The Bees' Needs: Engaging Citizens in Bee Research
Deane Bowers’ fascination with insects began with butterflies, but she soon spread her wings to embrace other “bugs.” As curator of entomology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Bowers is always looking for ways to make entomology more accessible to the public. She offers homemade, chocolate chip and mealworm cookies to students as an end-of-the-semester snack, but luckily inviting the public to participate in bee research is an easier sell. The Bees’ Needs project aims to engage the public and to educate volunteers about beloved bees.
“People love bees, yet there is a lot of incorrect public information about bee decline,” Bowers said. “Bee declines are a reality, and this project is a way to address that. Part of our job at the Museum of Natural History is to engage the public in science. The Bees’ Needs project has been an incredible way to involve the public in entomology and citizen science.”
There are more than 900 bee species in Colorado and more than 550 species in the Boulder area. Alexandra Rose, the Museum of Natural History’s citizen scientist coordinator, and Virginia Scott, the museum’s entomology collections manager and native bee expert, helped create The Bees’ Needs to involve the public in studying what community characteristics determine where bee species live so that scientists can better understand population declines.
In The Bees’ Needs, the public act as citizen scientists who share in data collection and discoveries about Colorado’s native bees. The project furnishes birdhouse-sized “bee blocks” for volunteers to install in their yards. The wooden blocks are drilled with 40 holes in various sizes to provide enticing homes for solitary, woodnesting bees. Volunteers provide information about their yard and neighborhood, and they document what materials — plant fibers, mud, pebbles, etc. — they observe bees using to build their nests. The nesting materials help researchers identify what species are present and where they live.
Since the program’s launch in spring 2013, Rose and Scott have led workshops that not only teach volunteers how to collect data but also address common misinformation about bees.
“I see a lack of knowledge about bees but not a lack of interest,” Scott said. “Most people are surprised to find out that bees are not all social and that most are solitary insects. They come in all different sizes and all different colors: black, green, red.”
The Bees’ Needs project has been so popular that the organizers quickly met volunteer recruitment goals in 2013 and a waitlist is in effect for 2014 volunteers. However, the program continues to expand the citizen-science model to K-12 educators and classrooms.
With support from the CU-Boulder Outreach Committee, The Bees’ Needs is partnering with CU-Boulder’s Biological Sciences Initiative (BSI) and ScienceLIVE to develop classroom curricula for 4th-12th grade teachers. Together, the programs are developing teacher workshops, web tools, blogs, and webinars that allow classrooms and citizen scientists to connect with CU scientists.
These new developments will allow organizers to spread bee identification to other areas of the state and engage diverse populations that are often underrepresented in the sciences. Involving K-12 classes, educators, and citizen scientists in The Bees’ Needs will strengthen the scope of the data and broaden the public’s understanding of the important role that pollinators play in our local ecosystems, Rose said.
“The citizen-science model is significant from a scientific perspective, because it offers us the ability to gather samples that are geographically and numerically not possible otherwise,” she said. “Socially, citizen science allows us to subtly and not-so-subtly offer education and outreach to the public. People respond to scientific messages when they are part of the process.”
For more information about the program, visit http://beesneeds.colorado.edu.
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