UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The decline of bee populations across the United States has become headline news and is a cause of great concern. The Penn State Extension Master Gardeners are doing their part to increase the baseline knowledge of bee biodiversity in Pennsylvania and to help identify changes in bee communities in the commonwealth.
The program is working with Margarita López-Uribe, assistant professor of entomology, whose lab in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences developed an educational program for the Master Gardeners to leverage their knowledge and interest in pollinator natural history. The goal is to create the first long-term bee-monitoring program in Pennsylvania.
López-Uribe said a recent workshop was a pilot for a statewide monitoring program that is in the planning stages. Several states around the country have ongoing bee-monitoring programs, but coordinating a monitoring program can be difficult, she pointed out.
“You have to manage large groups of people who are geographically apart, and participants also need to have the time and some level of expertise to participate in this type of project,” López-Uribe said. “For this reason, we developed the program for Master Gardeners, and the workshop was a small-scale trial of what we hope will be a bigger program in the next two or three years.”
According to Valerie Sesler, area Master Gardener coordinator, the group jumped at the chance to participate. The pilot workshop drew 10 Master Gardeners from across the state, specifically in areas lacking information on bee populations.
“This project fits so well with the mission of the Master Gardener program,” Sesler said. “It provides education about bee diversity to volunteers who can use that education to help others understand the importance of environmental stewardship, specifically about native bee species.”
López-Uribe and members of her team, including Nash Turley, postdoctoral scholar, trained the Master Gardeners in bee collection methods, curation and identification. Other goals for the program included collecting standardized data on the abundance and diversity of bees across the commonwealth and providing longitudinal data to identify changes in bee species distribution, diversity and abundance. The program also offered advanced training to Master Gardeners via a series of videos and hands-on field and lab days.
López-Uribe explained that the data collected by the Master Gardeners will help expand knowledge about the status of bee populations in Pennsylvania, allowing researchers to develop recommendations for protecting them if needed. The program received funding from the college’s Science-to-Practice (S2G) Grant Program.
“This educational opportunity also will train participants to become highly skilled in bee collection, curation and identification,” she said. “We hope this will increase their appreciation for bee diversity and help spread their knowledge and expertise to others in their communities.”
Turley added that the project is important to the study of natural history.
“We are working to answer one of the most fundamental questions in biology: what species live where and when?” he said. “Knowing what species are present in a particular location at a particular time is the foundation to ecology and biodiversity studies, but it’s also something we know shockingly little about. Very few biologists collect these types of data on a large scale.”
Turley added that there is little to no data on which bees live in which counties in Pennsylvania. The Master Gardeners' collections will help change that. "Natural history data are timeless, and the collections could be used in future studies to understand how bees are impacted by human land use or climate change,” he said.
He added that the project represents a unique approach to community science that could serve as a model for other monitoring programs. Generally, there are two approaches to collecting data: highly trained specialists who collect detailed data using advanced methods, or community science projects that enlist the public to collect rudimentary data using simple approaches.
“This typical community science model can be great because having many people involved can be powerful, but there are limitations,” Turley said. “Our project takes a hybrid approach where we provide advanced training to a small number of dedicated Master Gardeners. This approach allows collections at a statewide scale that otherwise would be impossible, while also producing high-quality natural history data.”
More information is available online at https://lopezuribelab.com/pa-bee-monitoring/.