Counting bees…which bees?

The concept of citizen science is as old as the hills, but large-scale coordinated projects are growing in popularity, especially those with digital engagement tools. It’s always great to see new projects that fill an important knowledge gap and engage the public with the natural world.

Recording biodiversity sightings is an easy and rewarding way to get involved. There are plenty of opportunities to contribute to coordinated data collections, such as iNaturalist or Atlas of Living Australia. Other projects have more standardised scientific goals, such as the UK’s Pollinator Monitoring Scheme, the USA’s Great Sunflower Project, and our own Australian Wild Pollinator Count (disclaimer: this is my own project).

So what about new projects that overlap existing projects and don’t provide clear information about how the data will be used?

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a new crop of ‘projects’ spring up to align with World Bee Day at the end of May.

If you’ve never heard of World Bee Day, it was started a couple of years ago by the United Nations and is very much focused on European honey bees and beekeeping. Official promotional material comes with lots of fine-print caveats and statements that they also care about all other bees and non-bee pollinators. But Communication 101 tells us that imagery and word choices have a huge influence on public audience interpretation and engagement.

The World Bee Day website and associated promotions are dominated by imagery of honey bees and beekeeping. Would non-specialists connote ‘other bees’ from these images? Would the casual observer think of ‘other pollinators’ when ‘bees’ is the only word on offer?

These new projects mirror the pollinator scicomm confusion of World Bee Day: they claim to be for all pollinators, but their communication strategy focuses on bees, specifically European honey bees.

  • World Bee Count app was supposed to be released on May 1, but appears to be delayed. The aims of the app are not clear on the website, and the people behind the Twitter account haven’t replied to my questions. The whole purpose of the project appears rather vague and confusing. The organisations behind the ‘world bee count movement’ include two honey bee enterprises and a data analytics centre. The project logo suggests honey bees, and most of the language and feature images used to describe the project send the message that this is all about honey bees. They are asking followers to tweet pictures of pollinators with the hashtag #beescount to contribute to a Global Pollinator Map, but it’s not clear what this map will be used for. And why a ‘bee count’ if they’re interested in all pollinators?
  • Urban GreenUP (who I recently discovered via Twitter and know very little about) are also advertising a #Flowers4Bees hashtag project to engage people with World Bee Day. Same issues apply as mentioned above for World Bee Count.

Beyond the basic communication errors, another major issue with these projects is that they don’t appear to acknowledge existing projects that already achieve their goals.

We already have global maps of pollinator observations: e.g. try iNaturalist and GBIF. We already have national/regional pollinator citizen science projects; they’re not hard to find with a quick internet search (e.g. see second paragraph above).

So what is the goal of these new projects? What are the data going to be used for? Are the organisers collaborating with existing projects?

Why does this matter?

  • Honey bees are not the poster pollinator. This is a common myth that ignores many wicked problems and confuses the messages of existing science communication efforts about wild pollinator ecology and conservation. (1) Honey bees are invasive species in many parts of the world; (2) They are a managed pollinator, which must not be confounded with wild pollinators. Managed species can be buffered from many environmental problems because we look after them and help them reproduce, unlike wild species that have to deal with environmental change on their own; (3) They are not even the best pollinator for every plant in the world.
  • Citizen science fatigue. I’m not aware of any research that tests this, but there is potential for competition between similar projects to affect the success of individual projects, new or old.
  • Community education and engagement. One key aim of good citizen science projects is to educate and engage participants with relevant knowledge. So if a new project is dominated by misleading information, but gets lots of public attention, how does this affect the broader efforts of science communication and public engagement relevant to the topic?
  • Funding for citizen science. Most citizen science projects are run voluntarily or with limited funding. It’s really hard to convince funding bodies to support citizen science projects, especially smaller scale ones. Privately-funded entrepreneurial schemes that don’t do due diligence to identify existing overlaps can have damaging effects on citizen science as a whole.

At the end of the day, we all want to help pollinators, including bees. These new projects seem exciting because they tap in to our desire to help. So here are a few questions to think about when deciding whether to contribute to a new citizen science project. None of these are trick questions and there are no right answers!

  • Who is running the project?
  • Who is funding the project?
  • What is the goal of the project?
  • What will you gain from participating?
  • Will you learn something new from participating in the project?
  • Is the project organiser, or someone else, gaining commercial benefits from your data?
  • Will you be credited for those data?
  • What will your data be used for?
  • Will your data contribute to scientific knowledge?


© Manu Saunders 2020


4 thoughts on “Counting bees…which bees?

  1. Sue Ashford May 17, 2020 / 1:43 AM

    great material thank you but I can’t find the information about ‘which bees’ and I would like to know given that often we are told that ‘native bees’ aren’t good pollinators


  2. Tom Saunders May 19, 2020 / 12:17 PM

    This is something I think of every time I see a new ‘app’ released by a small group of researchers or an organisation to record observations of a small subset of taxa within a small area. I understand why passionate people want to try to raise awareness or get more data on their focal species, but honestly, most of these apps or projects would probably achieve their aims faster, cheaper, and with far less duplication of effort by using iNaturalist.

    If its just recording observations, why not tap into a massive existing user base? Why compete with a fully-fledged biodiversity recording app? Why pour funders money into development and marketing when you could just be marketing an iNat project instead. The kinds of people who are most likely to engage with these kinds of apps or projects have probably already got iNat installed on their phone anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David May 25, 2020 / 3:40 AM

    I’m unconvinced by your complaint(s) in this instance. If A. mellifera isn’t the hook that creates awareness of other pollinating species and has positive associations for most who encounter it then decrying it as non- native or invasive simply turns off those who might be favourably encouraged to get more involved in looking into the contributions of other species.
    Crying foul from a pedantic height doesn’t serve any progressive purpose or harness any citizen energy.


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