About the Project:

Q: What’s your goal?

A: Understand what flowers support bumble bees and which do not! We want to create a robust list of the best plants for bumble bees to provide to land managers, and anyone else who wants to help the bumbles. We can determine the bumbles favorite and not-so-favorite flowers by identifying every species available to them and recording which flowers they visit. The top bumble bee plants are not necessarily what you think.


Q: What is this project, and who runs it?

A: Ask A Bumble Bee is a collaborative community science survey trying to understand bumble bee floral preference. It was created and is managed by Jenan El-Hifnawi and Sam Droege of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (USGS BIML). Our website is managed by Denise Ellsworth of Ohio State University, which is why the site is OSU branded!


Q: Can I do this as a group activity with my organization? Can we survey together?

A: Yes!! We encourage sharing the survey with any groups you’re involved in. If you want to receive data analysis for your groups data alone, simply note that when you contact bumblebeecount@gmail.com to sign up! You will be assigned a project number and will receive independent analysis!

If you’re interested in surveying together, just make sure you don’t survey the same area at the same time. You can work together to do one survey (e.g. one person takes photos and transcribes data while you both look for bees), but if you do this, please note that there were 2 observers on the datasheet. Alternatively, you both can do independent surveys of different areas still stay together! I do this by surveying along a trail and having my friend cover the area to the left of the trail while I cover everything to the right.


Q: There’s iNaturalist, Bumblebee watch, Beecology app (MA). Why another? Does this survey tie in with Bumble Bee Watch, Bumble Bee Atlas, etc…?

A: This survey is about the plants that bumble bees use while the other surveys (ultimately you save bumble bees by planting things or altering the environment to favor their favorite plants) are more about the bumble bee distribution and abundance.  The data from this study will be public and can be analyzed for bumble bee information, but that is not the primary goal here…it’s about what they feed upon and what they pass over.


When and Where to Survey:


Q: Where do you want to collect data from?

A: Our focus is on the Northeast US aka FWS region 5 aka Connecticut, Delaware, DC, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.  BUT! We hope to expand to the entire US and Canada in the future, so we are more than happy to accept data from the rest of the US and Canada. Data from outside the Northeast will be saved and will hopefully be analyzed upon completing analysis for the Northeast.


Q: When can I survey?

A: Anytime bumble bees are active! This is early Spring through Fall (roughly March through October in Maryland), and around 9 am to 4 pm. We have some restrictions listed on the instructions, but these are just to discourage people from looking for bees in conditions that you’re unlikely to find them (e.g. raining, cold, nighttime). If you happen to find bees in these less-than-ideal conditions, feel free to survey anyway!


Q: Can I do a bumble bee survey wherever I want?

A: Yes, as long as you have permission to be there we encourage you to count bumblebees. Consider doing bumblebee surveys during your lunch break at work, on picnics, and while visiting relatives that you need to escape from.


Q: Is there a requirement of area to cover in the survey?

A: There is no area requirement, however we ask you to pick an area that will take approximately 30 minutes to survey. If you have a small area that doesn’t take 30 minutes to cover, try to extend your survey by including nearby areas.


Q: Can I cover two non-contiguous areas in a single survey? Like my yard and my friend’s yard down the street?

A: You bet….many yards may be too small to fit one survey in, so moving out to the surrounding area would be required anyway. Just make sure you’re in roughly the same area (within about a mile of where your survey began).


Q: How often should I survey?

A: As much as you can – it’s totally up to you! There’s no minimum or maximum frequency for surveying. Feel free to survey all day every day, or to just do a single survey and stop permanently (but you will be missed!) .


Q: Should I be surveying the same area repeatedly, or new areas?

A: Totally up to you! Feel free to survey the same area an infinite number of times, or to do one off surveys of new areas, or both! For example, Sam surveys his yard every day, but also will do a one-off survey on the side of the highway if he sees some nice bumbles.


Q: Sometimes bumbles seem to prefer non-native plants to the native ones available…  Is this non-native pollen as nutritious as native pollen?  Can we know whether the bees are making “good choices” for their health, as opposed to picking the “large iced coffee with double sugar” or the “super-sized soda” of the flower world? Should I plant non-natives if bees visit them?

