Category Archives: Experiments For Home

Backyard Science — Counting Birds at the Feeder

In the 1970s, the Eurasian collared dove was introduced to the Bahamas. The Great Backyard Bird Count has helped track its spread across North America. (Photo: lruka under a Creative Commons license)
In the 1970s, the Eurasian collared dove was introduced to the Bahamas. The Great Backyard Bird Count has helped track its spread across North America. (Photo: lruka under a Creative Commons license)

Science is based on observation, so it makes sense that sometimes the scientific community needs a few extra pairs of eyes and ears. The Great Backyard Bird Count is one of the largest “citizen science” projects in the world.

Citizen Science projects allow researchers to organize interested people around the world to help with some sort of research project. They are normally organized online. One example is a project that asks volunteers to look at pictures of distant galaxies and click a button if they recognize patterns of star distribution, such as a spiral pattern. Telescopes photograph hundreds of thousands of galaxies and it turns out that humans can recognize their patterns much faster than computers!

The Great Backyard Bird Count is different in that instead of asking volunteers to look at professionally-collected data, it asks volunteers around the world to make their own observations and report them back to the project. It takes place each February and asks volunteers to watch their bird feeders for at least 15 minutes sometime during a particular four-day period.

Scientists use the reports to calculate worldwide distributions of bird populations. In 2013, Great Backyard Bird Count participants in more than 100 countries counted 17,748,756 birds on 144,109 checklists, documenting 4,296 species. You can be sure that the researchers are glad they weren’t expected to count that many birds without help!

Another great thing about the Great Backyard Bird Count is that it is easy for kids to participate, either at home or as a school project. The project dates for 2015 are already set, but you don’t have to wait until then to roll up your sleeves and pitch in. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society has launched a great web site where you can set up an account and start honing your bird-watcher skills right now.

Check it out at eBird.org: http://ebird.org/content/ebird/

On eBird, your family or school can keep lists of all the birds seen throughout the year, as well as learn what birds other folks are seeing. There are great resources to help you identify birds and learn more about them. Your observations will be added to the observations of thousands of other birdwatchers and will make up part of the ever-expanding data set being used by researchers to understand how birds move around.

Use eBird to develop your bird-watching muscles, and you’ll be more than ready to go next February when the next Great Backyard Bird Count takes place.

Can't tell a sparrow from a thrush? No problem. Build your knowledge with help from the experts at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology by using their All About Birds web site.
Can’t tell a sparrow from a thrush? No problem. Build your knowledge with help from the experts at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology by using their All About Birds web site.
Check Out the Great Backyard Bird Count's listing of Top Tens. This site show you the ten most commonly observed bird species using pictures submitted by GBBC participants.
Check Out the Great Backyard Bird Count’s listing of Top Tens. This site show you the ten most commonly observed bird species using pictures submitted by GBBC participants.

Spotting the International Space Station

Astronaut Chris Cassidy works outside the space station on May 11, 2013.  Credit: NASA
Astronaut Chris Cassidy works outside the space station on May 11, 2013. Credit: NASA
Almost everyone has heard of the International Space Station (ISS). It is one of the most spectacular technological achievements ever, but it is easy to take it for granted. After all, it has been in orbit for more than 13 years. Astronauts have lived on board all that time, conducting science experiments and learning the kinds of things that will help humans extend their reach into space. Since ISS may be the coolest laboratory ever built, we recommend making a New Year’s commitment to keeping track of what’s going on there.

Luckily, NASA makes it easy to keep up with ISS. On the web site http://spacestationlive.nasa.gov/ you will find animations and education resources about “humankind’s permanent outpost in space.” You can find details of the daily activities for each astronaut, along with timelines and live video feeds. You can view the same data being viewed by ground control officers at NASA, so if you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at being a flight director, start here.

For an overview of what is going on with ISS, NASA provides a great option. The YouTube channel ReelNASA provides a weekly newscast about what’s happening aboard the International Space Station. You’ll find links to in-depth information about the experiments and projects that are discussed. You can even send in your own questions. It is pretty cool.

