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Science relies on data. It requires the time and dedication to collect and analyze a lot of information. That’s where volunteers, or citizen scientists, come in.

Project Bee Watch is a citizen science project that leverages volunteer labor to understand how pollinators are faring in Allegheny County. 

LISTEN: “Bee Watchers Needed”

“In addition to the bees, there are also beetles, butterflies, and even ants, that are on flowers,” said Keri Rouse, a graduate student at Point Park University, where the work started. “So in the project, we’re counting any insect that lands or goes onto a flower.”

In late May, Rouse led a volunteer training at the Frick Environmental Center, operated by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Ten people received manuals to help them identify pollinators, and the plants that attract them. Rouse says there hasn’t been a study of pollinator populations that’s specific to the county.

“So there’s no baseline data. We don’t know how pollinators are doing in this area,” she said.  

Globally, pollinators are in trouble. They’re facing threats like loss of habitat, pesticides, and invasive species. Rouse says wildflowers depend on pollinators for reproduction, and so do gardens. For example, bumblebees pollinate tomato plants.

“They have a very specific way of pollinating, where they kind of shake the flower, and shake the pollen off,” Rouse said. “So really, they support the food system. They support healthy ecosystems, and that diversity is really what we need, because there are so many niches that each one [pollinator] fills.”

Keri Rouse is a graduate student at Point Park University. She’s training volunteers to survey pollinators and wildflowers using a tool called a plot. Photo: Kara Holsopple

Each volunteer also receives a 3.3 x 3.3 feet plot. It’s a tool composed of bamboo sticks tied together with a string. The square is used to mark off the section of wildflowers where the data will be collected. She says volunteers from last year, when the project started, have reported back that the project has more benefits than data collection.

“They enjoy just zooming in on a meter square plot,” Rouse said. “It’s kind of therapeutic, but also you get to know the pollinators in that way, as well,” 

It only takes 10 minutes to complete a survey, and volunteers can do it as much or as little as they want through October, at the designated study areas. Those include sections of Frick and Schenley Parks in Pittsburgh, Latodami Nature Center in Allegheny County’s North Park, and the Audubon Greenway near Sewickley.

Bee watchers send the information they collect to Matthew Opdyke, a Professor of Environmental Science at Point Park. He started the program and analyzes the data.

“We definitely want to inform the public, as well as natural science organizations, and hopefully government agencies,” said Opdyke. “Hopefully they’ll catch on, and say, ‘Hey, you know, look at this data. This is the status of say, bumblebees. Maybe we should do something to bring their numbers backed up in terms of planning certain types of wildflowers.’”

Opdyke says Allegheny Land Trust, a local partner, is already using data from the project to help plan habitat for pollinators on their properties.

Susan Fineman is one of the volunteers who showed up for the training in Frick Park. She was a teacher for 30 years, and lives nearby.

“I’m trying to do pollinator patch in the garden at my house, and I’m interested in bees,” she said. “I’m interested in the 4,000 kinds of [native] bees we have in this country that I never knew about.”

Last year, the majority of the species identified by Project Bee Watch volunteers were bees. Only 5 percent were butterflies.

This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania, which is funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation. To check out other stories in the series, click here

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