Quit smoking. Lose ten pounds. Yada yada yada. I'd much rather people resolve to become citizen scientists in the coming year. The rise of on-line social networking sites, cuts in funding for scientific research, and an increasing urgency to stem myriad environmental problems have brewed the perfect storm for a burgeoning amateur science movement, and there are plenty of good projects which could really use our help. Two are particularly noteworthy for both plant lovers and gardeners.

The first is Project BudBurst, which invites participants to watch the trees and plants native to their areas for leafing and flowering times. The data collected will be used to monitor climate change across the U.S. But, since it lets us get our hands dirty, I think the second project's especially appealing. The Great Sunflower Project is a citizen science initiative set up to track the ongoing declines in various bee populations throughout the U.S. and Canada. Participants are asked to plant sunflowers and check one of them twice a month for visiting honey bees and bumblebees, among others. Observation periods last no longer than 30 minutes each, and as soon as observers count five visiting bees, they can stop and log their results on-line.

Gretchen LeBuhn heads the project and says some parts of the U.S. are still really underrepresented: "We have a big hole in the southwestern part of the country. Northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, Utah, a little bit of Colorado. We have spotty coverage there, and I'd really love to get increases in some of those areas." To get involved you need only promise to count the bees on a single sunflower throughout the summer and into fall. You'll be mailed a packet of "Lemon Queen" sunflower seeds, and, when the weather warms, you simply plant them and wait. Why Lemon Queen? "By using all the same variety of sunflower, we know that the amount of nectar and pollen available to the bees and the size of the flower are pretty much the same across all the different yards that it's found in," LeBuhn explains.

Even so, there will be instances in which sunflower growers won't see any bees. It goes without saying, these will be the important data points of all.

Story by Susan Brackney. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in Decemeber 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Be a citizen scientist in 2009
I'd much rather people resolve to become citizen scientists in the coming year.