To bee, or not to bee: This is no bumbling in­sect au­dit

The Progress-Index - At Home - - NEWS - By Pa­trick Whit­tle

AP­PLE­TON, Maine — Mad as a hor­net, a bum­ble­bee buzzes her wings in vain against the walls of the vial hold­ing her cap­tive. She alights briefly on the pa­per tab in­di­cat­ing her num­ber, and then re­sumes scut­tling around her plas­tic prison.

Her war­den is Shaina Helsel, one soldier in a citizen army that is tak­ing a cen­sus of Maine's bum­ble­bees in an ef­fort to se­cure the fu­ture of the state's blue­ber­ries, cran­ber­ries and toma­toes amid con­cern about the pop­u­la­tion of pol­li­na­tors.

"Time, lo­ca­tion, el­e­va­tion play a fac­tor in what species are where," says Helsel, a bi­ol­ogy stu­dent at Univer­sity of Maine at 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 that are de­signed to mo­ti­vate the public to gather data about pol­li­na­tors. The Great Pol­li­na­tor Pro­ject of New York City tal­lied nearly 1,500 ob­ser­va­tions of the city's more than 200 bee species from 2007 to 2010. Across the con­ti­nent, sci­en­tists and stu­dents at Washington State Univer­sity also have tried to gal­va­nize the public to col­lect data about bees, and more ef­forts are abuzz else­where.

Maine's count­ing ef­fort is called the Maine Bum­ble­bee At­las, and it has a bud­get of about $50,000. The state has been us­ing its web­site, press re­leases, news­pa­per an­nounce­ments and so­cial media to re­cruit vol­un­teers — and it's been wildly suc­cess­ful.

The state has signed up 106 vol­un­teers, has another 150 in the queue and even had to turn peo­ple away from two booked-up train­ing ses­sions, says Beth Swartz, bi­ol­o­gist for the state Depart­ment of In­land Fish­eries and Wildlife.

Vol­un­teers in­clude bankers, teach­ers, stu­dents and re­tired pa­per mill work­ers, she says — ev­ery­one from tree-lov­ing

con­ser­va­tion­ists to "peo­ple whose pro­fes­sional lives are not any­where near fo­cused on the out­doors."

The first train­ing ses­sion for Maine's citizen sci­en­tists was in May, and another took place in July, to be fol­lowed by another in spring 2016. The pro­ject is ex­pected to last five years. The res­i­dents col­lect "ob­ser­va­tional data" about bum­ble­bees and their habi­tats, while a spe­cial­ist iden­ti­fies the spec­i­mens they col­lect, Swartz says.

The na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about bee die-offs has largely cen­tered on hon­ey­bees, which are dif­fer­ent from the furry, chunky bum­ble­bees. The Bee In­formed Part­ner­ship said this year that about 5,000 bee­keep­ers re­ported los­ing more than 40 per­cent of their hon­ey­bee colonies dur­ing a year­long pe­riod that ended in April.

The num­bers are trou­bling be­cause of the bil­lions of dol­lars in value hon­ey­bees pro­vide to agri­cul­ture ev­ery year as pol­li­na­tors. Sci­en­tists have cited fac­tors that could be ac­cel­er­at­ing hon­ey­bee deaths, in­clud­ing par­a­sites, pes­ti­cides, and poor nutri­tion from a lack of di­ver­sity in pollen and nec­tar sources.

In Maine, the fo­cus is specif­i­cally on bum­ble­bees, and state of­fi­cials say species that are in de­cline have suf­fered from habi­tat loss, pes­ti­cides, and dis­eases and par­a­sites in­tro­duced through com­mer­cially raised bum­ble­bees.

Maine has 17 known na­tive bum­ble­bee species, and four of them be­came rarely ob­served start­ing in the 1990s, bi­ol­o­gists say. Data are poor on the sta­tus of the other 13, and of­fi­cials say a multi-year statewide sur­vey will bet­ter as­sess the pop­u­la­tion, range and abun­dance of the bees, which are key pol­li­na­tors of wild­flow­ers and some of the state's most im­por­tant crops.

En­gag­ing the public to col­lect data about the bees is a step to­ward con­serv­ing them, says Swartz.

"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."

The sta­tus of bum­ble­bees has gen­er­ated con­cern around the coun­try be­cause the south­ern borders of their ter­ri­to­ries have crept north­ward over the past 40 years. Sci­en­tists say pop­u­la­tions have de­clined or are dis­ap­pear­ing be­cause of warm­ing weather.

In­deed, Maine's bum­ble­bees ap­pear to be af­fected by cli­mate change, says Frank Drum­mond, a pro­fes­sor of in­sect ecol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Maine. The num­bers of spring days when bum­ble­bees can visit blue­ber­ries and other plants has been re­duced by half since the early 1990s be­cause of in­creased rain, he says.

That is wor­ri­some for a state that re­lies on blue­ber­ries, a crop that sup­ports a sum­mer tourism in­dus­try and all man­ner of tasty con­fec­tions, for $250 mil­lion per year in eco­nomic value.

"At that crit­i­cal time of blue­berry pol­li­na­tion, we've been get­ting lots of wet springs," Drum­mond says.

AP PHOTO/ROBERT F. BUKATY

In this July 10, 2015, photo vol­un­teer Shaina Helsel pre­pares to cap­ture a bum­ble­bee on a field 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.

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