Friday, July 10, 2009

The Buzz on Bees: Tracking the Pollinators

Pollinators are in trouble. Colony collapse disorder (CCD), a widespread and still unexplained phenomenon in which adult bees from honey bee colonies suddenly disappear, entered the language in 2006. Hundreds of thousands of bats have died from white-nose syndrome (WNS), another poorly understood malady that appeared a few years ago. A 2006 National Academy of Sciences report concluded that pollinator populations are moving demonstrably downward. Pollinator decline has been attributed to loss of habitat, monoculture agriculture, pesticides, pollution, and disease.

There are other pollinators, of course, including moths, butterflies, beetles, and hummingbirds. One-third of our food depends on pollinators. But pollinators are also "keystone species," because entire ecosystems depend on them. Problems for pollinators spell big trouble for us.
It was with thoughts like these that I set out on the July 4th weekend. While friends were heading to the beach or the country, I stayed behind in my Brooklyn neighborhood to go beewatching. I am participating in the Great Pollinator Project, a citizen science program in New York City that is collaborating with a national program based in San Francisco called the Great Sunflower Project. Both programs entail planting seeds to grow bee-friendly flowers. But in New York City, you can watch and report on bee visits to any of 12 flowers, including sunflowers, milkweed, dandelions, smooth asters, and purple coneflowers.
As I live in a co-op apartment, I walked a few blocks to a neighbor's garden, which was full of coneflowers that were, I am happy to say, abuzz with bumble bees. I carefully filled out my data collection sheet, with time, number of bee visits and flowers, and weather conditions and submitted it online. These reports will help scientists learn more about how bees are doing in urban areas. (Bees can thrive even in the middle of big cities; there are, for instance, more than 60 bee species in Central Park.)
This sort of project is scientifically useful and, well, fun. There is something serene and Zen-like about standing in a garden, inhaling the perfume of flowers, listening to the zzzz of insects, and mindfully focusing on a flower. It's also kid-friendly. There are myriad opportunities to learn more about nature and the amazing lives of social insects. For more information on pollinators, the Care2 group Help the Honey Bees! is an amazing resource of background information.

posted by: Peter Kobel

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