Sunflower project is an easy, fun way to count pollinators

Elizabeth O’Connell

When we started our Port garden, we had a small orchard of full-sized stone fruit trees in our back yard.

They arched over the path to our little greenhouse, creating a flowery tunnel in the spring.

A loud hum from the hundreds of honey bees working on the blossoms filled the air all day long.

The sound was a promise of bushels of fruit to come.

Those bees had a huge hive in an old shagbark tree across the street, but sadly both the bees and the trees are distant memories.

That wild hive threw at least four swarms through the years, and then one spring the bees were all gone.

Over the years, the pollination work has been taken up by wasps and bumble bees, although not in the numbers the honey bees provided, and our harvests have suffered with the change.

We don’t know what happened to the local honey bees, but their disappearance is part of a pattern across North America.

It’s a major concern since it’s estimated that about one-third of the food that reaches American tables is produced with the assistance of insect pollinators.

This month’s issue of Horticulture magazine reports on a citizen-assisted pollinator research project, the “Great Sunflower Project,” run by Dr. Gretchen LeBuhn of San Francisco State University.

She is studying native bees and pollinator numbers.

She first asked for citizen input in the southeastern United States in 2008, and word of her effort rapidly spread to more than 20,000 gardeners around the country.

The project is looking for more input from northern states like Wisconsin and Minnesota.

LeBuhn is asking volunteers to plant a pretty annual sunflower (Heianthus annuus) ‘Lemon Queen’ and count the number of pollinators that visit the flowers.

This sunflower is 5 to 6 feel tall with multiple flowers that look exactly like a sunflower should with a large brown center and sunny yellow outer petals.

The project uses an annual sunflower, not the perennial plant with the same common name.

Sunflowers are perfect plants for the project since the brown center is actually composed of dozens of small flowers filled with pollen.

It’s not necessary to be knowledgeable about insect identification to participate since pollinator numbers are what’s counted. If you don’t have a sunny spot for ‘Lemon Queen,’ there’s still a way to participate in the pollinator count.

The “Great Sunflower Project” also has another program, “Pollinator Friendly Plants and Places,” that lets you pick any plant and track the pollinator visits to it.

Neither project requires a huge commitment of time — each report requires just a 15 minute count.

See for details on the project and information on how to file a pollinator count report.

Our stone fruit trees are gone, but we still have lots of other fruit trees that need pollinators.

We’re going to plant ‘Lemon Queen’ this year, and we’ll sow the seeds sequentially so we can track the bees over the entire summer.

I think we’ll also pick a perennial and count visits to that as well.

For people trying to get children or grandchildren interested in gardening, this sounds like a perfect project.

Sunflowers are easy to grow and many children are filled with a sense of wonder about anything new. It’s the perfect opportunity to explain the web of life in our gardens and show how even the smallest creatures contribute to our well being.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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