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A new tool from UW-Madison to explore crop pollinators
Katy Thostenson, WiBee Project Coordinator

On any warm, sunny day during the growing season, you can observe an abundance of different species of wild bees visiting fruit and vegetable blooms: bumble bees, honey bees, leafcutter bees, mason bees, or my favorite, the small metallic green sweat bees from the Halictidae family.

Wild bees are uniquely adapted to Wisconsin’s climate and ecosystems, yet their populations (and contribution to crop pollination) vary from farm-to-farm based on the local availability of foraging habitat (i.e. flowers), nesting habitat and pesticide use. This local variation in pollinator abundance and diversity is one reason why it is challenging to provide farm-specific information about the strength of the local pollinator community for crop pollination. With just a handful of researchers out in the field each growing season collecting data, it’s difficult for our lab to gather enough data to model wild bee abundance and diversity across Wisconsin’s landscapes.

But we have a solution! The Gratton Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has partnered with Gwenyn Hill Farm to develop a citizen science smartphone app that will allow us and growers like you to survey wild bees on Wisconsin farms. We created WiBee: The Wisconsin Wild Bee App, and we invite you to take part in the program this spring 2020. (While our lab is currently focused on developing the program in Wisconsin, anyone can use the app to begin exploring the wild bee populations on their farms and follow the project with our newsletter.)

A new smartphone app to survey the wild bees on your farm

The WiBee App is a tool designed for growers to observe and collect data on the abundance and diversity of wild bees visiting their crops, and monitor changes in bee communities over time on their farms and in the surrounding agricultural landscape. We’ve designed the app to show you insights about the data you are collecting in real-time, so the app becomes a tool you can use to track and improve the pollinator community on your farm.

Whether your goals are to save money renting honey bee hives for pollination services, improve the health of your local ecosystem, or improve crop yields or quality, it’s helpful to be able to document pollinator activity year-to-year and see trends resulting from changes to practices on or adjacent to your farm. With hundreds of people across Wisconsin’s agricultural lands collecting data during the growing season, our lab will also be building a valuable dataset that can help us study the complex interactions between landscapes and wild bee communities, and share any implications for crop pollination with growers.

Improving our pollinator communities with more flowers

Both wild bees and managed honey bees pollinate many important fruit and vegetable crops, including apples, berries, squash, melons and cucumbers. A poorly-pollinated crop can result in lower yields and deformed fruit. This spring as you walk around your farm, take a look at your fields and the surrounding landscape: how many flowers (crop or wild) do you see in bloom? Landscapes with an abundance of flowers throughout the growing season tend to have a larger, more diverse wild bee community.

How to get started

  1. Download WiBee: The Wisconsin Wild Bee app (available for both Android and iPhone).

  2. Visit our website to learn how to identify bees and collect data: www.pollinators.wisc.edu/wibee.

  3. Watch our 4 minute introductory video.

  4. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter to stay in the know.

  5. Connect with us at upcoming grower conferences, including the Wisconsin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Conference in the Dells (Jan. 27) and the Organic Vegetable Production Conference in Madison (Feb. 1).

  6. At the end of the growing season, submit a W-9 form to receive a $50 honorarium for participating in the project (Wisconsin growers only). Contact OFGA with any thoughts or questions.

About the Author

Katy Thostenson is the project coordinator for WiBee: The Wisconsin Wild Bee App, developed by the Gratton Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Entomology in partnership with Gwenyn Hill Farm.

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