Agricultural development threatens the integrity of what is left of our nation’s natural landscape and wildlife. Honey bees, non-native domesticated animals, are part of the problem.
Honey bees originate from Europe and were brought to the Americas in the 17th century. They form huge colony-nests (~40,000 workers) that operate year-round. Colonies can be reared in wooden boxes and transported to wherever pollination services are needed, which makes them so helpful to humans. Typically, they are most useful on lands developed for agriculture where wild pollinators have become scarce.
The honey bee pollination alliance with humans is invaluable to the production of crops like almonds, blueberries, and cherries. Come summer, the bees’ “contracts” are up and they are relocated to somewhere that will provide enough pollen and nectar to support healthy colony maintenance during their time off from crop pollination. Somewhere is often a pastureland rich in wildflowers, where many wild bee species are already busy collecting pollen and nectar.
There is growing evidence that managed and/or wild honey bees can negatively impact native bee populations, mostly by competing for food but also by potentially spreading pathogens (Colla & MacIvor 2017). Native bees such as bumble bees (but also thousands of other species) are of serious conservation concern, and it seems like honey bees are only making it harder for them. And it’s not like the wild bees don’t help us-- nearby native bee populations can increase crop fruit set regardless of how many honey bees are already at work (Garibaldi et al. 2013).
The decline of honey bee health nationwide is concerning from an agricultural standpoint, but can hardly be considered a conservation concern. Much of popular bee symbolism and knowledge is related to honey bee biology-- it is not a surprise that the honey bee became the flagship species for all things "bee". However, for the honey bee to represent vulnerable wild bee populations is like having cattle represent the World Wildlife Fund.
Food for thought.
Colla SR & MacIvor JS 2017. Questioning public perception, conservation policy, and recovery actions for honeybees in North America. Conservation Biology 31:5 1202-4.
Garibaldi LA et al. 2013. Wild pollinators enhance fruit set of crops regardless of honey bee abundance. Science 340: 6127.
For better or worse, carefully curating an internet presence is a key component of any professional career in 2017. This wholesome avocation can range from maintaining a savvy personal website to merely making sure your Facebook profile won’t preclude an interview. Social media outlets are a great way for others to collect information about you, so you may as well use them to your advantage. For most, that means leveraging personality and interesting content to advertise a product or advocate for a desired outcome. If you know the ropes, social media platforms are great for getting your message to reach content consumers worldwide.
Such an inexpensive means for distributing information widely seems especially well suited to scientists seeking to engage the public. To this end, social media can be so effective some scientists are concerned that online presence is overshadowing the importance of quality research. Thus, the “Kardashian Index”, for pitting online communication reach against citation count.
Neil Hall proposed the "K-index" in 2014 to measure scientists' social media fame (# of twitter followers) with respect to their scientific renown (approximated by citation count).
Reassuringly, these preliminary data suggest one’s social media popularity is correlated with their popularity in the scientific community. However, that some scientists’ social media following outstrips their citation count (“Kardashians”) should not imply a lack of credibility. If all scientists were more Kardashian-like in their ability to influence the public, we might not be living in a “post-truth” era.
“Post-truth” refers to the salient observation by nerds nationwide that lay-audiences are not swayed by torrents of numerical observations. There is thus ongoing debate in the scientific community about whether celebrity influencers are useful for communicating science issues broadly via social media. Some say that the ends justify the means, but others are hesitant to have non-specialists speak out about pressing issues in science (Galetti & Costa-Pereira 2017, Mojarad 2017).
Paris breaking it down on episode 24 of The Simple Life.
While the celebrity approach seems like it could garner the passionate interest in science that we want the public to have, it highlights the general problem: there is a disconnect between scientists and the public. Instead of relying on celebrities to convince the public our work is important and interesting, I think scientists should strive to foster their own positive public image.
