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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

July 13, 2011 at 9:45 AM

Join the hive: The Great Bee Count is Saturday

More than 2,000 Washingtonians are part of a collective that will have the country buzzing on Saturday.

It’s the Great Bee Count, when insect-lovers coast-to-coast will take to their backyards to count the imperiled pollinators.

The brainchild of San Francisco State University biologist Gretchen LeBuhn, the project is now in its fourth year. LeBuhn’s goal was to enlist a citizen army in efforts to monitor populations of bees, which have declined precipitously in some parts of the country in recent years. About 100,000 people have signed up.

Originally, LeBuhn asked folks to plant sunflowers in their yards and track how many bees visited during two 15-minute periods per month. That’s why the effort’s formal name is The Great Sunflower Project.

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Photo by Ginny Stibolt

Luckily for bee fans in the Puget Sound area who would like to participate in Saturday’s count, LeBuhn expanded the focus to include several plants that are in bloom here now: Bee balm, purple coneflowers, tickseed, cosmos and rosemary.

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Purple coneflowers are one of the project’s approved bee-counting plants

Photo by Warren Skalski/Chicago Tribune

But pollinator counts also can be logged throughout the season.

In Shoreline, Buzz Hofford — Yes, that’s his name — is waiting on his sunflowers. “It will be late August before I see any,” he said. “With the weather, they’re just fledgling.”

He signed up for the project three years ago. “It just sounded really cool, and something that is easy and requires a minimal amount of time,” he said. “You set yourself up with a stopwatch and a cup of coffee, then you just watch the flower and count how many bees come to it.”

So far, bees have been plentiful in Hofford’s sunny front yard.

But it’s just as important to note an absence of bees, LeBuhn stresses. Negative data can help identify areas where the insects might be suffering from the mysterious syndrome called colony collapse disorder.

Volunteers don’t need to be able to tell bee species apart, though if they can, that information is welcome. “For those who can distinguish a honey or a bumble or a carpenter bee, that can help us ask whether we are seeing more pollination coming from bees other than honey bees, or whether we’re seeing a decrease in the [pollinator] service overall,” LeBuhn said.

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Cosmos are included in the project. This field is in Carnation.

Seattle Times photo by Teresa Tamura

Agricultural experts in the United States estimate the crop pollination performed by bees is worth a staggering $4 billion to $6 billion a year.

Going into the project, LeBuhn expected to see fewer bees in urban areas compared to rural parts of the country. But the citizen data hasn’t shown much difference. She’s hoping to recruit more rural observers to see if the trend holds up.

For Hofford, it’s nice to be a small part of a big network. But it’s also rewarding to simply have a reason to pay attention to nature. “Usually, we just walk by this stuff and don’t even notice,” he said. “When you spend some time really watching, it’s an amazing experience.”

Hofford’s company, Bon Appetit Management Co., is partnering with Slow Food Seattle to host a free screening of the movie “Vanishing of the Bees,” on July 20 at 6:30 p.m. at Seattle University’s Pigott Auditorium. A Q&A session will follow the screening.

RSVP here.

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