A: Hard to say, that information may be out there, but we don’t know the literature.  In general native will always be more supportive to wild insects, but bumble bees are generalists so non-native plants (all else being considered) could be fine.



Identifying Plants and Using Seek:


Q: Do you need floral identification to species?

A: Not at all! We accept any level of ID, whether that’s a species, genus, family, etc. You even can just write a description, like “big yellow clusters”!


Q: Why use Seek instead of iNaturalist?

A: Seek only uses AI for identification which results in on-site IDs without internet or cellular data! iNaturalist uses actual people as well as AI, which generally results in better accuracy, but it can take days or weeks to get your IDs and requires internet. The speedy IDs and ability to work in the field without reception make Seek ideal for this project!


Q: Do I have to use Seek?

A: No! We use Seek to help identify flowers, but it’s not crucial. If you know all your flowers, simply use a camera or camera app to take photos of the flowers and identify them yourself. If you encounter a flower you don’t know, take a picture as usual and write a description of it on the datasheet (e.g. small white daisy-like).  If you don’t know any flowers, Seek will likely be worthwhile to avoid mixing up which flowers are which.


Q: I already use a plant identification app other than Seek. Can I use it instead?

A: Totally! Feel free to use any app you trust to identify plants, we’ll confirm the IDs anyway.


Q: Why isn’t Seek working? Everything is identified as “Dicot”, and it keeps crashing!

A: Sorry for the frustration and note that you actually don’t need a definitive identification for the survey we will check every photo that you take! Seek can be a pain, but a couple changes in how you’re using it can make all the difference. If Seek is failing to ID plants, try to “scan” the plant for longer by holding the plant in frame of your camera without actually snapping a picture. Show the plant to your camera for up to about 10-15 seconds, then try showing other parts of the plant if you still don’t have an ID.  Pretend there’s a tiny botanist in your phone trying to figure out the ID, but they need a good look at the important features (e.g. flower, base of plant, leaves, stems, underside of leaves, etc.). Seek tends to crash if you use it to take many photos in a row. Avoid this by only using Seek for plants you don’t know and use your camera app to snap quick photos of flowers you can identify yourself.  If it does crash, clear it from your app history and reopen the app. Seek is there only to help you with names and keep track of the flowers, naming things yourself is totally fine since we will be identifying all the flowers from your pictures in any case, so putting something down like a reasonable “small purple mint” is fine.


Q: Do I have to photograph every flower?  What if bees don’t visit? What if I know my flowers?

A: Yes! Take a picture of every flower, regardless of bee visitation, and even if you know your floral IDs. These pictures are crucial to your data, as we need to verify floral IDs! Even if you are an expert botanist yourself, it’s still protocol to verify your IDs!  And, you don’t need to use Seek if you think you know the name of the flower.


Q: If I survey the same location over and over, can I reuse my flower photos?

A: Better to take new photos because we use the time stamp on the photo to match up the photo to your written observation.


Survey Details:


Q: Can you summarize the survey process?

A: Absolutely! Here it goes:


  1. Download and print your forms. Send bumblebeecount@gmail.com an email to be added to our Google Drive for uploading data.
  2. Pick a survey area! It can be anywhere that you can walk around for 30 minutes! (Suburban, urban, and wild are all good!)
  3. Wander for 30 minutes. No need for transects or area measurements, walk wherever you see bees!
  4. As you walk, photograph every blooming flower species you pass (each flower species should only be recorded once per survey), and write the name of the flower on your datasheet. REMEMBER! Include all flowers, even if bees don’t visit them!
  5. As you walk, tally any bumble bees and carpenter bees you see visiting flowers.
  6. Once you finish your survey, estimate floral abundance and distribution. We know that it is an estimation, and far from exact!!
  7. Snap a photo of your datasheet, and upload that photo along with your flower photos to Google Drive, or by email to bumblebeecount@gmail.com.


Q: Wait, no bee pictures?

A: Yes! We ONLY want photos of flowers, we do not want photos of bees! We need the flower photos to confirm floral IDs, but we trust you all to identify what is a bumble bee (note, you don’t have to identify bumble bees to species if you don’t know how to tell them apart) and a carpenter bee. We also know that it’s impossible (and distracting) to get pictures of all the bees in your survey, so we don’t expect you to try.


