What’s next in urban agriculture is going to take place in the cityscape we’ve all heard described before: two-thirds of the world’s 10 billion people will be living in urban areas—mostly across 40 or more mega-cities around the globe—by the year 2050. You’re probably bracing yourselves, waiting for either a list of depressing facts or some ‘hail Mary, technology can save us all’ kind of talk.
Not today. Today we think of green pastures amid concrete jungles.
Urban agriculture is the production, processing, and marketing of produce based on living systems from the land or water located throughout urban and peri-urban areas. Anyone cropping food, flowers, fiber, feed, or herbs from their corner of their city is engaging in a small-lot, local agriculture with an utterly minimized transport chain from grower to eater. These green, vegetative, productive spaces within city landscapes can provide valuable ecosystem services: floral habitat for pollinators, stormwater management, and even mediating the temperature extremes of urban heat islands. People often find urban gardens foster cross-cultural and multi-generational spaces for social interaction. These disparate green spaces, however small each might be, aggregate to large areas across metropolitan regions. A conservative 20 acres of urban gardens in Portland, Oregon, fifty-one acres in Chicago, Illinois, and a whopping 120 acres in Madison, Wisconsin!
More good news: these growing plots don’t stop at the hobby level. Across the United States, counties with significant urban encroachment also produce the lion’s share of fruits, nuts, berries, and vegetables, as well as accounting for most of the farm-gate value of these goods.
But now we come to a bit of bad news, unfortunately. Because while these urban-adjacent farmlands produce the most food in the most high-value agricultural markets, their days are numbered. While not as romantic as the Amazonian forests, some of the most fertile land across this country is being consumed and paved over by sprawling cityscapes. This plight is common due to a mismatch between those who own deeds to land and those who seek the land’s productive agricultural use. Countless urban spaces have seen their productive days ended when the land became valuable enough for someone to decide to sell it off for development.
This is relevant to us today because growing food within the cities themselves is one of the easiest ways to increase our resilience against disruptions to our modern, industrialized food supply chain. Just as victory gardens stabilized many citizens through global wars, we too can use our land and our labor to renovate vacant land in shrinking cities like Baltimore, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit, and the others which are sure to follow the implosion of the last economic boom.
New American farmers—entrepreneurs all—are literally working overtime to access the new niche markets which are springing up across modern urban centers. They’ve surveyed the future and invested in becoming extremely specialized producers of fine agricultural goods. To me, that sounds like taking quite chance: betting it all on a small market with few, discerning clients.
But we might gain some of their confidence if we examine some of their assumptions. Barring extreme, world-altering scenarios like an extinction-event asteroid impact, human population in 2050 is pretty well guaranteed at this point. It’s only thirty years away and average birthrate is not quickly changing. This also means we can be pretty secure in the assumption of continued urbanization. The current population density alone is enough to birth enough humans to further compound the growth of urban centers. This makes the relevance of things like tele-commuting more a question of degree of urban density and sprawl growth. Lastly, many farmers are seeing their emotional investment in the quality of food finally reflected in public policy.
A proposed “new food equation” predicts the end of ‘cheap food’ as global calorie production has been secured. The focus is now changing to include quality, or the nutritional content of foodstuffs. Nations recognize that food production remains a matter of national security in a number of ways. First as a matter of imports and exports. Self-sufficiency means not relying upon another nation to feed your populace. Excessive production enables exports which not only enrich a nation but can operate as the same leverage which is being avoided in the previous example. Lastly, public officials and private people are beginning to attribute more health complications and costs to dietary factors like obesity or malnutrition.
New urban farmers are exploring many novel approaches to urban agricultural production. Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is taking protected cultural growing techniques and implementing them using modern technology. Managers can adjust a whole palette of environment controls: light, temperature, precipitation, atmospheric composition, hormonal regulation, and genetic alteration.
This is made possible largely due to advances in microelectronic technology. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have drastically slashed the cost AND increased the efficiency of artificial lighting. Cost-effective LEDs have revolutionized indoor production like plastic sheeting did for field production. And with the decreased cost of indoor production comes increased innovation as more minds are able to devise feasible plans to grow something worthwhile in artificial conditions. Some of these ideas look to the world’s growing demand for protein and consider growing plant-protein for lab-burgers whiles others simply aim to minimize their livestock and grow insect-protein.
