02 Dr. Elaine Evans – Citizen Science and Surveying Bumblebees


Speaker 1: From the Oregon State University Extension Service, this is Pollination, a podcast that tells the stories of researchers, land managers, and concerned citizens making bold strides to improve the health of pollinators. I'm your host, Dr. Adoni Melopoulos, assistant professor in pollinator health in the Department of Horticulture. Today's episode focuses on citizen science and native pollinators. And I have with us Dr. Elaine Evans, who's the new Extension educator working on pollinator education and bee conservation at the University of Minnesota. This interview took place just on her first week of work, but the thing is that Dr. Evans has been working on education and outreach on native pollinators in Minnesota for some time. Some of you may know she is the lead on a project that's been going on some years, the Minnesota Bumblebee Survey, and has also contributed to a number of extension publications and education publications from a variety of organizations, including the Xerces Society. So this podcast is full of ideas on how people can get involved with helping us understand what's happening with pollinator populations through citizen science.

And it also will give us a glimpse into the emerging new extension program at the University of Minnesota. So I hope you enjoy this podcast with Dr. Elaine Evans. Hi, Elaine. Thanks for joining us today. Happy to be here. So you're the new pollinator Extension educator at the University of Minnesota. Tell us about that position.

Speaker 2: So, yes, I just started this position in January. And so I'm going to be involved still in research here at the University of Minnesota, but then I'm also going to be involved in outreach and education around pollinators, primarily bees. And it happened at a really good time because there's, well, there's just a lot of interest in pollinators. But within Extension this year, we have a master gardeners program and they pick a theme every year. And this year, their theme is pollinators. So it's good to be on board with a team that's already thinking about pollinators and doing a lot of great work. And I'm going to get to add more to what they're doing.

Speaker 1: Oh, that's great. You know, here in Oregon, it's the same thing. When I started my position, master gardeners had already left out ahead and had a lot of programming in place. It must be real exciting to be starting with such a receptive audience with a lot of energy already.

Speaker 2: Yeah, yeah. I'm also really interested in citizen science. And it's the kind of it's the same situation with citizen science, where we have some great programs through extension. We have a program called the Minnesota Wild Bee Atlas, which is working on getting citizens involved in monitoring bees all throughout the state of Minnesota. So that's been going. This is the second summer of that. So so I'm at a time when when I get to do more with that program, too.

Speaker 1: Well, I want to hear a lot more about that. And I'm sure our listeners here in Oregon would as well. Just to before we get to that, tell us a little bit about what's going on at the University of Minnesota. It seems like there's a lot of energy and a lot of programs. How is your new position going to fit in with all these other programs, B programs going on at the University?

Speaker 2: So we do have a really active research program here at the University of Minnesota. We're lucky in that we just this past fall, we're able to move into a new building. That's a bee research facility. So we get to have all of our bee researcher researchers get to be together in a space where we can can really collaborate.

Speaker 1: So exciting. It's really exciting. We have two professors in the entomology department here at the University of Minnesota that are focused on bees. So we have Marla Spivak, who's done all kinds of amazing research with with honey bees and continues to do great stuff.

And we have also Dan Caravo, who is working on native bees. That's really cool. This is so exciting. And it's nice to see this extension component built in now as well.

It sounds, I'm always envious when I hear all the great things that are happening in Minnesota. You know, education on pollinators is I can completely understand it's so fascinating, but it's also a real challenge. How did you get started doing pollinator education? What's your backstory?

Speaker 2: So I've been, well, I got interested in working with bees a while ago. So before they became really popular back in the mid 90s, I was interested in, I came to biology kind of from an interest in conservation. And immediately I was drawn just towards insects because they clearly do so many things just in the world that that benefit so many different creatures, including us. And when I when I kind of when I learned about pollinators and got to see this connection that they have, you know, this really clear connection they have, both with our food supply and also just with with pollinating plants, wildflowers and the really clear connection so people can understand this group of insects is really important for for so many different things on the planet. I was really attracted to that from a common point in terms of just their importance and also making a little bit easier to get people to understand how important insects are.

Speaker 1: You also worked at the Xerces society at some point and have published a book. Right.

Speaker 2: So I did my masters here at the University of Minnesota with my last back and I was looking at bumblebees. And as part of that work and in cooperation with another student here that was studying bumblebees, we started raising bumblebees for research. And as we were doing that, we had to gather all these bits and pieces of information from that were, you know, kind of scattered around the literature.

