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A bee of the Xylocopa genus alights on a Lemon Queen variety of sunflower. ( Ginny Stibolt )

What's not to find intriguing about something called the Great Sunflower Project?
With a bold, summery yellow flower as its icon, and a plan to help bees -- and therefore plants and people -- as its mission, it's no wonder that droves of people across several countries have signed up to be part of the garden-and-science project in the past four years.
In fact, the Great Sunflower Project expects to enroll its 100,000th participant sometime this spring, says Gretchen LeBuhn, an associate professor of biology at San Francisco State University who founded the project in 2008.
"It's really exciting to have such a big group of people who are interested in helping. So much of my work as a scientist is studying something all by myself and writing a paper that 30 people read," she says, laughing.
LeBuhn says the project's first goal is to identify where bees are plentiful and scarce in the United States and Canada. Eventually, she'll be able to detect whether there are differences in urban, suburban and rural bee populations, which could help conservationists know where to direct their efforts to sustain healthy bee populations.
Because without bees, flowers don't get pollinated and many fruits and vegetables cannot grow, and people and the environment suffer.
And that ties in to her second goal, which is "just getting people engaged in learning about pollination, and what's happening in their yard and their landscape."


resident Heidi Rahlmann Plumb and her son planted Lemon Queen sunflower seeds in their yard last year and had a great time watching them grow. This year she's determined to report on their bee observations, too.
"I love anything that gets you to slow down enough to just sit and stare at a flower and wait for a bee to come," she says.
LeBuhn's interest in a widespread project began soon after she completed some research on bees in vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties, and an urban study in San Francisco. "Colony collapse disorder," in which worker bees in a colony abruptly vanish, was in the news; she realized that "citizen scientists" might be able to help gather information about bee populations.
In fact, many, many more gardeners signed up in early weeks of 2008 -- the project's first year -- than LeBuhn had planned for, "which completely blew through my budgets," she says. "Every penny we had went to mailing seeds to people."
These days, participants buy their own seeds; a packet costs just a couple of dollars at most seed retailers.
Thousands of those who signed up for the Great Sunflower Project dutifully plant the prescribed sunflower seeds, the annual Lemon Queen, which will yield pollen-bearing plants up to 6 feet tall. (Not all sunflowers have pollen, but that's what will attract the bees.)
But probably less than 10 percent of those who sign up at will follow through on their good intentions and report back on the number of bees that come to their sunflowers during a few 15-minute periods, LeBuhn says.
And though she wishes more people would report, benefits do flow from all those sign-ups and seeds planted. "That's 100,000 people who know more about how science works and what's happening with bees, and who know more about gardening."
Loretta O'Brien, garden manager for the Pacifica Gardens urban agricultural project, says she and other volunteers there have been participating in the Great Sunflower Project since 2008, though 2010 was the first year they actually submitted any data. Two weeks ago, they planted more than 300 sunflowers, about half of them Lemon Queen.
"Our primary reason for doing it is because we are planting food, and about one-third of the food we plant needs pollinators," she says. The old soccer field that holds the garden doesn't have much natural habitat for bees, so planting sunflowers and other bee-attracting plants helps the effort.
Eric Mussen, a honeybee expert at UC Davis, says he thinks the Sunflower Project has helped educate "a whole bunch of new people" about the importance of bees. And between things like LeBuhn's project and the increased public awareness of colony collapse disorder, more people have become interested in backyard beekeeping, and more cities have changed their ordinances to allow it.
So far, Great Sunflower Project data indicates that gardeners will see a bee pollinator come to their sunflowers every 2.6 minutes, on average. LeBuhn asks participants to watch for bees twice a month, preferably at 10 a.m. on Saturday mornings. "Bees start working at 9 or 10 in the morning," she says. "The flowers will be freshest then, not depleted of pollen or nectar."
Participants don't need to differentiate among different types of bees, such as honeybees or bumblebees. But LeBuhn dreams that someone will eventually help her develop a mobile phone app that would allow participants to submit geo-tagged photos of bees on sunflowers to her database; then she might be able to categorize the types of bees.
This year, the sunflower project is working with Renee's Garden, the seed company in Felton, to help get Lemon Queen seeds to participants. When people buy the seeds online from Renee's and use a special coupon code (FR225A) at checkout, the company will donate 25 percent of the value of the customer's whole order to the Great Sunflower Project.
LeBuhn chose Lemon Queen because it can be grown in pots, it has multiple blooms, and the seeds are fairly inexpensive and readily available. By requiring everyone to use the same variety, LeBuhn can make "apples-to-apples" comparisons with the data from all over the country. If one grower used the giant Sunzilla variety and another used Lemon Queen or the diminutive Music Box, for example, the comparisons wouldn't be as reliable.
This will be the second year that the Sunflower Project is encouraging participants to plant other types of flowers that are also attractive to bees, LeBuhn says -- rosemary, purple coneflower (echinacea), bee balm (monarda), cosmos and tickseed (coreopsis). Participants can report data about bees' visits to those plants, too, but the sunflowers remain the signature plant of the project.
Marianne Mueller, a Master Gardener who lives in Palo Alto, started her Lemon Queen seeds two weeks ago. She says it may "sound nerdy," but she got involved because of concern over the declining bee population. "We really need them," she says. And there are perks to growing the bright yellow flowers in her yard and in the community garden she works in. "Sunflowers are fun to grow, and kids really love them."
LeBuhn says she's grateful for all the gardeners like Mueller who are pitching in, even if they don't manage to report their data until later in the summer.
"Even planting a sunflower is so good for bees that I am really excited that they are even doing that," she says.
  • As their name implies, sunflowers prefer full sun, sheltered from wind (so they don't blow over). They prefer rich, moist soil to promote their rapid growth. 

  • They like a lot of water on a regular basis. Water deeply twice a week. Feed 

  • with a liquid fertilizer weekly. Some shorter varieties (such as Sunspot and Sunseed) can be grown in containers. 

  • Stake the plant as it matures for more support. Sunflowers have very deep roots (up to 9 feet) and tend not to transplant well. With their height, sunflowers can shade other crops, so grow on the north end of the garden. 

  • They're compatible with cucumbers and corn, but potatoes and pole beans hate to be near them. (With tomatoes, they're just OK.) Accumulated hulls will kill grass over time. 

  • Sunflowers will attract ants and aphids away from other vegetables without suffering much damage. 

  • They're good to go in 90 to 120 days. 

  • To keep birds away, drape the flower head with cheesecloth when the yellow petals turn brown. As the seeds mature, place a large bag (brown paper, mesh or burlap--not plastic) over the head and tie loosely at the stem with string or twist-ties, allowing for some air circulation. 

  • Check it periodically. The back of the head will turn yellow or brown. When the seeds are black and white striped, they're ready. 

  • Cut the stem about a foot below the head and hang it upside down -- still in the bag -- in a dry ventilated place such as a garage or toolshed. It will dry completely in about two weeks. Shake the head to free seeds into the bag, then rub the head gently to remove the remainder. Store seeds for up to a year in sealed containers or freeze after shelling. 

  • If you leave the sunflower in the garden, birds will pick the head clean. But the seeds they drop will sprout next spring. 
    -- McClatchy-Tribune
    News Service