See a bee? Bookmark it on WiBee! A new smartphone application developed by the Gratton Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin harnesses the power of citizen science and community efforts to track populations and diversity of wild bees.
The WiBee project is led by the principal investigators, Professor Claudio Gratton and Hannah Gaines Day. After conducting research with farmers and growers in Wisconsin, a frequently asked question by growers was whether there were enough bees on the farm to pollinate crops, especially during apple blooming.
There is only a short time for bees to pollinate when apples are blooming. Day said it happens one to two weeks in the spring with very temperamental weather.
“In Wisconsin, you might have some really nice days,” Gratton said. “Bees like to fly when the weather is nice, there is not a lot of wind and the temperature is warm enough. Then half an hour later, the clouds have moved, the temperatures have dropped, it is raining and the bees are not flying.
Gratton said that when they go to farms and the bees aren’t flying, they don’t know if they arrived at the wrong time or if they just aren’t there.
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This variability made it difficult for a limited team to make many measurements, Gratton said. This is how his team developed the idea of an application.
“With a small research team, it’s really hard to get enough data to be able to tell growers whether they have enough bees or not,” Day said. “So, did we think, what if we ask the growers to collect data for us because they’re all on the farms anyway?” “
On sunny days, farmers run and poll. WiBee can be used as a logbook of the user’s observations, no matter where they are. Farmers can compare bee populations in their orchards by year and find correlations with temperature or precipitation, Day said.
The data collected by WiBee is compiled on the Pollinators website and made available to the public. Farmers can find observations made by others and filter for time and crop species through the data portal. The app allows growers to see broader trends across the state or over the season that you might not see from their own observations, Day said.
Another goal of WiBee is to identify whether populations of wild bees are sufficient to pollinate apples during the flowering period, Gratton said. Since apple trees bloom for a short period of time, many apple growers hire bees and bring them to their orchards for an additional fee.
“One of the things that interests us in our group is what parts of our agricultural landscape in Wisconsin have large enough populations of these native wild bees to provide sufficient pollination for apples? Gratton said. “Could you get away with using only wild bees?” And what kinds of places might be the best places for apple growers to have this free service? “
With more than 500 species of wild bees in Wisconsin, certain species of bees are more efficient pollinators, Day said. They can transfer more pollen in a single visit than other bees and are specialists in pollinating certain types of plants.
Day said some bee pollinators are habitat specialists who might prefer areas disturbed with weed species. Others prefer ephemeral woodland plants and only fly a few weeks in the spring.
These bee species would never be found in a meadow or farm field, as they only live in the woods in spring, Day said.
On the farm, bees are often the pollinators of choice. Bees are often used by growers because they are relatively easy to manage, Day said. They are generalist pollinators, so they will visit any flower, while wild species are a bit picky about which flowers they want to visit.
According to Day, smaller bees can fly lower and larger ones fly higher in the canopy of trees in windy weather. Temperature and precipitation also affect bee behavior and pollination habits.
Bumblebees will fly when it’s cooler and wetter than honey bees, Day said.
“Often these different species complement each other because of their behavior and pollination preferences,” Day said.
One of WiBee’s goals is to continue collecting more data and making safer claims about whether farmers have enough pollinators, said WiBee project coordinator Colleen Satyshur.
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Further analysis of the landscape versus the data can inform both conservation and agricultural management, Satyshur said.
Examining the contrast between sightings of the same flower in an urban area versus a more agricultural area can help inform conservation efforts, Gratton said.
“People in and around cities are planting a lot of flowers,” Gratton said. “There are fewer agricultural chemicals used, there is less soil disturbance. Maybe urban areas are actually a potential place where we can do bee conservation. “
All it takes is five minutes, Satyshur said.
Community scientists can help collect much more data in ways that a team of specialists often cannot, Gratton said. The hope is to bring science closer to data collected by community partners and to propose future management recommendations.
“There is a lot that we can learn by getting involved and participating in a project like this,” Gratton said. “And I hope the flip side is that you learn something about these little creatures that we share our landscapes with.”
Satyshur said Lakeshore Path and Allen Centennial Gardens are great places to spot bees.
“I always appreciate when I have a moment to sit and watch, look at the world around us,” Gratton said. “I hope everyone can have the opportunity to do this.”
To learn more about WiBee on the pollinators website or better, you can download the app.