Q: If I spend a bunch of time trying to figure out what the plants are that I am taking a picture of, can I extend my survey to make up for that time?

A: Yes, having a survey of roughly half an hour is our target and if you have to spend extra time on the plants then just extend your survey time by roughly the same amount.


Q: If I see a bumble bee near a plant can I count it as being on that plant?

A: No, bumble bees can only be counted if they are actually on a flower, if you see a bumble bee flying around then it should not be counted (sadly).


Q: If I see a bumble bee on a plant that is more than 10 feet away can I count it?

A: No, only bumble bees within 10 feet are countable, however, you can simply walk over there to where the bumblebee is and then the bumblebee will be part of the survey (that is why this survey is so fun to do, flexibility!). When you do that, of course, the plants that you encounter will change and need to be accommodated when you do your ranking and number of lots. Note! This 10-foot radius extends vertically for tall trees, so don’t count blooms over 10 feet above you.


Q: If I see a bumble bee zipping by and can’t tell what flower it was visiting, should I log it?

A: No! We only care about floral preference, so if the bee doesn’t visit a flower, or if you don’t know what it visited, don’t count it! Pretend it is invisible!


Q: Should I count things such as pansies, vegetable plants, and commercial tea roses as a “flower”?

A:  Yes, we are interested in these “tame” plants too.  Basically, any blooming flower is game and the more flowers that are included the better as that will increase our sample size each flower. In some ways we are really more about the species of flowers being surveyed than we are the bumble bees! Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the tiny flowering weeds!


Q: If I see another kind of bee that I can identify (such as a honey bee or a native bee of some kind) can I include that?

A: Nope, it gets too complicated and distracting to count other things besides bumble bees and carpenter bees. However, we are tempted to let people count Monarch butterflies (more on that later).


Q: Hey, is that a bumble bee?

A: Maybe! Check out our identification resources by hovering over the “Survey Resources” tab. There’s a PDF document comparing bumble bees, carpenter bees, and honey bees, as well as two digital flashcard sets. One set is for bumble bees vs carpenter bees, and the other is for bumble bee species IDs and bumble bee lookalikes.


Q: If I see a bumble bee and I’m pretty sure I know what species it is, should I go ahead and mark it down as that species?

A: No, only include identifications of bumble bees that you are hundred percent sure of, all of us will have bumble bees on our surveys that are unknown. It’s tricky!


Q: What if I can identify a couple bumble bees to species, but I can’t identify most of them?

A:  Only record the bee to species if you are 100% sure about your identification! We recommend using the form with species-level IDs and recoding all the ones that you can’t ID as “Bombus unknown” by using column 6. If you’re already using the form without species-level IDs, but you see bees that you can identify to species, just make a note of the species somewhere on the form.


Q: Do you track preference by species?  Aren’t they very different, especially different tongue lengths?

A: Yes we do, but people and us often can’t tell what the species is because we can’t get close enough. Additionally, many of the differences simply come out between used and unused plant species.  So, yes, we like the species data, and different species do seem to use slightly different resources, but it is not critical because most of the time people will be planting for the entire bumble bee community, not just one species.


Q: How do you identify a Queen vs. Worker vs. Male?

A:  We actually only differentiate males and females.  But, for reference, within a species queens are much larger, but rarely have additional characters that are visible (this is why we aren’t tracking them…too difficult).  Males average thinner, longer antennae and do not have a pollen carrying hind leg (see pictures, females have a wide flat area to hold pollen).  If you see a bumble bee carrying a lot of pollen on a leg you can be confident it is a female. If not  you have also have to look closely AND there is a chance you are looking at one of the rare female parasitic bumble bees (like Bombus citrinus) and those females also do not have pollen carrying baskets.  Be conservative, if unsure, put gender unknown.


Q: If your walk includes a large blooming tree how much time would you spend counting bees in that one spot?

A: Don’t spend more than a couple minutes on a single plant. Exactly how long you spend is up to you, but just estimate how many bees you see rather than counting them all. Keep in mind, any blooms and bees farther and higher than 10 feet from you are not included in your survey! If you’re identifying bees to species, identify a couple of the bees, and call the rest Bombus unknown.


