Wild about bees: UW scientists use app to crowdsource study of native pollinators – Madison.com


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Wild about bees: UW scientists use app to crowdsource study of native pollinators

Claudio Gratton wants people to slow down and smell the flowers — or at least spend a few minutes watching them.

From languishing to lovely, see 9 amazing Madison-area garden transformations

Pat Greathead's garden "before"

"One of the first gardens to be planted when we moved to our home 23 years ago was a 22-square-foot herb garden."Stepping and edging stones were found from farmers’ fields, and in a short time the garden took shape. There were many herbs, including mints, chives and bee balm, which over the years had spread quite literally over the entire site. These volunteers, along with weeds and other unwanted plants, made walking the path if not impossible, very dangerous."But there were also good harvests thanks to the abundance that Nature had provided. Chive flowers for chive vinegar, apple mint to dry for tea and potpourri, catnip and lovage were harvested in bundles."Spring of last year provided the time, due to the pandemic, and impetus (a planned-in-2019 garden tour by two of the local federated garden clubs) to perform an extensive redo. Much of the plant matter was removed, paths lifted, compost incorporated, a two-tier raised section built in the garden’s center, and new plants put in that had been overwhelmed with the exuberance of the volunteers. The entry was also moved from the southwest corner to the middle of that side to make entry safer and easier."— Pat Greathead, East Bristol


Pat Greathead's herb garden "after"


Eileen and Eric Nemec's garden "before"

"Last year, July 2020, we had to have a large dead oak tree removed from the corner of our yard. The corner where it was removed looked violated and desolate -- so, we created something to fill the spot so that it was attractive to neighbors and to us from our screened-in porch."— Eileen and Eric Nemec


Eileen and Eric Nemec's bicycle garden "after"


Scott Kramer's garden "before"

"At the start of the pandemic, my wife Lily and I embarked on transforming a patch of green grass into a prairie garden."We used a kick sod cutter to cut out the turf grass. We planted a native prairie mix from Prairie Moon Nursery in the spring of 2020. Establishing native plants takes time. Some plants needed to experience a winter before they would begin to grow."In the summer of 2021, we have begun to see the fruits of our labor. Native plants are beginning to establish and some have even began to bloom. In the coming years, we hope to see the prairie garden become more diverse."— Scott Kramer


Scott Kramer's garden "after"


Alicia Szekeres' garden "before"

"We started landscaping our new home in the spring of 2018. Although a retaining wall was recommended, we opted to slope the back of our property and plant a native prairie."The heavy rain event of August 2018 prompted us to create a rain garden, also filled with native plants. This past year we spent a lot of extra time adding plants, removing invasive species and enjoying the bees, butterflies and birds. We start all of our plants from seed and do all of the work ourselves."— Alicia Szekeres


Alicia Szekeres' garden "after"


Eileen and Dan Wilson's garden "before"

"For several years we planted vegetables in a few raised beds in our backyard. They were fine, but the space was not big enough and the rabbit fencing made them look rather disheveled."Last fall we decided to upgrade. At the end of the season, we took out the raised beds and instead created a 12-foot-by-12-foot fenced garden area. We designed it ourselves, loosely based on a style shown in a YouTube video we watched. First we set the poles in the ground, then built fencing sections to put between each post. We built it with the strongest possible rabbit-proofing because we have a lot of hungry rabbits in our neighborhood. The hardware cloth mesh fencing extends about a foot into the ground below each panel so nothing should get under it. We even put some under the stones below the gate!"It’s a relatively small garden, so to use the space effectively, we built a V-shaped trellis for the cucumbers to climb. After all expenses, from screws, wood and post caps to the sand/rock mixture for setting the posts, the garden cost us about $600 plus a good amount of sweat equity. It would probably be more this year with lumber increases. We realize that we could buy a lot of fresh produce from the farmer's market for that expense, but for us it's about more than the food. We eat fresh veggies, preserve some of the produce, and just generally enjoy the entire process of planting, tending and harvesting."— Eileen and Dan Wilson


Eileen and Dan Wilson's garden "after"


Sara Redford's garden "before"

"Last July, my family and I moved to a new home on Kendall Avenue in Madison. When we moved in there were two canopy trees in the front and a small patch of half-dead grass in the front yard."About a month in, the city informed us that both trees had to be removed and we were left with ground-down stumps that could not be replanted with new trees. The grass and basic Hosta in front started burning under the new, direct sunlight and looked pretty rough."In less than a year, we’ve replaced the grass with a perennial bed and the terrace space is now a raised bed garden and perennial/annual flower garden. Everything is still getting established, but for doing it all ourselves by hand, I’m pretty proud of it."— Sara Redford


Sara Redford's garden "after"


Pam Holmes garden "before"

Pam Holmes knows you can give a small space big impact with the right plantings and accents. She turned the flowerbed at her Southwest Madison condo — that started in spring with a single lonely Hosta — into a display brimming with summer blossoms and a bright sense of welcome.


