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Beecoming a Citizen Scientist in St. Louis' Shutterbee Program

Leafcutter Bee on Rudbekia
A leafcutter bee on our yellow coneflower.

By Lisa Brunette

This spring I joined with 186 other participants in a research project called Shutterbee. Without needing to meet in person, we will conduct a study of the bee populations in our gardens. It basically works like this:

  • Shutterbee ecologists train us in their research techniques and protocol.
  • We learn how to identify, photograph, and record our bee populations using a phone app called iNaturalist.
  • Every two weeks, we spend at least 20 or 30 minutes taking a walking survey of our gardens, photographing bees using the protocol.
  • We then upload our findings to iNaturalist for both Shutterbee's and the general community's ID and record.

I've already gone through the two-stage training sessions, about five hours of education and practice spread over two weekends. Due to COVID-19, the trainings were held online, making this low-touch research project even less-touch. Researchers at Webster University and Saint Louis University are trying to determine whether non-invasive photo surveys can adequately take the place of traditional netting. Normally, bee researchers head out into the field, capturing bees with nets for study. This project explores whether or not photo surveys by citizen scientists can take the place of netting, or at least contribute to it. 

Bee on Wild Garlic
This bee on wild garlic is still awaiting ID.

The answer to that seems to lie with us, the program participants. Based on previous years, what researchers have seen is that while the richness and diversity of bee recordings carries across to the citizen scientist findings, we amateurs in the field often miss the rare bee sightings. So Shutterbee has asked us to keep an eye out for bees that seem to break the bee mold, so to speak. For me, being a good citizen scientist means learning as much as I can to think and act like an ecologist, getting to know the bees in my garden and the plants they prefer.

Shutterbee
The Shutterbee logo, designed by students at Webster University.

The focus of this study is native bees, not the honeybee, which is a non-native, domesticated insect considered by many to fall into the livestock category. While colony collapse disorder in the European honeybee population is of concern to agriculture, it's the decline in native bee populations that fuels this research project. Native pollinators are important because:

  1. 87% of flowering plants are animal-pollinated
  2. 1 in 3 bites of food we eat is made possible by pollinators
  3. Many of our most nutritious foods need pollinators*
Bee on Wild Hydrangea
A native bee in the family Megachilidae, on wild hydrangea.

I've already learned a lot from this study, such as how to tell bees from flies or wasps. You might think that's a simple task, but you should think again. Many flies have evolved to mimic the look of bees as a defensive mechanism.

Daisy fleabane
Looks like a bee, but it's a hoverfly called 'margined calligrapher,' here on daisy fleabane growing in our wild patch.

After a few test-walks through the garden, I've also learned that all the work to remove invasive plants and exotics and replace them with native plants is worth it. During my surveys, it was the flowering natives that drew the bees for me to photograph, as shown in all of the photos on this page.

I'm excited to take part in this program, offered jointly by Webster University and Saint Louis University. I served as visiting professor in the game design department at Webster during the 2017-18 school year, and one of my students was our first full-time hire at Brunette Games. Not only is Saint Louis University my undergrad alma mater, but we also recently hired two more students from SLU's English department to our Brunette Games staff.

Ligated furrow bee on Rudbekia
The yellow coneflower is popular. This visitor is a ligated furrow bee.

Professor Nicole Miller-Struttmann has been an awesome educator and evangelist so far in her leadership of Shutterbee, and I look forward to meeting everyone in the program in person, hopefully, in the future. If you're in the St. Louis area and interested in participating, you still can next year. While the program is at capacity for now, it's a multi-year study, and Shutterbee plans to train more people in 2021.

What's buzzing in your garden? Post your bee pics below!

* According to educational materials distributed by Shutterbee.

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