By JESSICA WHITE
The Columbus Dispatch
WOOSTER, Ohio (AP) - Thousands of seeds have been planted, and amateur scientists across the state are stepping into their laboratories, also known as their backyards.
Research assistant Chelsea Smith stands near a pollinator exclusion bag on a tomato plant on May 5 at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, Ohio.
About 2,400 sunflowers, tomatoes, cucumbers and banana peppers were set to sprout in this study on pollination.
Interest in pollination has grown as bee colonies continue to suffer mass deaths across North America and in Europe.
These die-offs could mean disaster for farmers. Ohio beekeepers lost 50 to 80 percent of their honeybees this past winter, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Nationwide, honeybees pollinate more than $14 billion in crops each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But what about small-scale agricultural endeavors, such as suburban backyards and urban community gardens?
That's what Mary Gardiner and her colleagues at Ohio State University's Agricultural Research and Development Center are interested in learning.
"We know very little about how bees use flowers in cities and people's backyards," said Scott Prajzner, an OSU graduate research associate working on the study. "Are they getting enough pollination?"
To find answers to that question and others, Gardiner's lab relies on help from volunteers across Ohio, who attend a workshop before getting their seedling kits.
When the plants begin to bud in their gardens, volunteers are asked to tie "pollinator excluder" bags around half of the buds, Prajzner said. That will keep bees and other pollinators from reaching them. They'll also record other data from their gardens.
"For instance: What percentage of your backyard is in sunlight at a certain part of day?" he said. "Because sunlight will not only affect how many flowers are in your backyard, but also what parts of the yard are warm enough for bees to be flying around."
When it's time to harvest, volunteers will compare size, weight and number of seeds in the fruits and vegetables they grew.
"People have asked me why we're not measuring numbers of bees or types of bees," Prajzner said. "Insect identification, especially while they're flying around your backyard, is really hard.
"We're trying to skip a step and make it easier for your average citizen to become a scientist and collect data."
Many plants can self-pollinate, but additional pollination from bees and other insects often can increase fruit and vegetable size, quality and seed count.
Looking at backyard factors will help answer questions about how environment affects pollination.
Urban agriculture projects, such as community gardens, are gaining popularity, with about 15 percent of the world's food now grown in urban areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 70 percent of the global population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050.
State apiary inspector Barbara Bloetscher said the makeup of people's gardens and yards is more likely to affect bee behavior than the urban setup as a whole.
"If there is food, (bees) will find it, whether there are buildings or roads or not," she said.
Larger bees, such as honeybees and bumblebees, will fly 3 to 5 miles to find food, Bloetscher said. They're attracted to sunlight, bright colors and weedy areas.
And they love cucumber nectar, she added, so the cucumber plants in Gardiner's study should attract more bees and benefit surrounding plants.
This isn't the first time Gardiner's lab has used citizen scientists. An ongoing study, known as the Buckeye Lady Beetle Blitz, also relies on volunteers across Ohio.
The ladybeetle project is Gardiner's statewide census - there are more than 100 species.
For that project, participants place sticky cards in their gardens for one week to catch passing beetles (and other bugs) and report their findings.
"It's very interesting to help with the research and data collection," said Tammi Rogers, an Ohio State Extension agent in Coshocton County who has participated in the ladybeetle study since it began five years ago.
"It's been very beneficial not only professionally, but personally in my own gardens."
Using volunteers such as Rogers allows researchers to collect data in ways that would be impossible to do in a lab, Prajzner said.
"I personally think the greatest advantage is allowing people who might not have a scientific background to do experiments, be part of the research process, and get a better understanding of how difficult it is to answer scientific questions," he said.