Q: What if I see the same bee visit a flower twice?

A: If you watch a bee leave one bloom and fly to the next, only count the bee one time. If you see a bee visit a flower and you are suspicious it may be one you counted already on a different bloom, assume it is a new bee, and count it again!


Q: What if one bee visits two different flower species?

A:  Interestingly, this is quite rare! Bumbles tend to pick one flower species to forage from for an entire day, and only visit that plant for that day. If you do happen to see them switch between plants, only record the bee once, and record it on the flower you saw it visit first.


Q: What if part of my survey area is paved?

A: No problem! Keep in mind that when estimating number of lots, only areas which can be planted should be considered part of your total survey area. In other words, if you do a survey in which you walk through a parking lot and next to a lake, you should ignore these un-plantable areas.


Q: What if I don’t have a smartphone?

A: No problem! As long as you can take photos of all the flowers and submit data through email or Google Drive, you can still participate. If you don’t know any of the floral IDs, just write a brief description of the flower.


Q: What if I’m interrupted mid-survey?

A: You can take a break in the middle of a survey! Just resume surveying on the same day and in the same general location.


Floral Quantification! Assigning Number of Lots and Floral Rank


Q: Can you provide an example of estimating floral rank and number of lots?

A: Check out the “Demo Survey Example” by hovering over “The Survey” tab on our website!


Q: How does floral rank work? What if you have two equally abundant plants?

A: Floral rank is pretty intuitive! Try to rank plants from most abundant to least abundant (most abundant = #1). Abundance is based on the area of blooms (ignore leaves, stems, etc.), so another way to think about is by asking yourself, which species has the greatest area of blooms? If I were to pick all the flowers and flatten them out on a paper, which species could cover the greatest area? If you have equally abundant plants, feel free to call it a tie and assign them the same rank! If you have 2 plants tied for first place, the next most abundant flower would be ranked #2 (even though it is technically the 3rd most abundant plant).


Q: How the heck do I estimate #lots?

A: For #lots, we are trying to capture if a flower species is spread across your survey area or concentrated in a small section. To do this, we basically ask you to estimate what fraction of your survey area contains a specific flower species. We ask you to do this by mentally dividing your survey area roughly into 25 chunks of equal size, and estimating how many of those lots the flower appears in. The chunks are not used in any part of the survey, other than estimating #lots. We divide the survey into lots instead of simply asking for percent coverage because we don’t care how much of a lot is occupied by the flower. If you have a single dandelion or a small patch of dandelions, those are both just a single lot, but they would be different percent coverage. Percent coverage accounts for abundance as well as distribution, while # lots captures distribution alone (which we like!!).


Q: Why do we need to estimate #lots out of 25?

A: Number of Lots is a measure of floral distribution. The goal is to understand if flowers are spread across your survey area, or concentrated in a small area.  We measure distribution separately from abundance because you can have an abundant flower in a small area (e.g. a single big azalea bush), or a flower that is widespread but not abundant (e.g. small buttercups speckling your entire path).


Q: Is it always 25 lots? If I just survey my garden, can I say it’s just one lot?

A: Each survey has 25 lots, PERIOD! No matter how big or how small your survey area is, you should divide it into 25 LOTS. It can be tempting to call a discrete unit like a planting bed or a backyard a single lot, but THAT IS NOT CORRECT! The sole purpose of #lots is to capture how distributed flowers are across your survey area. Ask yourself, what fraction of my survey area out of 25 contains this plant?


Q: How big should each lot be?

A: Each lot is roughly 1/25th of your survey area, so it depends on how much area you cover! If you survey somewhere like a botanical garden with high floral richness and diversity, 30 minutes of surveying won’t get you very far. If you’re somewhere with low floral richness and diversity, you can cover a much larger area. Surveys that cover a large area will have bigger lots than surveys that cover a small area.


Q: Should I photograph a flower species each time it appears in a new lot?

A: NOPE!! Each plant should only be photographed and recorded on your datasheet ONCE! Only record a flower if it’s the first time you’ve seen that flower in your ENTIRE SURVEY!   It would also be difficult to accomplish since “lot” boundaries are defined after you finish the survey and are not fixed on the ground in any sort of way.