Citizen Science

Smithsonian Science: The Humble Bumblebee

November 4, 2014

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Bumble bee (Bombus huntii). Photo © USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Citizen Science Tuesday connects you with opportunities to be a part of conservation science with outdoor projects around the world and online projects to try from the comfort of your own home.

What Is The Smithsonian Bumblebee Project?

An important key to understanding climate change and the problems facing pollinators is hiding in an unexpected place: the Smithsonian Entomology collections.

Records of species distributions of bumblebees over space and time are waiting in the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and could vastly improve scientific knowledge – if these records could be made more widely available to researchers.

“The humble bumblebee collection is a valuable one as the bees are important pollinators and there is little information on how different species populations and ranges are being affected by environmental change,” Robert Costello, National Outreach Program Manager for the NMNH explains.

But the data in the collections are all on paper, which means that only a small proportion of researchers can access the collection and they don’t have the advantage of manipulating the data with computers to analyze this large data set.

That’s why the Smithsonian has introduced the Rapid Capture Pilot Project, which includes but is not limited to the Bumblebee Project. They are calling on you to put this national treasure-trove of data in the hands of scientists everywhere. 

Why Is The Smithsonian Bumblebee Project Important?

How can you tell if a species is affected by climate change if you don’t have population data from before the climate began to change?

That’s a common conundrum for researchers, but the NMNH collections are like a window into the past of bumblebee populations.

“We can revisit the spatial aspect by going back to localities where bees were previously collected decades or even centuries ago and see if the species are still there and in what abundance,” Costello says. “With environmental change happening at such rapid rates, we need to know how species are being affected, the types and amounts of change, and whether informed land use decisions can help protect species in decline.”

And there are many environmental threats to native bumblebees; introduced diseases, habitat destruction, pesticides, invasive species, and low genetic diversity.

“Changes in populations, crashes or increases, can be important signals for a declining environment. One species in decline could alert us to an invasive species, for example, or a change in the distribution of plants, or a new parasite or virus or bacterium,” says Costello.

Protecting native pollinators like bumblebees is good for people too.

“Healthy ecosystems can positively affect human health, agriculture and security,” Costello notes.

How Do You Get Involved In The Smithsonian Bumblebee Project?

Visit the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center and choose the Department of Entomology from the Select a Category menu.

Click on the Bumblebee Project set of your choice and Start Transcribing.

If it is your first time, you will want to read the tutorial for the project carefully. Entering names, dates and spatial data in the proper format is important.

In fact, I recommend keeping this tutorial handy so that you can refer back to it as needed.

Enter and review as many or as few records as you have time to transcribe. You can login to track your progress or remain anonymous.

NMNH recently held a bumblebee blitz and transcribed hundreds of records in one afternoon! That sounds like a lot, but there is much more work to be done.

“The National Museum of Natural History cares for 126 million natural science specimens and cultural artifacts. At the rate we digitized 44,000 bees in 8 weeks it will take 439 years to digitize the rest of the collection.”

The more volunteers they have, the faster it will go. So try it, even if you only have 30 minutes to spare, you can be a part of preserving the past to understand the present and future.

“The legacy of the Smithsonian lies is the collections. Making them available to the public has many known and unknown benefits. Having the public share in the work through transcribing is the best kind of partnership.”


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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