Humble pollinators – little keys to life on earth

The 2015 SEEDS Leadership meeting gets a tour of Pollination Science, Communication, and Policy.

A guest post by SEEDS Undergraduate Research Fellow Roxanne Hoorn of Eckerd College, SEEDS chapter representative Andrea Urioste of the University of New Mexico, and by Teresa Mourad and Fred Abbott from ESA’s Education and Diversity Programs Office.

The SEEDS Leadership Meeting visits honey bees with Sam Droge at the US Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Credit, ESA.

The SEEDS Leadership Meeting visits experimental honey bees with Sam Droge (hat-less at center) at the US Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Credit, ESA.

Pollinators are vital to life! That was the message, loud and clear, at the 10th ESA SEEDS Leadership Meeting on May 7-10, 2015. Twenty-four undergraduate students, including the 2014-15 and 2015-16 SEEDS Undergraduate Research Fellows gathered at North Bay Adventures in North End, MD.  We came from 19 SEEDS Chapters.

This year, we learned a lot about pollinators, especially native bees, bumble bees and honey bees. This Leadership Meeting focused on “Pollination Science, Communication, and Policy”. The theme was a natural extension from the 2014 Leadership Meeting, when participants reflected on “Food Security, Food Justice” and learned that, in the US, an average of 40 percent of food produced is lost due to waste!

Without bees, there would be few crops we could rely on as sources of food.  About a third of our food calories come from plants pollinated by bees.  Indeed, many plants depend primarily on bees to be reproductively successful.  In the list of endangered and threatened plant species compiled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, an overwhelming 96 percent are flowering plants!

Sam Droege, from the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (PWRC), invited us to think about how pollinators and plants have evolved to depend on each other. It is like a dance between them, as the plants put a lot of resources into their appearance to attract their pollinator. Color is the main advertising strategy for bees. It was cool to think of bees as vegetarian wasps!

Francisco Posada, who studies the life and behavior of bumble bees at PWRC, said that the presence of bumblebees is a great sign that an area is healthy and thriving.  He also shared how the study of bumble bee populations can serve as an amazing tool to teach biology, ecology, genetics, and animal behavior. Many bumble bees are native to the US and, unlike the honey bees, most native bees do not sting. The pots the queens make are truly amazing.

A native Bombus griseocollis bumble bee queen photographed by Sam Droege and the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. in downtown Washington, DC.

A native Bombus griseocollis bumble bee queen photographed by Sam Droege and the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. in downtown Washington, DC.

Honey bees and bumble bees both belong to the large bee family Apidae, but honey bees are not native to the US. Today, scientists and farmers are very concerned about the poor health of our honey bees. As honey bees are driven from farm to farm across the US, they experience a high degree of stress. They are also exposed to pesticides that are applied on the crops, which not only eliminate unwanted pests but have consequences for the bee colonies as well.

Most of us didn’t know too much about pollinators before the Leadership Meeting. We had lots of questions. Here are just a few:

  • What could be the implications of being a generalist plant in terms of pollinators vs. depending on specialized pollinators in the face of climate change? ~ Carla Lopez
  • In regions where certain species of pollinators are high in numbers will the flora evolve rapidly enough to attract those pollinators or will the rate of mortality for pollinators exceed the rate of evolution? If the rate of mortality exceeds the rate of evolution, can genetically modified organisms be a solution to help the flora continue its survival? Will these changes be a lasting solution, or will it create more problems? What is an example of genetic modification in the case of pollination that did not work as planned? ~Beth Romero
  • What is the current reputation of bees in our culture? ~ Kyle Reid
  • With global climate change some plants move to stay within their climate envelope. As plants move to stay within their climate are pollinators able to pursue these plants as they move to maintain their food source? ~ Brianna Adams
  • Should we consider the cattle or any other grazing animals as competition for food? Is there a relationship between the decreasing pollinators and grazing practices? ~Monica Amaton

Check out what we learned here and feel free to add your own comments!

We were really excited to see the White House strategy promoting the health of pollinators, released barely a week after the Leadership Meeting!  We are looking forward to the coming assessment of pollinators, pollination and food production by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), established in 2012.

The Leadership Meeting also challenged us to think about ways we can take this information back home.  In small groups, we developed educational outreach activities to promote pollinator awareness in our communities.  It was great fun to exercise our collective creative energies to develop a whole set of learning activities that we can use in our SEEDS chapters, campus clubs, and other community engagement programs.

The activities covered a wide range of topics including: the role of pollinators, pollinator diversity, the relationship between pollinators and plants and the risks that pollinators are facing due to human activity. We invite you to try them out and improve upon them!

At this Leadership Meeting, we were excited to find an existing Pollinator Resource Toolkit, originally developed in 2007 with ESA’s Science office and Dr. David Inouye, currently President of ESA. Now happily residing on the SEEDS website, we see this as a model for future toolkits! With Dr. Inouye’s help and the assistance of Terence Houston from ESA’s Public Affairs Office, we have updated a few items and added the educational activity ideas.

We believe it would not be a stretch to say that pollinators are key to life on earth. Let us use all our creative powers to inform, engage and empower our communities to protect our pollinators.


2015 Leadership Meeting participants:

Dan Metz, Alia Khalidi, Mariam Estavillo, Melinda Martinez, Brianna Adams, Monica Amaton Fierro, Andrea Urioste, Jacob DeKraai, Frederick Nelson, Ann Le, Carla Lopez, Philip Bellamy, Sakshi Handa, Randi Jackson, Roxanne Hoorn, Brittany Ottoson, Beth Romero, Kyle Reid, Julissa Hunte, DeYanna Reed, Mariah Ashley, Brandon Hoenig, Coral Aviles Santiago

Wilnelia Recart, SEEDS graduate student alum

Dr. David Inouye, ESA President, 2015