Fall 2021

Natural Selections

Photo by Jeremy Hemberger


On any given summer day in Wisconsin, if the sun is shining, bees abound in fields, prairies, and woodlands, hard at work collecting pollen and nectar. And some of these beneficial insects are under close surveillance.

Growers, gardeners, researchers, and others are using WiBee: The Wisconsin Wild Bee App to track bees and their flower visitations. It’s all part of a new citizen science effort to observe and collect high-quality data on the abundance, diversity, and activity of wild bees in the state. A research team led by entomology professor Claudio Gratton launched WiBee last year with funding from Gwenyn Hill Farm and the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment.

“The project started with apple growers reaching out to the Gratton lab, asking whether they need honeybees on their property or if they could rely on wild bees instead,” explains WiBee outreach specialist Colleen Satyshur. “It costs money to rent honeybee hives, and there’s coordination involved, so [they wanted to know whether] they had enough wild bees around to pollinate their apples.”

More than one-third of the planet’s food crops depend on pollination, and bees are the most efficient pollinators in many cases. In Wisconsin, bees are essential to many of the state’s fruit and vegetable crops, such as cranberries, cherries, melons, and squash.

Many growers in Wisconsin and elsewhere rely on European honeybees for pollination services. But the state has more than 400 species of native wild bees that may be able to help do the job. The extent to which they can help, however, is unknown.

Enter the WiBee project. Its goals are to collect the data needed to monitor trends in wild bee communities, share recommendations on pollination management, and eventually help bolster native bee populations.

“The app provides a tool for growers and farmers to track their own pollination and start to make evidence-based decisions depending on the pollination they are seeing on their own properties,” Satyshur says. “And when the full data analysis is complete, we will have more specific recommendations.”

The WiBee app can be downloaded for Android or iOS. Image by Place.To

The WiBee app collects bee visitation data through user surveys. For each five-minute survey, users watch bees as they visit flowers in a 3-by-3-foot area. Since bee behavior is highly influenced by time of day, weather, or even just a passing cloud, researchers need large quantities of data — including repeat surveys at the same locations — to develop pollination management recommendations.

“Bees fluctuate a lot between years, within a season, and among farms, so it is hard to get a simple view of what bee communities look like on farms with only casual observations,” Gratton says. “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. You need long-term, consistent data to see trends. This is one of the things that WiBee will help with as more and more observations are made.”

Preliminary results from the project show that farms and orchards located near woodlands, wetlands, or urban development are likely to have more wild bee visits. When it comes to apple orchards, the researchers found a lot of variation — including some promising numbers.

“Our data show that some orchards appear to have sufficient pollination from wild bees, according to the [established threshold],” Satyshur says.

In 2020, 116 app users conducted 891 surveys in total, and things are on track to at least double this amount in 2021. The most well-represented crop plants so far include apple, cranberry, and cucurbits. Wildflower and ornamental flower data have been coming in from Wisconsin Master Gardener Volunteers and other users. The project still needs more data of all kinds from around the state, Satyshur notes, particularly for berry crops and tomatoes, and she encourages interested individuals to download and try the app.

Five Ways to Help Wild Bees

1. Download the WiBee app on Android or iOS to learn about Wisconsin’s wild bees and help collect data.
2. Assess the bee friendliness of your property.
3. Keep a part of your yard “messy.” Dead wood or brush can provide habitat for cavity-nesting bees.
4. Reduce use of wood mulch, which can block ground-nesting bees.
5. Minimize pesticide use in your yard.

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