August 4, 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

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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