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25 Jul, 2024
To save bees, Kansas scientist creates app that will help identify thousands of species
7 mins read

To save bees, Kansas scientist creates app that will help identify thousands of species

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The BeeMachine app identifies a bee visiting a suburban flower garden in Lawrence as a two-spotted bumblebee. The app uses artificial intelligence to distinguish between species, some of which are very difficult to tell apart. (Kansas News Service)

The BeeMachine app identifies a bee visiting a suburban flower garden in Lawrence as a two-spotted bumblebee. The app uses artificial intelligence to distinguish between species, some of which are very difficult to tell apart. (Kansas News Service)

Scientists want to know how bees cope with habitat loss. But first they need to be able to tell the nearly identical species apart.

Just a few decades ago, bee lovers in North America could count on the chance to see one of the most common species of bumblebee buzzing from flower to flower.

Today, the American bumblebee is in trouble. Its numbers have plummeted and it has disappeared from large parts of its range.

But the fact that biologists are aware of this pollinator’s plight is a key step toward helping it, as population trends guide conservation efforts.

Scientists still don’t know how most of North America’s estimated 4,000 bee species are coping with habitat loss, pesticides, global warming and other challenges.

A new smartphone app called BeeMachine uses artificial intelligence to overcome a key hurdle in solving this problem: experts currently have trouble telling multiple species apart.

“It’s a huge problem,” said entomologist Brian Spiesman, the app’s creator and a professor at Kansas State University. “We bring in a couple hundred specimens (from fieldwork) and spend a lot more time identifying them in the lab than we do actually collecting them.”

Bee ecologists send hard-to-find specimens — many species are almost identical and small as mosquitoes — to specialized taxonomists.

But such taxonomists are in short supply, so Spiesman and his colleagues are training artificial intelligence to help them. As an added bonus, the app also lets the public participate in documenting the bees by taking photos when they spot them.

“This type of citizen science has the potential to get more eyes on bees than any single study could ever hope to,” Spiesman said. “Better crowdsourcing tools are really important.”

Observations by humans can provide valuable information about where individual bees live.

For example, in the Midwest, a hiker hiking a trail or a gardener checking a flower bed might come across a Southern Plains bumblebee or the American bumblebee. Both of these species are currently under consideration by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for possible listing as endangered or threatened.

A bee forages on marsh milkweed in a wetland south of Lawrence. BeeMachine has identified it with 100 percent certainty as a southern plains bumblebee, a declining species currently under review for potential federal protection.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen/Kansas News Service

A bee forages on marsh milkweed in a wetland south of Lawrence. BeeMachine has identified it with 100 percent certainty as a southern plains bumblebee, a declining species currently under review for potential federal protection.

A separate Cornell University project, E-Bird, has already demonstrated the potential for broad public participation, turning bird enthusiasts into a source of data for bird research and conservation efforts.

So far, BeeMachine has been able to distinguish over 350 species of bees at the species or genus level.

Goal: Learn to recognize all of the estimated 20,000 species of bees in the world.

This will require international collaboration, however, because Spiesman and his colleagues need high-quality images of accurately identified specimens to train BeeMachine.

They took thousands of photos themselves and obtained others from international projects such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an online repository of species data funded by many governments.

Natural history museums have a treasure trove of collections of specimens that have already undergone the arduous process of identification. These specimens allow BeeMachine to accurately learn the details of difficult species.

However, obtaining images of these specimens remains a challenge. It can require a lot of work with the specimens and imaging.

“Museum staff often don’t have time to pull out specimens, and they certainly don’t have time to photograph them unless we’re working with an organization that has already received funding,” Spiesman said.

As the BeeMachine system evolves and improves, it will be possible to collect and precisely identify observations on every continent and make this information available to researchers around the world.

The project is already working with data collection organisations in Japan and Argentina, for example.

Ultimately, Spiesman hopes the BeeMachine will allow scientists to identify more bees in the field without having to kill the creatures and examine them under a microscope.

Scientists could, for example, point a camera at a flower and leave it there to collect images of foraging pollinators, which would then be analyzed by BeeMachine.

So far, the data collected by BeeMachine is not visible online, but that will change soon — probably this month. Users will be able to view others’ observations on the project’s website.

Popular nature apps like Seek do a good job of identifying the largest, most common bees, but Spiesman says ecologists need a more advanced tool that can tell the difference between the many tiny, nearly identical species.

“We are not replacing taxonomists at the rate at which they are retiring,” he said.

After dead bumblebees were found in a Raymore, Missouri, backyard, BeeMachine identified them with almost 100 percent certainty as American bumblebees, a species that has disappeared from parts of its range.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen/Kansas News Service

After dead bumblebees were found in a Raymore, Missouri, backyard, BeeMachine identified them with almost 100 percent certainty as American bumblebees, a species that has disappeared from parts of its range.

How many species of bees are there?

About 90% of plants cannot reproduce through wind pollination. They depend on animals to do the job, and bees are one of the most important pollinators.

But bees remain as mysterious as they are important.

Scientists are still trying to determine how many species there are. Estimates vary, but there are usually about 20,000 worldwide and 4,000 in North America.

But what scientists know so far leans toward larger species, which are easier to observe and identify. Thousands of small bee species remain poorly understood.

But given the documented plight of some of the world’s best-studied bees, scientists fear their smaller counterparts may be struggling, too.

Habitat loss and climate change have hit many insects hard. Insecticides are inadvertently poisoning beneficial pollinators, and herbicides are leading to fewer wildflowers on many farms.

The microscopic parasites are transmitted to wild bee species from infected European honeybee hives, which humans transport from region to region to pollinate crops.

Introduced honeybees compete for food in areas where it is scarce, and wild, native bees suffer from malnutrition.

On some other continents, introduced bumblebees are causing similar problems for native pollinators.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is an environmental reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or write to her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

Kansas News Service is a collaboration between KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focusing on health, the social determinants of health and their relationship to public policy.

Kansas News Service materials and photos may be republished free of charge by news media as long as the source is cited and a link is provided. ksnewsservice.org.