REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A city-wide count aims to draw attention to pollinators’ precarious place in urban habitats.

If it looks like the residents of Indianapolis have suddenly decidedly to collectively stop and smell the flowers, it could be that they’re squinting to count the bees alighting on the petals.

This week, the city is encouraging its citizens to pitch in to count the pollinators flitting around pocket parks and other green spaces. The citizen science initiative, modeled after a similar program in Australia, is organized by the non-profit Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB), and some programming is held in collaboration with local education and advocacy groups such as Bee Public.

“No one has to capture anything,” says Ashlee Wilson Fujawa, the director of public Relations at KIB. Instead, participants draw imaginary borders around an 11 x 11” site and print out a PDF, on which they tally up the roster of wasps, beetles, flies, bats, and birds that stop by in a four-minute period. Ideally, participants will ID the flower, too—or, if that’s tricky, describe the location: is it a cluster of blooms or lone stalk; a quiet spot, or busy intersection? If no pollinators drop in, that’s important to note, too—going forward, that information can help identify ways to make the location in question more hospitable to birds and insects. Participants can input their data online, or submit their completed sheets via mail; they can also tag their finds on Instagram using the hashtag #kibees.

Indiana is an agricultural state, but farmland isn’t the only impetus for a renewed commitment to shoring up pollinator colonies. Like many cities, Indianapolis has many impervious surfaces, as well as paved ground that’s not especially welcoming to birds and bees, says Emily Wood, a wildlife biologist at KIB. Habitat degradation is one culprit associated with sharp declines in pollinator populations. While pocket parks and native plant gardens can help, more interventions are needed to stem the tide.

Kate Franzman, the founder of Bee Public, attributes the groundswell of support to the fact that bees touch on the intersection of so many different issues. The issue of pollinator decline, she says, overlaps with conversations about food security and food justice. Wood agrees. “When we look at pictures of the food chain, we don’t necessarily include ourselves in it,” says Wood. But, she adds, much of humans’ food depends on pollination. Eric Mader, the pollinator program co-director for the The Xerces Society, an organization dedicated to insect conservation, previously told CityLab that pollinator decline could gut our food system. Native pollinators, including a variety of bee species, play a vital role in agricultural production; by many counts, pollinators aid the growth of more than a third of all food eaten across the globe. “From a food security standpoint, [pollinator] decline puts us in a really vulnerable position,” Mader said. As Indianapolis, like many cities, has seen bee colonies dying off in the winter, they’ve focused on the need to intervene. “We think, ‘oh wow, there’s a lot hanging on this,’” Wood says.

The initiative in Indianapolis is one instance of a broader trend towards cities doubling down on pollinator preservation through both grassroots and policy-focused efforts. In June, the city council passed a resolution urging residents to avoid neonicotinoid pesticides, which can poison pollinators. (Though the city’s policy stresses the dangers of these ingredients, says Franzman, Indianapolis doesn’t fully outlaw them; in contrast, Maryland has a full-out ban, and the EU has had a ban since 2013.) Meanwhile, in April, Washington, D.C.’s, Department of Energy & Environment dispensed free seeds to locals who wanted to plant native plants to attract pollinators. Art installations in Brooklyn and London this summer aim to raise awareness about the threats pollinators face.

Still plenty of time to get out and count #kibees with @kibiorg !

A photo posted by Emily Wood (@emwood414) on

Galvanizing kids has been a focus of these interventions in Indianapolis. Franzman says that when she presented before the city council, a posse of 10 kids tagged along, toting signs and wearing bumblebee colors, floppy antennae headbands, or beekeeping suits. Through her farm workshops and presentations at schools—funded, in part, by a grant from the city’s sustainability department—she sometimes seems a dramatic shift in how kids relate to bees. She says one kid slammed his hands on the table when he heard that pollinators were susceptible to poison; another told her, “I’ll tell my brother not to smash a bee next time,” she adds. The goal is to arm kids with information about their role in the natural world, she says, “so that they can go out into the world and be responsible citizens.”

With citizen science, Wood notes, there are plenty of wildcards—since there’s no guarantee that pollinators and plants will be identified correctly, there’s a high margin of error. Still, Wood says that the pollinator count results, even treated as preliminary data, can be useful metrics for guiding work going forward. The project could yield valuable baseline numbers from all across the city, helping shed light on where pollinators are—and aren’t. Wood says that data could illuminate where local greening organizations should be focusing their work.

Changes won’t necessarily be immediate—Wood quips, “we’re not going to start shooting trees out of a cannon”—but tracking pollinator habitats can help the city take a wide-lens view of how to help some its smallest residents, who just happen to do some of the heaviest lifting.

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