CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon is the first state in the U.S. to create a Master Melittologists program that trains volunteers to become bee experts and use that knowledge to preserve and catalogue bees native to the state.
A melittologist studies bees. Oregon State University modeled its new program after its Master Gardener program.
The program teaches volunteers to locate, identify and preserve the more than 620 species of native bees in Oregon, many of which are pollinators, in a database called the Oregon Bee Atlas.
The program expands knowledge about the natural world, but it also has practical applications. Researchers identify bees experiencing declining populations, and knowing more about native bee species has enabled growers to boost crop yields.
It has also produced unexpected benefits. Volunteers looking for bees inadvertently stumbled across invasive species, which may help stop their spread.
"Volunteers have been committed to producing the best museum-quality specimens possible. The people attracted to this program are super passionate, super capable," said Lincoln Best, lead taxonomist for the Oregon Bee Atlas.
Collecting specimens isn’t easy.
To become Master Melittologists, volunteers receive a year of training covering bee biology, how to prepare collections and plan trips.
"We were looking for people we could train to be entomologists in their own right," said Andony Melathopoulos, OSU Extension's pollinator health specialist, who runs the program.
Melathopoulos tries to make it fun. The act of putting identification on a bee is called "determinating," so Melathopoulos recently awarded one of his volunteers the "Determinator" award. When students pass the program, he knights them with a net.
The volunteers come from many walks of life — from Portlanders to eastern Oregon ranchers. More than half are retired.
"Some of these people are birders. Studying bees is like next-level birding," said Best.
To catch bees, a volunteer either gets permission from a landowner or a permit to go on state land. He or she takes a photo of a plant, records surroundings, then waits. As bees land on the plant, the volunteer catches them and puts them into tubes that humanely kill them. Back at home, the volunteer pins sample bees, then tries to identify and label them.
"It's like a treasure hunt," said Michael O'Loughlin, 58, a Yamhill County volunteer who drove 15,000 miles with his brother around Oregon in 2020 looking for bees.
This winter, O'Loughlin's tables at home are covered with microscopes, notebooks and bees.
After identifying bees on his own property and then creating a better pollinator habitat, O'Loughlin said his fruit set in his orchards and berry crops has increased.
"My yields have gone up significantly," he said.
Although the Master Melittologist program is still young — it started in 2020 — the Oregon Bee Atlas was created in 2018. Over the past three years, volunteers have contributed 70,000 bee samples.
Killing bees might sound counterintuitive to saving them – but researchers say collecting targeted samples like this is the first step toward tracking populations.
Best said researchers in California, Washington, Idaho and even Canada plan to duplicate Oregon's model in 2021.