Four became rarely observed. Biologists said that started in the 1990s. Data is poor on the status of the other 13. Officials say a multi-year survey will better assess the population, range and wealth of the bees. It will be statewide. The insects are key pollinators of wildflowers. Those are some of the state's most important crops.
Swartz said that engaging the public to collect data about the bees is a step toward saving them.
"People are interested in the plight of the bees. Bumblebees are interesting and charismatic," she says. "Some of their work will give us quantitative data. We'll be able to tell if that particularly species is declining or increasing."
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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why are scientists motivating the public to count bees?
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