Why do we need to crowdfund bee research?

Image of bee collection.

It’s only been a few days and our ioby campaign for the Bees of GSENM is off to a fantastic start! We ended our third day $3,327 closer to our goal. Thank you to everyone who has given to the project so far. Let’s keep this rolling.

Of course, this whole project raises an interesting question: Why do we need to crowdfund fieldwork and research on bees? Aren’t there official agencies that provide money for projects like this? The answer is not a satisfying one.

The Atlantic has a great story about the recent “Insect Apocalypse” headlines, exploring how we really need more data to make such bold statements (although the data we do have definitely points in this direction). The piece addresses funding as part of the problem:

Few researchers have kept running tallies on insect populations, aside from a smattering of species that are charismatic (monarch butterflies), commercially important (domesticated honeybees), or medically relevant (some mosquitoes). Society still has a lingering aversion toward creepy crawlies, and entomological research has long been underfunded. Where funds exist, they’ve been disproportionately channeled toward ways of controlling agricultural pests. The basic business of documenting insect diversity has been comparatively neglected, a situation made worse by the decline of taxonomists—species-spotting scientists who, ironically, have undergone their own mass extinction.

What’s more, the funding that could be available for monitoring bee and other insect populations are getting much harder to come by. Over the past decade, there’s been a flattening of federal spending on basic research (defined as “activity aimed at acquiring new knowledge or understanding without specific immediate commercial application or use”) and there are more and more scientists competing for this same pool of money. The overwhelming majority of federal science funding goes to biomedical research, and what money remains typically goes to projects that get flashy results – not projects focused on monitoring or replication of results.

A team of journalists at Vox put together an extensive piece about the problems facing science, including another really important point about funding:

Grants also usually expire after three or so years, which pushes scientists away from long-term projects. Yet as John Pooley, a neurobiology postdoc at the University of Bristol, points out, the biggest discoveries usually take decades to uncover and are unlikely to occur under short-term funding schemes.

One thing we’ve learned from Olivia and Joe’s work in Grand Staircase-Escalante is that many bee species can be readily abundant one year, nearly absent the next, and then abundant again in some following year. Which means you have to study bees consistently and regularly over many, many years to gain a true understanding of changes and stability in their communities. The current system of science funding in the United States simply is not conducive to this type of work.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” says Joe. “We have these questions about bees and other insects we need to answer, and nobody is willing to put forward the efforts or the funding or the resources to let us answer those questions.”

This is exactly why we’re crowdfunding the Bees of GSENM project. We want to get Joe and Olivia back on the ground to continue doing the essential fieldwork that needs to be done. Grand Staircase-Escalante is one of the few places in North America where the bee community has been studied extensively and can serve as a baseline for assessing change – both in comparing our man-made world to the natural world, and in comparing the natural world to itself over time.

“Baseline data allows us to ask the right questions and to guide our actions,” says Olivia. “What’s more, it allows us to watch for change in Grand Staircase’s own bees – in the face of the incredible change to land use now likely to occur here.”

This is exactly why your support for this project matters so much: You are helping make essential insect research possible. We thank you. And so will the bees!