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Outstanding in the Field (Ep 1): To Bee or Not to Bee

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Detailed Description

The USGS Ecosystems Mission Area brings you Outstanding in the Field, a series of stories about our science, our adventures, and our efforts to better understand our fish and wildlife and the ecosystems that support them. This episode's buzz is all about pollinators, the birds, bees, bats, beetles, and other animals that feed on pollen from plants and help bring about one in three bites of food to our plates. Pollinators are crucial contributors to our environment and society by enhancing plant diversity in wild lands and providing food for humans in agricultural settings. Some three-fourths of all native plants in the world require pollination by an animal, most often an insect, and most often a native bee. 




Music is copyrighted (used with permission)


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Welcome, and thanks for listening to this inaugural episode of Outstanding in the Field, the U.S. Geological Survey’s brand new podcast series produced by the Ecosystems Mission Area. We’ll be highlighting our fun, fascinating, sometimes batty fieldwork studying ecosystems across the country. I’m Marisa Lubeck.


Today’s buzz is all about pollinators, the birds, bees, bats, beetles, and other animals that feed on pollen from plants and help bring about one in three bites of food to our plates. In fact, pollinators increase our nation’s crop values by more than 15 billion dollars each year.


Steve Hilburger: “I like to think of them as ecological glue. They’re the things that hold ecosystems together. If you don’t have pollination, you don’t have plant communities, and without the plant communities, you don’t have all the wildlife that rely on them.”


That’s Steve Hilburger, the Wildlife Program Manager for the USGS. He oversees USGS science efforts to better understand the status of valuable pollinators in North America.


Hilburger: “We’re answering species-specific questions. For example, what’s really good habitat for a particular species? Or, what’s the risk of extinction for a particular species if people are worried about that species declining?”


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One classic example takes us to the Northern Great Plains and the USGS’ sweet work with honey bees. These tiny titans pollinate more than 100 U.S. crops, like fruits and nuts. In a single year, one honey bee colony can gather about 40 pounds of pollen and 265 pounds of nectar.


[Bee buzzing fades out]


The problem is that honey bee populations have been declining dramatically, creating concern about the future security of pollination services in the U.S. USGS researchers are looking into the effects of factors like land use change and chemical use on honey bee habitat to better understand how to conserve bees on the landscape. 


Hilburger: “If you’re really trying to promote bees and make sure you have them, you’re going to want to optimize the space that you have. We’re working with the Department of Agriculture to help understand not just what good bee habitat looks like, but what better bee habitat looks like. We’re trying to provide the information that others use, and help them build tools to manage their programs better.”


And it’s not just honey bees. North America’s 4,000 native bee species, other insects like butterflies, and even mammals such as bats pollinate the plants that we all need to survive. The relationships between each of these animals, the plants they pollinate, and their habitats makes for a very complicated pollination network. USGS scientists are trying to make sense of it all.


Hilburger: “The world of pollination is really diverse. Some of our scientists are trying to better understand those relationships of who visits which plant and which plant is visited by which insect, and that allows people to better understand the complexities of things and manage for a particular plant system that they might be interested in.”


These plant systems are important, and not just because they provide nutritious and delicious food. If you enjoy hiking, or camping, or really any activity in the great outdoors, that also includes urban places like city parks, you know there’s an intrinsic value to natural, plant-dominated landscapes. Those landscapes rely on pollination to exist.


Hilburger: “When you’re looking at some open space, whether it’s prairie or a forest, that’s not going to be there if it’s not for the pollinators that we have. We’re talking about both food that you rely on every day and also the natural spaces that give everybody some benefit and make life more enjoyable.” 


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This podcast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior. A special thanks goes out to the rest of the Outstanding in the Field team, Suzanna Soileau, Hannah Hamilton, Sue Kemp, and Catherine Puckett. The teamwork that’s gone into launching Outstanding in the Field has been, well, outstanding. I’m Marisa Lubeck. Thanks for listening.


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