How can someone possibly stay abreast of all these developments? I feel like I’ve listed too many, and yet for each example in this text there are a dozen which could not be included. Well, the first way is to get directly involved! Find and become a part of something in urban agriculture. If you’re in relevant circumstances you’ll need to expend less energy trying to stay informed as this will simply become a common topic of your conversations. You could also set up some phrases to trigger a news-aggregator to your inbox. Look for topics relevant to new urban farming. I reiterate my point about protein production: it’s going to be big at some point and the innovation is going to be discovered by a small operation facing unconventional challenges. While it’s cliché and tastes like papier-mâché to say: apps! Seriously, be on the lookout for apps which facilitate the work of small farmers. If there’s ever going to be a mass mobilization of people into agriculture, then we need to simplify and systematize as much as we can. Trust me, most of them will feel fine if they’re no longer forced to wear so many hats.
If you’re still interested, you might benefit from investigation into various topics which have been extensively researched and greatly overlap with many facets of urban agriculture. Cuba’s organopónicos system demonstrates the practical success of urban food production when actively pursued by many people and policies. The Netherlands have led global greenhouse production for years, and they continue to innovate and push the boundaries of protected and synthetic production environments.
Space! The final frontier. It’s exciting, isn’t it? I’m excited even just to say the word. I really did shout it out just then. I’m dreaming of going to space one day, how about you? Anyway, astronauts are experimenting with plant growth and crop production in space. It’s all quite enthralling, but too much for this post. If you’d like to know more, keep an eye out for my next post in a couple months!
Further research options:
An article from National Geographic about how The Netherlands ‘feed the world.’ Especially interesting is the third picture showing vertical production of chickens.
An all-encompassing chapter regarding urban soils, from my most favored author on the subject: Pouyat et al., 2010.
A podcast episode about urban growers in early New England who are called “The Diggers.” I suggest starting at either 40 seconds in or at 3:20, then listening through to at least 12:15.
Every June – August, from 2017-2019, we collected bees from 25 Portland area gardens. As I start to build out a Bee Guide for Portland Gardens, I wanted to highlight some of the notable bees that we collected. We are still waiting for our 2019 bees to be identified. The details, below, are for bees that were collected in 2017 and 2018 and identified by Sarah Kornbluth (2017) or Gabe Foote (2018).
We collected five species of bee in the genus Megachile:
- Megachile rotundata (2 females and 1 male)
- Megachile angelarum (8 females and 5 males)
- Megachile perihirta (1 female)
- Megachile fidelis (3 females)
- Megachile centuncularis (1 female)
Worldwide, Megachile bees are extremely diverse: an estimated 1,400 species of Megachile bees can be found, globally and an estimated 140 species of Megachile can be found in the United States. These bees are in the Family Megachilidae, which includes the leafcutting (e.g. Megachile species), mason (e.g .Osmia species), and wool carder bees (e.g. Anthidium species). In the family Megachilidae, females carry pollen on their abdomen.
In this post, I wanted to cover Megachile fidelis, Megachile perihirta, and Megachile angelarum.
|Megachile angelarum||Native||Generalist (Prefers Lavandula, Perovskia, Vitex)||Solitary||Cavity|
|Megachile fidelis||Native||Generalist (Prefers Asters)||Solitary||Cavity|
Megachile angelarum was the most common bee in this genus that we collected from Portland area gardens.
Diet: Although this species has been collected from a broad array of floral hosts (see list from Discover Life), Frankie et al. (2014) note that this species prefers lavenders (Lavendula), Russian sage (Perovskia), and chaste tree (Vitex).
Sociality: This species is solitary, which means that each individual female builds her own nest, collects nectar and pollen to provision her young, and lays her own eggs. In bees with advanced social structures, such as honey bees, the workers collect nectar and pollen to feed the young, and the queen lays the eggs. Solitary bees die soon after they build their nest, load nest cells with pollen and nectar, lay their eggs, and seal the nest cell shut. Many solitary bees may nest in close proximity to each other. Thus, solitary bee doesn’t mean loner bee; it means that the female does all of the work on her own, without cooperation or collaboration from other bees in her species.
Nesting: Megachile angelarum nests in cavities. Rather than cutting leaves, females collect resins and gums to partition nest cells. Since this bee does not cut leaves, it lacks teeth on its mandibles, unlike other bees in the genus. The bee has been found in drilled pine wood (10cm deep holes, 0.5 cm in diameter; Dicks et al. 2010). Other studies have found this species in nest blocks with a 3/16th hole size (Galasetti 2017).
Appearance: Like many bees in this genus, it is a robust-sized bee, with females typically spanning 10-11 mm in length and males a bit smaller, at 8-9 mm in length. The lack of teeth and cutting edges on the mandibles can be helpful for identification.