And there wasn't anything where everything was all together in one place. So so we decided we needed to do that. So we put together a book that's a manual for for how to raise bumblebees.

Speaker 1: And where can one get this book? And what's it called?

Speaker 2: It's called Befriending Bumblebees. And it's currently going into its second printing. So it's out of stock right now. But it's being sent to the printer, I believe, as we speak. So it should be available soon again through the University of Minnesota bookstore.

Speaker 1: And for listeners, we'll put links to all of some of the ideas and some of the things that she features in the show notes. So check it out.

Speaker 2: So then after I finished my masters, I did work for the Zersey Society on their bumblebee conservation program. And so this was during a time when people had been noticing some severe drops in in a group of bumblebees, the three different species that were all related. And so I worked with them status review to look into what was happening with them and also worked with them on some some outreach programs to get people out looking for these bees, because once they become rare, it's hard for for biologists to get everywhere to track them down. And that program eventually grew into the bumblebee watch program, which is a nationwide citizen science monitoring program where people can help us to track bumblebees.

Speaker 1: All right. OK, great. In your journey, it starts with conservation, but there is a way in which education seems to be an important element to keeping track of what's going on with these bumblebee populations.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I've always felt like education is a really important part of conservation. And, you know, gathering, I love research. I love, you know, working with bees and, you know, just one on one out there in the field and learning about them. But it's really important to take that next step, as you know, to to share information to to get get people involved and get people helping.

Speaker 1: Welcome back. We're back here with Elaine Evans and Elaine, you know, what's going on with bumblebees? You raised it in the previous part that there is, you know, there is one of the one of the things that drew you into your work was concern over bumblebees. What's going on with bumblebees in North America?

Speaker 2: We are learning more all the time, but we have really good evidence of, unfortunately, of decline in bumblebees. So it's not something that's affecting all bumblebee species across the board, as far as we know right now. There are some bee species, which seem to be stable. But in North America, it's about one out of three bumblebee species that are suffering population.

Wow. So it's it's a really significant portion of them. And we do have one bumblebee species that just was listed as being an endangered species with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the rusty patch bumblebee. And that's a bumblebee that we have out.

Its native range was throughout most of Eastern North America. And it used to be one of the common bees. So when I started working on bees and bumblebees in the in the mid 90s, it was one that I would see very frequently. And then suddenly I just I wasn't seeing it. And the other bee biologists from, you know, from across Eastern North America were all noticing the same thing. And so it was really kind of it was really alarming how suddenly it happened. So yeah, that was was a lot of my work with the Zersey Society was about seeing what was what was happening with those doing doing a status review of that and other related species that were in decline.

Speaker 1: That's really peculiar. It's you know, you have species on the West Coast here with Bombas Occidentalis a similar situation where a bee was really common and then suddenly, you know, it is no longer present. It seems like you're coming back to that theme that you talked about earlier in the Minnesota Wild Bee Atlas that noticing these shifts is going to involve getting some records, getting a sense of where bumblebees are and how they're changing. Can you tell us a little bit about how one goes about doing the kind of citizen science to get a sense of what's going on with bumblebee populations? How does that work? How has it been working in Minnesota and how did you get started?

Speaker 2: Yeah, so so there are a couple of different levels to that. One of them is kind of is through broad engagement of citizens to just look out for bumblebees. So this is what is being done with the Bumblebee Watch program, which is it's a they have a website bumblebeewatch.org and people can take pictures of any bumblebees that they see and upload them there. We get the geolocation information with that and then those are identified and this is helping us not just track these rare bees but also keep track of other bumblebees. So we can kind of monitor and kind of keep track of if there are other species that we need to be concerned about.

Speaker 1: So let me get this straight. So with this program, somebody can just go through their garden, they see a bumblebee flying to their flower, they can take a picture and upload it to the website and get an identification back. Is that right?

Speaker 2: That's correct. Yeah, so you are encouraged to identify them yourself also. So there is a key that you go through with pictures and so you do have to do a little bit of work yourself and some learning in the process to get to learn how to identify your local bumblebees and with a geolocation that information for keying them out gets limited to just the ones that are in your area. But then there are experts, there's a number of experts that are volunteering their time all across North America that go through and verify all of these records and there are over 10,000 records in bumblebee watch right now.

