Saturday, June 8, 2013

Citizen Scientist Training with EYA in Oak Meadows Park

 It is a Sunday when the black locust trees are pumping their sweet scent into the air, the skies are blue and the lupins are full of bumble bees. A group of eight of us meet in a grassy corner of Oak Meadows Park to learn how to identify and count bees for the Environmental Youth Alliance's citizen scientist project. We settle down on blankets and instead of opening a picnic basket, Erin Udal takes out a pizza box full of dead bees. They are all arranged in order of size and grouped into types of bees and flies: honey bees, bumble bees, pollen belly bees, mining and sweat bees, and bee-mimiccing syrphid flies. Everyone is delighted and fascinated with Erin's bee box.

We introduce ourselves by telling each other what kind of bee best represents ourselves. I choose the leafcutter bee, the insect artist who cuts shapes out of leafs. The Environmental Youth Alliance has planted two bee gardens in this park as part of the Nectar Trail project to improve bee habitat in Vancouver. Studying the bee diversity in the city in past years has shown that this park has some of the most diverse bee populations in the city, most likely because it is located so close to VanDusen Gardens.

 We learn how to do our study: choose a city block (or equivalent space) near our home with good bee forage and plant varieties, choose three plants that are active and count bees for 10 minutes every two weeks. We must choose an optimum time of day when the nectar is flowing: between 10 and 3 pm. Ideally, we should choose a day like today, with low wind and warm sunshine. On the back of our observation sheets will describe the site and make notes about other plants and any other relevant observations. As we head out to evaluate the block adjacent to the park one sharp-eyed observer notices two native bees mating in a trailing blackberry blossom.

The bee-active plants on the block include the blackberry, nepeta, goutweed (much to my chagrin--I am waging war on it in my yard), and lavender. The black locust trees may have bumble bees in them, but they are to high up to monitor without ladders.

Next Erin brings out nets and jars and we go on a safari, netting bees, studying them up close and letting them go. I am happy to study the bees with my camera, but others are keen on buying their own nets and starting their own bee box. The toy stores sell them in summer, but these are special nets ordered from a research supply store. The net part stays stiff so you can capture the insects without damaging them.

One of the questions we asked Erin was about knowing whether or not we've counted the same bee twice. The fifteen year-old student with us suggested noting the bees flying in and out of the plant cluster we're studying. We decided that in a large stand of blossoms you need to choose an area within your eyeline as you remain standing. This bumble bee had lupin pollen on her back, making it easy to tell apart from her sisters visiting the same patch of lupins. Some honeybee researchers say they can actually identify individual bees apart after a time. I think they're drinking fermented honey on the job, but who knows, maybe they can tell them apart.

The group includes beekeepers, a botanist, Landed Learning volunteers, a horticulturalist, and a honeybee research student. We help each other identify plants and we all have a blast nerding out over bees. Watch out birders, the bee nerds have moved into town.

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