The Great Sunflower Project – The Backyard Bee Count

Lemon Queen Sunflowers in my backyard

The Great Bee Count

Within the past couple of years, you might have heard that bees are in trouble, growing scarcer, and suffering from a mysterious ailment called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. A variety of culprits have been fingered in causing this syndrome, including pesticide use, parasites, and diseases. To study bees, scientists decided that they needed a method to determine the numbers and spread of different pollinators. To accomplish this, a new survey was launched enlisting and empowering local citizens in reporting observations about bees in their own backyard or deck called The Great Bee Count.

Low temperature scanning electron micrograph (...
Low temperature scanning electron micrograph (LTSEM) of Varroa destructor on a honey bee host (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Citizen Science

The Great Bee Count, recruits citizens across the United States and Canada to plant sunflowers and observe bees visiting the flower in a 15 minute time period daily and record their findings on-line.  The first Great Bee Count took place about 4 years ago and countless volunteers recorded their findings to help scientists to check on the prevalence of our tiny pollinators in North America.

By creating a map of bee visits, scientists will be able to direct conservation efforts exactly where they are needed.

The data is called ‘trend data’ and showed that in some parts of the country the bees are doing very well, but in other parts like Florida where pesticide use is widespread, the bees are not nearly as numerous. I participated last year and counted at least a dozen bees on my sunflowers daily in my backyard in MD which shows that this part of the country is above average ‘bee friendly’!

Sonnenblume mit Bienen, Sunflower with bees
Sunflower with bees from Wikipedia

The typical observer saw 2.6 bees every 15 minutes on their sunflowers. Up to 20% of the volunteers observed no bees at all which is very disheartening. Sunflowers were chosen as the standardized plant because they are ‘bee magnets’ and are easy to grow in every state. ‘Lemon Queen’ is the preferred variety because some sunflowers have been developed that have no pollen, but ‘Lemon Queen’ has visible pollen. Even if the grower did not observe bees during the 15 minute interval, that information is valuable also in informing scientists. Keeping tabs on our bees has become an important tool in studying this essential aid to our food supply. Up to one-third of our food supply relies exclusively on bee pollination.

Abelha no girassol / Bee at sunflower
Bee at sunflower (Photo credit: Marcio Cabral de Moura)
Queen bee 1
Queen bee 1 (Photo credit: quisnovus)

Anyone in North America can participate in The Great Bee Count even if you just have a single container planted outside on a balcony or deck. To find out how to sign up, go to, register, and plant your sunflower seeds so you can start counting this summer! This is a great project for an ordinary person to have help out the scientific community to study our local bee populations.

I would love to hear from people who are not in North America to see if there are any similar projects in their country.  Please let me know if you have heard of any.

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9 Replies to “The Great Sunflower Project – The Backyard Bee Count”

  1. This is my first year tracking for the Backyard Bee Count and I haven’t seen one bee :(. Last year, by chance, I grew Lemon Queen (one of my favorites) and it was full of bees. What a difference one year makes!

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