FAQ

Why did the project start with sunflowers?

Sunflowers are easy to grow and are great resources for bees and birds. Sunflowers produce alot of nectar and pollen which attracts bees. Wild sunflowers also require visits by bees to set seed.

Why have you expanded the project? The initial focus of the project was on backyards. Having tested our protocol, we realized that we can learn about both wild areas and develop information on what plants different pollinators are using by simply opening the project up to all plants. We also realized we were missing the opportunity to gather other types of data so, we introduced the new ways of sampling: casual observations, stationary counts, travelling counts and area searches.

What are the new ways to collect data?Casual Observation Observations that involve no time or distance/area components are classified as Incidental Sightings. Examples of an Incidental Sighting are: a bumble bee that flies by while you are checking your mail, a carpenter bee feeding in your backyard while you wash dishes, or a sweat bee visiting flowers while you are weeding your garden. Required: Date.

Stationary or Single Plant Species Count Observations made over a known period of time, but without any distance/area components, are classified as a Single Plant Count. If you move from one plant to the next, you should consider entering your observations as a Traveling Count or an Exhaustive Area Count. Examples of Stationary Counts are: a traditional Great Sunflower Project 15 minute count, observing bees at a single plant for any length of time, or even sitting in your backyard for a period of time identifying bees. Required: Date, Start Time, and Duration. Helpful fields: Number of plants watched and plant species.

Traveling or Multiple Plant Species Count Observations made over a known period of time while traveling a known distance are classified as a Traveling Count. You should be able to estimate the distance that you traveled during your outing. If you do have a reliable estimate of the area you covered while you recorded the species, consider entering your observations as an Exhaustive Area Count. If you aren't sure of the distance or area you covered, please enter your observation as a Casual Observation. Examples of Traveling Counts are: walking a trail at a local park or walking a path through a botanic garden. Required:: Date, Start Time, Duration, and Distance Covered.

Area Counts Observations are made while thoroughly searching a given location or area. These types of counts are sometimes used by biologists when monitoring a specific site- often a one hectare plot, however, they can be appropriate for sampling bees if you are able to estimate the size (acres or hectares) of the area you searched. The key measure of effort is the size of your area. Secondary measures of effort are time (duration) and distance traveled. If you are unsure of the area you covered, but have a reliable estimate of distance, consider entering your observations as a Traveling Count. Examples of Exhaustive Area Counts include: actively searching a local park or woodlot for bees. A bee trek around your schoolyard, neighborhood or privately owned property can be an Area Count if you are able to estimate the size of the area you searched. Required:: Date, Start Time, Duration, and Area Covered.

Can I grow any sunflower and participate?

Yes. Each sunflower has it's own characteristics. There are actually quite a few sunflowers out there that don't even produce pollen (the main reason bees visit).

Do you send out free seeds? We no longer send out free seeds except to those who are school garden coordinators or Garden Leaders. Seeds can be purchased at your local store or through Renee's Garden who will donate 25% of her proceeds if you use the coupon code FR225A.

How do I know it is a bee and not a wasp or fly?
Flies are easy. Flies have one wing on each side. Bees have two. Flies also tend to perch with their wings pointing out an angle. Bees tuck them away.

Telling wasps and bees apart is much harder. Bees tend to have wider bodies and appear more robust. Bees are usually hairier and you can often see where they are carrying pollen. However, it turns out that bees closest relatives are a group of wasps and these wasps are very difficult to differentiate from bees. The easy way to tell bees and wasps apart is to use a microscope and look for a branched hair. Bees have branched hairs, wasps have simple hairs. Alternatively, watch what they eat. Bees are vegetarian, wasps are carnivores.

Are yellow jackets bees?
No. But, boy do they give bees a bad reputation!

What are those bees doing, anyhow?

Female bees collect pollen to provision their nests. Pollen is actually the sole source of protein for the developing larvae. Both female and male bees drink nectar which is a source of energy.

How do bees carry pollen?
This is one of the neatest things to learn about bees. Different species carry pollen in different ways. Most commonly, bees have specialized branched hairs for carrying pollen. The pollen actually is held on through an eletro-static charge. When bees fly, they build up an electrostatic charge. When they enter a flower, that flower is grounded so, the pollen almost jumps right onto a bee. Think about that trick having a balloon stick to your hair. Bees that hold pollen have the hairs on their hind legs or on the bottom of their abdomen. Other bees, carry pollen in their mouths. There actually are some parasitic bees that don't gather their own pollen. They simply lay their eggs in the nests of other bees. Their offspring hatch before the offspring of their host and often kill the host larvae. They are called cuckoo bees because this behavior was first documented in cuckoo birds.

