"Relative abundance," is how Elaine Evans describes her work. It might sound like a touchy-feely, new age-y term, but in this case it is a scientific term describing the comparative prevalence of different species in her work as a bumblebee biologist.

Some 20 years ago, there was not a lot of talk about the importance of insects. At that time, most of the work was about how to control them as pests, but Evans heard a calling to work in insect conservation. In the late 1990s, bee biologists started to notice a decline in the abundance and distribution of several wild bumblebee species, but there were only short-term surveys of two or three years at a single location. There was no long-term monitoring to really know what was happening.

So Evans decided to make it happen. She started counting and documenting bees in 2007, independent of a work or research project. She recruited volunteers to work with her and added to the number of locations each year.

This year, Evans' surveys will come from several Twin Cities area sites - the Lyndale Park Peace Garden in southwest Minneapolis, the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis, Crow-Hassan Park Reserve near St. Michael, the Carl Kroening Interpretive Center in North Mississippi Regional Park in Minneapolis, Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove and Como Lake in St. Paul's Como Park.

Three surveys are conducted at each site from early July to mid-August, with a goal of counting 200 bees at each site.

There's no formal organization, but Evans has an email list and a Facebook page where she announces when a survey will be taken, and five or 10 people come for each hour-and-a-half session. Volunteers range from age 3 to 80, with the younger ones bringing parents along. They receive "about one minute" of training in how to collect bees from flowers in plastic jars.

Evans minimizes the danger of stings by explaining that when the bees are engaged in getting nectar on a flower, they will ignore you. Once volunteers have the bees in the jar, they bring the bees to her to identify and mark them with a spot of paint so they aren't counted more than once. Then the bees are let go.

What's so important about bumblebees? They help flowering plants move pollen around, explains Evans, who is working on her Ph.D. in entomology at the University of Minnesota. Pollen is how seeds are sent and fruit is produced. If we lose pollinators, we will lose plants and some of the animals that depend on those plants. Then we'll find that there are less of some kinds of foods and that they are more expensive.

The long-term data collected by Evans and volunteers raise awareness about the numbers of different species of bumblebees we have in the Twin Cities. It also helps conservation groups know what they need to work on. And beyond our metro area, the data are shared with national and international groups tracking larger geographic trends with pollinators.

If you'd like to be a part of tracking and saving pollinators, you can go to Evans' website to get on her notification list for upcoming surveys.

FFI: www.befriendingbumblebees.com www.facebook.com/pages/Minnesota-Bumble-Bee-Survey/172348559498498

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