A Swarm of Volunteers, a Honey of an Idea

Noah Berger for The Chronicle

Gretchen LeBuhn, a biologist at San Francisco State U., has attracted 80,000 volunteers, and counting, to her continuing honeybee census.
May 28, 2010

Gretchen LeBuhn planned a fairly typical project to study honeybees in 2008. She would use a little leftover grant money to plant patches of vegetation in California's Napa Valley and send out a few students to survey how often the bees visited. Bee colonies have been disappearing, and Ms. LeBuhn hoped to study what wild bees were doing and how it affected plant pollination.

Then she thought, Why not go bigger?

Ms. LeBuhn, an associate professor of biology at San Francisco State University, created the Great Sunflower Project in 2008 to cover more ground and more plants. She sent e-mails to a few master gardening groups across the country, explaining that she would send sunflower seeds to interested volunteers. They would then catalog how often honeybees visited the plants, and enter data on her Web site,

By getting data from different geographic regions, she hoped to discern wider patterns that would not be obvious from a few observations in Napa Valley.

She expected to get 5,000 volunteers. But two weeks after the Web site went online, she had three times that number ready to plant seeds.

She ended up sending seeds to as many people as she could: about 25,000 eager gardeners, schoolchildren and teachers, and other volunteers set to plant sunflowers from April to June.

Having so many people ready to help but little money for the research, and so few undergraduate helpers, made for some difficult moments, Ms. LeBuhn says.

But as a scholar, she has found project thrilling. "It's sort of a wonderful thing to discover there's a community of concerned citizens that were willing to be part of a scientific study," she says.

She now runs the project every year, but to save money she asks volunteers to purchase their own seeds, if possible. In 2009, the second year of the project, 55,000 people participated. So far this year, the number is up to 80,000. Volunteers can post pictures on a Flickr page of the bees they see in their gardens, so Ms. LeBuhn can identify the species.

The volunteers have also provided Ms. LeBuhn with another valuable piece of information. Along with their reports about sunflowers, some write and talk about the other plants in their gardens that attract honeybees.

She has begun analyzing the data, which she hopes to make publicly available as soon as possible.