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Citizen scientists help monitor local bee populations

Eileen Graessle, right, photographs a honeybee on a milkweed flower at the BeeBlitz in Forest Park on June 16, 2018.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

Eileen Graessle leaned in close to a patch of milkweed, as she tried to capture a photo of a honeybee in motion.

It was a difficult task, but one that Graessle relished as a volunteer for the BeeBlitz citizen science project on Saturday in Forest Park. The annual event aims to help researchers determine which species are present in the city and how their populations are changing.

“It helps to study the way that they move,” said Graessle, an amateur beekeeper who lives in Ballwin. “I also take multiple shots and then usually some of those come out exciting and defined.”

Graessle was one of nearly two dozen volunteers who first took a crash course in bee photography outside the Forest Park Visitor Center, before splitting into teams and hiking to assigned areas.

Researchers traditionally catalog species by capturing bees, preserving them and identifying them back in the lab. By using photography, the BeeBlitz offers a way to collect data without killing any bees.

“St. Louis is very unique because we have a huge native bee diversity,” Saint Louis University biology professor Gerardo Camilo said. “We have about 200 bee species in the city, of which only 8 are non-native.”

Webster University sophomore Nick Bethel, center, and Saint Louis University junior Josh Marino, right, give bee photography tips at the BeeBlitz on June 16, 2018.
Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Webster University sophomore Nick Bethel, center, and Saint Louis University junior Josh Marino, right, give bee photography tips at the BeeBlitz citizen science event.

The BeeBlitz focuses primarily on bumblebee species, in part because the distinct color patterns on their large, fuzzy bodies make them relatively easy to identify based on photographs.

After the event, volunteers uploaded their photos to an online database called BeeSpotter, where trained researchers will identify the species. The BeeBlitz project is part of an ongoing collaboration among several institutions, including Webster University, Saint Louis University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“You don’t have to know anything about bees or bee identification in order to be a part of this,” Webster University biology professor Nicole Miller-Struttmann said. “Using these photographs, people are actually helping us keep track of populations.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award. 

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