Citizen Science

Be a BeeSpotter

April 14, 2015

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Common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) at a squash flower. Photo by Kent McFarland/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 BeeSpotter?

Have you heard about the plight of the bumble bee?

These charmingly awkward native pollinators, like many others, are facing habitat loss, pesticides and diseases.

“I have been interested in insects all of my life, and during the past 50 years, I have seen what I would characterize as a tragic loss of biodiversity,” says Terry Harrison, Postdoctoral Research Assistant and expert bee identifier. “Many biological phenomena that I saw as a child have been permanently gone for so long that even my children’s generation never had a chance to see them.”

BeeSpotter gathers citizen science observations of bees to monitor populations and inform plans for conservation.

In Illinois, Missouri, and now Ohio, you can help by submitting your bumble and honey bee photos to BeeSpotter – all it takes is a camera and a few minutes.

Common eastern bumblebee on Gooseneck loosestrife. Photo by dnydick/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.
Common eastern bumble bee on gooseneck loosestrife. Photo by dnydick/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

No matter where you are, help area pollinators by planting a bee garden in your yard, community garden or a nearby abandoned lot.

“I hope that people will provide bee-friendly habitat, especially nectar and water sources and nesting sites,” says Harrison. “If a lot of people do even just a little of this, the overall effect can be a big help to the bees.” 

Why is BeeSpotter Important?

Together honey and bumble bees play a critical role in North America’s ecology and economy.

You probably already know about the economic role of honey bees as pollinators of agricultural crops and producers of honey.

But, did you know that many crops rely on bumble bees for pollination? Greenhouse tomatoes, blueberries, cranberries and clover are some of the most notable bumble bee-pollinated crops.

“Bee spotters can perform a critically important conservation role by keeping an eye out for the American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus), which has undergone the sharpest decline (80%!) relative to other species in the last 15 years,” says Sydney Cameron, Professor of Entomology. “This is a catastrophic decline and a group of us is trying to figure out the cause of this.”

Once twice as common as any other in the state, this species is now so rare that it can be difficult to find them.

“BeeSpotter records have helped identify remaining populations that can be examined for causal factors of their decline,” she adds.

Two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus) feeding on Carduus  Nodding Thistle. Photo by Suzanne Cadwell/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.
Two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus) feeding on Carduus Nodding Thistle. Photo by Suzanne Cadwell/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Some citizen science reports have surprised scientists, reviving hope for species that were feared extinct or whose range was not thought to extend into Illinois.

“Our spotters have documented the formerly-common rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) that has declined to the point of being quite rare (but not extinct, as it turns out) in Illinois, and red-belted bumble bee (Bombus rufocinctus) that we had not even included in our species list for Illinois at the outset of the project in 2007,” Harrison notes.

BeeSpotter compiles monitoring data from citizen scientists, identifies the bees, and makes those data publicly available. Their scientists then compare these data with a large set of historical records from the Illinois Natural History Survey.

The goal is to reveal temporal trends that will inform better conservation decisions.

One of their key recommendations for restoring bumble bee populations is restoring habitats with native plants.

These plant communities in turn benefit other native pollinators that visit them for nectar, birds that eat the insects or the seeds of the plants and so on along the food web.

Research comparing historical records to current trends reveals that pollinator declines have been driven by habitat loss and changes in agricultural practices.

The close relationship between pollinators and habitats suggests that conserving and restoring native habitats will be key to restoring populations of bumblebees and other pollinating insects. 

How Can You Get Involved in BeeSpotter?

Get outside and take some bee pics!

Common eastern bumble bee. Photo by Peacebridge/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.
Common eastern bumble bee. Photo by Peacebridge/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Then create a BeeSpotter account and submit your sighting online.

Don’t worry if you aren’t sure what kind of bee it is. Use BeeSpotter’s resources to figure it out or leave it to the expert identifier to make the identification based on your photo.

BeeSpotter is currently in Illinois, Missouri, and expanding to Ohio this year! They plan to expand farther with time. For the time being, people in other states can submit bumble bee sightings to the related project, Bumble Bee Watch.

Bee a bee spotter! Your photos could be the key to understanding bumble bee declines.


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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4 comments

  1. I saw what I think is a bumble bee in my garden 08/05. It was short in length with an orange bum. I did not get a picture of it. My husband and I are honey bee keepers and have five hives at the moment.Heather

  2. Was thrilled to see this site, I would enjoy being a bee spotter. May not see enough, but will go for it. I so remember, as many of us do, all of the butterflies and bees as I grew up and as an adult. Breaks my heart to see what is happening. I will follow you. I wish there were things I could help with. Thanks.