ST. LOUIS — Dozens of volunteers have spent hours this summer in Forest Park, trying to photograph every bee that passes through homemade two-meter square grids.
Known as a “BeeBlitz,” it’s an experiment in citizen science that researchers hope will allow them to collect detailed data on area bee populations.
“The project is important,” said volunteer and aspiring ecologist Abi Gorline, 17, of Sunset Hills, who attended a blitz on a recent weekend despite sweltering conditions. “I really like bees. I like ecology.”
Bees pollinate $15 billion worth of U.S. food crops, contribute to the production of one-third of the human diet, and keep ecosystems across the world alive. But scientists across the country have said that mites, pesticides, disease and food shortages have led to dramatic declines in bee populations in recent years, furthering deep concerns over the future of pollinators, agriculture and nature. Events like "BeeBlitz" have popped up across the region and country in a sometimes-desperate attempt to track bee numbers and better pinpoint reasons for the bee deaths.
About 45 people have participated in local bee blitzes over the last two months, said one of the organizers, Webster University Biology Professor Nicole Miller-Struttman.
Volunteers set up a grid using PVC pipe and string, photograph any bees that enter during a 10-minute period, then upload the results online. Their work helps researchers track bee populations, and is also being used to gauge whether data from so-called “citizen scientists” matches those from trained professionals.
The first goal is to see what species of bees are in Forest Park. The next is to see how that population is changing over time.
If the data proves to be comparable, Miller-Struttman said volunteers could do surveys in their backyards, over larger areas or for longer periods of time.
That data then could be used to analyze the effects of pesticides and concrete on bee populations in a ZIP code.
“There’s been a big push for citizen science,” she said.
It’s the third year of the surveys, and the first in which they are being conducted throughout the summer. So far, Miller-Struttman said, the data compare well with what she and colleagues obtain by collecting bees with nets.
Thanks to the surveys, researchers have been able to track seasonal changes in bee species, although they don’t know what is causing those fluctuations. Miller-Struttman said they have not seen an overall drop in bee numbers in Forest Park, where there are lots of floral and nesting resources.
In addition to helping out, bee blitz volunteers learn about bee biology and ways in which they can support wild bees.
Miller-Struttman estimated that nine out of the 20 volunteers originally signed up for the most recent blitz, earlier this month, showed up despite an excessive heat warning and a heat index topping 100.
The bee blitz continues through the summer with events on Aug. 17 and Sept. 14. They are free and open to anyone over the age of 10. To register groups of four or more, email Miller-Struttman at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 314-246-7628.
Volunteers can also document bees in the area via BeeSpotter.org.
Joel Currier of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.