Follow the Bees
Co-written with Jessica Miller
Lincoln and Andony are building the Oregon Bee Atlas, a comprehensive document recording all the species of bees in the state, which is no small feat. Hundreds of different species of bees are able to flourish in Oregon because of the state’s status as a biodiversity hotspot.
The Atlas exists so that scientists can better understand the variances between different species. While all bees share some common characteristics, such as plumbous hair and a predisposition to pollinate, “comparing honey bees and native bees is like comparing chickens and song birds,” Lincoln said. Most native bees vary drastically from the fuzzy black and yellow honey bees at the center of the “save the bees” movement.
Native bees can be difficult for an untrained eye to distinguish. Some look like ordinary gnats or plump house flies, while others look like ornate flying gemstones. Native bees hide in plain sight and do much of the pollinating in the Pacific Northwest.
“If they’re carrying pollen, that’s a dead giveaway,” Andony said.
Andony worked in tandem with the Oregon State Legislature to build The Oregon Bee Project after an estimated 25,000 bees died from a pesticide known as “Safari” in a Target parking lot in Wilsonville in 2013. This mass death sparked worry across the state, pushing bees to the center of environmentalist discourse and inspiring Andony to devise a two year plan aimed at protecting Oregon bees.
Protecting bees protects the planet. Approximately 30 percent of the world’s agricultural crops rely on pollinators to reproduce, according to the Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project. If pollinating species went extinct, ecosystems and human populations would experience major food shortages. Bees are threatened by several forces, including climate change, habitat destruction, pesticide and herbicide usage and monocropping.
The issues that put bees at risk are complicated, but there are relatively easy steps individuals can take to help. Supporting native bee populations can be as simple as growing native plants and creating space, according to Lincoln. The Oregon Bee Project plans to help landowners know what to plant.
As a citizen scientist initiative, The Oregon Bee Project relies heavily on volunteers and flagship farms across the state to aid their research.
“Our volunteers are turning in species that haven’t been seen in 80 years,” Lincoln said.
The passion and fervor of these citizen scientists helped the Oregon Bee project expand from the high desert of Eastern Oregon to the rainy evergreen forests of the cascades.
“The volunteers are motivated by interesting critters and an opportunity for learning,” Andony said.
Trained in basic taxonomy before they’re sent out into the field, volunteers trek out into the wilderness armed with butterfly nets and bee traps looking to collect specimens.
The traps look like brightly colored flowers, enticing the bees to enter, but inside there’s deadly glycerol. While the traps lie in wait, the volunteers carefully look for other specimen, and those they find, they document, photograph and put in containers laced with glycerol to keep.
The goal is to better understand how many species of bees live in the state and monitor their populations.
While many volunteers work in groups or on their own, occasionally a swarm of volunteers will meet with Lincoln for an intense bee collection session. 20 volunteers gathered at the Siskiyou Field Institute by the Oregon-California border in early May to collect samples in different spots around the area.
Judy Maxwell, one of the volunteers, isn’t new to this line of work. A retired entomologist, she moved to Oregon for it’s “exquisite” biodiversity.
Judy and seven other volunteers carpooled from Grants Pass for this specimen collection. Most of them are around her age, from their 50s to 70s, and originally learned about the Atlas project through the OSU Master Gardener Program, which teaches members to recognize native plants all over Oregon and to grow their own gardens professionally.
“We’re getting this ecological association, which is really valuable,” Lincoln said.
Judy finds her volunteer work for the Oregon Bee Project is the most important job she’s done. She plans to do it until she can’t anymore.
Back at the lab, Lincoln carefully pins Judy’s Hoplitis specimen in place. Attached is a small label listing essential information, including who caught it. This is one way the project acknowledges volunteer contributions. After all, the volunteers are essential to the project. Just as native bees and native flora rely on each other to thrive, the Oregon Bee Project can blossom because of the collaboration between scientists like Andony and Lincoln, and gungho volunteers like Judy.