August 3, 2013

North Cairn: Two bees or not two bees, they add up

Simple counting can make a big difference in how you see the world.

On Aug. 17, all across the country people will be counting bees. Under an effort known as the Great Sunflower Project, San Francisco State University is compiling the largest database on bees in North America.

Here in Maine, all the way across the continent, people are being urged to count bees, too, but this year the counting can take place anywhere -- not just on Lemon Queen sunflowers, which is the plant that provided sustained site observation for the project during its first five years.

Now people can count bees wherever they encounter them, all day long. More than 100,000 people have participated in the U.S., helping to compile data for this project, started by biology professor Gretchen LeBuhn.

The count -- random as it might seem -- does yield some helpful information, especially if continued over years of annual tallies. In previous years it was possible to extrapolate some information in small areas, based on reported counts, but this year the project is expected to produce information at what LeBuhn hopes will be "a landscape scale a continental scale."

She is trying to find out what factors affect the survival and success of bees over time and in various geographical areas -- and how that information might be used to help bee populations flourish.

She suggests that participants spend five minutes at each plant in their garden, park, meadow, field, orchard or marsh -- and record how many bees are attracted to particular flowers. Then send that information to the Great Sunflower Project: National Bee Count, at www.greatsunflower.org.

The project is especially relevant these days, because bee populations all over the world are suffering severe declines. And as the bees go, so goes the world.

My forays into the world of bees really started in the cranberry bogs of Cape Cod, where growers import flats and flats of hives to pollinate the crop. I took my dog on daily walks at one particular bog with a mile-long ring of dirt two-tract road running around its circumference.

Like so many other unremarkable places I have known, this particular bog, owned by the town of Yarmouth, became an orbit of natural history education for me -- and, on occasion, for other people who came along for an evening stroll.

Initially I was more smitten with frogs and toads than bees, fascinated by learning to distinguish among vocalizations, enjoying the idle pastime of trying to actually see the frogs floating just under the murky surface of the culverts, only their eyes and the tops of their heads protruding above the water.

It became a game for me -- while the retriever was off happily swimming in filthy pond water -- to sit at the edge of the bog and try to compare counts, one night to the next, all summer long.

One evening a neighbor came along and I tried to engage her in the census, but she found it impossible to see where the amphibians were -- and was astonished that anyone could distinguish the overgrowth of a pond bank from the camouflage of a frog's legs and back, speckled with yellow and green and black in various patterns, according to species.

But a few months later, when my work had accelerated and hers had slowed and we were no longer regularly hiking together, she spotted me in the neighborhood one night and hurried over.

"I saw them, I saw them," she said, with equal parts joy and self-congratulation.

"What?" I asked.

"The frogs, the frogs," she chimed. "I've been walking at that bog, and I can see them now -- all over the place."

"There you go," I said. "Now you're sunk. Who knows where this will end? Next thing I know, you'll be walking around with butterfly nets and Mason jars, looking for specimens."

That bog and those counts had turned her into an amateur naturalist, and in the next few years that instinct grew. She started a vegetable garden (utilitarian, edible, a good starting point), then broadened her interest into perennials and hydrangea bushes. She put up a hammock and a porch swing.

She even planted sunflowers -- a favorite of bees.

We are dependent on crops that rely on pollinators. But bees have been dying by the millions in recent years from viruses, bacteria, pesticide use and generalized weakening of their systems.

It was not a phenomenon a lot of people noticed at first, but everywhere now people talk about colony collapse disorder and that our survival depends on the health of bee populations worldwide.

For many, many people, this is the first compelling understanding they have ever had about the interdependency of all of life.

Through the Great Sunflower Project, people around the country will have an opportunity not only to compile information that might give biologists some anecdotal idea about how bee populations are faring -- and for us how to wake up a little bit more.

The fate of bees offers us the rare chance to see firsthand how there are no inconsequential acts, no unimportant gestures, no harmless killing -- of plants, insects, birds or animals. This is a reminder humans need every day now, since the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance as carbon dioxide levels in the air and water continue to rise.

Come Aug. 17, count a bee or two or more wherever you see one. So little of what we have to do these days is simple but this act is not hard. Open your eyes, discover a bee.

You might be surprised where a simple task like that can take you.

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com

 

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