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Sustainability science for urban pollinator research and conservation

15 January 2016
Urban land use affects the free ecological service that bees provide through pollination. Photo credit: Center for Sustainability

Urban land use affects the free ecological service that bees provide through pollination. Photo credit: Center for Sustainability

Damon Hall, Andrea Burr, and Nicole Schaeg

As sustainability science researchers in the Center for Sustainability at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit institution in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA, we were spurred to reflect upon our own efforts by the recent series of articles in Ecojesuit that advanced the transformative dialogue on sustainability science and values.

This was in relation to the Stockholm Dialogue  process that the Global Ignatian Advocacy Network on Ecology (GIAN-Ecology) facilitated and that met in Stockholm, Sweden in late November 2015. To join this important conversation, we offer this discussion of how principles within sustainability science shape our work on urban insect pollinator conservation.

For the past 15 years, sustainability science has been actively pursuing solutions to the world’s complex social-ecological challenges [1, 2]. This new approach to research is rooted in inquiry that views problems in terms of interconnected human-environment systems [3]. The complexity of these problems requires teams of scientists from different disciplines that are willing to partner with local stakeholders who are most familiar with the system.

The aim is to develop shared conceptualizations of the system for learning, decision making, and other changes that move the system towards sustainability [4, 5]. Thus, knowledge for transitioning toward sustainability must be meaningful to communities that live within and rely upon the problem setting to facilitate changes in behavior, policy, and governance [4–9].

Although sustainability science has been criticized for not explicitly addressing values in research, the underlying assumptions (such as systems thinking, stakeholder participation, and usable knowledge for problems solving) function as tenets for research design and practice [10]. The emphasis on knowledge intended for application rather than science for science’s sake makes this a very different science.

Sustainability science research is unusual to scholars traditionally trained in the humanities, social, and biophysical sciences who produce knowledge for internal audiences. By design, sustainability science is problem-oriented seeking use-inspired knowledge at the intersections of science and society [2, 6]. It shares in the call in Laudato si’ for shifts within science to support societal transformations.

A central task for advancing a science of sustainability involves developing a body of knowledge built upon empirical case studies. This allows researchers to document approaches that work well and lessons that may be transferable to other problems and locations [3, 4, 7, 8, 11]. Currently, our team seeks to advance this new science through case research addressing global losses of bees.

All humans depend on insect pollinators for the production of fiber, fruits, and vegetables contributing to both the quantity and quality of many crops such as squashes, tomatoes, and peppers. Specifically, bees (Hymenoptera: Apoidea) as pollinators are critical both ecologically and economically to wild and managed crops globally [16-18].

Pollination from bees is the most valuable ecological service provided by wildlife. For most people and economies, the work of bees goes unnoticed. Yet, the Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that of the 100 crop species providing 90% of food supplies for 146 countries, 71 are bee-pollinated, mostly by wild bees [19]. In addition to the well-known European honeybee (Apis mellifera), there are an estimated 25,000 species of wild bees around the world.

Globally insect pollinator health (species diversity and abundance) is in decline [12–14]. The causes of declines are a combination of a number of land use decisions factors [20, 21] of habitat fragmentation, lack of foraging resources, pesticides, pests, and disease [16–18].

Yet, in the midst of this “pollinator health crisis,” researchers are finding surprisingly diverse communities of wild bees in cities around the world such as Berlin, Germany [22], Cardiff and London in the UK [23–25], Melbourne, Australia [26], Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica [27], Vancouver, Canada [28], Chicago, IL [29], New York City, NY [30, 31], Phoenix, AZ [32], and San Francisco, CA in the USA [33]. In several cases, more species are found in urban areas than nearby rural lands [24, 25, 30, 32].

Studies indicate that the consistent driver of pollinator health is the presence and availability of flowers [25]. This suggests that conservation efforts aimed at increasing the floral resources for pollinators in cities can have a positive impact on improving bee diversity and abundance. Further, when urban bee populations are healthy, a spillover effect can occur where bees re-inhabit rural lands [34].

Guided by principles of sustainability science, we are working to understand relationships between insect pollinator health and urban land uses. The project shares research questions across field research in ecology and the social sciences to:

  1. Understand what explains the findings of diverse bees species in cities and
  2. How people can encourage the enhancement of habitat for the conservation of declining bees.

We are piloting this research in Saint Louis, Missouri to examine the linkages between abundance and diversity of wild bees and the social and cultural drivers of urban land use decision-making practices. A more socially robust understanding of the city as a social-ecological system from the bees’ perspective will allow us to experiment with interventions that may transition the system toward sustainability.

Our study contains 15 long-term study sites within Saint Louis comprised of urban farms, community gardens, and prairie restoration sites. These sites are sampled for bee species diversity and abundance weekly throughout the summers.

To understand the social dynamics surrounding the ecologically sampled sites, we spoke with the people managing the sites. We conducted 30 in-depth interviews with decision makers in the summer of 2015 [35]. Participants have diverse backgrounds, expertise, and socioeconomic status which influence what they plant.

To further understand this social-ecological system, we analyzed the relationship between patterns of vegetation cover and socioeconomic structures at the US census block group level using tools developed for marketing analysis [36, 37]. This approach connects our social science and ecological field data to information that helps us determine where intervention strategies are most needed.

When coupled with academic literature from similar midwestern US cities, we can appropriately design initiatives targeting specific places with low species diversity to encourage residents’ adoption of pollinator-friendly landscaping practices. The social field data is used to design communications that are meaningful to the everyday lives of those who live near the project sites. Further, with continuous bee monitoring, we can evaluate the effectiveness of community engagement for conservation in terms of bee species diversity measurements.

This research illustrates the value of listening to local stakeholders and how social values can be actively considered in research [38]. This work informs our pilot study as well as gives an empirical case example for sustainability science’s research methodologies [7, 8, 11].

As we continue this integrative work in 2016, it is one contribution to the scientific paradigm shift described in Laudato si’ that reinforces the fact that as humans, we are intrinsically connected to and biologically dependent upon nature. With 70% of world’s population projected to live in urban areas by 2050 [36], sustainability science has an important role in facilitating how we should urbanize (and suburbanize) that is mindful of our interconnected nature.

Humans are the most important shapers of city environments. Therefore, with firm foundation in empirical research, we can establish new rules and design ways of urbanizing that account for insect pollinators and other critical, seemingly invisible, ecological functions.

Damon Hall is Assistant Professor of Sustainability at the Center for Sustainability in Saint Louis University and can be reached through his email at dmhall(at) His co-authors are Andrea Burr, a PhD Research Fellow, and Nicole Schaeg, an MS Research Fellow, in sustainability science.

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One Response to Sustainability science for urban pollinator research and conservation

  1. BobBillingsSJ on 18 January 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Good stuff. Keep up the good work

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