Notes: Across 2017-2018, we collected this bee from seven different Portland area gardens, or nearly 1/3 of our sampled gardens. Megachile angelarum is likely parasitized by another bee, Stelis laticincta. Stelis laticincta is a social parasite, or cleptoparasite of other bees. What this means is that Stelis laticincta invades the nest of another bee, and lay their own eggs, just as cuckoo birds do with other birds. Once the Stelis laticincta eggs hatch, the larvae kill the Megachile angelarum larvae, and eat the pollen and nectar provisions that have been provided by the Megachile angelarum mother.
We collected a single Stelis laticincta in 2017-2018, and it came from a garden where we collected four Megachile angelarum specimens. Having a healthy Megachile angelarum population increases your chances of having more bee species, by supporting cleptoparasites, such as Stelis laticincta.
Megachile perihirta is commonly known as the Western leafcutter bee.
Diet: This bee is a generalist, and will collect nectar and pollen from many different types of flowering plants.
Sociality: Solitary (see notes for M. angelarum).
Nesting: Unlike many Megachile bees, this species does not nest in cavities, but instead digs shallow nests in the soil (Frankie et al. 2014, page 102). I had thought that all bees in the genus Megachile were cavity nesters. (Actually, I thought that all bees in the family Megachilidae were cavity nesters). But, Eickworth et al. (1981) report that soil excavation was widespread in the family Megachilidae and in the genus Megachile.
Appearance: This was the largest Megachile species we collected. Females typically spanning 13-14 mm in length and males span 12-13 mm in length.
I am soooooo sad that we didn’t collect a male of this species! The males have enlarged forelegs, covered with hairs (photos of the males can be found here and here), which the MALES USE TO COVER THE FEMALES EYES DURING MATING!!!! Biologists suggest that this helps to keep females calm and receptive, during mating (Frankie et al. 2014, page 103).
Notes: We only collected a single specimen of this bee. It came from our smallest garden (1,800 square feet in size), in an industrial area of Northeast Portland. And seriously: how cool is it to have a bee species where the mating ritual includes the male covering the females eyes with his super-hairy forearms!!!??
Diet: Frankie et al. (2014) note that this species seems to prefer plants in the Asteraceae, including Aster, Erigeron, Rudbekia, Cosmos, and Helenium). Hurd et al. (1980) note that this species is commonly collected from sunflowers (Helianthus).
Sociality: Solitary (see notes for M. angelarum).
Nesting: This is a cavity nesting bee that tends to occupy larger holes (0.65 to 0.80 cm in diameter (Barthell et al. 1998). Unlike Megachile angelarum, which does not cut leaves or petals to line their nest cells, UC Davis has a great photo of a female Megachile fidelis carrying a piece of Clarkia petal. In his native bee research, Aaron Anderson would regularly find bees cutting neat discs from Clarkia flowers. I wonder, now, if collecting petal discs from Clarkia flowers is characteristic of M. fidelis.
Appearance: This species is another robust-sized bee. Females typically spanning 11-13 mm in length and males span 10-12 mm in length.
Once again, I am beyond bummed that we didn’t collect a male of this species! Males of this species also have enlarged forelegs covered with long hairs, although not as pronounced as in male M. perihirta. Once again, biologists suspect that the males use their hairy forearms to cover the females eyes during mating (Frankie et al. 2014, page 103).
Notes: We collected one specimen from a 0.2 acre, flower-filled garden that is adjacent to a golf course in Canby. The other two specimens were collected from a 0.1 acre, flower-filled garden in Northeast Portland.
The members of the Garden Ecology lab spend much of their time on research into subjects that affect, what else, the ecology of home gardens. Pollinators and their relations with native and non-native plants, bee variety and abundance in gardens, and soil nutrient levels, are among the topics they are delving into.
One of the challenges for the lab members – and for all scientists – is how to get the results of their research into the hands of people who can use it. Scientific papers are the traditional way, but not many people actually read those, and it can take a long time for research to trickle out from papers to the general public. If you read this blog, you’ve discovered one of the ways current research is disseminated quickly, and you’re learning new ideas that you may be able to implement in your own research or gardening.
Another way research gets to the public is through teaching. Lab members present new data in lectures, interviews, presentations, workshops and classes, including OSU Extension’s Online Master Gardener training, which I teach. Each year the course reaches around 40 Oregon MG trainees, plus another 60 or so horticulturally-minded people who take the course simply to improve their garden knowledge. In addition, our single-subject Short Courses are accessed by several thousand people per year. So any new research I can include in these courses can potentially reach hundreds or thousands (depending on the subject) of gardeners per year, who in turn may influence other gardeners.
