Citizen scientists: master gardeners survey native bee populations

Master Gardeners survey their native bee population

By now, most of us have caught a news story or two about the honeybee crisis. Their dwindling population caused by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has awakened the public's interest in pollinators and the crucial role they play in agriculture.

But honeybees—a non-native species raised in hives by beekeepers and trucked to orchards all across the country—are only part of the story. Native bees, over 4,000 species strong in the United States—do their share of "heavy lifting&quot in the pollination effort and—as they don't live in managed hives—they've been spared the ravages of CCD. Increasingly, evidence points to the importance of safeguarding our native species to protect against losses among managed honeybee colonies.

This new movement—often referred to as "sustainable pollination"—is picking up momentum across the Commonwealth, aided by the efforts of the state's Master Gardener organization, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and researchers at Penn State University.

If your goal is to ensure the health of our pollinators, says Penn State Master Gardener Pam Ford, one of the first orders of business is to identify which plants serve as good food sources, and then make sure there is an abundance and diversity of palatable plants, an important habitat requirement for foraging bees.

A statewide project dubbed the Pennsylvania Native Bee Survey aims to do just that.

In April 2009, monitoring information was provided to the Master Gardeners in the form of the "Citizen Scientist Pollinator Monitoring Guide." After completing a training session, these Master Gardener volunteers go out into community Pollinator Gardens (there are 48 such gardens planted and maintained by local chapters across the state) once a month, at two different times of day, to observe eight plants for ten minutes each and record which types of bees visited each plant.

They monitor eight key plants present in all the model gardens: oregano, thyme, bee balm, coneflower, butterfly weed, anise hyssop, sunflowers, and New England asters. They also report on other plants not on this list that they observe being visited by native bees.

Upon completion of the project, the group hopes to write a paper evaluating its effectiveness, and will also use the data to add to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture's list of native bees found in the state.

The ultimate goal is to be able to make recommendations to gardeners as to what kind of plants they should include in their garden to make it pollinator friendly.

"Through this effort, says Ginger Pryor, Penn State extension associate in horticulture and State Master Gardener Coordinator, we hope to expand our knowledge of how best to preserve, restore, and protect these valuable ecological resources."

The project is in part funded by Haagen-Dazs. For more information please visit: Organizers of this project are Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Senior Extension Associate in Entomology at Penn State; John Baker, Coordinator of Native Bee Survey Project, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture; Leo Donovall, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture; Ginger Pryor, Penn State extension associate in horticulture and State Master Gardener Coordinator; and all the participating Master Gardeners.


The mission of the Penn State Master Gardeners volunteer program is to support the Penn State College of Agricultural Science’s Cooperative Extension by utilizing research-based information to educate the public on best practices in consumer horticulture and environmental stewardship. For more information about Penn State Master Gardeners of Centre County, visit them at site/Master_Gardeners_of_Centre_County.htm.

You can also contact Molly Sturniolo, Master Gardener Coordinator at or at the group’s local office: Cooperative Extension Willowbank Building, Room 322, 420 Holmes Avenue, Bellefonte, PA 16823-1488 phone: (814) 355-4897.

Last Updated August 11, 2009