Over 75% of the planet’s flowering plants depend on animal pollinators in order to reproduce and the majority of those animal pollinators are insects. Among the most important pollinators in both natural and managed systems are the 5000+ species of bees in the family Apidae, a group that includes honey bees and bumble bees. Concern about pollinator declines has increased in recent years, and, where pollinator status has been monitored over time, as in Europe, reductions in numbers, in some cases dramatic, have been documented. In October 2006, the National Research Council Committee on the Status of Pollinators in North America, a group charged by the National Academy of Sciences to examine available data to evaluate concerns over apparent pollinator declines, released its report (NAS 2006) and one of its main conclusions was that, for most pollinators, there are simply no baseline data available to allow for an evaluation of changes in abundance. Among their principal recommendations was to begin monitoring programs with bees as a “top priority for coordinated assessment” due to their prominence as pollinators. Moreover, the committee recommended involvement of citizen-scientists in such monitoring efforts, stating that “A long-term monitoring program could maximize results obtained per dollar spent by integrating professional scientist monitoring activity with citizen scientist-monitoring activity in assessing both pollinator status and pollination function.” In response to this call, we created Beespotter, a web-based partnership between the professional science community and citizen-scientists to meet this critical need for data collection and to provide opportunities for the public to learn more about these amazing and ecologically essential organisms.
There is currently no systematic nationwide effort to document pollinator status in North America beyond the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) annual survey of honey bees used for honey production. Apis mellifera, the western honey bee, is the principal managed pollinator worldwide and is responsible for pollinating over 90 commercially grown crops in North America. The number of colonies reported in the 2005 survey, 2.41 million, represents a 28% reduction relative to colony numbers in 1981; numbers continued to decline in 2006 and in the winter of 2006-7 beekeepers in over 20 states reported further steep losses attributable to what appears to be a new phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. Given the importance of A. mellifera in contributing pollination services to agriculture, activities estimated to be worth over $14 billion annually, the inexplicable disappearance of honey bees has caused concern not only in the apiculture industry but across the agricultural enterprise and among the general public. The current system employed by NASS, however, does not take into account the numbers of feral, or unmanaged (“wild”) honey bees, which play an important role in providing pollination services in both natural and managed ecosystems (NAS 2006; Winfree et al. 2007).
Bumble bees also appear to be experiencing significant reductions in number. Of the 49 species of Bombus native to North America, many are important pollinators of flowers in natural landscapes; they also function as complementary pollinators of some crops, including cucumber and melons and certain species are actively managed , mostly for pollination of greenhouse tomatoes. Regional declines and even disappearances of some species have been documented and as a consequence four bumble bee species have been placed on the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation Red List of at-risk pollinator insects of North America (Shepherd et al., 2005). At present, no baseline or long-term monitoring data exist for bumble bees in the United States, so their status cannot be definitively determined.
Species in the family Apidae—honey bees and bumble bees—are ideal subjects for citizen-scientist contributions to experimentation and data collection. Because of their striking coloration and readily recognizable shape and behavior, as well as their relatively large size (at least as far as insects are concerned), honey bees and bumble bees are far more easily “spotted,” photographed, and identified based on color pattern than most of the other 3500+ species of bees in North America.
The goals of Beespotter are to engage citizen scientists in data collection to establish a much-needed baseline for monitoring population declines, to increase public awareness of pollinator diversity, and enhance public appreciation of pollination as an ecosystem service. The use of photography for identification, instead of the net, pin, and spreading board of traditional entomology, is consistent with the goal of preserving bee diversity and enhancing pollinator appreciation.
Berenbaum, M.R. 2007. Losing their buzz. Op-Ed, New York Times, March 2, 2007
National Academy of Sciences, 2006. Status of Pollinators in North America. Washington: National Academy Press.
Shepherd, M. D., D. M. Vaughan, and S. H. Black (Eds). Red List of Pollinator Insects of North America. CD-ROM Version 1 (May 2005). Portland, OR: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.