Sonoma (USA) - Great Sunflower Project blooms



Wandering through the Sonoma Valley, you’ve probably noticed more than 200 wine barrels planted with lemon queen sunflowers about to burst open their buttery yellow petals. While beauty is certainly apart of the appeal of the Great Sunflower Project, it’s really the bees attracted by the flower’s sweet nectar that researchers at San Francisco State University are interested in.

“It starts out with flowers, because people like flowers. I mean who doesn’t love sunflowers? But it’s kind of this one-two punch because it’s really about counting bees,” said Alana Coburn, one of the local organizers of the citizen science research effort.

During the project, which runs through the month of September, bee counts will be conducted every Saturday morning (except Sept. 1) between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. at various sunflower barrels spread throughout the Valley. Check the Index-Tribune weekly for locations of the drop-in counts. During the counts, volunteers will spend 15 minutes watching the sunflowers and counting the number of bees that visit, how long they stay and what types of bees they are. The information collected is then sent to the University of San Francisco, which is conducting some of the seminal research on the national decline of pollinating bees.

As an ongoing research effort of the university, the Great Sunflower Project has been collecting data on more than a dozen types of bees across the country for four years, amassing the largest database on pollinating bees in North America. San Francisco State University is using the research to conduct a baseline study on the North

American bee population, and monitoring how it is changing over time.

This is the first year the effort has come to the Valley, orchestrated by the Pollinator Pals, a project of Cittaslow Sonoma Valley in partnership with Cittaslow USA.

“The minute we contacted (SF State) it was a match made in heaven,” said Shelley Arrowsmith, a local Pollinator Pals leader who is also a beekeeper. “They were really looking for a group of people who were willing to take on the project in their own community.”

They found an enthusiastic group of volunteers in the Pollinator Pals. Formed in 2010 under the umbrella of Cittaslow (slow city) Sonoma Valley, the group seeks to educate and spread awareness about the importance of pollinators in the ecosystem and food chain.

“Pollination is so important to everything we do. Two-thirds of what we eat, and what our animals eat, … comes from pollination,” Arrowsmith explained.

Virginia Hubbell, director of Cittaslow USA and founder of Cittaslow Sonoma Valley, added, “Sonoma Valley can be a national model of what one small town can do on the issues of food supply, climate change and the loss of bees.”

The Great Sunflower Project encourages individuals, groups and communities to place lemon queen sunflowers in parks, gardens or even sidewalks. The flowers are one of dozens known to attract bees, and volunteers are sought to spend 15 minutes counting the bees they see. Bee counts will take place every Saturday in September, but anyone interested can also do their own counts whenever they like – information is provided on each barrel detailing how the count works and where to submit the data.

“There will also be bee factoids and quizzes. We’re hoping people realize bees aren’t scary things,” Arrowsmith said. “We also want to make the point that when you’re observing the bees, they won’t hurt you. They won’t even notice you – they’re there to do a job.”

The sunflowers began as seeds grown by Arrowsmith into sprouts, which were raised by Glen Ellen resident Ann Peden into flourishing flowers.

Glen Ellenite Craig Scarborough cut more than 100 donated wine barrels by hand to be filled with sunflowers and placed in locations from CornerStone to Kenwood. Many of the needed materials were donated, but Stone Edge Farms covered the additional costs.

The City of Sonoma also provided funding for the project, to allow organizers to research various soils and watering systems. “We’re doing some different experiments when it comes to soil and water,” Coburn said. “We’re using biochar in some pots and compost in others.”

The city also asked the Pollinator Pals to test DriWater Time Release Water packages, an innovative gardening system in which a gel-form of water is placed in the soil and only releases moisture when the soil grows dry. The group will report back to the city on their findings, information that will be used to decide how to best care for city parks and gardens.

The Pollinator Pals are looking for volunteers to help out at various levels outside of participating in the bee counts. Volunteers are needed to help tend the sunflower barrels in their neighborhoods. A handful of people are needed to help conduct the weekly bee counts, and will be given training to properly identify bees.

Volunteers are also needed to help out at special events, such as the Optics Fair on Sept. 9 at CornerStone; and the Vintage Festival, where the Pollinator Pals sell their signature honey ice cream.

“As we explain the project and why we’re doing it, there’s been a lot of community interest. People have this awareness that the bees are in trouble, but they just don’t know what to do,” Coburn said. “Mostly, our intent is to get people involved to let them know there is something they can do.”

To learn more or become a volunteer, contact TheBuzz@cittaslowusa.org or search for Pollinator Pals on Facebook.