Pollinators are in trouble. Bees pollinate 30% of the crops we eat and 90% of wild plants requiring bees for pollination—there is legitimate cause for concern. Now society is challenged to identify causes and potential solutions to this problem. With respect to agriculture and Colony Colapse Disorder affecting honeybees, one promising suggestion is that wild bees, such as bumblebees and mason bees, could fill the gap left by honeybee decline. But some wild bees are struggling too, and encouraging their health requires appropriate habitat to meet their needs. In places where “wild” habitat is limited, gardens may provide an important alternative. Conservation organizations like the Xerces Society and National Wildlife Federation encourage gardening for habitat. But, the best practices for achieving this are not well understood. What are the important ingredients?
The act of gardening not only for flowers and foliage, but also wildlife, is not new, yet interest in viewing gardens ecosystems is. In light of the increasingly blurry distinction between nature and human-dominated landscapes, this shift in perspective is an important one. There are difficulties with trying to understand the ecology of gardens, however. Gardens are as variable as the people who grow them, and are managed at scales that may or may not be relevant to the scale at which other life operates. For instance, bees can travel hundreds of meters between their nests and patches of flowers to feed, passing over or stopping at many gardens along the way. To get a sense of the ecological value of gardens with respect to bees, you have to tease apart the influence of the nesting site environment, the food/flower environment and everything in between. So how would one do that?
Well one way might be to harness the excitement and devotion of home gardeners. My research focuses on the extent to which a single garden impacts bee abundance and diversity, and whether this impact could be measured in comparison to that of the surrounding landscape–in other words, can an individual homeowner make a difference? Answering this question requires the cooperation of a lot of individual homeowners with a wide variety of garden-types within a wide variety of potential landscapes. As citizen scientists, these people can learn about local pollinators, spend time observing and connecting with the ecosystem that is their garden, and contributed to science. Work that couples research with education and outreach to the public is an ideal match for garden related science. Because the unit of study, the individual garden, is the same as the management unit, the people who stand to benefit and make use of the results of this research are the same people that are needed to do it.
Recognizing this connection, conservation biologists interested in garden ecology as it is related to bees in particular, have launched many citizen science programs in recent years, see for instance, The Great Sunflower Project, Bumblebee Nest Survey, and The Urban Pollinator Project. There will be a lag time between the launch of these programs and publication of their insights, but I’m impatient for scientists to close that gap and to know what we can learn via collaborations with the public about our actions as individual stewards of the environment—hopefully in time to make a difference to organisms, like bees, which we depend upon.
28 October, 2013
October 28, 2013