Pam Holmes' garden "after"


Diane Small with green tomoato

Diane Small holds a small green tomato that is a thing of beauty, just ready for slicing, dipping in batter and frying up for a delectable lunch.But rather than eating that tomato from her own backyard garden herself, she plans to give it away — and is happy to offer the recipe, too.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Small has turned her large, sunny backyard in the Waunona neighborhood into a community garden, where she and a legion of volunteers, many of them students from UW-Madison, till, plant, weed and harvest food for neighbors and nearby food pantries."I've already given away 40 bags of collards this year," said Small, who named her 40-by-40 foot space “Mamie’s Backyard Garden," in honor of her late mother, Mamie.The two used to garden together in the yard after moving to Madison from South Carolina, where Small's youth was filled with backyard chores and home-cooked dinners fresh from the garden. But over the years, Small had moved on to other things, and the garden went quiet. In 2020, friend and fellow gardener Jill Lundberg worked along with Small to secure a SEED Grant from the city of Madison, which provided $1,500 to cover a large part of the yard with organic soil and to plant collards, tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, squash and more for the neighborhood community. This year's projects have included increasing the number of plants and adding fencing to ward off ravenous neighborhood rabbits."Everything in this garden is free," said Small, who gives credit to the many volunteers and donors who have helped her, and who are acknowledged on her garden website, mamiesbackyardgarden.org. Small's church community from the S.S. Morris Community African Methodist Episcopal Church -- also beloved by her mother -- has been a huge support, too, she said. "We've been praying over this food and talking over this food," said Small. "It's a lot of work, but it's going to feed a lot of people."


Diane Small's garden "before"

Diane Small stands in her backyard before it was transformed into a vegetable garden to help feed the community. 


Diane Small's garden "after"


Victoria Johnson's "before" garden

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Victoria Johnson tired of seeing this pool equipment box in her backyard — so she covered it with a thriving flower garden.


Victoria Johnson's garden "after"


The UW-Madison entomologist hopes people will discover the abundant wildlife that eludes the casual glance, but he’s also interested in using crowdsourced data to study the state’s native bees.Last year his lab launched a smartphone app known as WiBee (pronounced “we bee”) that lets users record the activity of bees and other pollinators as they flit from flower to flower, collecting food and in the process fertilizing the plants.The information is fed into a database that Gratton’s lab can use to monitor wild bee populations, information that could be used to help fruit and vegetable growers harness their labor.

UW-Madison professor Claudio Gratton uses the WiBee app to track wild bees at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station in Verona. Gratton said data could help fruit and vegetable growers take advantage of native pollinators. 


More than a third of the world’s food crops depend on pollination, and bees tend to do the job best. Bees are essential to some of Wisconsin’s biggest fruit and vegetable crops, including cranberries, cherries, apples, melons and squash.Fruit growers typically rent hives of European honeybees, which have struggled to survive in recent years and can cost hundreds of dollars per acre.“It’s a major expense,” said Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association.But Wisconsin is home to more than 400 species of wild native bees.“They’re out there and they’re doing their job,” Gratton said. “And they’re doing it for free.”

A common eastern bumble bee feeds on a Russian sage flower. A smartphone app can help track the wild bee population.


The question is whether there are enough of them in the right place at the right time.“That’s a really hard question to answer, for the main reason we haven’t been looking for wild bees that much,” Gratton said.And it’s a high-stakes decision for growers, whose crops depend on having enough insects there when the trees are flowering.“That’s a hard trigger to pull,” said Tom Ferguson, who operates orchards in Galesville, Eau Claire and Lake City, Minnesota.Lochner said many cranberry growers have invested in pollinator gardens to attract wild bees, but having better data would provide them a level of confidence when deciding how many honeybees to bring in.

A honeybee flies around a bed of Salvia. Fruit and vegetable growers often rent hives of the European species to pollinate their crops, but UW researchers are collecting data on the availability of more than 400 species of native bees. 