How do I contact you? You can try our forums or email us at sfbee@sfsu.edu.

Who is on the Great Sunflower Project team?
There are five of us working for the Great Sunflower Project.

  • Gretchen LeBuhn is the founder and director of the project.
  • David Cohen is a founder and our fearless programmer.
  • Mark Reynolds is senior scientist.
  • Robert Kraut and Laura Dabbish are part of the outreach team, working to help us understand how to improve participants' experiences.
  • Tina Phillips from Cornell is helping us with evaluation

What plants can I watch and report on the pollinator visits? We'd love observations from as many plants as you can watch! Please try to watch for at least 5 minutes though. We still have a set of focal plants and hope you will continue to report on your Lemon Queen variety sunflowers.

The only requirement for our stationary counts (where you watch one plant) is that you provide us with the name of the plant that you were looking. If you know the variety or scientific name, please include that. We'd love data from wild plants. Happy Bee Hunting.

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Can I grow any sunflower and participate? Yes, but data from the annual variety called Lemon Queen are the most useful. Each sunflower has it's own characteristics. There are actually quite a few sunflowers out there that don't even produce pollen (the main reason bees visit). To make sure that we are always comparing the same things, please use the variety that we have chosen, the annual Lemon Queen sunflower.

The Science Behind the Great Sunflower Project
As you sit at the table today, do you know where the water you are drinking came from? 85% of the drinking water in San Francisco comes from the Sierra. How about the last prescription medicine you took? It probably originated from a natural source. Of the top 150 prescription drugs used in the U.S., 118 originate from natural sources: 74 percent from plants, 18 percent from fungi, 5 percent from bacteria, and 3 percent from a species of snake! And, where did the ingredients for your lunch and dinner come from? One of every three bites you took probably came from a plant pollinated by wild pollinators. This is just the beginning of list of the services provided by healthy, natural ecosystems.

Economists and ecologists have started working together to find a way to place a financial value the contribution of natural ecosystems to human existence. The estimates are eye-opening. For example, the value of pollination services from wild pollinators in the U.S. alone is estimated at four to six billion dollars per year. While these ecosystem services are currently produced for “free”, replacing the natural ecosystem would cost many trillions of dollars. Unless human activities are carefully planned and managed, valuable ecosystems will continue to be impaired or destroyed.

To maintain biodiversity and to meet the increasing demands for ecosystem services, we must move conservation science into cities (Rosenzweig 2003). Cities are important for conservation for two reasons. First, 80% of the United States population already lives in urban areas (United States Census Bureau 2003). Second, cities encompass about 3% of land (59.6 million acres) in the United States and 230,000 additional acres become urban each year. Because of their large human populations, cities are the places where many ecosystem services, such as environmental quality of life, are delivered (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). Given the growth of the urban population, it is clear that we need to develop the knowledge necessary for maintaining natural habitats in the urban setting and find a way to give urban dwellers access to nature.

We know that pollinators are declining in certain wild and many agricultural landscapes. However, little is known about urban pollinators. Our recent data on bumble bees in an urban setting suggests that urban bees may also be declining (McFrederick & LeBuhn 2006, Fenter and LeBuhn submitted). While the loss of these pollinators is important, it is more important to understand what effect these losses have had on pollinator services.

We do not know much about how healthy bee populations are maintained in an urban environment. Because natural habitats are uncommon in urban landscapes, they may not provide enough resources to support viable pollinator communities. However, if other habitats, such as urban gardens and restored areas, are sufficiently connected to natural habitat, then native populations may thrive.

By finding a way to track and value the goods and services provided by natural ecosystems, we will find a future in which conservation is not a luxury but a guiding principle of daily decision-making throughout the world. The data you collect from your sunflower willbe a start. It will provide an insight into how our green spaces in the urban, suburban and rural landscapes are connected as well as shedding light on how to help pollinators. What we need are innovative strategies to maximize the benefits of our wild and semi-wild habitat remnants. The Great Sunflower Project is the first step.

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If you still have questions, be sure to try our forums. or email us at sfbee@sfsu.edu