On Bee-ing

October 2, 2017

Agapostemon virescens, a sweat bee native to Minnesota. Photo © John Flannery / Flickr through a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Science is my day job. Has been for more than two decades. So why would I want to also participate on an amateur basis?

For years I scoffed at the very notion of “citizen science.” I dismissed it as cumbersome, unreliable, and yielding data of questionable quality at best. In short, I was sniffy about the whole thing, and kept it at arm’s length. I was not alone. In fact, many of my colleagues dismissed citizen science as mostly a feel-good endeavor.

Though there may have been some truth to this perception, I snapped to attention when I realized that, in recent years, citizen science can lead to big science. For example, projects such as e-bird and the National Phenology Network have generated dozens of peer-reviewed papers on topics such as bird population trends or plant and animal responses to climate change. The power of crowdsourced data collection lies in thoughtful designs, clear protocols and engaging subjects.

Citizen Science – for Scientists?

The Minnesota Bee Atlas (Bee Atlas) is one such project—citizen science to the core. The Bee Atlas was specifically designed for volunteer involvement in the pursuit of creating a statewide inventory of Minnesota’s bees.

I was bitten by the bee “bug” while attending a seminar by Crystal Boyd, Bee Specialist with the Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS), Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Boyd conducts field research to inventory native bees in natural areas across the state – including many Nature Conservancy preserves. I was intrigued to learn how little is known about native bees in Minnesota. Over the years, MBS has collected good statewide data on many taxa, native plant communities and other features, but the last statewide bee survey was conducted in 1919. That effort yielded a list of only 67 bee species. Boyd and her colleagues estimate the number is closer to 400 species of native bee in Minnesota. The Bee Atlas project has 3 major components: specimens in the University of Minnesota’s insect collection, historical records from the Minnesota DNR and, yes, citizen science.

It’s a brilliant model. In early spring, the Bee Atlas distributes nesting blocks throughout Minnesota, along with clear directions for where and how to mount them. Volunteers visit the blocks a few times each month from March through October and upload their data to the Bee Atlas Bee Block Project’s online database.

Sign Me Up!

After Crystal Boyd’s presentation, I signed up to host a bee block. I was almost giddy when the block arrived a few weeks later – a tiny apartment complex with small, medium and large holes drilled (Fig. 1). Each one has its own address, a combination of letters A through J and numbers 1 through 3.

A friend uses the otoscope to peer inside a nesting hole as the author’s daughter looks on. Photo © Meredith Cornett

I mounted my block, on a red pine tree near a wood pile on the edge of a bog pond. After the first several checks in April, I agonized over the lack of bee activity. Maybe I installed it in a bad place. Or set it too high (though I followed directions). Maybe it was facing the wrong direction. My husband pointed out more than once that there simply were no native bees buzzing around the Northwoods in early April. As it turns out, this is also true of late April. It was not until mid-May that I saw the first signs of bee life at my block. Peering through my otoscope (the contraption that doctors use to look inside a patient’s ears) into hole B2, I gasped to see a pair of multi-faceted eyes staring right back at me. I felt like such a voyeur, but even more so when I poked into the next hole only to observe the rear-end of another animal. And on the same day I also observed my first plug. Bees cover nesting holes with all manner of natural materials depending on the species, from mud and sand to spider webs, leaves, woody material and cellophane. This one was mud and sand, which proved to be the most popular choice of the season.

At the height of the season, in my case mid-June, it took about 30 minutes to thoroughly check all the holes in the block, take photos, and jot down the data. But I probably lingered longer than necessary on each one, 30 peepholes in all, each with its own tiny story playing out.

Taxonomically Naïve—and That’s OK!

Bee apartment complex. Photo © Meredith Cornett

The Bee Atlas has no expectation that its volunteers will identify the organisms using the nesting blocks. For someone like me, who has studied plants and forests most of her career and entirely untrained in insect taxonomy, this really takes the pressure off. The extent of my responsibility has been to record any material or bee activity in the holes, whether they are “plugged” and with what material.  Once the plugs appear, the eggs and larvae within have total privacy. No more spying by nosey citizen scientists!

In addition to a dozen or so plugs made of mud and sand filling the medium and large holes, a few of the small ones filled with what I called a “peaty muck.” This was not one of the standard Bee Atlas categories, but since I live on the edge of a small bog pond, I suspect the material was gathered from the peat moss on its fringes.


In late August through September, the plugs started to disappear. At first, I was pleased about this development and announced it proudly to the Bee Atlas moderators. Surely my creatures had hatched and were now successfully striking up new careers as foraging adults. The Bee Atlas responded to the contrary—in fact the more likely scenario would have involved a hungry woodpecker or other bee larvae consuming critter.

Attrition was high in these days. As in the spring, I started visiting the block between official data collection events, anxiously inspecting the plug situation. Each time, one or two more plugs had vanished.

Empty Nester

Soon, along with few hundred other citizen scientists around the state, I will return my bee block to an official drop-off site. From there, it will be delivered to the University of Minnesota-St. Paul where the Bee Atlas team will rear the larvae therein to adulthood, when they can be identified to species. Sadly, in my case, there will not be much to identify. The head count in my block is down to one discernible creature, a larvae snuggly lodging in hole B2. We were off to such a promising start, now I feel like an empty nester in more ways than one.

Empty nest or no, the Bee Atlas thrills me—and I have metamorphosed into a full-blown citizen scientist, the very subject of my derision years ago. I am helping make history by engaging in good, old-fashioned natural history. This is nature gazing with a purpose—right outside my back door. The Bee Atlas has enabled me to contribute to something much bigger than a single backyard observation, while not needing to know everything, not even close. The experts running the project are there for quality control. All I need to do is be curious and nosy.

Tricolored Bumblebee (Bombus ternarius). Photo © Joshua Mayer / Flickr through a CC BY-SA 2.0 license
Meredith Cornett

Meredith Cornett has directed The Nature Conservancy’s science program in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota since August 2003. She oversees conservation planning, research, and ecological monitoring activities, often in collaboration with universities, land management agencies, and other non-governmental organizations. More from Meredith

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.


  1. What a great article! I’m so glad I accidentally ran across it. I enjoyed so much I shared the link on Backyard Chickens thread ‘ what did you do in the garden today’ for many of the bee keepers that are members of the website.

  2. Thank you Margaret! It was posted the very day I dropped the bee block off to be transported down to the good folks at the MN Native Bee Atlas in St. Paul. The good news? They say there is still hope that bees will emerge from some of the holes with mud material next spring! Fingers crossed!