With this in mind, I have cited Mykl Nelson’s research on excessive nutrient levels in managed vegetable garden soils to caution students about the perils of over-fertilizing. In 2020, my new module on Gardening with Pacific Northwest Native Plants will be influenced by Aaron’s data on the native flowers most favored by native pollinators. His research, plus other research taking place elsewhere, is showing that just planting a garden of pollinator-attracting plants may not be the best tactic to help native pollinators. A garden full of bees is often, really, a garden full of honey bees. What about all the native bees that are less visible, but at least as important? Aaron Anderson’s research into which plant species attract which bee species is beginning to show that the plants most attractive to honey bees are generally not the same as those most attractive to native bees.
The takeaway? Gardeners who want to support pollinators can take the extra step of searching out and growing native plants that are especially attractive to native bees, in addition to the many flowers that honey bees frequent. This is what I will be teaching my Master Gardener trainees in Oregon, and the rest of my students all over the country; many of them will in turn teach other people. Bit by bit the new information gets out there, and more native bees may find the flowers they need to thrive.
I’m thrilled to announce that this summer I completed the third field season of my study. This is slightly bittersweet – while I’m excited that we are done with hot fieldwork, I will miss chasing bees around the farm and the view of Mt. Hood. I’m incredibly thankful for this third season of data, as it will help account for some of the temporal variation inherent in ecological studies. In fact, pollinator communities in particular tend to be highly variable both within and across field seasons. Having three seasons of data will hopefully allow us to identify more reliable patterns of pollinator visitation between my study plants.
Lots of lab work remains, as I’m tackling the insect samples that we collected with the bee vacuum. With the help of a dissecting scope, I’m attempting to identify the each specimen to at least the taxonomic level of family to get a sense of the broader insect communities associated with each flower species in my study. It will be several months before I can share this species-richness data, but in the meantime I have bee abundance data to share with you!
As a refresher, we performed timed pollinator observations at each plot. This consisted of observing each blooming plot for five minutes and counting all the insects that landed on open flowers. Bees were sorted to “morpho-type” (honey bee, bumblebee, green bee, and other native bee). Though this doesn’t give us species-level information on the floral visitors, it allows us to understand which plants attracted the most pollinators overall, and allows us to detect any patterns of visitation between honey bees, bumblebees, and solitary native bees. Below is a summary of some of the highlights.
2019 overall bee abundance by plant species:
- Origanum vulgare, Lavendula intermedia, and Eschscolzia californica were top five bee plants in 2019, just as they were in 2018.
- In 2019, Phacelia heterophylla and Solidago canadensis jump into the top five, while Nepeta cataria and Gilia capitata fall out of the top five. It should be noted that Nepeta was the sixth most attractive plant, with about the same visitation level as Solidago.
- Again, similar to 2018, it appears that honey bee visitation was driving the high visitation rates of the popular exotic garden species (marked with a red asterisk), while native wildflowers were being visited more frequently by native bees.
- I’ve included the 2017 and 2018 overall abundance graphs as well, for comparison. You can see that the overall abundance was higher in 2019 for the two most popular plants, at about ~25 bees per observation period!
2017 overall bee abundance by plant species:
2018 overall bee abundance by plant species:
Since honey bee visitation drove the high abundance of many of the top pollinator plants, I took honey bee visits out of the data set and made a new graph, to compare which plants were most attractive to native bees.
2019 native bee abundance by plant species:
As you can see above, honey bees are excluded from the analysis, the top five most popular plant species completely reshuffles.
- Native wildflowers Phacelia heterophylla, Eschscolzia californica, and Solidago candensis are still top pollinator plants, while Aster subspicatus and Anaphalis margaritacea jump into the top five.
- The exotic garden plants fall in the rankings: Lavendula intermedia drops to the middle of the pack, while Nepeta cataria and Origanum vulgare hardly attracted any native bees at all (an average of only ~one bee per five minute observation).
- Phacelia heterophylla, Lavendula intermedia, and Eschscolzia californica attracted the most bumblebee species.
I’ve included that 2017 and 2018 native bee abundance data below for comparison.
2017 native bee abundance by plant species:
2018 native bee abundance by plant species:
Please stay tuned for more updates on the bee species richness we collected in 2019, as well as data on the other insects (pests and natural enemies) that we collected!
Although I have been studying garden bees for the past three years, I was never focused on honey bees. From a biodiversity point of view, they are not very interesting to me. They are non-native and abundant. In fact, honey bees were the most abundant bee species that we collected in Portland-area gardens (332 individuals collected), even though we took great care not to collect more than one individual per visit, when hand-collecting.
Honey bees, which hail from Europe, are only one of 20,000 bee species, worldwide. In North America, there are 4,000 species of bee. In Oregon, we have between 400-500 species of bee. From Portland area gardens, we have documented 86 species of bee (with our 2019 bees still awaiting identification).
