‘My six-year-old self would be happy to know I now study bees for a living’

6 May 2020

PhD researcher Katherine Burns. Image: FameLab

Katherine Burns, a PhD researcher based at UCD, explains why it isn’t all just about the honeybee when it comes to important pollinators.

At her graduation from Wheaton College, Massachusetts, with a bachelor’s in environmental science in 2015, Katherine Burns was awarded the Clinton V MacCoy Prize in Ecology, which is presented to a woman demonstrating excellence and promise in the field.

Between 2014 and 2017, she travelled across the US to work with native insect pollinators on five different projects. She is now a third-year PhD researcher in the Stanley Ecology Lab at University College Dublin (UCD) and was a recent participant in the FameLab Ireland finals.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I grew up in a beautiful part of Maine surrounded by forest and the ocean. As such, I have always had a curiosity about the natural world and a fascination for the miniature worlds that surround us, but so often go unnoticed.

I was especially interested in the social insects I would observe in the meadow behind my house, such as ants and bumblebees. Unfortunately, I watched this diverse, delicate habitat slowly disappear over the course of my lifetime.

I watched as the meadow was paved over, rare plants dug up, wetlands drained, and birds and coyotes flushed out of their homes, all giving way to mansions and parking lots.

Witnessing this destruction as a child – who could clearly see the lives that it cost – is what inspired me to become an ecologist. My love of insects has carried through into my research as well, and I think my six-year-old self would be happy to know that I now study bees and other insect pollinators for a living.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I am currently in the third year of my PhD research – which has been a glorious smorgasbord of studies – all relating to insect pollinators, pollination services and pollinator conservation. I am incredibly lucky to work with my supervisor, Dr Dara Stanley, who has given me a tremendous amount of freedom in this realm.

We have examined the importance of insect pollinators to Irish crop pollination, looking specifically at apples and field beans. We have also been exploring the public perceptions of insect pollinators, as well as identifying target audiences for future engagement in order to inform future science communication initiatives.

Most recently, we have been designing a study to look at the interactions between managed honeybees and wild bumblebees in Ireland’s natural areas in order to assess whether or not managed bees are outcompeting wild bees.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Insect pollinators carry pollen from one flowering plant to another, allowing the plant to produce seeds and fruits. About 87.5pc of wild plants and about 35pc of food crops rely on animal pollination, which means that pollinators are vital contributors to ecosystem health and global food security.

Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that pollinators are in decline due to stressors such as habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. In order to enact evidence-driven policy and sustainable solutions to protect pollinators, we need to understand the roles of wild and managed pollinators in nature and in agriculture, as well as the possible pressures that their populations are facing.

We also need to design effective public engagement campaigns to involve the public in the issue of pollinator conservation, since the public plays a major role in the implementation of both policy and on-the-ground conservation.

It is my hope that this will aid in the restoration and preservation of a sustainable flow of ecosystem services for generations to come.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Insect pollinators already have commercial applications as they assist in the production of marketable products (ie food crops), a service that has been valued at about €153bn per year globally. However, the results of our crop study looking at the pollinators of specific food crops will help farmers to understand both the ecological and economic value of insect pollinators to their crops.

This will hopefully incentivise them to take the necessary steps to conserve pollinators and enhance pollination services on their land, thus increasing both the quality and quantity of their crops.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

As a researcher who conducts most of her data collection in the field, my work is subject to the whims of the elements and is often under extreme time constraints. For example, if I need to survey pollinators in apple orchards, I will only have two weeks to do so because apple trees only bloom for two weeks.

Also, the weather needs to be warm and sunny, otherwise the insects won’t visit the apple flowers. So, if the weather is cold and rainy for a whole week…you get the picture. Overall, my work is subject to quite a few #fieldworkfails. For me, the most important thing to remember when (not if) my work is somehow thwarted by nature, is that control is an illusion and that’s what makes this whole world so mysterious and fascinating.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Currently, honeybees dominate the media’s narrative of insect pollinators and pollinator conservation, namely ‘save the bees’ campaigns. However, honeybees only represent one out of 20,000 species of bee globally, not to mention the wide diversity of flies, moths, beetles and wasps that also contribute to pollination.

Ecologists are concerned that, as a result of this misrepresentation, citizen efforts to conserve pollinators may be largely focused on installing honeybee hives, rather than enacting conservation actions to preserve a wide diversity of species. These include mowing the lawn less and planting native wildflowers.

Studies have also shown that, in high concentrations, honeybees may compete with wild pollinators for resources in both agricultural settings and natural areas, which might affect the behaviour and fitness of those wild species. So, not only does beekeeping not necessarily help wild pollinators, it may – in extreme cases – also be hurting them.

One way to address this misconception about insect pollinators is to take part in science communication events, particularly those that take place in ‘neutral territory’, such as pubs and other public places, to reach a wider audience. As a researcher, it is also important to conduct research that studies a wide diversity of species, rather than just one charismatic species.

Updated 9.27am, 7 May 2020: This article was updated to clarify that the percentage of wild plants reliant on animals pollination is 87.5pc, not 75pc. 

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