The space station, including its large solar arrays, spans the area of a U.S. football field, including the end zones, and weighs 924,739 pounds. The complex now has more livable room than a conventional six-bedroom house, and has two bathrooms, a gymnasium and a 360-degree bay window.
The space station, including its large solar arrays, spans the area of a U.S. football field, including the end zones, and weighs 924,739 pounds. The complex now has more livable room than a conventional six-bedroom house, and has two bathrooms, a gymnasium and a 360-degree bay window.
Spotting the International Space Station
For the ultimate in “keeping up with the ISS,” nothing beats taking a look with your own eyes. The ISS is the size of a football field and orbits Earth at an average altitude of 220 miles. Just before sunrise or when night has fallen where you live, the ISS is sometimes overhead and high enough to still be in the sunlight. It is highly reflective and very bright, so it is easy to spot if you know when to look. It moves quickly across the sky, which isn’t a surprise considering that the ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes and travels at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour. Between moving fast and being wildly bright, it is easy to spot.

To know when to look, go the the NASA site http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/ and click on Location Lookup. Simply enter your location information (Country, State, City, etc.). The site will display information about when the ISS will be visible to you. The main thing, of course, is to find a day and time when you can go outside and look, and then to hope it is not too cloudy during your viewing window.

The results for your local area provide all the information you need to pick a good viewing time. Then you just have to hope it is not cloudy.
The results for your local area provide all the information you need to pick a good viewing time. Then you just have to hope it is not cloudy.
The next important thing is to make sure the ISS will be high enough for you to see. For the “Max Height” column, know that 90 degrees equals directly overhead, so any number above, say, 45 degrees will put the ISS high in the sky. Lower numbers mean the ISS will appear closer to the horizon, so trees or buildings might be in the way and block your line of sight.

Use this graphic to visualize what path the ISS might take in the sky. Credit: NASA.
Use this graphic to visualize what path the ISS might take in the sky. Credit: NASA.
And remember, sight lines work both ways. Since NASA streams live views of the Earth from the ISS, you can very easily go outside to wait for the ISS to appear overhead while watching the live view of Earth from the ISS on a smartphone or tablet computer (if you have a web connection). This allows you to see what astronauts aboard the ISS see if they look down. If it is just past sunset where you live, for instance, look for the line on Earth between night and day to figure out about where you are in terms of east and west.

When the ISS blazes its way across the sky hundreds of miles overhead, you will have achieved a dual, realtime perspective that would have been almost impossible to dream of just a few decades ago. Give it a try!

This picture shows a five-second exposure of the ISS passing just above the Pleiades star cluster on Dec. 27, 2013. The length of the path over five seconds gives you an idea of how fast the ISS moves across the sky.
This picture shows a five-second exposure of the ISS passing just above the Pleiades star cluster on Dec. 27, 2013. The length of the path over five seconds gives you an idea of how fast the ISS moves across the sky. Credit: Clifton Dowell

Do-It-Yourself: Build a Solitary Bee House

"Male Mason Bee (Osmia)" - Copyright 2007 by Stavros Markopoulos (Creative Commons).
“Male Mason Bee (Osmia)” – Copyright 2007 by Stavros Markopoulos (Creative Commons).
If you want to welcome some of the world’s great garden-helpers to your backyard, you need to build them a nice place to stay. Everyone thinks of bees as living in bee hives because honeybees do and honeybees are easily the world’s most famous bees.

But of the thousands of bee species, only a few make honey and live in hives. The rest are solitary bees.

Maybe the most popular type of solitary bees to have around are Mason bees. They are popular because they do a super job pollinating fruits, vegetables and flowers. They are also very mild and don’t sting unless they are handled roughly or get trapped underneath clothing.

There are more than a hundred kinds of Mason bees in North America. They work and live alone, although they don’t mind nesting right next door to other bees.

Mason bees build nests in long narrow holes that they find already made in their environment. These holes could be hollow plant stems or holes drilled by woodpeckers and insects in wood. The bees use mud to build chambers in the holes, then lay an egg in each chamber. Before sealing up the chamber, they leave a dab of pollen and nectar in each for the larva to eat when it hatches.

When the young bees have matured enough in the spring, they’ll bust out of their mud chambers and eventually come to the front of the hole to warm up a bit before flying off to begin the entire cycle again.

When the bees do fly off, the first thing they’ll be looking for is a home. You can help by building them a solitary bee house.

Following the easy directions below, and with just a little help from your folks, you can build a solitary bee house over the winter and have it in place by March or April. Be sure to mount it solidly somewhere out of the rain facing South or East since the little bees need some sunlight to get them going when they emerge.