Unlike some native bees, honey bees are not at risk of extinction. Compare this to bumblebees. We found 17 species of bumblebee in Portland gardens, two of which (12%) are at risk of endangerment or extinction, due to declining populations: Bombus fervidus and Bombus caliginosus. Across North America, more than 25% of bumblebee species are thought to be at risk of extinction.
By focusing ‘save the bee’ campaigns on honey bees, we may be neglecting the bee species that really need our help. In fact, researchers have started to call out organizations and advertising campaigns that promote feel good stories about honey bee conservation as a form of ‘bee washing’. You can visit www.bee-washing.com to learn more about companies that promote their product or organization as being bee-friendly, in a less than genuine way.
Researchers have documented at least seven different ways that honey bees may harm native bee species (summarized in Cane and Tepedino, 2016):
- Honey bees monopolize and deplete nectar and pollen from local plant communities, which can reduce native bee reproduction.
- By depleting local plant resources, native bee females have to devote more time and energy to fly and find new resources, which also reduces native bee reproduction.
- Unlike honey bees, most bees are solitary, which means that they do not live in colonies and they do not have a queen. Solitary females who have access to fewer floral resources produce fewer daughters and more sons. Since female bees are needed to maintain a population, this skewed sex ratio can slow population growth and recovery in native bees.
- When females collect less nectar and pollen, they have less food to feed their young. These bees grow up to be smaller, and are more likely to die over winter, compared to well-fed bees.
- The longer a solitary bee mom is away from her nest, the higher risk that parasites and predators will attack her unguarded young.
- Honey bees can physically block native, solitary bees from preferred pollen hosts.
- Honey bees have many diseases. Some honey bee viruses have been found in native bee communities. Researchers think flowers that are visited by both native bees and honey bees are analogous to an elementary school water fountain: a place where repeat visitors can pick up a pathogen.
Please note that I am not suggesting that you extinguish honey bees from your garden. What I am asking, instead, is that you take the time to learn about and to notice some of the other 80+ species of bee that you might find in your garden. My group is creating a ‘Bees of Portland Gardens’ guide that we hope can help you in this journey. In the meantime, there are some great guides that are currently available. One is Wilson and Carrill’s ‘The Bees in Your Backyard: a guide to North America’s bees’. This book is available at Powell’s City of Books, as well as on Amazon. The second is August Jackson’s ‘The Bees of the Willamette Valley: a comprehensive guide to genera’. This free guide can be found online.
The first step to saving something you love is to be able to recognize it and to call it by name.
- Cane and Tepedino. 2016. Gauging the effect of honey bee pollen collection on native bee communities. Conservation Letters 10: 205-210.
- Jackson. 2019. The Bees of the Willamette Valley: A Comprehensive Guide to Genera. Self-Published, Online: https://tinyurl.com/y4qfssrl.
- Wilson and Carrill. 2016. Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees. Princeton University Press.
And today, after my last lecture of the term, the lab instructor sent me this note:
“I have students here putting in extra time (!!) on their [insect] collections, and they’re talking about how much they loved your class, and the applause you got at the end of class today. One of them is saying how it’s about time she had a class that was 100% relevant to Ag. I’m so happy for you, Gail, . . . I wish you could hear their conversation 🙂 “
To fully appreciate how much these comments mean to me, you have to understand how much of a struggle it is for me to teach. I score very high on the introversion scale. I hate the idea of teaching as performance (why do I have to entertain them?). I’m a stickler for academic rigor. My classes have a reputation for being difficult. And, I teach a required course that all majors must take (whether they are interested in entomology, or not), that is scheduled for M/W/F at 8am. All of these things, added together, make me a fairly unpopular teacher.
But this term was different. In January, I spent two days in New York City for the Alda Center for Communicating Science STEM immersion program. This workshop could not have come at a better time in my professional career. I was burnt out, in part because of: (a) the corporatization of higher education, (b) students who increasingly take a customer-centered approach to their education (where the customer is always right), (c) attacks on and rollbacks of scientific progress at Federal Agencies, and (d) public distrust of science. These things have all taken their toll on me and on my love for my profession. I was looking for something to re-ignite my love for science and teaching, and to stave off my growing cynicism.
The Alda immersion program did all of these things, and more. The premise of the workshop is that ‘Connection is the Key’ to effective science communication. The workshop instructors (including Alan Alda) use improv exercises in small groups and with partners to teach storytelling, message design, and how to really listen to, empathize with, and engage with your audience. Key messages were embraced over the recitation of hypotheses and theory. A heavy focus was put on connecting with your audience, so that even if they were not ready to listen to you in that moment of time, you might be able engage them at some point in the future.
There were two turning points to the workshop, at least for me.
