Recruiting Volunteers to Track Bumble Bees in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho

USGS Cooperative Research Unit Corner

Recruiting Volunteers to Track Bumble Bees in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho

Due to limited information on bumble bees, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Xerces Society established the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas (PNWBBA). Now in its 6th year, with the support of hundreds of volunteer citizen scientists online, the PNWBBA represents unprecedented contemporary information on the state of bees in the Pacific Northwest. Approximately 300 participants observed nearly 14,000 bumble bees over the past 5 years, including 1,000 observations of 4 out of 5 most vulnerable species in the area. The PNWBBA is partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit to turn this unprecedented information into scientific insight.

Bumblebee pollinating flower

Many bees are species of greatest conservation need and Atlas information is unique compared with most used to guide large-scale bee conservation. Along with professional biologists, the PNWBBA invites volunteers to survey bumble bees in Atlas ‘blocks’. After virtual or local training workshops, volunteers collect information on what bees they observe and where, when, and how they performed the survey. This information on species-specific patterns of the types of environments and times of use can be turned into insight on population trends to support conservation decisions. The Atlas information is key, and the growth of large-scale citizen science projects focused on vulnerable species is the best, if not only, way to make the scientific analyses of population status, distribution, and current trends over time, possible to inform conservation efforts.

Most large-scale information on bees has been compiled using historic to contemporary museum field collections data. While valuable, the bulk of collections data don’t have accurate locations. Further, while historic collections provide information on bee presence across the country, there is widespread evidence that species have been shifting their ranges, spurred by habitat loss and climate change, such that locations where certain bee species may have been historically, may no longer support bee populations. Lastly, the strongest information on species’ distributions come from both presence and absence records, however field-based collections cover only half of this picture: presence locations. The Atlas contains information on precise, current presence and absence locations of nearly 30 bee species, representing the strongest data on which to base current conservation and management decisions.

Everyone is invited to join the bumble bee project. Bee observations become part of scientific evidence, providing an avenue to add value to people’s hobbies, and contribute to environmental and conservation efforts. Working together, conservation organizations, professional scientists, and citizen scientists have the tools to prevent further loss of the bumble bees we see in our gardens, on our nature walks, and pollinating our crops and wildflowers.

Citizen scientists have become crucial contributors to species monitoring programs and their efforts and observations contribute to conservation. Citizen scientists have long outpaced technologies including satellite imagery and remote sensing, which are largely unable to identify specific wildlife species, to act as eyes and ears observing wildlife for hundreds of years. Mobile phones and internet-based apps enable millions of citizen scientists to contribute to solving real-world conservation problems. The sheer number of enthusiastic naturalists around the world means there is near real-time information being collected on species across the globe.

Researchers have been taking notice of these valuable information sources, incorporating citizen science into professional arenas, and environmental decision-making contexts. Using citizen science data, researchers detect species’ geographic range shifts, changes in the timing of migration, and large-scale declines in species’ numbers that are being linked to land use change, habitat loss, and climate change. Using high-resolution citizen science information, we can now map species’ changes and recommend conservation priorities.

Although bird watchers may be the largest group of organized citizen scientists, other wildlife groups, such as pollinators, have outsized impacts on environmental health and human well-being. Pollinators, including bees, provide billions of dollars in free agricultural pollination services, responsible for one in three bites of food humans consume; they also pollinate many plants that are important to other wildlife. Unfortunately, pollinators including bumble bees, have been declining nationwide largely due to negative impacts of pesticide misuse, disease, and habitat loss.

The ONB features articles from the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program, U.S. Geological Survey. The Units are leading exciting, new fish and wildlife research projects that we believe our audiences appreciate reading about.

Author: Erica Stuber,, Assistant Unit Leader, Research Ecologist, Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, U.S. Geological Survey

Photo Credit
Xerces Society – Rich Hatfield
May 15, 2023