And remember, building the bee house is just the beginning of the fun and your research. You’ll need to see who shows up and moves in. Get pictures if you can. And by all means, take notes and hold onto them so you can build on your store of observational knowledge year over year.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • How many different kinds of bees use your solitary bee house? Simply knowing the number of different kinds is useful, but if you want to dig in and get very, very specific, there’s help: www.DiscoverLife.org
  • How many of the tubes get sealed off with mud? Does one size (diameter) seem more popular with the bees in your neighborhood. Develop a hypothesis about what size tubes will attract the most bees next year. Test it.
  • What kind of mud do the bees use to seal chambers? During periods of high activity, put out trays of different kinds of mud to see if the bees have a preference. Does putting mud close to the bee house increase the trip rate of bees (say, three trip every minute instead of two trips a minute)? By how much?

How to Build a Solitary Bee House

The bundle of hollow tubes you gather will need to be secured and held together. Some people use duct tape; others use a beautiful wooden container of some sort. For our purposes here, we picked a common (and free!) option we had around the house.
The bundle of hollow tubes you gather will need to be secured and held together. Some people use duct tape; others use a beautiful wooden container of some sort. For our purposes here, we picked a common (and free!) option we had around the house. (Recycling, anyone?)

When it comes to hollow tubes, nothing beats bamboo. If you have it growing in your yard, you are set. If you don't, ask around. Most people who have it will be more than glad to let you cut some of their bamboo. When picking the size you need, consider this: to attract Mason bees, you want to aim for a hole diameter that is big enough to insert a pencil in, but not too much bigger.
When it comes to hollow tubes, nothing beats bamboo. If you have it growing in your yard, you are set. If you don’t, ask around. Most people who have it will be more than glad to let you cut some of their bamboo. When picking the size you need, consider this: to attract Mason bees, you want to aim for a hole diameter that is big enough to insert a pencil in, but not too much bigger.


The good thing about bamboo? It is tough. The bad thing? It is tough. You'll need an adult and the appropriate tools to get what you need from your neighborhood bamboo thicket. Luckily, anyone with bamboo growing in the backyard probably already knows how to cut it.
The good thing about bamboo? It is tough. The bad thing? It is tough. You’ll need an adult and the appropriate tools to get what you need from your neighborhood bamboo thicket. Luckily, anyone with bamboo growing in the backyard probably already knows how to cut it.


Use scissors to trim your drink bottle to a length of at least 6 inches.
Use scissors to trim your drink bottle to a length of at least 6 inches.


While trimming the branches off the bamboo, get as close a cut as you can. This will make it easier when you are sliding the tubes in because there won't be obstructions.
While trimming the branches off the bamboo, get as close a cut as you can. This will make it easier when you are sliding the tubes in because there won’t be obstructions.


Cut lengths of bamboo to the same length you trimmed your bottle. It doesn't have to be perfect.
Cut lengths of bamboo to the same length you trimmed your bottle. It doesn’t have to be perfect.


If one of the tubes you are trimming begins to split, don't worry. It will be unusable, but will provide an opportunity for you to investigate the internal structure of the plant.
If one of the tubes you are trimming begins to split, don’t worry. It will be unusable, but will provide an opportunity for you to investigate the internal structure of the plant.


Pack the tubes into your container as tightly as you can. It may take a little effort to work in the final few.
Pack the tubes into your container as tightly as you can. It may take a little effort to work in the final few.


Home, Sweet Home! You'll need to find a South or East facing location out of the rain to place this in the spring. Secure it so it doesn't move around. Keep an eye on it to see what happens.
Home, Sweet Home! You’ll need to find a South or East facing location out of the rain to place this in the spring. Secure it so it doesn’t move around. Keep an eye on it to see what happens.

Fun Phineas Facts

We’ve noted the many good qualities of Mason Bees and said they are non-aggressive and unlikely to cause much trouble in the stinging department. It natural for anyone who has been stung by a bee to suspicious of anything with a stinger. Classification – organizing things into orderly categories – is a basic part of good science, and you can practice on “bees.” Even while running away. The first step is to try to avoid calling everything that might deliver a “bee sting” a “bee.”

Do you mean Bee or Wasp? Or Yellowjacket? Or Hornet? The differences matter, since some stinging insects are classified as flower-lovers and others as predators (although, of course, not of humans!). Here is a link to a good article from the Cooperative Extension service at Colorado State University to get you started thinking about the differences.Wasp-Hornet-Yellowjacket-Bee?

One of the best ways to distinguish between types of flying insects with stingers is to notice where they live. If the insect in question lives in a honey-filled wooden box on a honey farm, that’s an easy one. If it lays eggs in the bee house you construct, that narrows it down, too. Here is an article that has a great chart about other types of insect housing you might encounter. How to Tell the Difference Between the Stinging Wasps.