The Great Pumpkin Project
The mystery of the missing bees and sick pumpkins and cucumbers
About this lesson
We are documenting the insects and microbes that visit all cucurbit plants, including pumpkins (which are native to the Americas) and cucumbers (which are native to Asia). These plants are now grown and enjoyed throughout the world, yet we know very little about the microbes and insects that grow with them. You can help! Read more about the project.
Many of our most delicious fruits and vegetables — squash, pumpkin, zucchini, gourds, cucumber, and melons — are all important crops in the same plant family, the Cucurbitaceae, or gourd family. These are some of the most widely planted and economically important vegetable crops in the United States, and throughout the world. Yet, we know little about the microbial and insect communities (both helpful and harmful) associated with these different crop plants. Here, we present two related projects. The first part of the project documents the species of insects (specifically beetles) that can damage these plants by eating the leaves, fruits and flowers. We are especially interested in understanding more about the beetles that carry a bacterial pathogen from plant to plant. This bacterial pathogen threatens pumpkins (great and small) and cucumbers throughout the northeastern United States and Canada, and has the potential to spread to a much wider area (or may have already spread, we don’t know). The second part of the project documents the beneficial insects that visit the big, lovely, sweet smelling flowers of pumpkins and, in doing so, carry pollen from male flowers to female flowers. While we have been studying these pollinators for years, much about their daily lives and geographic distribution remains mysterious.
Through participating in these projects, students will learn about beneficial bees and plant pollination, plant-insect-microbe interactions, where the food in our grocery stores come from, and how some insects and pathogens can harm plants (including the ones we also like to eat!). By learning about these topics, students can help us solve these mysteries about what species of insects and microbes associate with plants, and in what places (or at least help us solve these mysteries that we might move along to others–the mysteries never end).
How to participate
Do you have a garden and are ready to participate? Here are the project steps (If you don’t have a garden and want to start growing squash, we can help you get started – guide coming soon!).
- If you water your plant but it is still wilting two hours later, send us a photo! We will tell you whether we think this is a plant we would like to analyze more, and whether you should put as much of the plant as possible in a bag, and ship the plant to us for further analysis.
- Create a squash arch on your school grounds or in your garden.
- Use scientific illustration of pumpkins, drawing inspiration from great artists before you. Share your work using #GreatPumpkinArt on social media so we can see (and share) what you’ve created!
- Rate the heritage seed varieties that you receive from us through Seed Savers!
- Space to plant a garden
- Squash and cucumber seeds
- Data sheet and pen
- Hand Sanitizer (70% alcohol) to preserve beetles
- Plastic or styrofoam cups to start seeds
- Plastic Bags (1 gallon for germinating plants and 1 quart for collecting insects)
Would you like to receive seeds?
Send a self-addressed and stamped envelop to:
Shipping address for beetles
554 ASI Building
Department of Entomology
Penn State University
University Park PA 16802
About the Scientists
Dr. Lori Shapiro is a post doctoral researcher in the Department of Applied Ecology at NC State University. She is interested in how agricultural systems change selective pressures on plant-insect and plant-microbe interactions.
Dr. Margarita López-Uribe is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Entomology at Penn State University. She is interested in understanding how changes in the environment are affecting native bee populations in cities and agricultural areas. In her free time, she enjoys being with her family, and spending time outside where she and her kids can appreciate nature. Follow Margarita on Twitter.
Dr. Rob R. Dunn is a Professor in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. He is an expert in the ecology of life on and around humans, from belly buttons to backyards. Follow Rob on Twitter.
About the Artist
Lauren Nichols is interested in how species adapt to their environment and how this affects inter-species interactions and evolutionary diversification, particularly in the context of anthropogenic environmental changes. She is particularly interested in engaging others in the process of science and sharing excitement over new knowledge and insights. Using data visualization and photography she presents science in accessible and engaging ways.
Follow Lauren on Twitter
Next Generation Science Standards
Science and Engineering Practices
- Asking Questions and Defining Problems
- Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
- Analyzing and Interpreting Data
- Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information