Speaker 1: That's amazing. That's great.

Speaker 2: Yeah, it's something that the handful of bumblebee scientists could never be able to get all of that information.

Speaker 1: Now you've taken a different approach as well in Minnesota in training up volunteers and surveying on the ground. Tell us a little bit about that effort.

Speaker 2: Right, so I started when I was gathering information for the Cersei Society for the status review. One of the things I noticed was that I was gathering information from people who done surveys and oftentimes there was a survey for one or two years in one's location and then that project would end and I wouldn't have any more information and I was really wanting to have a long-term data set.

to be able to compare to see what was really happening. So I decided the only way to, the best way to do that is to just start doing it. So in 2008, I just, I started going out on the weekends and finding parks where there were good clumps of flowers and collecting bumblebees. And after I was telling somebody about what I was doing and she was like, well, you know, I bet there's other people that would wanna do that with you. That sounds like it would be a lot of fun. And it started, you know, with an email out to friends and you know, kind of spreading the word and eventually through social media, I've been able to really expand the audience and you know, started working directly with parks and parks advertise it to their customers. And so with that, I have survey dates that I set up and I have people come and help me with collecting the bees. So I send people out with these little kind of little snack size Tupperware jars. And they'll go out to the flowers and collect the bees and bring them back to me. And then I identify them, mark them. So I don't end up counting them a couple times and release them.

Speaker 1: I'm a friend of the Minnesota Bumblebee Watch on Facebook. And I have seen these, you buy a whole pile of Tupperware containers doing the identification. Yeah. So it requires at least one person who can do the identifications.

Speaker 2: Right. So far, you know, that's been the main limit with that one is that I have myself and a colleague, Joel Gardner, here at the bee lab, that the two of us have been volunteering our time to go out and be the people identifying. Last year, I also launched an expansion of that that involves me not being there because I want to be able to cover more of this. We really need, even in the Bumblebee Watch records, we need more records outside of urban areas.

Yeah, right. So I'm modeling the, this part of the survey, it's a part of the Minnesota Wild Bee Atlas. I'm modeling it after what's been done with breeding bird atlases where they have routes that people will travel and count birds that they see along it. So I'm having people adopt routes where they go and look for bumblebees. And they do get some training. So there is some identification of bumblebees. There's some species of bumblebees that are not too hard to identify with some training. So my volunteers are trained to identify those and those they just mark down on a piece of paper and submit the data to me. But then they are also taking photos of bumblebees that they can't identify. So it's kind of a combination of, they're not complete experts, but they at least have some training for basic bumblebee identification and combining that with the photos. And by doing these surveys, and with this one, they're surveying for a certain amount of time. And with surveys like that, that where you're repeating and keeping track of where you are and keeping track of your effort, that will give more information in terms of the population level.

Speaker 1: That's fantastic. So let me get this straight. If I kind of come across the Minnesota BEATLIS and I wanna join up, is there a time of year that I go out? Do I select the route? How does this all work? How does this come together?

Speaker 2: So we do have training sessions that we expect people to come to because they do need some training in how to run the surveys. So we do have some workshops that are still being set up for the spring, but we'll be doing workshops, training people. And then they do just, we have a website where people can go and choose their routes. And then a lot of this is done through the website where then they're able to submit their data to us through the website. So people can be way up in Northern Minnesota and get us all their bumblebee data.

Speaker 1: That is fantastic. I have to say, I'm really looking forward to following up on this in a year or two. This is a really exciting, really exciting initiative, I have to say.

Speaker 2: Yeah, and I just wanna also mention that this, we modeled some parts of this after some bumblebee surveys that have been going on both in Vermont and Maine. They've been doing some statewide bumblebee surveys there. Yes, also using volunteers to get out there.

Speaker 1: Tell us a little bit about the training. I know we've had Francis Ratnick's on the show earlier and they raise the problem of poor public differentiation of pollinator tax. What's the trick or what do you have to do to bring people up to speed so that they can become competent citizen scientists?

Speaker 2: So the training for the bumblebee survey, I really limit it to the species where they're kind of easier to tell apart. So the tricky thing with bumblebees and with a lot of different bees is there's a lot of mimicry that happens and there's a lot of variation and color patterns. And so there are a lot of bees that try to look like each other. And so then that makes it difficult for people in general to tell them apart. But I think there's some areas of the country where it's worse. I actually think your bumblebees out on the West Coast, you have a lot more bees that are involved in these mimicry groups. So they're a bit harder to tell apart.

