Save the Bees? There’s an App for That
New mobile app to help farmers protect pollinators
- By Carolyn Shapiro and Basil Waugh
Let’s say a farmer wants to plant wildflowers to nurture the bumble bees that pollinate her crops.
Currently, she would have to walk through her fields, assess locations, take measurements, spend hours crunching costs, and still only guess at the amount of bees and pollination the effort will generate.
Soon, the farmer can do it all on her phone or computer with a mobile app that will calculate the crop productivity and pollination benefits of supporting endangered bees.
University of Vermont (UVM) bee expert Taylor Ricketts, who is co-leading the app’s development, introduced the technology at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting panel, Plan Bee: Pollinators, Food Production and U.S. Policy, on Feb. 19.
Giving farmers a ‘plan bee’
A soon-to-be named beta version of the app will allow users to explore land management scenarios, and virtually test how bee-friendly decisions would improve their business, says Taylor Ricketts, Director of UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, and Gund professor at UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.
Loaded with aerial images of North America, the app allows users to "enter their address, and start adding best practices for boosting pollination,” says Ricketts. “You simply draw different options on your land, from wind breaks to planting flowers or bringing in honey bees.”
Gund affiliate Eric Lonsdorf of the University of Minnesota, the app's co-lead, says: “The app will do a pollination, productivity, and eventually, a cost–benefit analysis. Farmers can compare scenarios, and then determine which choices bring the best return on investment."
The researchers are developing the app with Philadelphia software company Azavea.
App builds on first U.S. bee map
The app builds on the first national map of U.S. wild bees, which found the key insects are disappearing in the country’s most important farmlands – including California’s Central Valley, the Midwest’s corn belt and the Mississippi River valley.
That study, led by UVM bee researchers, showed that with further bee losses, farmers could face higher costs and the nation’s food production could experience “destabilization” due to climate change, pesticides, habitat loss and disease.
“We found 139 counties – which together contain 39% of pollinator-dependent U.S. crops – at risk from simultaneously falling wild bee supply and rising crop pollination demand,” says Ricketts, who published the map with UVM’s Insu Koh and others in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in December 2015.
Farmers key to saving bees
“Farmers are a natural partner to protect bees, because pollinators are essential for growing many foods,” says Ricketts, noting that more than two-thirds of the most important crops either benefit from or require pollinators, including coffee, cacao, and many fruits and vegetables.
With the app, the researchers hope to make the best available science and bee-friendly practices accessible to society – to make real steps to reverse bee losses.
“Government action is key, but saving bees requires more than that,” says Rufus Isaacs of Michigan State University, director of the Integrated Crop Pollination (ICP) Project. “Leadership from the private sector, especially farmers and agricultural businesses, is crucial. Their choices will have a huge impact on whether pollinators fail or flourish.”
“This gives farmers a chance to help with an issue that directly impacts their businesses."