Researchers initially tried to gather the data themselves, but Gratton said there weren’t enough of them to monitor creatures whose behavior can be influenced by something as simple as a cloud passing overhead.“If the weather’s not right, bees just don’t fly,” he said. “You’re there at the wrong time.”That’s where WiBee comes in.The app, available for free from the App store or Google Play, comes with instructions on how to identify four categories of bees (as well as non-bee pollinators) and how to collect good data.“You don’t have to be a specialist,” Gratton said.

“You don’t have to be a specialist” to survey bees and other pollinators, UW-Madison entomologist Claudio Gratton said of the WiBee app.


Once users have mastered basic identification (there’s a quiz), they pick a location — it could be an orchard or a backyard garden — to survey on at least three different days. They then focus on a 3-by-3-foot area, start the five-minute timer and count the number of times bees touch flowers.That’s when the magic happens.“It just doesn’t look like there’s a lot going on. It’s just like, ‘Look at that, a bunch of pretty flowers,’” Gratton said, walking through demonstration gardens at the university’s West Madison Agricultural Research Station on Mineral Point Road. “If you actually spend just a minute watching the flowers, suddenly things come to life.”To make identification easier, one of Gratton’s colleagues is using artificial intelligence to teach computers to identify bees from photographs, a feature he hopes to eventually incorporate into the WiBee app.

A common eastern bumble bee collects pollen from a Gaillardia flower at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station in Verona.


Baseline dataIn the first two years, a couple of hundred users have uploaded more than 130,000 insect observations, which Gratton’s lab can overlay with data on weather and land cover — all things that affect bee populations.Preliminary results from the project show that a given farm or orchard is likely to have more wild bee visits if it is in a landscape with more woodlands or wetlands — or close to urban development. Gratton said that’s likely because the variety of plants grown in city yards and gardens support bee populations in ways that fields of corn and soybeans can’t.

For nearly four decades, the couple have spent three evenings a year driving around the marshes of southern Columbia County, listening for spring peepers, leopard frogs and American toads.

Colleen Satyshur, an outreach specialist for the project, said many of the initial users of the app were farmers, who are interested in results but often don’t have a lot of time. Data submissions picked up this year when master gardener volunteers started using it to track bees on wild and ornamental flowers.“It gave me newfound respect for our bees,” said Kelly Viaene, a master gardener and hobbyist beekeeper near Appleton. “It’s just really rewarding knowing that info is going to be used.”One of the project’s goals is to develop baseline data about native bee populations, which have not been studied to the same degree as honeybees, which gained widespread attention in the mid-2000s after worker bees began mysteriously disappearing.

“If you actually spend just a minute watching the flowers, suddenly things come to life," said UW-Madison entomologist Claudio Gratton, shown demonstrating the WiBee app for tracking wild pollinators. 


While colony collapse is a serious concern for beekeepers and farmers, Gratton points out that honeybees in North America are basically livestock.“It’s like saying, ‘Save the chickens,’” he said. “Really we need to be talking about our wild bees. … We know very little about them. We don’t know how they’re doing.”Citizen scientistsIn order to be successful, Satyshur said, the project needs more data from all parts of the state, particularly for berries and tomatoes.

UW-Platteville geographers sampled oaks across the Driftless region, including some that have been growing since the 1700s. They sampled rafters from historic homes and barns built from locally harvested timber to push the record back another century.

Building broad and consistent data over time will allow scientists to pick out trends and better predict bee behavior, which Gratton said is impossible with casual observations.“This is like trying to predict if the tide is going in or out by looking at the waves on the shore for one minute,” he said. “You need long-term, consistent data to see trends.”While developed with Wisconsin growers in mind, WiBee has users scattered across the country — and even in China.“It works anywhere,” Satyshur said.That’s because in addition to building a large-scale database for researchers, the app also stores users’ local data on their phones, so they can track bee activity on their property and even experiment with different types of plantings.“Bees respond to a broad landscape … but they also respond to management in that particular area as well,” Satyshur said. “People have some control over their own bees. They can test it for themselves.”That’s part of the beauty of the citizen science model: Individuals can learn while contributing to a bigger cause.

A sweat bee on a Salvia plant. 


“It’s a great way to introduce people to bees living in your backyard,” Gratton said. “It’s a gateway into this wonderful world of bees.”

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