It's not too bad in Minnesota. We're kind of fortunate that some of our most common bumblebees that we have are pretty distinctive. So we do have specimens that we bring and we give people photos. So we go over in detail for these species that they're likely to see and that they're likely to be able to learn. We focus on the characters that they really need to look at to separate them. And then we do do some quizzes to let them test themselves out and see how they're doing. We're hoping to develop also some online materials for that, which still in the development phase, but hopefully have some things like an online quiz people can take so they can test themselves.

Speaker 1: Wow, you certainly sound like the right person for this job. You've been here since January and that's a month and this is really exciting to see all of this stuff rolling together. I wanted to ask you one last question on this. We were talking earlier that you're incorporating a cavity nesting component. Tell us a little bit about that.

Speaker 2: So the Wild Bee Atlas, the actually the most of the focus of the program is on cavity nesting bees. And so we're using bee blocks. So those are these blocks of wood that have different size holes that have been drilled into them and we're having volunteers monitor those. So we send those out to volunteers and then those have been set up all around the state.

Oh, great. And volunteers are asked to go and check on their blocks and make notes on so they have three different size holes and then there's a bunch of different rows of holes and they can note for each hole what they're seeing when they go and check on them every few weeks. So the cavity nesting bees will use different types of materials to plug up the holes at the end. So we're having the volunteers tell us whether there's holes that are plugged up with mud or with resin. There's also some solitary wasps that use these kind of cavities. So sometimes there'll be ones that are plugged up with grass from some wasps that do that.

Speaker 1: And... That's a really great way to sort of differentiate broadly between groups. That's wonderful.

Speaker 2: And in addition to that, we're having volunteers having these blocks also sent back to us and then we can rear them out and we'll identify the bees once they come out and then we can go back and connect it. We can see how well we can connect that information from monitoring to what species of bee it was.

Speaker 1: That's great. So that in addition to walking these transects and getting some information that way, they've got this other standardized way of looking for another group of bees.

Speaker 2: Right, yeah, yeah. So we're hoping to fill in some gaps in terms of distributions of bees through Minnesota so we can know where they are. And then also we're hoping to refine some of the things monitoring we can, using these blocks for monitoring the bees if we can really connect those materials for plugging the holes with the bees, we can potentially in the future tell more from just having these blocks being monitored about what bees are where and how they're doing.

Speaker 1: Well, welcome back. And just tell us a little bit more of what's going on at the University of Minnesota with bees. All the stuff that you described is so amazing, but I know there's so much going on at University of Minnesota. Tell us a little bit more.

Speaker 2: Right, so I'm just starting this position as an extension educator for pollinators, but I'm really excited to be able to do that. I'm fortunately able to kind of tie in with a program that's been happening here for a few years that's called the bee squad. And it's an outreach and mentorship program that's primarily worked on honeybees, but has also been doing work with wild bees and has been really intentional in terms of making those connections and using honeybees as people, a lot of people are naturally drawn to honeybees. They're amazing creatures and you get honey from them and you can keep them in your backyard. They've really been tying in people who are drawn to honeybees to looking at, what we do for pollinators in general. So using honeybees as kind of a gateway to pollinators in general and looking at creating habitat and increasing the things, not just for honeybees, but looking at all the wild bees out there too.

Speaker 1: Well, that's exciting. It really strikes me that in an urban area, a lot of people, first they think of honeybees. They think, oh, what's wrong with the honeybees? But once you go down that rabbit hole, you discover these really interesting other creatures that are making their living inside the city.

Speaker 2: Yeah, that's absolutely right.

Speaker 1: All right, well, we end our shows each time by asking our guests the same three questions. I wanna ask you these questions. The first one is, is there a book out there that's, when you've been thinking about bees, has been just really influential or you really think listeners should be drawn to?

Speaker 2: So, well, we've been talking a lot about bumblebees. I do study other bees too, but a lot of the books that drew me in were bumblebee books. There's a few bumblebee books that I really love. There's Bumblebee Economics by Bert Heinrich.

Oh, yeah. Which gives great detailed information about how bumblebees kind of make their way through the world. There's another book that's, the title of it is just Bumblebees. And the author is Alfred. And that one, it's an older book, but it really goes through a lot of different things about life history and diseases and all kinds of different things that are affecting bumblebees.

