Battalion of Volunteer Bee Watchers Invade City Parks and Gardens
I called her Clare, a coneflower I singled out in Manhattan’s City Hall Park two weeks ago. Even though her petals drooped, she still shimmied and swayed amid a cluster of sister coneflowers and black-eyed Susans that basked in the noonday sun.
Clare was one of the 12 types of flowers I volunteered to monitor as part of the Great Pollinator Project, a city-wide effort to better understand New York City bees. To keep my commitment as an official bee watcher, I’d been vanishing into city parks during my lunch hour in search of the 12 flowers favored by bees, among them bee balm, mountain mint, smooth aster and common milkweed.
The purple coneflower was the only one of the 12 that I could definitively identify. With their signature purple petals and striking orange cones, coneflowers are hard not to miss. Plus they’re everywhere this time of year.
I spotted Clare right away, her head towering over the rest. She would be the first flower I’d observe for bee pollinating activity. With pad and pen in hand, I watched. Two bumble bees visited one after the other. Then, nothing. I watched helplessly as bee after bee bypassed Clare for the dainty black-eyed Susans. Finally, after 15 minutes, a visitor: a large carpenter bee, quickly followed by another. The two visited for five minutes, an eternity in bee-time. I felt happy for old Clare. She still had her powers of attraction.
Some 300 other New Yorkers like me are hitting parks and gardens to monitor “bee visitations” to city flowers — all in an effort to find out which areas of the city have what researchers call “good pollinator service.” Without bees and other pollinators, the city’s 700-plus community gardens wouldn’t produce nearly as many tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers and other vegetables.
Since the Great Pollinator Project started in 2007, the number of volunteers has increased every year. The project — an initiative of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and Staten Island’s Greenbelt Native Plant Center — aims to raise public awareness of the importance of the city’s more than 225 species of native bees and promote home gardening and park management practices that benefit them.
Most of the volunteer bee watchers are in Brooklyn, followed by Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx, said Kevin Matteson, a teaching fellow in the Department of Biological Sciences at Fordham University who co-wrote a soon-to-be-published report on bees in New York City community gardens.
“Pollinator service seems to peak at around 80 degrees and in late July when wild bee populations are at a max,” Matteson wrote in an e-mail message. He also noted that gourds such as pumpkins, squash and zucchini and fruits such as peaches, apples, plums and raspberries are among the crops most dependent on bees and other animal pollinators in New York City community gardens.
At an orientation for volunteer bee watchers in Central Park, some 50 participants learned how to identify the four major categories of bees and how to spot and watch out for wasps, yellow jacks and other “bee impostors.” They also learned about their responsibilities. Volunteers committed to watching bees for 30 minutes at least once every two weeks until October when bees begin to fade.
I chose to be a “mobile bee watcher,” scouting for flowers and bees in public gardens, while others chose to take flower seedlings that they would monitor in their yards or stoops at home. Some chose to grow the flowers from seeds provided at the orientation.
There would be times, the orientation leader told us, when the entire volunteer corps would be asked to observe at the same time, a mass swarming, I thought, of New Yorkers on city bees.
The work of the volunteer bee watcher is relaxing, providing a terrific form of stress relief. Volunteers observe one flower at a time for up to 30 minutes. As soon as the flower receives five bee visitors, the volunteer’s observation is over. The volunteer records the data online and for two weeks needn’t do another bee observation if he or she chooses not to. They can, however, do as many observations as they like.
With Clare, I waited 23 minutes for five bees to visit. The other coneflowers I’ve observed since have taken half the time.
What can I say? It wasn’t Clare’s best day.
To read the Great Pollinator Project blog, please click here.