New study tracks urban pollinators
February 18, 2009 8:51 PM
To many, the sight and sound of a bee is enough cause to run for the hills. Gretchen LeBuhn thinks of bees more fondly. Her life's work has been getting people to attract these insects, not run from them.
"It's bees that pollinate the good stuff," said the SF State biology professor. "I like to show students a picture of a field of grain and ask if they would like to eat only things made of this."
At the end of the month, LeBuhn will be sending out sunflower seeds to all willing growers for The Great Sunflower Project -- a study she created last spring.
The Great Sunflower Project relies on "citizen science," when work is done outside the lab by ordinary people to allow a much greater quantity of results.
"People who participate [get] to see they are part of something much bigger and part of science," said Karen Purcell, an ornithology professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
Anyone can go on the project's Web site and order a free packet of seeds. Once the plant has developed, growers monitor twice a month the amount of time it takes for five bees to be attracted to the flower. The information is posted on the project's Web page where LeBuhn can process it.
The project has had unexpected levels of participation. At first intended to be a local study, it soon became national when in the first week, the Web site shut down due to high traffic.
This year, LeBuhn is expecting double the amount of last year's 25,000 participants and hopes to expand to Canada and Europe.
These impressive numbers have helped the Great Sunflower Project become a community, says LeBuhn.
In her office hangs a sloppy crayon drawing from a grower, showing a radiant yellow bumblebee flying next to an equally bright sunflower. Pieces of art and pictures have become common in LeBuhn's e-mail box.
Shannon Messerly worked as a student assistant for the project until she graduated last spring. It was not her professor's scientific skills that impressed her the most.
"In all things bees, she's got her stuff down," Messerly said. "But it's her people skills which [are] something you don't find much in science labs."
Though she has made few comments in class about her project, LeBuhn would like for more students at SF State to understand the importance of pollination. She says her lab will have free seeds for any willing student and that she has also thought about passing them out on campus.
"It'd be great coverage to get the students at this school from all over the bay."
LeBuhn has received a reaction as warm as the weather needed for her gardening. Her ultimate goal is to have planting sunflowers become an institution that reaches out to garden groups, elementary schools and families.
For now, LeBuhn loves doing a pollination study that allows her to work with people that raise excitement on a subject she is so passionate about.
"Everyone is having a good time," LeBuhn said. "Plus, people are also learning a lot about pollination."
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