There is no shortage of social media pages created by professional researchers (which often have little reach or any connection to a non-specialist audience), nor those clickbait “science” media outlets (which often lack credibility or any connection to practicing scientists). What society does lack is a continuum of popular media outlets ranging in scientific rigor from Science magazine to the National Enquirer.
Some people are interested in scientific nuance, and other people just want to hear about “the cool stuff”. Therefore, I think a robust, positive public image of science can only be achieved in a time when science coverage in popular media spans the entire “scientific method – just the cool stuff continuum”.
The “scientific method – just the cool stuff continuum” using example articles covering entomology.
Popular science needs to be rigorous or else lose credibility, and fascinating or else lose interest. By populating this continuum with interesting media content, scientists can establish a robust presence in the public eye that accurately represents science. Most of real science may be tedious and detail-oriented, but its presence in popular media need not always be. Likewise, alarming science reports can be misleading if they exceed the science behind them. Whether or not you like the continuum, I bet that someone reading about your research will place your work on it while deciding how interesting it is. In any case, scientists on social media should always remember the wise words of Paris Hilton: “the only rule is don’t be boring [and dress cute wherever you go]”.
Hall N 2014. The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists. Genome Biology 15:424.
Galetti M & Costa-Pereira R 2017. Scientists need social media influencers. Science 357:6354, 880-881.
Mojarad N 2017. Social media: more scientists needed. Science 357:6358, 1362-63.
Articles used in continuum figure:
My name is Chris Petranek and I study bumble bee physiology as a graduate student at the University of Wyoming.
Before I got here, my research was focused on conservation population biology of obscure bumble bee species in Mexico and Guatemala. Communicating the relevance of the science was not difficult, especially since it coincided with the popularity of “saving the bees”. While I think science motivated by an obvious benefit to society is fine, science for the sake of itself is incredibly important, as many game-changing discoveries were happenstance, e.g. penicillin, X-rays, and super glue. Research on creatures spanning the tree of life can provide apparently unlikely insight to myriad issues pressing mankind, even if the studies seem entirely trivial at face value.
Expensive studies on the eyelashes of mammals and insects conclude that these hairs deflect particles from being deposited on the surface of eyes and reduce evaporation from wet eyeballs. These studies have been denounced by legislators as “wasteful” spending of government money on science, yet the authors point out that solar panels worldwide could be made more efficient just by the addition of small hairs to their surfaces (1).
It is difficult to convey why apparently silly science experiments are worth the time and money, but I think to do so is an important part of effective science communication. Science can seem dry, uninteresting, and trivial but this isn’t the fault of the scientific endeavor at large. The responsibility of making science interesting again lies with scientists and science educators. Since I serve both of these roles, I am interested in being the best science communicator I can.
On an average day in the lab, I might be tying little weights to bumble bees, waxing bumble bees to remove their hair, or using expensive high-speed video equipment to film a bee flying in a plastic box. There is a chance this research could change the way we think about exercise physiology, insect locomotion, dispersal, and energy use, thermal dynamics, and/or aerodynamics in general. However, it is probably more likely it will simply tell us a few things we already knew about bumble bees. The prospect of monumental discovery portrays science as a noble and worthwhile endeavor, and the apparent uselessness of many experiments paints a picture of nerds wasting money. In reality, I think science can be both of these things but is most often a longstanding human occupation geared towards furthering our knowledge of the natural world, no matter how small those increments of information gain are.
Thus, science communication interests me because I can’t yet paint a picture of science (my work or in general) that inherently makes it seem interesting, dispels scrutiny, and doesn’t build it up so much as to instill disappointment. Even when discussing a basic research idea, I hope the audience I interact with at least is left with some appreciation for the virtue of finding things out.
Nobel prize winner Dr. Hu’s reflection on the wastefulness of his research (meta blogging?):
More u know pic:
Most rappers don't rap statistics.
Most rappers don't rap neuroscince.
Most rappers don't rap natural selection.
