by Becky Ham | Photos by Noah Berger
Gretchen LeBuhn has a team of thousands searching for answers
"Will I get stung?" is the number-one question fielded by the Great Sunflower Project, but the question that really sticks in Gretchen LeBuhn's mind comes from an e-mail she received from Florida fourth-graders: "Do bees leave footprints on flowers?"
LeBuhn, an associate professor of biology, had her own questions when she launched the project in 2008. Bee populations have taken an alarming nosedive in recent years, and she wanted to know more about the whereabouts and activities of this critical pollinator community.
Today, she leads a coast-to-coast corps of nearly 100,000 citizen scientists who plant sunflowers or other bee-friendly flowers in their yards, balconies and community gardens. The volunteers count how many bees they see on the plants during two 15-minute observations each month, and report their data via LeBuhn's website, www.greatsunflower.org.
The site is, well, a hive of activity itself, a place where the volunteers share their successes, post pictures of their prized pollinators and lament seeds that don't sprout. It's also a forum for everyone from students to retirees to learn more about threats to bees and what they can do to practice conservation in their corner of the garden.
"We're getting everything from questions about evolution to basic biology and ecology," says LeBuhn, "and what an amazing thing to see them make that leap to those really interesting scientific questions."
After studying bee activity in and around the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma County, LeBuhn was eager to survey other communities. "I had such wonderful cooperation with the vineyards," she says, "I wondered if I could get other people to collect the data."