The first was when we partnered up with someone to explain our science in 2 minutes, then 1 minute, then 30 seconds. Between each round, our partner gave us feedback on how to refine our message. When we came back together as a group, each person had to explain their partner’s science, rather than their own. In almost all cases, folks did better explaining someone else’s science ~ because we didn’t get bogged down in details. This really helped me to limit how much information I present in my classes. Instead of teaching *everything a person should possibly know* about a topic, I focus on key points, and how those points relate to students’ lives.
The second was when Mr. Alda demonstrated how he would discuss science with someone who believes the earth is flat. There was such a genuine kindness in the ‘conversation’ he had with the flat-earther ~ acknowledging their experience (the earth looks flat to them) while adhering to the science that demonstrates that earth is a sphere. It made me realize that I had become so accustomed to being right and defending my interpretation of science, that I rarely listened to others who disagreed with me. I was too busy formulating my retort, to truly listen to and understand their perspective.
This revelation was coupled with an exercise that was called ‘My Dear Friend’. In this exercise, you spend a few minutes ranting at your partner about something that drives you crazy. I ranted about the state of higher education, today. Your partner then has to share your rant with the group, by saying something like ‘this is my dear friend, Gail, and she cares passionately about the education that her students receive.’ I use this exercise, nearly every week. In fact, when I returned to the office from the workshop, there was an anonymous letter in my mailbox that was signed by ‘a disgruntled Master Gardener’. I reread that letter, and instead of feeling attacked, I could see how much the person loved this program that I help to coordinate, and how they wanted to share their passion for the program.
In terms of my teaching, the Alda workshop helped me to slow down, focus on key messages, and truly care for my students. This term, I am 6 classes behind where I would normally be. But, I think my students learned and retained more than they have in the past.
I stopped worrying about students who missed class, or who might try to cheat. Instead, I designed my class so that students who had to miss class (for whatever reason) had built in buffers that could help them absorb or make up lost points. These included things like dropping your two lowest quizzes, or earning extra credit points for lecture participation. I built an array of assessments into the class, including TopHat clickers from mobile devices, and adding ample short answer and essay sections to my exams. These things both made it more difficult to cheat, but also offered students with different learning styles different chances to do well.
I started bringing in breakfast on Fridays. I did this because Thursday is the traditional ‘party night’ on a university campus. In the past, my 8am Friday classes often had 15 or fewer people in attendance. (There are 50 enrolled in the course). I wanted to bring a small breakfast to say ‘thank you for showing up’. Over the course of the term, more and more students started to show up, and not just on Fridays. They went out of their way to thank me. Some told me that they were hungry, and that the small meal made a big difference to their day. Being a Filipina who loves to feed people, by nature, that’s all I needed.
There were a few other things, as well . . . students who shared some difficulty that they were going through that made it difficult for them to do well in class. Instead of my past approach of ‘not my problem’, I tried to help where I could.
Mostly, when I stopped feeling like I was there to serve as some sort of academic guardian . . . keeping all but the most-worthy students out . . . that’s when everyone (including myself) became invested in learning.
When I said goodbye to my students today, I heard the applause . . . but I was so confused. Was someone watching YouTube videos, in the back? It honestly makes me tear up to think that it might have been because they loved the learning environment that we built, together.
The survey takes about 25-30 minutes to complete. Folks who have taken the survey thus far have commented on how much they learned from taking the time to answer the questions.
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The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change.
In fact, Wilson noted, the Earth ‘would set about healing itself‘. But if invertebrates were to disappear, Wilson predicts that ‘I doubt the human species could last more than a few months‘.
Insects, the most abundant and numerous of all invertebrate animals, play a particularly important role in our world and in our life. Not counting the enormous contributions of non-native honey bees, which annually help to bring $235 and $577 billion dollar worth of food to the global market, native insects contribute $71 billion dollars (inflation adjusted to 2019) worth of ecological services to our economy and to our society.
These articles covered recent science papers that have caused a lot of concern, and generated a lot of attention. In the ENT 518 class that I am teaching this term (Current Topics in Entomology), our class spent time dissecting and discussing the science papers, as well as popular press coverage of each study.
The first paper, published in 2017 by Hallman and colleagues, documented a 76% decline in insect biomass over a time period spanning nearly three decades. In the peak summer season, the decline was even larger (82%). These researchers had been sampling protected areas in Germany using Malaise traps. This group is working to identify the insects that they collect ~ but, because it takes so much time and specialized expertise to identify most insects to species ~ they also took data on the collective weight of the insects that they collected. This is how they were able to show a 76% decline in insect biomass, between 1989 and 2016.
