Plan Bee: Volunteer ‘citizen scientists’ needed to help count Iowa’s bees

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Plan Bee survey

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, West Branch, Iowa — Saturday, August 18, 7-11 a.m.

A bumble bee collects pollen from flowers at the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area in Iowa City. — photo by Zak Neumann

In the face of bee population declines, local citizen scientists can help identify species in one of Iowa’s tallgrass prairies.

The National Park Service is seeking volunteers to join “Plan Bee” on Saturday, August 18th at Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch. Participants will assist park staff and scientists in catching, photographing, and releasing bees unharmed. The National Park Service will information from the survey to determine how to best manage the prairie.

“Citizen science is a great way for people who are interested in a particular subject to learn about and contribute to a meaningful project,” National Park Service biologist Jessica Salesman said in an email to Little Village. “Instead of just reading an article about a subject, a person is contributing to the knowledge behind the article.”

There are likely between 300-400 native bee species in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. A diverse, healthy bee population includes obvious large species like bumblebees all the way down to tiny green “sweat bees.” Some are generalists that pollinate a variety of plants, while others visit specific species. Even self-pollinating plants produce a better seed if bees are involved. Bees are important for any ecosystem to function properly, Salesman said.

Results from the Plan Bee survey, the first of its kind in the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site’s prairie, will give specific insight into the area’s pollinator population. Since the prairie was planted in the 1970s, its inhabiting plants and grassland nesting birds have been monitored closely. But researchers have yet to study which insects make the site home.

“It’s a daunting task just because there is such diversity in the insect world, which is why we’re starting with a somewhat select group,” Salesman said.

By documenting which species use the prairie, the National Park Service can learn which native plants should be planted. Salesman said this contributes to restoration ecology and conservation biology knowledge — “if we plant it, what may come?”

Although exact numbers are unclear, the decline of bees in Iowa is reflected in larger studies. A 2017 report from the Center for Biological Diversity found that more than 700 North American bee species are headed toward extinction. As sustainers of agricultural production, pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the U.S. economy, of which honey bees encompass more than $15 billion, according to a 2015 White House report. At the time of the report, U.S. beekeepers had collectively lost an estimated 10 million beehives at an approximate value of $200 each.

This downtrend has been attributed to a number of factors, including loss of biodiversity, mite infestations and diseases, and exposure to certain pesticides. Earlier this month, the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era ban on the use of bee-killing insecticides in wildlife refuges. Over 50 refuges across the country are affected. The entire system consists of 560 refuges, comprising approximately 150 million acres nationwide.

Despite these challenges, local scientists and volunteers across the country are working to restore bee populations. Similar efforts like Plan Bee have taken place at Carver Park Reserve in Minnesota and Ivy Academy in Tennessee this summer.

The Plan Bee project is limited to the first 20 people age 14 or older who sign up for the four-hour bee study, which start at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning. The park will provide required tools and equipment. To sign up and learn more, call 319-643-2541.

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“People should volunteer to spend a morning out in nature with us looking into a whole other world hidden in plain sight. It’s eye opening when you do,” Salesman said.

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