Philly-area residents join national bee count

Cynthia Cronin-Kardon logs bee visits to her Overbrook Farms garden. She said remaining still and watching the bees at work was meditative.
Cynthia Cronin-Kardon logs bee visits to her Overbrook Farms garden. She said remaining still and watching the bees at work was meditative. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 14, 2012

First came a bumblebee.

Then, a honeybee settled onto the purple coneflower in Cynthia Cronin-Kardon's garden Sunday.

She checked her watch and logged the sighting.

Cronin-Kardon was counting bees. She was doing her part to contribute data to what has become one of the nation's most pressing entomological questions: What's happening to its bees?

In 2007, commercial beekeepers began to document huge losses among their managed honeybee hives, in what later became known as colony collapse disorder, or CCD.

It was a huge concern for agriculture, given that humans owe roughly one bite of food in three to the pollination work of honeybees. Their hives are often trucked cross-country, from oranges in Florida to apples in Pennsylvania to blueberries in Maine.

Suddenly, the grim findings in a National Academy of Sciences report the previous year had more relevance. It detailed declines among many pollinators, including other bees - especially bumblebees - plus birds, bats, and insects.

Since then, research on bees and money to conduct it have increased, although still not as much as needed, bee experts contend.

Funding for pollinator work got into the last farm bill, said Mace Vaughan, pollination program director at the Xerces Society, a pollinator conservation organization.

More money is going into conservation. And private funding has increased, he said. Companies such as Whole Foods, which started a "Share the Buzz" campaign, are getting involved. Recently, the Wynnewood Whole Foods put a hive on its roof.

Cronin-Kardon has joined a citizen science project started in 2008 by San Francisco State University biologist Gretchen LeBuhn, who now has dozens of gardeners in this region - and nearly 100,000 nationwide - counting bee visits to flowers.

The data are believed to make up the largest single body of information on bee activity in North America.

"Whether you're a gardener growing tomatoes or a park ranger who is worried about some endangered species in your forest, knowing something about the rate of bee visitation helps tell about the health of that community," she said.

LeBuhn has found urban areas have less bee activity - 23.3 bee visits per hour on a flower, compared with 30.4 in rural areas and 31.6 in forests and wildlands.

That supports the theory that habitat loss is one of the major reasons for declines of native bees.

The aim of the project is to have each participant watch a blossom for 15 minutes twice a month, count the bee visits, and log the data at www.greatsunflower.org, which also shows the results.

In this area, a small lawn in Warminster had four bee visits an hour on average. A lawn in Center City had 12. A property near Marlton had 20, and a large field in West Norriton had 43.

LeBuhn focused on sunflowers because she wanted to pick a common native plant, and it turns out the sunflower - Helianthus annuus - is native to all lower 48 states.

Plus, she felt it would be a way to engage people. "People like growing sunflowers," she said.

But volunteers can pick other plants as well, which was lucky for Cronin-Kardon. When she and her husband, Marty Kardon, downsized and moved to Philadelphia's Overbrook Farms, he declared an end to mowing.

So she turned the entire property into a garden, planting butterfly bush, salvia, phlox, and myriad other flowers that would draw bees and hummingbirds.

But, inexplicably, she's had no luck with sunflowers.

Meanwhile, research into CCD among honeybees continues. Pennsylvania State University is heavily involved.

So far, "there's still no one cause, no one thing we can put our finger on," said Maryann Frazier, senior extension associate in entomology.

Multiple stressors have been identified, including other pests, diseases, and even poor nutrition, caused by low diversity and availability of flowers and pollen.

Her work group feels strongly that pesticides are an important part of the problem for all pollinators, not just honeybees. Especially a particular group of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are widely used on farms.

Frazier said entomologists remain "amazed at the lack of response" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which she said should be addressing the issue more vigorously. She said the EPA also should change how it approves insecticides, incorporating tests to ensure they are not harming beneficial insects, such as pollinators.

The good news is that honeybee losses over last winter were less than they have been since CCD happened - roughly a quarter instead of a third, Vaughan said.

Across the river in New Jersey, the Rutgers University lab of entomologist Rachael Winfree has been looking at the potential effects of climate change on bees.

Researchers have worried that bees and the plants they pollinate might become out of sync with each other as they respond to a warming climate. But data from the last 140 years show they have not.

She's also studying watermelon crops in southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey to see whether temperature affects pollination rates.

Among the public, awareness of bees and their importance is growing.

On Sunday, the Pennsylvania governor's residence held a "nature's pollinators" event, with a beekeeping demonstration and honey ice cream.

Saturday was the official Great Bee Count for LeBuhn's project. But she wants data from the whole summer.

So Cronin-Kardon was back outside again Sunday.

She finds herself compelled to go into the garden to see what's up. She said remaining still and watching the bees at work is meditative.

She has toyed with the idea of putting a hive in the garden, but she thinks neighbors might object - as some people did in Plymouth Township.

Paying attention to bees "puts a lot of things in perspective," she said. At work - she's a reference and resource development librarian at the Lippincott Library of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School - things might seem intense.

"But then," she said, "you realize life depends on this peaceful little bee."

"I spend hours out here."


Contact Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, "GreenSpace," at www.philly.com/greenspace

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