What caused this massive decline in insect biomass? To address this question, They constructed a series of models to try and identify what factors might explain this precipitous drop in insect biomass (which is being used a proxy for insect abundance). They did not find evidence (from their mathematical models) that climate factors (e.g. temperature, precipitation, wind speed), habitat factors (e.g. site conditions, plant species), or habitat factors (e.g. amount of forest, grassland, water) were responsible for insect declines. Because they did not find evidence that climate change, landscape conversions, or habitat changes reduced insect biomass, they concluded that factors which they did not measure were responsible for insect declines. Specifically, they hypothesize that agricultural intensification (pesticide use, year round tillage, increased use of fertilizers) was a plausible cause.
Students taking the ENT 518 class were mostly convinced that the researchers had documented a large and significant decrease in insect biomass over the time period of the study. Students agreed that the loss of biomass reflects a loss in insect abundance, and probably reflects a loss of insect diversity. Students were more reserved in their assessment of the authors’ suggestion that agricultural intensification was the cause of the decline. Although they agreed that it is a plausible explanation, they wanted to see data to address this hypothesis, rather than having the authors arrive at this conclusion because they eliminated other potential causes of insect decline (e.g. climate change, landscape conversion, habitat change).
The second paper, published in 2019 by Sanchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys, was a review of other papers that studied insect declines. The authors searched science databases for the words ‘insect’ AND ‘decline’ AND ‘survey’, and then reviewed the hundreds of papers (653!) that they found to limit their survey to 73 long-term studies that took place for 10 years of more. The authors then summarize the details of each study, according to major insect groups (e.g. butterflies, bees, beetles, flies). Ultimately, they report that 41% of all insects are in decline, and that across all insect species, the annual rate of decline is 1% per year, and the annual rate of insect extinction is 1% per year. Like the Hallman et al. paper, Sanchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys suggest that agriculture is to blame:
‘Overall, the systemic, widespread and often superfluous use of pesticides in agricultural and pasture land over the past 60 years has negatively impacted most organisms, from insects to birds to bats . . ‘.
The students in ENT 518 honed in on the fact that the authors searched for the words ‘insect’ AND ‘decline’. Accordingly, there was a level of bias in their search procedures. Students seemed convinced that many insect groups are in decline, but were less willing to agree that the overall level of decline, rate of decline, and rate of extinction reported by the authors were accurate estimates. In addition, although students agree that pesticide use is likely to blame for insect declines, they would have been more convinced, if there were better data tying the two together.
Students then discussed how the science papers were translated into a narrative for the NY Times and Atlantic articles. We talked about the elements of a story, and how as scientists, we don’t worry about setting the scene, developing characters, or of conflict in a plot. But, many of us are also science communicators via our work in Extension or through other outreach efforts. If we can paint a picture that people can relate to ~ if we can get them to notice and to share their experience with noticing fewer insects in their yard or their town ~ will they care more about insect conservation?
One of the major reasons that we do the work that we do in the Garden Ecology Lab is because we believe that how we manage our gardens can truly make a difference to insect conservation. If we can take better notice of those ‘little things that run the world’ and share these experiences with our friends and family . . . will that make a difference? I believe that it will. In fact, it is the reason that I come to work, each and every day, excited to learn more about how we can make this world a better place through gardening.
Aaron Anderson recently joined Andony on episode 94 of thePolliNation podcast, to talk about his research on native plants, different insect groups, and gardeners.
Aaron talks about the 100+ study plots that he manages (two of which you can see, below), as well as which plants were most attractive to bees (such as the California poppy, on the left) versus those that were more attractive to gardeners (such as the Oregon iris, on the right).
In other news, our lab group has been very busy. All of the 2017 and 2018 bees from our garden pollinator study have been identified to species (unless they are truly recalcitrant to being ID’d to the level of species). Gabe has been working with Lincoln Best to identify the 2018 bees. The 2017 were verified by Sara Kornbluth, and provided a great reference collection against which we could compare the 2018 bees. Gabe has been a short-time member of our lab group, but his expertise has been a huge benefit to our program. He leaves us at the end of April to start field work in the College of Forestry. After that, he heads to UC Davis to do his Ph.D.
For the garden bee project, we have >50 verified species of bees collected from Portland-area gardens, with a few more at the morpho-species level. This summer will be our final year of collections.
This summer will also be Aaron’s final year of field work at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center. This final year will help to resolve some of the differences we saw between his 2017 and 2018 data set.
After two years of amazing assistance in the lab and in the field, Isabella has started an independent research project on campus. She has planted some of Aaron’s study plants in gardens on campus, and is looking to see if bee visitation and bee communities markedly change, when you take them out of single-species plantings (like Aaron is studying) and put them into a garden setting.
