How to Be a Citizen Scientist in The Great Sunflower Project

The Great Sunflower Project lets citizen scientists help assess the state of North America’s insect pollinators. Join the effort to grow a greener world by taking part in the project—the bees are counting on us.

by Paige Embry

Each spring, all across the U.S., fat seeds of ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflower get pushed into holes in the dirt. Soon, sturdy seedlings rise and grow upward. Plump buds swell in summer until the sepals finally curl back and lemon-yellow versions of the classic sunflower turn their faces toward the sun. It is time for the science to start.

Great Sunflower Project

‘Lemon Queen’ Sunflower, the annual, a cultivar of Helianthus annuus, is the star of the Great Sunflower Project.

The science here is part of the vast Great Sunflower Project (GSP). It’s a program of “citizen science”—in which researchers pull in non-scientists to help with their studies, often in a desire to collect data in quantities that they couldn’t begin to gather on their own.

The Great Sunflower Project: In the Beginning

The GSP was started by Dr. Gretchen LeBuhn of San Francisco State University. At first, she aimed to learn more about the well-being of pollinators across the country. She focused mostly on the 4,000 bee species native to the U.S. and Canada, because although many kinds of animals do some pollination, the bees are the queens of the pollination game—and we know surprisingly little about how they are doing. Given that a pollinator study in one small area generally takes years to complete and involves collecting thousands of insects, our lack of knowledge about the status of most individual pollinators isn’t likely to change soon. There simply isn’t enough time, money and expertise to overcome it. But this is where the Great Sunflower Project comes in.

Great Sunflower Project

A female long-horned digger bee (Melissodes trinodes) gathers pollen and nectar from the plentiful disk florets that make up a composite flower.

She chose to use sunflowers both because they are easy to grow and they are visited by many kinds of pollinators, thanks to their clever design. A sunflower’s flower actually consists of hundreds to thousands of tiny flowers. An outer rim of ray flowers, each with one prominent petal pointing out, surrounds a banquet of tiny disc flowers. The pollen and nectar in these florets are easy to remove and each day new ones open, making for a long-lived smorgasbord for pollinators.

Some of these visitors are among the most charismatic in the bee world, especially those in the genus Melissodes. They’re called long-horned bees because of the males’ antennae. The females have shorter antennae, but they tend to be cute, running to the fat and fuzzy, with so much pollen-carrying hair on their hind legs that they look like they’re wearing legwarmers.

The GSP began in 2008 when LeBuhn sent an e-mail to people in the southeastern U.S. asking for volunteers willing to plant ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflowers and then count the number of pollinators visiting them. As the e-mail spread, she got 20,000 responses, with people all across the country signing up. Le-Buhn didn’t need folks with entomological expertise for the job because she wasn’t trying to find out which pollinators were visiting the sunflowers, just how many. The citizen scientists simply needed to be able to count.

How to Be a Citizen Scientist

You can find more information about the Great Sunflower Project and its related programs at greatsunflower.org.

If you decide to participate in the Great Sunflower Project, make sure you have the right kind of ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflowers—there are two. The one needed for the project is an annual, a cultivar of Helianthus annuus. It has the classic sunflower look, but the flowers are lemon yellow. Make sure that neither the seeds nor the plants are treated with pesticides.

HOW TO PARTICIPATE

1. Plant lemon queen sunflower seeds. Please check to make sure that the seeds did not receive a neonicotinoid seed treatment. One way to do this is to buy an organic seed. If not organic, check to make sure the seeds weren’t treated with pesticides. The GSP recommends Renee’s Garden Seeds. They’ve partnered with Renee for a number of years. Renee has confirmed that they never pre-treat any of their seeds whether they are organic or not.

2. Submit at least 3 pollinator counts of at least 5-minutes duration.

This post is excerpted from the full-length feature The Great Sunflower Project in the March/April 2018 issue of Horticulture. You can download a copy here. Paige Embry is a longtime gardener and the author of Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them (Timber Press, February 2018). She lives in Seattle, Wash.

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