Conservation biologist Gretchen LeBuhn had a really smart idea. The fact that American honeybees are struggling is well known, but what is happening to our native bees is less well understood. Even more obscure is what bees are up to in our urban and suburban areas, where 80% of Americans live. Bees of one sort or another are responsible for pollinating most everything we eat; if we are going to develop an ethic of urban gardening to supply fresh local food instead of depending entirely on factory farms, we’ll need to understand what pollinators are available in the urban/suburban setting and there is very little such data around.
To help answer the question, LeBuhn has turned to the internet and enlisted the power of citizen scientists. Anyone can join, it is simple and straightforward as all elegant experiments are, the process is enjoyable and instructive and full of beauty and wonder, and provides an opportunity to be a part of something larger than ourselves. A really smart idea.
The effort is called The Great Sunflower Project, and you can read all about it here. Get some heirloom Lemon Queen sunflower seeds, available many places including here from Renee Shepherd and here from Sustainable Seed, as well as the study website and quite possibly your local seed supplier. Plant them just about anywhere sunny, a container in the corner of a small patio is fine and is as valuable to the study as a large garden would be. Add water and patience, and let nature do Her thing.
Blooms appear in 75 to 100 days, and thereafter all you do is sit down with your plant for 15 minutes twice a month and count the bees that visit. Fill out a simple online form and voilà, science happens!
In 2008, the year the project began, 25,000 volunteers registered which is absolutely astounding. Last year there were over 50,000 participants and this year the registration is pushing 100,000. Sunflowers need nights above 55F to germinate, so this is the time of year to get started. Sunflowers, bees, science, the internet – who could possibly resist?
As long as you’re doing this project, you may as well go all wonky and collect data for the National Phenology Network, another citizen scientist effort studying how plants are doing across the country. All you do is jot down the sorts of information any gardener would record; when you planted your sunflowers, when they sprouted, first true leaves, when they bloom, etc. Over time, with many thousands of observations on many kinds of vegitation, a very useful picture will emerge of how plants are adapting to changes in our climate. You can submit this data through the Great Sunflower Project.