A woman looks into a tree for a bumble bee while holding a net.
Alie Mayes, the Community Science Education Specialist for Nebraska Game and Parks, searches for a bumble bee to catch on Thursday, April 27, 2023 in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by Sarah Albin/NNS

Four years ago, Allyson Frank stumbled across a Facebook post showcasing a way to get involved with ongoing research to help rescue bumble bees.

After college, Frank discovered an interest in insects and native prairies, which grew into a hobby involving the Nebraska Bumble Bee Atlas, a community science project that maps bumble bee species across Nebraska.

“It’s a really good thing for the community to get involved with because bumble bees are really important pollinators for native flowering plants and even agricultural crops,” Frank said. “They’re a really key point of our ecosystem, and I just want people to know what’s in their backyards and care about it.”

As concerns rise about bumble bee populations declining, conservationists are turning to community science projects to help gather important data for conservation efforts.

Frank is one of about 40 people who regularly volunteer to find bumble bees across Nebraska. They identify the species and upload the data, which makes up the Nebraska Bumble Bee Atlas. 

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A bumble bee rests on a leaf in a tree on East Campus in Lincoln, Neb. on Tuesday May 3, 2023. Photo by Sarah Albin/NNS

According to Katie Lamke, an endangered species conservation biologist who coordinates the Nebraska Bumble Bee Atlas, there are about 47 species of bumble bees in the U.S. and 25% have been assessed to be facing a risk of extinction. Nebraska has 20 species of bumble bees and four that have been determined species of greatest conservation need. 

The Bumble Bee Atlas started in 2018 in the Pacific Northwest and came to Nebraska in 2019, it is now in 15 states across the U.S. The Atlas is a community science project, meaning anyone can be a part of it and there’s no required skill set prior to getting involved. 

“We provide training for anybody that wants to join the effort, and as volunteers sign up they go out and conduct their own surveys,” Lamke said. “They look for bumble bees either in a part of the state that they live in, or maybe somewhere that they vacation at during the summer, and they report back what they find.”

The surveys collected by volunteer community members help conservationists understand different behaviors such as what species are in the state, where they’re located and what plants they utilize at different times of the season.

“All of that baseline information allows us to make more informed decisions when it comes to supporting these species and putting habitat on the ground for them,” Lamke said.

When joining the Atlas, volunteers undergo a 4-hour online training to learn about bumble bee ecology, behaviors, threats and conservation. The online training also covers regional species identification and the protocol, according to Lamke. After the online training is complete, volunteers attend in-person field training.

“We’ll learn how to swing nets and catch bees and fill out the data sheets,” Lamke said. “Those are the fun days, because you get so up close and personal with the bees themselves.”

Once volunteers have completed their training, they are ready to head out into the field and conduct surveys on their own.

“We’ve trained well over 300 people throughout our four years,” Lamke said. “But we have a really strong group of volunteers who have participated each year and have done a lot of travel throughout the state.”

Brianna Nugent has been volunteering with the Atlas since 2020. Nugent started working with the Atlas to gain more field experience while getting her undergraduate degree, but it’s also something she does with her family.

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A bumble bee lays on a paper towel while being identified. The bee had been placed in a vial on ice to reach a dormant state so it could be identified Lincoln, Neb. on Tuesday May 3, 2023. Photo by Sarah Albin/NNS

“My son’s been doing this since he was two, he didn’t handle the bumblebees obviously,” Nugent said. “But he helped me take pictures and he would sit there and be the person that watches the bees warm up and fly away and make sure they’re good.” 

The Atlas conducts non-lethal surveys to gather information about different species through photo observations. 

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Three different bee species sit on grids to show the size difference. The top species is a bumble bee, middle is a honey bee and bottom is a native bee in the genus Halictus. Photo by Sarah Albin/NNS

Surveys are conducted over a 45 minute time period if only one person is conducting the survey. If there is more than one person, the 45 minutes is divided up among the participants. Once a bumble bee is caught, it is placed in a vial and put on ice to be chilled down. When the bee has reached a dormant state, volunteers take photos from several angles to be submitted for identification.

“So the way we identify bees is by looking at their color patterns,” Lamke said. “The abdomen is broken up into six different sections and they have different colors or different patterns of colors on those sections.” 

Different combinations of coloring on the abdomen, head and thorax, where the wings attach, are taken into account when identifying different bumble bee species. 

“You can also look at the hind leg to tell if it’s male or female,” Lamke said. “Females have a pollen basket on the back of their leg and males do not.”

Volunteers are able to put their own identification of bumble bees on their data collection forms, then a member of Xerces verifies the species based on the photos and data submitted. 

“I get pretty into it,” Frank said. “I definitely ID and put it on there and see if I’m right.”

While The Atlas collects valuable data for conservation efforts, it also helps teach people about the importance of bumble bees.

“Just being able to participate in it kind of raises your awareness on the importance of bumblebees, and the fact that they need more of our conservation efforts than non native species like honeybees,” Nugent said. “We really need to protect the native species and I think  this project is a great way for people to get involved with that and just learn more about it.”


Sarah is a senior majoring in Journalism and ADPR at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a minor in business. Throughout college she has interned with HuskerVision and Olsson and plans to graduate in Spring of 2023.