Citizen scientists around the world are busy as bees for a University of Florida study.

A global movement called “citizen science” is gaining traction, as scientists give lay people protocols so they can collect valid data.

In this case, participants build and monitor artificial nesting habitats suitable for solitary bees and wasps. Many bees and wasps live in social colonies. Solitary ones keep to themselves and nest in tunnels.

Among methods used to build homes for the bees and wasps, participants drilled holes in wood, rock, cement or clay while others provided bamboo stems or other hollow tubes.  

Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers used social media and websites to enroll and train citizen scientists for the project. Between April 2012 and July 2014, 655 people from 30 Florida counties, 39 states and 11 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Spain and Switzerland, registered for the Native Buzz project at www.ufnativebuzz.com to participate in the project.

During the first two years of the study, residents built 10,657 potential nests from various materials. Participants monitored their nest sites weekly to see if bees and wasps established nests in the available materials.  

Results showed citizen scientists can build and monitor artificial nesting habitats for bees and wasps, a process that helps entomologists collect bee and wasp nesting data from a large geographic range.

“For me, the biggest takeaway was the level of public interest in this project,” said Jason Graham, a former UF doctoral student in entomology and nematology. While at UF, Graham worked in the lab of Jamie Ellis, a UF/IFAS associate professor in entomology and nematology and a bee expert. “People hear about the decline of pollinators, and they want to help in some way. This project provides them with a way to help and also learn more about the diversity of bees and wasps in their own backyard.”

Results of the latest two years of the study are published in the current issue of Florida Scientist. UF/IFAS researchers hopes to continue the bee-wasp citizen science project, depending on funding, Graham said.

Until 2014, entomologists had published surveys of only four of Florida’s 67 counties—Alachua, Miami-Dade, Highlands and Monroe—to document bee and wasp diversity, said Graham, now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii.

Time and geography limited entomologists in each of those surveys. Because Florida is ecologically diverse, monitoring each county continuously for a long-term study would take too much time for one scientist to do, Graham said. But by using volunteers, monitoring each county at the same time and over many seasons became possible and cost-effective.  

The project, if run over multiple years and across a large area, could provide valuable insights into the population dynamic trends of many species of solitary bees and wasps while simultaneously fostering conservation efforts for these insects.

“Many of the problems facing honey bees were first detected by beekeepers who monitor, care for and maintain their own hives,” Graham said. “However, we know very little about the pests, diseases and other problems facing solitary bees and wasps, and most of what we do know comes from scientists. This project creates the opportunity for many people to learn about these beneficial insects and to participate in solitary bee and wasp research and conservation.”