Sunflowers are a staple in many gardens. Whether they are grown for their tall stature and colorful nature, these flowers serve another purpose as attractant to pollinators, especially bees. In addition to attracting bees, these flowers can help scientists learn more about bees across the country. Participation in The Great Sunflower Project is easy and free!

About the GSP

Two Bees on Painted Wood

Participation in The Great Sunflower Project (GSP) does not require any technical knowledge or special equipment. You just have to have some sunflowers growing in your backyard and a camera. In fact, even something as simple as cellphone images work fine and the time demand is minimal as well. If that's not reason enough to join this movement, just think of this an an excuse to spend some peaceful moments in your garden enjoying the show as the pollinators go to work.

Bee pollination is key to the success of many plants in the garden, whether they are crops or wildflowers. Fruit trees, squash, penstemons, these are just a few of the groups of plants that rely upon bees are pollinators. With stories about colony collapse and pesticide use destroying bee populations in the news, these important creatures could use a little help.

The project was started by Dr. Gretchen LeBuhn at San Francisco State University in 2008 to look at bee populations across North America. Undertaking a pollinator study is a huge task and Dr. LeBuhn thought why not involve citizen scientists to help gather data? Hence, the GSP germinated and flowered.

What Makes This Sunflower Great

Gardeners that take part in the project plant seeds of ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflowers. A cultivar of the common sunflower Helianthus annus, ‘Lemon Queen’ is an annual that grows just about anywhere. Bees are attracted to the flowers for pollen and nectar and the large open face of the flower makes viewing bees easy. Also, having one type of sunflower also provides a consistent factor in the study – looking at bees on one type of plant growing across the country. That way, the data is comparable from California to Kalamazoo.

These seeds are available from many mail order seed catalogs or found in nurseries or farm stores. Just make sure to select the annual variety and that the seeds have not been treated with any type of pesticide, especially a neonicotinoid treatment. To be sure, purchase an organic variety. GSP partners with Renee’s Garden Seeds on the project, so that nursery is a good source for organic seeds. Using the coupon code FR225A, Renee’s Seeds will donate 25% of the proceeds to the GSP.

Sign Up and Participate

Field of Balsam Root Sunflowers

To participate, sign up on the GSP’s website and plant the seeds. It’s that simple and it’s free. Alternatively, you can start your plants first and then sign up. The GSP’s website offers a lot of information about bee ecology and identification. There are also guides as to how to participate in the study.

Basically, once the flowers bloom, participants will observe the bees visiting a flower over a short time period of at least fifteen minutes. Do this at least twice a month once early in the month and again later in the month, not just two consecutive days. Count the number and type of bees that visit the flowers and how often they do; a camera or cellphone is a great way to capture an image of the visiting pollinator and to aid in identification. The pictures can be submitted along with the data. The observational data will eventually create a nationwide picture of bee populations and how they are faring.

How To Record Observations

When getting ready to count, have a watch and data sheet to record information. Record the date, time, and location. Set a timer for at least 5 minutes and record the start and stop time. Count the bees as they visit a flower and take a cellphone snapshot to help in identification. Because sunflower heads are made up of numerous small disks and ray flowers, record each time a bee visits a flower. The number of visits is more important than the type of pollinator, but both provide good data. Visit the GSP website to look over the information on how to record the sightings prior to conducting a count.

Once the count is done, log onto the GSP website to enter the data. Drop down menus help with inputting data. Prior to submitting the data, there is an edit page that provides a review of the data and allows one to make changes before hitting send.

Populations of both honey bees and native bees have been declining in recent years due to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, conversion of farmland to housing developments, and climate change. Looking at urban versus rural changes also provides the researchers with information on how extensive these changes are.


Bee on Yellow Flower

The GSP is one bee-centered citizen-scientist project that gardeners can participate on. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Entomology Department also has a project that gardeners in Illinois can help out with. BeeSpotter gathers data about pollinators, bees especially, that visit flowers in backyard gardens, local parks, and in the wild. This study looks at all pollinators, so visually recording the type of plant and pollinator is key. Use a camera or cellphone to capture images of both plant and pollinator.

Both of these projects are a great way to get kids involved and provide them with a way to contribute to a scientific study.