Stephen Buchmann is president and founder of The Bee Works and coauthor of The Forgotten Pollinators.

Monday, 22 Sep 2003

TUSCON, Ariz.

It’s Monday morning and I’ve arrived at my office a bit late, feeling rushed and knowing there are plenty of things to do before the day’s over. There will be dozens of emails from friends and colleagues to read and formulate cogent replies to without letting them wait and wonder. I’ve never been a fan of phone tag; with emails you usually know that the message has at least been delivered, has hit the recipient’s electronic desktop. I confess to being addicted to the instant gratification of email, but won’t let it devour more than one hour of any day. I think it’s the best thing since New Zealand Manuka honey drizzled across the pitted face of an English muffin for communicating with far-flung colleagues, family, and friends.

A leafcutter bee (genus Megachile sp.).

Illustration: © Paul Mirocha.

What better way to instantly zing a manuscript plus photographs, tables, figures, and statistical analyses to a scientific colleague halfway around the world? I just did that recently with my engineer, biophysicist, and sometimes pollination researcher and friend, Marcus King, who lives in Christchurch on the south island of New Zealand. Without Internet communication protocols, it would take international snail mail many weeks to get my draft to him, and then many weeks to deliver his reply.

A foreign journal editor has just sent me a Word file, a scientific article on the nesting and foraging behavior of a four-mm-long desert bee. Now, I have but three weeks to decipher, vote yeah or nay as to its acceptance for publication, and reply to the editor with detailed comments, corrections, and suggestions for the authors on improving their manuscript.

Reviewing articles is something scientists are not paid to do. It’s a duty, part of our long scholarly tradition as scientists publishing our work in international journals. Scientists are honor bound to donate some of their time each year serving as pro bono outside reviewers for editors of scientific journals. We also serve as referees to federal and state granting agencies and private foundations and must review their grant proposals and give our opinions on funding. It adds up to a lot of donated time, but without the services of thousands of scientists around the globe, we wouldn’t have the controls of peer-reviewed articles in the primary literature. The quality of the reported research and the essential self-correcting process that is part of the scientific method would also suffer. There would be just unfounded claims like the ones for herbal remedies that cure baldness and give your libido a boost.

I download the paper, send back a quick “I’ll do it” to the editor, and resign myself to bringing the article home and reading it later. Oh, wait, there’s a great email with attached photos from my Brazilian bee researcher and friend, Tony Raw. He’s just become a father and sends his greetings. The beaming smile on the face of the proud papa cradling the newborn in his arms is unmistakable. Those are the kinds of emails I love to get.

Ugh, not another one — the subject line tips me off beforehand. At least two new electronic pleas for me to become the confidant and trusted friend of an unknown representative, the relative of someone formerly in power in Nigeria who now has control of millions of dollars in various unclaimed accounts. How many of them can there be? All I must do to become rich is send them a bit of money and then set up a U.S. bank account and patiently wait for them to dump $30 million into that account. Yeah, right. Old scams never die, they just keep reinventing themselves, especially online. I hit the delete key with gusto.

I’ve got conference agenda documents from the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign to download before our monthly conference call, one that will begin in just 30 minutes. NAPPC is a consortium of more than 70 federal and state agencies, environmental organizations, NGOs, private companies, and individuals all dedicated to helping spread the word and do something about pollinator declines and restoring habitats for bees and other pollinating animals. We began several years ago and now hold annual meetings in Washington, D.C., bringing about 100 participants together in a two- or three-day marathon of work and nonstop talking about exciting proposals, new opportunities for collaborations, and new books. I serve on the steering committee and chair their research working group, administered by the Coevolution Institute based in San Francisco.

This year montane pollination researcher David Inouye is hosting our meetings on his campus, the University of Maryland in College Park. About 100 of us will convene on the night of Oct. 8 among the gardens of the U.S. National Arboretum, botanical gardens in Washington, D..C. The gardens staff has asked NAPPC to help create plant lists, sifting through the best pollinator/plant tales and helping design exciting new national pollinator gardens. The new gardens are scheduled to open during 2004 and will be viewed by hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and foreign visitors each year. We’re honored to have been given the nod to assist them in their ambitious plans.

This year I’m especially excited about attending the NAPPC conference because there is a new project for gardeners, homeowners, conservation biologists, land planners, and policy makers about pollinators. Several of us wrote a new book, the Pollinator Conservation Handbook, with 60 color photographs by Edward Ross, that was published last week, on Sept. 17, by the Xerces Society in Portland, Ore. [Editor’s note: Read diary entries by the director of the Xerces Society.] The Xerces blue was a small butterfly that went extinct without great fanfare, but that inspired Xerces founder Robert Michael Pyle to create and energize the world’s first organization dedicated to conserving butterflies and other invertebrates, animals without backbones. I’m a counselor of the Xerces Society and applaud their efforts helping to protect terrestrial and marine invertebrates — in the words of Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson, “the little things that run the world.”

Without insects we would have much less bioturbation, soil aeration, food for wildlife, not to mention luscious fruits, seeds, fibers like cotton and flax, most beverages except beer (grains are wind-pollinated grasses), and many disease-fighting medicines. Too often, we are either too afraid that a bee will sting us or too fond of honey drizzled on wheat toast to think deeply and carefully about pollination or nutrient cycling, nature’s vital ecosystem services, performed largely unnoticed by billions of floral go-betweens, sexual messengers of the floral world including bees, flies, wasps, beetles, moths, butterflies, bats, and birds. In fact, without insect pollinators it’s doubtful if Homo sapiens, being the “wise” guys and gals that we are, would have ever evolved from our distant primate ancestors. At the very least, the world would be a green but very different and less interesting place, mostly devoid of the colors, scents, pollen, and nectar that flowering plants, the angiosperms, provide in our urban yards and wild landscapes.

Time to finish this diary entry and join in with other steering committee members on our telephone conference call. There isn’t much time until we’ll be meeting in College Park, sharing ideas and making plans for pollination conservation and educational outreach activities for the next several years.