The Shutterbee Project shows how local gardens support high bee diversity in St. Louis

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology

    Along with the Gateway Arch, St. Louis has something else to add to the list of things that are uniquely St. Louis.

    “One thing that’s really cool about St. Louis, St. Louis has a historically high bee diversity, in part because of our unique sort of ecological placement,” said Nicole Miller-Struttmann, the Laurance L. Browning Jr. Chair and Associate Professor at Webster University. “We have lots of different habitats in a close area. And that influences what bees are found in the city.”

    Miller-Struttmann’s biology lab studies bees in urban and wild environments to understand their behavior, diversity, and interactions with plants.

    “We have cliffs, we have forests, we have prairies, that were all here historically. And so, with that comes the bees that evolved in each of those habitats. Prior work has shown that the city of St. Louis alone houses 200 species of bees, that’s almost half of what’s found in the entire state. And we still have most of them,” said Miller-Struttmann. “Understanding how to conserve them within that landscape is really important, in this human dominated landscape.”

    In 2019, Miller-Struttman co-created the Shutterbee Citizen Science Program, a St. Louis-based research study focused on learning more about the bee population in the St. Louis area.

    “We’re interested in understanding how gardens are supporting that diversity within the St. Louis region.

    The Shutterbee project spanned four years. It recruited citizen scientists to help with the visual documentation and research. The project allowed people to contribute to the environmental science study from their own yards, or any space they can visit regularly.

    “We’re interested in how the landscape and urban environments might influence bee population,” she said.

    The research team discovered that bee diversity in residential and community gardens is actually higher in the city than in the suburbs.

    Miller-Struttmann said the findings show that what people do with their gardens on small scales really matter, especially where biodiversity is underrepresented.

    “What you do locally actually really matters,” she said. “No matter where you are, if you plant a diversity of native flowers, you get a greater diversity of native bees. And the biggest example of that is the finding that Ned made and his garden.”

    Ned Siegel was one of the project’s 225 active participants who collectively observed more than 30,000 bees over 4 years.

    “There are thousands of native bees,” Siegel said.

    In Belleville, Illinois, Siegal observed the bee activity in the garden he created.

    “It has really high diversity,” said Miller-Struttmann. “And with that plant diversity has come this bee diversity so it’s really empowering. It’s also encouraging that what we do, the decisions that we make, at a small scale can be helpful for the species at a larger scale.”

    Siegal’s garden purposefully has a variety of mostly native plants and flowers, and they attract a variety of bees. He documented the arrival of the bees by taking their pictures. He uploaded the photos to the Shutterbee project on the iNaturalist app for bee identification, including the bumble bee Siegal found last July in his garden. When he uploaded the photo of this particular bee to the iNaturalist app, that’s what started all the buzz!

    “’Boom, boom, boom, boom!’,” Siegal described. “All experts saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is a rare bee!”

    Miller-Struttmann said Siegel photographed a rare parasitic bumble bee. It’s the Lemon Cuckoo bumble bee.

    “It hasn’t been found in the St. Louis metropolitan area since the 1800s, 1854,” said Miller-Struttman.

    That’s seven years before the Civil War.

    “It’s a cuckoo bee, kind of like a cuckoo bird. It lays its larvae in the nests of other bees. So, it doesn’t actually care for its young. It lets other bees do that. So that’s sort of a unique natural history or lifestyle, if you will, that requires a high population of other kinds of bees. So, in order to find parasitic bees, you have to have enough of their host bees.”

    In the moments the rare parasitic bumble bee was being identified, the research team was buzzing with excitement.

    “It was verified by myself as well as several other specialists,” she said. “One of the things that this finding demonstrates is that at least in the region where Ned collected, where there’s a high enough abundance of other bees, this rare cuckoo bee can persist. Now, why we haven’t seen that bee since 1854? Part of that is how much are we searching for it? So, you always have to acknowledge that maybe we weren’t looking that hard for it.”

    Shutterbee was meant to be that ‘busy bee’ that’s all about bees!

    “We got some really interesting results that demonstrate how what you do locally actually really matters,” Miller-Struttmann said.

    She said this rare bee sighting is important when studying bees and climate change.

    “Species are shifting as it gets warmer. They’re moving towards the poles. So, it’s exciting to see this bee who’s at the southern end of its range, still persisting here. That is a good thing because it’s implying that they’re able to, at least so far, survive despite warming. All we know is that we found this bee and it’s still hanging on!”

    Through the study, Miller-Struttman also found that the photo survey protocol for citizen scientists documents the same biodiversity as the traditional lethal netting methods. While the Shutterbee protocol won’t work for all projects, Miller-Struttman said it could be used to monitor bees without killing them.

    She said the crowning achievement goes to the Shutterbee community, and everything they learned from one another. She said participants connected deeply with the bees in their gardens, bringing joy to everyone involved with Shutterbee. And she said participants like Ned Seigal, who were incredibly engaged, added so much to the research.