04/02/2021

Who’s Pollinating Your Backyard?

06:46 minutes

medium-wide shot of a bright yellow sunflower with an insect pollinating it. there are other sunflowers in the background
Credit: Shutterstock

April is Citizen Science month, and Science Friday is celebrating with events and activities all throughout the month. SciFri’s Education Director Ariel Zych talks about our partnership with the Great Sunflower Project, which asks participants to observe a plant for five minutes, and record all of the pollinators that visit it. The data will be collected in a national database, helping scientists examine how pesticides are affecting pollinators—and how to improve pollinator habitats.


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Segment Guests

Ariel Zych

Ariel Zych is Science Friday’s education director. She is a former teacher and scientist who spends her free time making food, watching arthropods, and being outside.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: April is Citizen Science Month. And a really good way to get involved is some hands-on science. And why not? As we talk about pollinators. Center our Science Fridays crowd science project for the month around pollinators. Why not?

Here to tell us about that project and how you can get involved, is Sci Fri’s Education Director Ariel Zytch. Welcome, Ariel.

ARIEL ZYTCH: Hi, Ira. How’s it going?

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about Citizen Science Month. What’s going on?

ARIEL ZYTCH: Well, Citizen Science Month in the month of April is an opportunity for anyone to go out and do science, share data, participate in the process of research and knowing our world a little better. And this month, we have partnered with SciStarter and The Great Sunflower Project to get you up and close with some pollinators in your area. It’s a great month to watch pollinators do their thing.

IRA FLATOW: No fooling. OK, let’s talk about it. Science Friday is teaming up with a project in particular called The Great Sunflower Project. What is that?

ARIEL ZYTCH: So The Great Sunflower Project is a project that’s asking anyone everywhere to go out and watch a flower and report back to scientists who is visiting that flower. So it can be a sunflower. You can see you can plant sunflowers and watch sunflowers, which are pollinator magnets.

But you can actually watch any kind of flower you want to, including bushes that are flowering, trees that are flowering, your daffodils. And you can watch them for as little or as long as you want. Ideally, 15 or 20 minutes, sit there, look at a flower. And just record who visits, whether it’s bees, or flies, butterflies, hummingbirds.

And what that does is it helps paint a picture for how pollinators are doing around the country. You can participate in this project anywhere in any setting, in your backyard, at local park, at a restaurant table that has a big bouquet on it. It doesn’t really matter. But what we’re trying to do is help paint a picture of how land use changes and how the availability of different plants is influencing pollinator species. It’s a massive data project that is perfect for really any age to participate in.

IRA FLATOW: So you don’t have to use a sunflower. But it’s called The Great Sunflower Project because you could grow a sunflower, like I do.

ARIEL ZYTCH: That’s right. And the origins of the project really did start with using sunflowers as a single species to observe. But now the project’s really blossomed, if you will, into covering really any flowering plant.

IRA FLATOW: And what do you report back? What are we looking for? Should you be taking notes about what you see?

ARIEL ZYTCH: Yeah. So there’s a really simple data sheet. You can print it out on our website or on the project website. It basically asks you how long have you been watching a plant? What plant are you watching, so what type of flower are you looking at? And then you get your clipboard and just count any insects that visit.

And actually, if no insects visit the flower that you’re watching, that’s also really important data. So even if you end up with a very lonely flower, that is an important data point. So anyone can do this. And really it’s meditative, actually. It’s like the perfect relaxation spring activity.

IRA FLATOW: A lot of people think that honeybees are the only kinds of pollinators. But there are all different kinds of pollinators, right?

ARIEL ZYTCH: So many different kinds of pollinators. And they’re all wonderful and cool. Some of them look like honeybees, even though they are flies. Some beetles look like wasps. There’s a whole mess of pollinators.

Even bats. If you’re one of the blessed folks who has a flowering agave or a century plant in the desert Southwest, you can also do this. And maybe you’ll see some bats visiting your plant. Maybe you’ll see hummingbirds visiting a plant in your yard. So you’ll really get a sense for how diverse pollinators are with this activity.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. All right, I’m eager to do this. So I go out and I collect my notes and I put it on the form. What happens to all this data that I and all the rest of us are collecting?

ARIEL ZYTCH: So this data goes into a national repository of pollinator species count data. You’ve heard about this with birds. You’ve heard about this with other species of plants. Things like iNaturalist, other projects that have done this thing.

But really what that allows is to observe changes over time and space in the number and species richness of pollinators. That’s really important data if you’re trying to say, track how something like pesticide use, or land development, or agriculture, or even butterfly gardening is influencing local pollinators. You need that data.

And so what’s so great about this data is it also becomes open access. So anyone can access this data for research, including just the curious of mind and spirit. And so it’s really this big collaborative project in support of pollinators.

IRA FLATOW: Now I know you studied entomology. And I know you’re a beekeeper. Should I assume that these bees are your favorite pollinators, or do you have a secret other favorite pollinator?

ARIEL ZYTCH: Well, bees are wonderful. They are not my favorite pollinator. I have a love of solitary wasps. I’m very, very fond of the Chrysididae, which are these like beautiful metallic blue and green wasps. They actually parasitize the nests of other wasps, which is super interesting.

I also really like the sweat bees because they’re beautiful and they co-evolved with mammals. And so there’s this really neat evolutionary history. I’m extremely partial to the pretty shiny and brightly colored mini bees, as you will, and wasps that are on flowers. They are so much cooler.

[LAUGHTER]

IRA FLATOW: All right. So if we want to get involved, give us the ABCs of how to get involved here.

ARIEL ZYTCH: Yeah. It’s really easy. So visit sciencefriday.com/citizenscience to sign up for the project and download your data sheet. You’ll be able to register right there. You’ll also get opportunities to visit a couple of events we’ve got going on online this month. So you can participate in a pollinator smackdown and listen to a bunch of different scientists try to get you to vote for your favorite type of pollinator, whether it’s bats, or flies, or bees.

We also will have a Q&A session on how to participate in the project if you want to kind of meet other people who are participating and talk to the scientists who are running that project. That’s on our website. And it’s going throughout the month of April. This project actually runs year round but we’re really excited to partner with SciStarter and The Great Pollinator Project this month for that activity. So sciencefriday.com/citizenscience will get you everything you need.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Great way to kick off spring, Ariel. Thank you for taking time to tell us about this and for all the work you do for us.

ARIEL ZYTCH: Oh, thanks so much. Yeah, it’s a total pleasure. Get out there and watch some flowers, folks. It’ll be fun.

IRA FLATOW: Ariel Zytch, Science Friday’s education director. And if you want to participate in our crowd science project, as she says, or see the entire list of events and activities, go to our website, sciencefriday.com/citizenscience.

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