August 7, 2014

Beyond The Hive

by Shelby Wilson

Shelby Wilson '15 is a Royce Fellow studying bees by integrating citizen science.

Rapid and mysterious declines in honeybee populations continue to motivate a great deal of hand flapping, consternation, and outright fear among American citizens, scientists, and politicians alike.

Exhibit A: the recent Presidential Memorandum, “Creatinga Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators,” released on June 20th, 2014.  Industrial agriculture mistakenly relies not only on singular genetic strains of fruits and veggies, but further promotes international monogenocenes by reliance on pollination services provided by a singular, highly managed species of bee, Apis Mellifera.

A complex mixture of disease, parasitism by varroa mites, poor diet, and toxic pesticide exposure culminates in a hostile environment for honeybees as they perform their daily duties in the name the hive and pollination of human food crops.

Despite the gloom and doom, laser focused, (legitimately) pessimistic attitudes towards the fate of honeybees enables interest in a redeeming and essential fact: approximately 20,000 bee species exist worldwide. Little is known about their habits, relative worth as potential crop pollinators, or past population health and conservation status. Regardless, one fact remains: honeybees are few, but Anthophila are many.

A growing body of evidence reveals that in addition to their role in ecological communities, native bees also contribute essential ecosystem services by pollinating cash crops. Additionally, the distribution and abundance of native bees provides a tool for evaluating biogeographical responses to climate change and disruptions in ecological community structure caused by invasive species. Fundamental ignorance about the extent of bee diversity, and biodiversity in general, results from limited opportunities to engage with the natural world as a classroom and limited access to the ecological research process.

By involving citizens in the scientific process- including data collection, experimental design, and data analysis - Royce funded research initiative “Beyond the Hive” addresses two major stumbling blocks in pollinator ecology: a lack of scientific literacy/access in the general public, and dearth of funding dedicated towards the study of native (non-Apis Mellifera) bee populations. Successful conservation of native bee diversity must utilize citizen science more effectively; inspiring action by enabling those outside academic and government institutions equal ownership and participation in the research process.

Ecological research driven by citizen science has some notable precedent; the most well recognized example being the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Each year, thousands of volunteers collect field data reflecting the distribution and abundance of over 400 bird species. Data collected by citizen scientists structures the backbone of many influential ornithological reports, and informs major conservation policy decisions. Without these citizen scientists, comparatively little would be known about the health of bird populations in North America. Unfortunately, entomology is a less accessible but equally important field. Programs that involve citizen naturalists in the study of entomological diversity are less common, though databases like “Discover Life” and “Encyclopedia Of Life” are evolving the field by providing freely accessible, high-resolution photographs and easily understandable insect identification keys. Additionally, institutions like the Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab of USGS work to support a number of inspired but novice entomologists in conducting important fieldwork. One cost-effective and easily mastered survey technique, “pan trapping” is now a commonly utilized protocol recommended by the USGS. The small, fluorescent paint-covered plastic bowls can be prepared at home, and their small size allows for easy transport and instillation in the field. Beyond the Hive field surveys are currently begin conducted by collaborating high school science students in Washington State and Wyoming.

Development of a successful native bee-monitoring program requires citizen science, and will benefit from the involvement of motivated youth ecologists. The skills and conceptual material involved will help to promote and model conservation ecology and scientific research as accessible lifetime pursuits, realistic goals for post-secondary education and beyond.

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