Speaker 1: And the drawings are remarkable.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And I also, yeah, I really love bumblebees and their ways by Plath. Tell us a little bit about that book. So that one is also an older book. I really like kind of the older natural history focused books where they really get into, kind of intimate details of bees and how they're living their lives.

Speaker 1: And that was Sylvia Plath's father?

Speaker 2: I know that he's related, I think uncle or father, I can't remember right now. You can Google it and find.

Speaker 1: Okay, so the next question is, is there a tool that you use in studying bees or working with bees that you just find indispensable or that people really should know about?

Speaker 2: For studying bees, the two things I use the most are sweep nets and the microscope. So microscopes just really let you see this, get into all these details that you couldn't see otherwise. I really have an interest in how bees are their relationship with plants. And so I really like to look at pollen from the bees and I definitely need a microscope for that.

Speaker 1: Oh, that's great. So a compound scope, not the same kind of scope you would use for looking at the bees.

Speaker 2: Right, yeah, using the light microscope to magnify things 400 times so you can see the tiny pollen grains and identify them.

Speaker 1: All right, so the last question we have for you is, is there a bee species that you're particularly delighted when you come across and tell us a little bit about that bee?

Speaker 2: I'm gonna have to go with one, with a bumblebee called bombus fervidus. And unfortunately, I never can remember the common name correctly. And I had something like golden, northern bumblebee, something like that that I just, kind of a drab name, but bombus fervidus.

That's just a beautiful name that says so much about what it is. It is a very fervid, kind of aggressive bee, bumblebee if you get into their nests. But they have a fairly wide distribution across North America. And so bumblebees are social, so they're forming nests annually. So every year a new nest is founded. And these, this is one of the bumblebees that is not as common as it used to be.

It's not as, the losses aren't as severe as with some of the other species. So we do, like in Minnesota, we still see them pretty regularly. I don't see them nearly as much as I used to.

But so I always was happy to see them, but I get kind of extra excited to see them now because we see them more rarely. And they are, bumblebee species vary in their tongue length. And fervidus is one of the bumblebee species with longer tongues. So I often see them associated with flowers that have longer tubes.

Speaker 1: Great, well, Elaine, it's been a real pleasure having you on the show today. And I encourage our listeners to visit the show notes where we'll post information on the B squad, the Minnesota Wild B Atlas, and some of the book recommendations. Thanks so much, Elaine.

Speaker 2: Right, yeah, thank you, Anthony. This was really great. Okay. Okay. All right.

Speaker 1: Thanks so much for listening. Show notes with information discussed in each episode can be found at pollinationpodcast.oregonstate.edu. We'd also love to hear from you and there are several ways to connect. For one, you can visit our website to post an episode-specific comment, suggest a future guest or topic, or ask a question that can be featured in a future episode. You can also email us at [email protected]. Finally, you can tweet questions or comments or join our Facebook or Instagram communities. Just look us up at OSU Pollinator Health. If you like the show, consider letting iTunes know by leaving us a review or rating.

It makes us more visible, which helps others discover pollination. See you next week. you

Today’s episode is all about getting the public involved in surveying and identifying different species of bees. Dr Elaine Evans is our guest. She’s the new Extensions Educator working on bee conservation at University of Minnesota.

Dr. Evans has been working on education and advocacy for native pollinators for a long time, and is the lead on a fascinating project called the Minnesota Bumblebee Survey.

Listen in to this episode to understand how you can get involved in some important citizen science initiatives.

You can Subscribe and Listen to PolliNation on Apple Podcasts.

And be sure to leave us a Rating and Review!

“We have really good evidence of decline in bumble bees. There are some bee species that seem to be stable though.” – Dr. Elaine Evans

Show Notes:

  • Why the University of Minnesota’s Extension decided to focus on pollinators this year
  • Getting citizens involved in monitoring bees
  • How Dr. Evans became interested in bees
  • About the book she wrote on bumblebees
  • How she started the Bumblebee Watch program
  • What’s going on with the decline of bumblebees in North America
  • How Citizen Science works in Minnesota to track bees
  • Ways that the Bumblebee Watch program uses pictures to identify bees
  • How to teach people to tell different bee species apart
  • How the program uses volunteers to track cavity nesting bees

“The Bee Squad is looking at using honey bees as a gateway to other pollinators.” – Dr. Elaine Evans

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