Most rappers aren't Baba Brinkman.
I don't usually listen to rap. But when I do, it's Baba Brinkman.
When having a Bachelor's degree isn't enough, Baba Brinkman went the extra mile for a Master's -- in literature of all subjects! Strange hobby for a guy who spent his years planting trees and studying primatology and human evolutions. And then he went and married a neuroscientist!
For the last decade Baba Brinkman has map a living rapping about all sorts of subject from Canterbury Tales, evolution, climate change, Bayesian statistics, religion, DNA, and psychology.
You know, it seems strange for me to tell you about a showman. So I'm just going let Baba Brinkman about genetics and heterozygote advantages:
It’s Monday: Get back to work video games
Ok everyone, I want to see a show of hands— who here learned your multiplication tables by:
Now which way would you have preferred to learn?
Speaking personally, this was by far the best multiplication teacher I ever had:
“Number Munchers” was a PC video game release in 1986, combining the addictiveness of Pac-Man and teaching. In this classic game, the only way you could move and escape the ghost was to answer the math questions as quick as possible. Got to move fast to beat your friend’s high score!
And hey it worked: I mastered my multiplication tables, and today I’m getting phD that’s all about doing lots of math on the computer and the scientific truths we learn from that math.
In “The Oregon Trial” the player lead a pioneer wagon across on American west on the Oregon trial. It taught a number of subjects such as history of the American west, economics and financial planning (you got to buy food and supplies for your family strategically do avoid running out), and of course science.
“The Oregon Trail” incorporated many science/health challenges that were a were experienced then and are still experienced today in many parts of the developing world.
Other aspects of science seen along the Trail are changing biomes: the player starts out in wooded eastern Missouri, travels through the western plains, over the rocky mountains, before reaching the Oregon coast. Climate, plants, and animals change over this gradient, bringing unique opportunities and challenges along the way.
The Oregon Trail was and is still a great game, having gone through many versions since it’s original 1977 release. In fact you can still download it today for PC and mobile platforms.
Still working our way through the classics, “The Incredible Machine” (© 1993) focused on physics and problem solving. The objective was to accomplish a task (such as move the ball here) using a limited number of items, such as cats, fans, pulleys, and boxing gloves. The seemingly simple game put your logic, spatial reasoning, and physics knowledge to the test. Later levels even included variables such as difference in air pressure and gravity.
Now speeding along to the 21st century…. Technology has so changed the world. Video games are not just a dorky-side-show, but a mainstream of society with over 1.8 billion number of people playing some type of game everyday (1). And it’s not just playing video games directly, but even watching video games! Twitch, a website designed to watch other people play video games, has >100 million viewers every month (2) and is projected to have over a billion dollars in venue (3). Prize pools for video game tournaments are larger than the Super Bowl (4)!
The technology transformation has also affected educational video games as well. In fact, there are entire markets of educational video games designed for TODDLERS!! As a parent… admittedly I have mixed feelings about this. Video games can be a great tool for relaxation and education, but need to be taken in moderation—don’t forget to also play outside!
One modern educational video game I need to do a shout out for is Colorado University’s https://earthgames.org. They have fun games to play, showing you the changes happening to our (un)natural world today.
Clearly there’s a ton of other educational games out there—more than I could ever highlight on single blog post. But…. What about all those other video games? You know, those ones designed to rot your brain with and turn you into a permanent couch fixture? Yeah, they exist too. But you’d be surprised to see how commentators can change even these games into great science lessons (while getting a laugh)! Check out this video about the popular first-person-shooter game “Overwatch”:
1) Entertainment Software Association (2015) http://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ESA-Essential-Facts-2015.pdf
2) Twitch.tv (2017) https://www.twitch.tv/p/about/
3) Bloomberg business (2016) http://streamernews.tv/2016/03/18/bloomberg-business-twitch-revenue-projected-to-top-1-billion-by-2020/
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