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Wanted: Citizen scientists to help track wild bees in Illinois

Honey bee colonies are in decline in many states, but little is known about their wild cousins, the bumble bees, or, for that matter, honey bees living on their own in the wild without beekeepers.

A new initiative from the University of Illinois seeks to build a better record of honey bee and bumble bee abundance and distribution in Illinois by recruiting citizen scientists to report on wild bees seen anywhere in the state.

Beginning Thursday (Oct. 4) the BeeSpotter Web site will connect bee enthusiasts to resources that will help them identify local bees, post photographs and enter geographic information about wild bees seen in backyards, parks or other Illinois locales.

U. of I. entomology professor and department head May Berenbaum will announce the Web site launch during a presentation at the Chicago Cultural Center on Thursday. Her presentation, on the ongoing pollinator crisis in North America, will describe the widespread decline in the viability of animals that transport pollen and allow most of the planet’s flowering plants to reproduce.

Berenbaum has testified before Congress on colony collapse disorder, a mysterious malady of North American honey bees. She also chaired the National Research Council committee that reported this year on the status of pollinators in North America.

The idea for the BeeSpotter Web site emerged from recommendations in that study, Berenbaum said. A key finding was that too little information on pollinator abundance and distribution has been collected, particularly in the U.S.

“We don’t know what is going on with pollinators because America has never deemed it important enough to try to keep track of its pollination resources,” Berenbaum said.

“Given that 90 crops in the U.S. agricultural sector depend on a single species of pollinator, and other crops depend on other pollinators, it would seem that for economic reasons alone this has been a serious oversight on our part,” she said.

There are too few pollination experts in the U.S. to bridge the data gap, she said. The new Web site seeks to address the problem by involving citizen scientists in bee-monitoring efforts. Participants will feed their information into a database, interact with experts in the field who will answer their questions and connect them to other resources, such as the Illinois Natural History Survey database of North American bees.

BeeSpotter will provide a bee family tree, with biographies of the honey bee and each of the 12 species of bumble bees in Illinois. It will include a summary of the status of North American pollinators, with visual keys for identifying bees and distinguishing them from other insects. A data entry site will allow visitors to post digital photos, plot the location and describe the characteristics of bees they have seen.

More content will be added to the Web site throughout the fall, including information about the honey bee genome, the economic impact of bees, how to avoid and treat bee stings and how to build a bee-friendly garden.

Berenbaum’s presentation, “Disappearing Bees,” will be at 6 p.m. in the fifth floor Millennium Park Room of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.

Diana Yates | University of Illinois
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