What’s black, yellow and fuzzy all over? Bumblebees. And Biology Professor Ann Fraser wants to know what it takes to preserve them in Michigan.
To that end, Fraser and her Kalamazoo College lab students are launching the Southwest Michigan Bee Watch. The program will track bumblebee diversity, measure local restoration efforts and discover whether any species might be declining or recuperating in the area.
“Bumblebees are important pollinators, particularly of our spring plants,” Fraser said, noting they’re vital to common Michigan crops, and more important to pollination than honeybees. “They’ll go out in cold weather, even when it’s rainy. They’re particularly good pollinators of fruit crops such as blueberries, apples and cherries.”
In the bee watch, citizen scientists in nine counties will volunteer as photographers nearly anywhere outdoors—including natural areas, walking trails, backyards and roadsides—and submit their photos to an online portal. Fraser, students and other scientists then will look at the photos, noting the black-and-yellow patterns on the bumblebees’ backs. Those patterns will identify each species and help determine which might be maintaining their numbers, which might be declining and which might be making a comeback.
“This year, my hope is to build a strong volunteer base so that we can start building a thorough database of bumblebee species in the area,” said Niko Nickson ’21, the student most dedicated to the effort as it will develop into his senior individualized project (SIP). “I’m also planning to analyze our data for relationships between species abundance and landscape differences. In the future, I would love to see the program continue to build, maybe inspiring more community science efforts across the state.”
Fraser said she had been hoping to start a project like the Southwest Michigan Bee Watch for a few years, but never found the right student to lead it. Then, she met Nickson.
“Community science is fascinating because I see it as an opportunity to connect academia and its surrounding community,” Nickson said. “In this way, it makes science approachable to all, regardless of educational level.”
His love of the outdoors also benefits the project.
“I think being outside is a great way to relieve stress and spend time in general,” Nickson said. “I see this program as an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of our regional environment while also encouraging more community members to spend time outdoors. In this sense, community science gives volunteers an excuse to be outside, and who doesn’t love a reason to get some sunlight?”
March 3 is World Wildlife Day. Its theme this year is “Sustaining all life on Earth,” as it recognizes all wild animal and plant species as being key components of the world’s biodiversity. Yet within the biosphere, bumblebees are struggling. In fact, according to NationalGeographic.com, we are nearly 50 percent less likely to see a bumblebee in any given area of North America than we were before 1974.
“Insects in general are in decline,” Fraser said. “That’s alarmingly well documented. Bumblebees are following this trend. At least half a dozen species of the 20 in Michigan are in decline. One of which, the rusty-patched bumblebee, was on the federal endangered species list as of 2017.”
A project like the Southwest Michigan Bee Watch could play a role in reversing those trends. Those interested in volunteering can sign up for the project’s mailing list and request more information at swmbees.kzoo.edu/.