Skip to content

About UPP

One out of every three bites of food we eat is made possible by an insect pollinator visiting a food crop flower. Because of this, conservation of bees is a critical part of maintaining an affordable and abundant food supply. The Urban Pollination Project quantifies the pollination services performed by native bumblebees in urban community gardens in order to find out how to maximize food yield and manage bee decline.

Why is UPP’s research important to do?
Bee activity on our crop flowers is crucial to human food security, but bees are also declining around the world. We need to find out how this is affecting people trying to grow food in cities, and what we can do to keep the bees we still have.

Everything is crowdsourced:
We are a community project. Almost all of our supplies and labor are donated by community members, scientists, and businesses. Our experiments are run by volunteer urban farmers, school teachers, and students. Our data is analyzed by scientists working off the clock. All of our events are free. Just as we crowdsource our science using citizen science (see “UPP’s research” section below), we also hope to crowdfund the expansion of the project. Spread the word and visit the “Donate” link (to the right) to help us fund UPP!

UPP’s research:
To find out how pollinator services from bumblebees affect crop production in Seattle’s urban community gardens, we study cherry tomato yield. Cherry tomatoes can produce some fruits through self-pollination, but the number and size of fruits increases when they are buzz pollinated by insects. We chose tomatoes because they can only be pollinated by bumblebees and we are particularly interested in the status of these native bees (honeybees and other bees can’t buzz pollinate, and all honeybees are non-native). Using the yield of cherry tomatoes as a proxy for bee abundance and pollination efficiency, we will determine which features of the urban landscape (land use, pesticide use, etc) most affect bee abundance and consequent urban crop yield.

This project is being done using citizen science. Citizen science is a fairly new model, in which scientists and interested volunteers from the public (“citizen scientists”) collaborate to find the answers to research questions that are important to both. We are wrapping up our pilot year, and still have volunteers all over the city growing tomatoes and finishing up this year’s  collection.

How our project works- experimental design and amazing volunteers:
Volunteer citizen scientists, including P-patch gardeners and K-12 classrooms from all over the city, grow 3 experimental tomato plants: an open-pollinated control (a regular plant), a self-pollinated plant (covered with a net so bees cannot pollinate flowers), and a plant that receives extra “buzz pollination” with a tuning fork. We measure the number and size (volume) of tomatoes produced over the season by each plant. By comparing open vs. self pollinated plants, we can tell how many more tomatoes are produced when plants have the available bumblebees visiting them than they can on their own. By comparing open vs. tuning fork pollinated plants, we can tell whether more pollinator activity would increase tomato production and by how much; in other words, how much more food we could make if more bees were present. We will use this data from many locations around the city to see what land-use factors limit bee abundance and crop yield.

UPP has many opportunities to be involved in the project besides growing tomatoes! Any member of the Seattle public can participate in UPP doing pollinator observations, coordinating volunteers, helping administer the project, and more! We want to build a community of people who care about science, food, bees, and education- so we welcome new volunteers and any feedback (email us at !).

Project Goals- Science, Education, Community:
Having just finished our pilot year, we hope to continue this project for at least 3 more years- gathering more data, expanding our project’s usability as a tool for science educators to teach the scientific method and the practical value of science, providing opportunities for people of all backgrounds to be engaged in real science that solves a real problem,  and building a diverse community of Seattle folks interested in science, food, bees, and education.

How we will share the results:
We will publish the results of this study in an urban ecology journal and present the results, in a way that is easy for all to understand, on our website. We will also share the results with the City of Seattle.

How we will solve real problems:
 Once we have about 3-5 years of solid data from our locations around the city, we will be able to see which land-use factors (pesticide use, paved vs. green space, or others) are limiting bee abundance and crop yield. We then hope to work with interested parties to mitigate the factors that are hurting native bee populations in order to conserve bees and increase yield in urban gardens.