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An App to Study Crop Pollinators


by Katy Thostenson | On a warm, sunny day this past summer, I stood on an organic farm in southern Wisconsin in a patch of watermelon plants that were in full bloom. The research technicians and I were standing still as we observed insect activity on the blooms to document the abundance and diversity of wild bees visiting (and pollinating) the watermelon flowers. The patch was alive with bumble bees, honey bees, leafcutter bees, and here and there, my favorite little metallic green sweat bees from the Halictidae family. 

A smartphone app for understanding wild bees in Wisconsin

In the Gratton Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Entomology, we study the many interactions between insects and our landscapes, which often directly impact agricultural activities and indirectly impact human well-being. Kicking off in 2019, we partnered with Gwenyn Hill Farm to develop a citizen science program and smartphone app called WiBee: The Wisconsin Wild Bee App. This app is a tool that will enable growers to observe and collect data on the abundance and diversity of wild bees visiting their crops, and monitor changes in bee communities over time on their farms and in the surrounding agricultural landscape.

Counting pollinatorsGrowers rely on both wild bees and managed honey bees to pollinate many important fruit and vegetable crops, including apples, berries, squash, melons and cucumbers. A poorly-pollinated crop can have lower yields and deformed fruit, so it is important for growers to ensure that local wild bees and honey bees from managed hives are able to fully pollinate their crops. We hope that growers will use this tool to identify whether their wild bee community is healthy enough to fully pollinate their crops, or whether they need to rent honey bee hives to supplement their local wild pollinator community. 

Wild bee populations vary greatly at a local level, depending on the quantity and quality of suitable nesting habitat and the number of flowers in the surrounding landscape available for them. By increasing awareness of local bee communities, we also hope that growers will make efforts to establish more pollinator-friendly habitats in and around their fields and orchards that can help these communities grow over time.

Citizen science expands our understanding across space and time

Flowers for PollinatorsImagine trying to collect data on pollinators visiting apple blossoms during the spring bloom: the apple trees bloom for only about 10 days, the weather is constantly in flux, and there are over 100 apple orchards scattered across southern Wisconsin. Our lab and other researchers have studied wild bees for years, but with just a handful of researchers out in the field each growing season, it’s difficult to gather enough data to make farm-specific pollination recommendations. 

But with hundreds of people across a region collecting data all at once, we will have access to a powerful dataset that can help us understand the complex interactions between landscapes and wild bee communities. Our lab will be able to look at wild bee activity at a finer scale across the entire landscape and communicate changes in wild bee populations to interested growers, researchers, and citizens, and provide better, more timely pollination recommendations to local growers.

To kick off the project, Hannah Gaines Day, a research entomologist, and I hosted the first on-farm wild bee citizen science training at Gwenyn Hill Farm in July of 2019, with a group of apple and vegetable growers, local gardeners and Gwenyn Hill staff. 

Citizen ScientistsSince then, the WiBee app has gone live for both Android and iPhones, and we are continuing to refine it and add new features to allow users to explore the wild bee data they’ve collected. We’ll be talking to growers at conferences throughout the winter and preparing for data collection this upcoming growing season. A quarterly newsletter will allow us to share findings and any app updates with growers and citizen scientists who participate in the project.

You can follow our project as it fully launches this Spring 2020. Learn more on our website or sign up for our quarterly newsletter.

Katy Thostenson is the project coordinator for WiBee: The Wisconsin Wild Bee App, developed by the Gratton Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Entomology in partnership with Gwenyn Hill Farm. She is a social scientist hiding among entomologists and learns something new about the insect world every day!

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