Citizen scientist makes big find

By Katie Demeria

Alex Newhart, a volunteer with Virginia Working Landscapes, knows firsthand the difference a citizen scientist can make.

A trained entomologist living in White Post, Newhart, 61, was responsible for the collection of the rusty-patched bumblebee while surveying for the program at Sky Meadows State Park this summer.

According to Jennifer Davis, outreach coordinator with Virginia Working Landscapes, the bumblebee was presumed to be extinct from the region. It had not been sighted in five years.

“It’s a really great find, not just for Virginia Working Landscapes as a whole, but for citizen scientists,” Davis said. “It really does highlight the impact that everyday citizens can have on biodiversity conservation.”

Based in Front Royal, Virginia Working Landscapes was started in 2011 through the efforts of several organizations in the region, including the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, among others.

“The idea was to create a central network to put landowners and researchers together for this goal of biodiversity conservation,” Davis said.

The program, according to Davis, focuses largely on grasslands. The research is based on the idea of preserving the amount of different species in an area regardless of land use, so surveyors work mostly on farmland.

Working on land that is mostly planted with invasive grass species that are non-native to Virginia, or even North America, the program has been studying the recent resurgence of planting native, warm season grasses in the area.

Cool season grasses were originally planted out of habit, Davis explained, and for livestock forage. But farmers are discovering the benefits of warm season grasses that peak during the summer.

Virginia Working Landscapes is attempting to understand the impact of those native species on biodiversity in the area. They survey birds, plants and pollinators.

“We’ll survey both types of fields, cool season and warm season, and compare them both,” Davis said. “We provide a knowledge base.”

The vast majority of the program’s funding is through regional and local philanthropy organizations. It also supports a staff of only four, so it must depend on volunteers like Newhart.

This year, 33 sites needed to be surveyed across 10 counties. The program used the skills of around 50 volunteers. Davis estimated the number of manpower hours those volunteers provided totaled between $30,000 and $40,000 per season.

Newhart became involved in the program through the Virginia Master Naturalists. He surveyed plants and pollinators, going into the field and identifying the plants growing in a certain area, and collecting pollinators.

He said he did not realize he had collected the rusty-patched bumblebee in July, and was told once researchers identified the bee.

“Finding this bee was a real high point, it was very exciting, I never expected it would happen,” Newhart said. “I really love this program. Being part of it, and being able to go out in the field and experience the things that we see out there — it’s just a wonderful experience.”

Find out more about Virginia Working Landscapes by visiting their website at

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or