Mykl is working to write up his urban soils data for publication. We are also hoping to do a side publication, comparing the soil types that we’re finding in home gardens, and seeing how they align with the types of soils that nesting bees prefer.
Lauren is writing up her capstone paper, and is preparing to defend this term. She surveyed gardeners to try to understand how well they can identify bees from other insects, and how well they knew bee-friendly plants from those that offered few or no nectar/pollen resources to bees.
Signe is taking the data that we are collecting, and working our findings into the online Master Gardener course. The best part of our work is being able to see gardeners put some of our research-based recommendations into action. Signe plays a huge role in translating our work for the general public.
Angelee is a relatively new member of the lab. She comes to us from the OSU STEM Leaders program. She’s learning lab protocols and lending a hand on just about every project. She has been a joy to work with.
Lucas has moved on from the lab, but still helps us with remote data-basing work, on occasion. He was a joy to work with, and I feel lucky that he stuck with us for a few years.
This fall, Jen will be joining our group as a new M.S. student. We will also be close to launching the first course in the online Urban Agriculture certificate program, which is being spear-headed by Mykl. We should also be pushing out a few more papers from our garden work, to join our first concept paper on the value of urban garden bees to urban and peri-urban agriculture.
The first distinct connection to food I remember was in the late 90s while living in İzmir, Turkey. We had a large mulberry tree in our yard which bore delicious fruit. I also remember the bazaar in the Buca province. Cart after cart of people selling mounds of all manner of produce. After leaving Turkey, and for maybe half of my childhood summers, I lived on the farm of my paternal grandparents’ in Worland, Wyoming. I saw many aspects of high, dry farming of row crops: sugar beets, alfalfa, barley, and dent corn. I could only catch fleeting glimpses into the life of my grandfather, a commodity farmer. But in my recent years I’ve been openly told that these American farmers vehemently hoped their children were “too smart to get into farming.” Their wish came true. Of four children and nine grandchildren, I’m the only one in agriculture.
I turned on to agriculture when a friend and I built a 400 square-foot poly-tunnel in our backyard in Colorado. We didn’t know anything more than that we wanted to grow our own food. I remember feeling so incredibly accomplished, fulfilled, and validated picking personal salads straight into dinner bowls. I took that inspiration to fuel my travel to the Pacific Northwest, a place I knew I could immerse myself in the world of tending plants. I pushed every aspect of my network to get more involved in farming and to gain space to garden. I’ve worked on three organic urban farms since moving to Oregon. I went back to school and retrained from political science to agricultural science. I continued my education with a graduate project which firmly oriented my interests to the world of urban agriculture.
I am now an instructor of urban agriculture here at Oregon State University. My current duties are to develop new online courses to train and empower new urban growers to produce food within the confines of their modern environment. This work is challenging, as urban agriculture suffers from a distinct lack of focused research. One of the most relevant discoveries from my graduate research project is that nearly all advice extended to urban growers is simply copied from traditional agriculture. Even if suggestions are altered with respect to the scale and local environment of urban growers, the research supporting these suggestions is still wholly based upon traditional agricultural methods of food production. I am developing my courses with this mismatch in mind. I have changed my approach from seeking to broadly support food production and instead specifically analyze and adapt traditional recommendations to work in an urban environment.
I use scientific research to inform my course development on many levels. At the macro-level, articles like one by Oberholtzer, Dimitri, and Pressman (2014) have reported that most farmers, and new farmers especially, struggle with complications in managing the farm’s business much more than the challenge of growing their crops. I used these findings to inform the outline of a new course that I am developing: Introduction to Urban Agriculture. Rather than spending time covering the how or why of plant growth in much detail, I’ve instead focused on how urban growers can adapt agricultural principles to their unique environment. I strive to keep students aware of how these factors should influence their management activities and always keep the concept of ‘value’ in their mind. On a more micro-level, I have built the lectures regarding soil and plant growth with adaptations of my own previous graduate research.
My method of teaching is heavily influenced by a new wave of teaching research which is well represented by James Lang’s book: Small Teaching. Broadly, this approach suggests frequent review of material as well as a more piecemeal and cyclical approach to teaching topics rather than large chunks of lecture punctuated by intermittent exams. Further, I refuse to accept that an online classroom is limiting. Modern students are demanding more than just lectures laid over powerpoint slides. I am exploring numerous avenues to increase engagement and foster social connection, all facilitated by digital platforms. I expect my courses to provide foundational pillars of knowledge for new urban growers as they pursue OSU’s new and entirely online certificate in urban agriculture. I hope to see every student embark on their own path to grow food within their urban environments. I look forward to reports of former pupils starting and operating successful urban farming businesses.