Science as a Language for the Earth

This spring 2017 semester, members of LCI’s Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology (LLECB) have been tasked with exercising their science communication skills by preparing a brief presentation for the lab group with the theme “why my science matters.” After sharing and receiving feedback, presenters have honed their messages and created blog-posts to share their thoughts with a larger audience.

Science as a Language for the Earth

By Molly McCormick

It was a day in early fall, the light was slanting through the cottonwood trees at that angle which backlights the leaves, giving each a crown of gold. There was a slight breeze, I could here the green waxy cottonwood leaves softly clapping together. I was about 9 years old, playing in my backyard in southwest Kansas. Something flitted past and caught my eye – an orange and black butterfly. I followed it to the tree where it alighted on a golden branch, it was a big, beautiful Monarch. It wasn’t alone, there on that branch, in that tree, my best friend tree, were hundreds of Monarch butterflies. My young mind couldn’t quite comprehend what I was seeing, but I knew it was something special. It took my breath away, I sunk into the grass. I watched as clusters of butterflies flapped their wings, surrounded by haloes of golden sunshine. I wondered what the butterflies were doing all together, why hadn’t I seen them before, how long would they stay in my yard, if they left, would they return, would I see them again…

That was a moment of blissful awe and wonder for the beauty of nature. It is that same sense of awe and wonder that serves as my inspiration as an ecologist, and I work with a conservation ethic so that the young people of the future can have similar hallmark experiences.

As an ecologist, I study plants in a changing world. Because ecology is the study of relationships, my inquiry into plants has led to my current investigation into pollination, restoration, and human relationships with landscapes. I look at specific ways people can better support pollinators by using plants, science and good ol’ boots-on-the-ground hard work. Through field research I take the pulse of a couple of Earth’s kingdoms.

Photo by M McCormick

Photo by M McCormick

Pollination ecology is the study of pollination systems, which consists of flowering plants, pollinators and habitat for both. Native solitary bees, bumblebees, feral and domesticated honeybees, flies, butterflies, beetles, bats, hummingbirds, a lizard, and (recently discovered) zooplankton are all pollinators. As it turns out, pollination ecology is complex and highly nuanced. Plants and pollinators each have individual responses to change, but are also dependent upon each other. The coevolved mutualisms between plants and pollinators are responsible for an outstanding amount of diversity. The color, texture, scent of each flower is a response to the need to trick pollinators into moving pollen from one plant to the next without using too many resources. Pollinators do this (in most cases) by chance, as they are either eating or collecting resources for egg laying. This dissonance, the give and take of these relationships, is responsible for so much beauty in the world.

Pollinators are an important element at the base of the food chain, responsible for creating fruits and seeds for many creatures, including humans. 85% of flowering plants and 2 of every 3 bites of food we eat are all dependent on successful pollination from these pollinators. Ecosystem services from pollination are estimated at $50-100 billion. Without healthy, diverse, abundant pollinator communities, survival on Earth would be difficult. And pollinators are in decline, which means ecosystem and human health are at risk.

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from http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1192074/original.jpg

The pollinator decline is a result of many drivers of environmental change. Invasion by non-native plant species can outcompete better quality forage, resulting in lower pollinator species diversity or abundance. Phenological shifts, or timing of blooms and pollinator emergence, can become mis-matched. For example: when bumblebee queens emerge from overwintering nests in the spring, they are in desperate need of eating, finding a mate, and laying an egg in a very short amount of time. If the spring bloom has happened earlier or later, as all kinds of people are noticing, then the queen might emerge to find little or nothing to eat. Habitat fragmentation caused by land development, road building, urban sprawl, transition of native vegetation to agricultural production fields or other land use practices can disrupt population dynamics (gene flow) and migration patterns of pollinators. Conventional agricultural practices have had a large impact to pollinators, not just conversion of diverse native vegetation to monotypic stands (1 or 2 crops), but also increased use of pesticides and herbicides has contributed to honeybee colony collapse disorder and pollinator population declines, including Monarch butterfly. These pressures also negatively affect the immune systems of pollinators, making them more susceptible to disease and pests.

 

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from http://georgiaorganics.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Graph.jpg

And the pollinator decline is dramatic. In the U.S. over half of honeybee colonies were lost in the last 50 years. Monarch populations have declined by 80% – imagine my childhood scene with only 20 butterflies in the cottonwood tree. In the cornbelt of Illinois, scientists visited the natural history observations made by a backyard observer who lived in the mid 1800s. They found that after just 120 years, that backyard had lost half of its native bee species!

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As a conservationist passionate about ecological diversity, I activate on these issues. I want my young cousins in Kansas to see hundreds of Monarch butterflies migrate through their yards in the fall, I want brides and lovers to have their bouquets, I want to be intoxicated by the smell of a rose, I want to be able to enjoy a juicy ripe peach, and I want plants and pollinators to thrive. I do this by studying what science knows about responses of plants and pollinators to change, then using science to improve efficacy in habitat creation projects by examining pollinator response to diversity and density of plants, and species choice. I experiment with techniques to get native plants established in the arid ecosystems of my home. I visit my policy makers and advocate for native plants. I educate the public through lectures, hands-on experiences, and art. I increase availability and access to native plants for habitat projects with the Verde Native Seed Cooperative.

Science matters because it allows us to see the patterns of nature, to know when there is a problem, to understand the complexity and extent of the problem, and then to try to do something about it. I was a reluctant scientist as a young adult; I didn’t like a lot of what was done in the name of science. As I carved my own path through life, one that took me deep into the wilderness, I realized that the study of nature was science. In some traditions, as David Abram discovers in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous, it is called shamanism, being watchful, the art of maintaining balance between people and nature. So I practice science in the way that it is an ancient tradition, that someone has to be the Lorax and speak for the trees. In order to do that, we have to know the language the trees are speaking – it’s not perfect, but science has given us that language.

The pollinator crisis can feel heavy at times, but each one of us has an opportunity to make a real difference to pollinators. You can take some of the drivers of the pollinator crisis off the road by:

  • Joining a citizen science initiative, like Project BudBurst or the Flagstaff Plant-Pollinator project (contact Paige at prc43@nau.edu).
  • Supporting policy initiatives, like National Strategy for Pollinators or The National Native Seed Strategy. You can advocate for the use of these strategies to members of congress, state representatives, municipal governments and local agency units (NPS, USFS). Oftentimes, our representatives and officials don’t know these strategies and tools exist.
  • If you are a farmer, you can get paid to create habitat on your farm.
  • Plant a garden using native plants grown without harmful chemicals (grow from seed or purchase from a smaller local nursery).
  • Stay informed about pollinator conservation
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Group of interns and volunteers who helped the author plant 1500 plants in support of pollinators.

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