Bumble Bee Watching for Science and Family

Before starting today’s post, I wanted to mention something quickly. I’ve been trying to diversify my social media feeds to make sure I’m seeing and listening to perspectives of people who don’t look like me and/or come from different backgrounds. It’s a pretty small thing to do, but still important. I’m working under the assumption that if I don’t interact directly with people or places, my impressions are limited to stereotypes. That seems like a pretty dumb way to go through life.

As an example, I use Instagram (@prairieecologist) primarily as a platform for sharing and learning about nature and conservation. There are plenty of straight white men to follow but I’d like to learn from and amplify other voices too. Here are just a few of the many nature/photography/conservation voices I’ve recently discovered on Instagram that you might also enjoy following. I’d love to get your suggestions too – please leave them in the comments section. Thanks!

@reelsonwheels, @mrosten, @natureunderyournose, @junglejordan23, @kassthefish

In other news, my stepson Atticus and I have embarked on a community science project this year by contributing to the Nebraska Bumble Bee Atlas project. The effort is being coordinated by the Xerces Society and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a way to quickly gather information on how bumble bee species are doing across the state. It’s a brilliant and easy-to-help-with project that will provide important data to guide conservation work. It’s also a lot of fun, and has been a great way for Atticus and I to spend some quality time together.

Atticus is holding an American bumblebee (Bombus pennsylvanicus) he caught at our family prairie last week.

The basic process for participating in the Nebraska Bumble Bee Atlas Project is pretty simple. We signed up for one of 89 grid cells that span the state. The one we chose just happened to contain our family prairie. Very convenient…

After getting signed up, we went through some basic training on bumblebee ecology, identification, and sampling techniques. Once trained, we are asked to conduct at least two surveys per year within our grid cell. We can do more formal surveys if we want (and we hope to) but we can also report incidental sightings of bumblebees in or outside of that grid cell as long as we get a photo good enough to confirm identification.

Watching for bumble bees in a big patch of purple prairie clover.

We did a ‘point survey’ of our prairie last week, meaning that we intensively sampled within one small area. Alternatively, we could have done a road survey consisting of a number of quick stops along a road. Since we’re interested in learning about our own prairie as well as contributing to science, we chose the first option. Point surveys are 45 minutes long, but because there were two of us, we each spent 22.5 minutes actively looking for bumblebees. Each time we caught a bee, we stopped the timer while we extracted the bee from the net, put it in a small container, and put the container in a cooler of ice. Then we restarted the timer and continued hunting.

Got one! Atticus holds up the bottom of his net to let the bee fly up into it, making it easier to then transfer the bee to a small container.

By the end of our combined 45 minutes of searching, we’d caught 8 bumblebees. I felt good about that, especially because in previous visits to the prairie, I hadn’t seen many and was worried we’d get skunked. We found two different species – the brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis) and the American bumblebee (Bombus pennsylvanicus). Both are pretty common around here, but the American bumblebee is declining rapidly to the east of us, so it was reassuring to know they’re still in our prairie.

Once the survey period was over, we took a quick walk around the prairie while the bees got nice and chilled in the cooler. We were assured during training that even many hours in the ice wouldn’t harm the bees, so we wanted to be sure they were nice and cold before our next step – photographing them on a white background. It’s a good thing we waited as long as we did because even after they’d been on ice for at least 45 minutes, bringing them back out into the heat of the day reanimated them very quickly. With each bee, I barely had enough time to get the three required photos (from different angles) before it started moving around and, eventually, flew off.

Here are the three photos I submitted of the first bee Atticus caught during our survey (American bumblebee). We chilled it in a cooler and then quickly photographed it before it warmed up enough to fly away.

Before leaving, we filled out a short habitat form, listing all the wildflower species blooming within our small sampling area and recording the surrounding habitat types. Then we headed home and submitted the photos/data online. The bee photos get submitted to Bumble Bee Watch, where volunteer experts double check identification before the data is added to a huge national database. In our case, using the identification guide provided during our training paid off and we got all our identification guesses right!

When I went to Lincoln Creek Prairie the next day, I was able to get sufficiently good photos of three species of bumblebees and submitted those photos to Bumble Bee Watch too – as incidental sightings. It was really easy to do and I got an email soon afterward, confirming my identification attempts.

Here’s a brown-belted bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis), one of the two species we documented at our family prairie last week.
In addition to completing our formal survey, I also sent in three ‘incidental sightings’ from Lincoln Creek Prairie here in town. All I needed to do was get a photo that would allow someone to confirm my identification of the species (this photo wasn’t one I submitted…)

If you have an interest in nature and want to contribute toward science and conservation, there are lots of opportunities to do so. We’re having a great time with the Bumble Bee Atlas project, but there are other options too. For example, I regularly contribute monarch butterfly sightings to Journey North and submit insect photos to Bugguide.net. That’s in addition to the other science projects I’m involved with through my job.

Want to get involved? You can do a quick online search for ‘community science projects’ or ‘citizen science projects’ and see what might fit your interests. If you’re in (or near) Nebraska, the bumble bee atlas is one great option (there are still some unclaimed grid cells and doubling up on already claimed cells is also ok), but there are plenty more. Many states have Master Naturalist programs, which provide training and lots of volunteer opportunities, including data collection. However, you can also be a lone scientist, contributing sightings of birds, insects, flowers, or other organisms, and helping to populate databases that inform important conservation decisions.

If you have a favorite community science project you’re involved with, please mention it in the comments section below so others can find out about it.

Finally, though I dislike self-promotion, there’s no point in writing a book if no one reads it so I want to remind you that my book on my square meter photography project is now available. You can find Hidden Prairie: Photographing Life in One Square Meter just about anywhere you find books for sale. I hope you enjoy it, but even more, I hope it inspires people to explore, appreciate, and support the conservation of prairies.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

6 thoughts on “Bumble Bee Watching for Science and Family

  1. Wow! This is timely! I’ve been gardening with particularly friendly and active bumble bees the past two years. I didn’t notice them much before. I think I have a happy mated pair? I appreciate this nudge to learn more. Btw, I’m in Oviedo, ( Orlando-ish) Florida

  2. Instagram: @thatblackscientist_official @she_colorsnature @thebee_boyz @hood__naturalist @n8ture_al @wilderness_goddess @bellzisbirding @jasonwardny

    And such cute bumblebees!

  3. I recommend my local conservation group, the Arlington Conservation Council, http://www.acctexas.org/ as one that’s been dedicated to conservation work in Arlington since the 1970s. I was briefly president of this group and have been a member for decades. Our monthly newsletter is especially good, with beautiful photography by several contributors, thoughtful articles, and even a monthly poem by yours truly. We are in the forefront of local tree hugging and wildlife preservation.

  4. I love this article on bumblebees. They’ve been near or on the top of my favorite insects since I was a toddler in a flower garden in Kansas 70 years ago.

  5. Very cool bumblebee project. While it has not yet been found in my project area there is potential for the rusty-patch bumblebee to show up so I try to get a good look at the bumblebees I see. One of my favorite citizen science projects is HerpMapper. Very good for reporting reptile and amphibian sightings.

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