Feature Story

My feature story focuses on a research lab at Emory University that studies pollinators, particularly honeybees. The lab’s main purpose is to learn about how human management of pollinators can affect pollinator populations, which is an especially important topic given the recent attention to climate change and how humans are contributing to the growth of it as a global issue. For this assignment, I wrote a story pitch, interviewed three individuals with background knowledge about pollinators and colony collapse disorder, and researched for various data and statistics. Science writing involves using simple sentences and phrasing to break down complex, scientific information that a general audience might not understand or have a background in. I incorporated this idea into my feature story when writing about the techniques students and faculty in the lab used to conduct research on climate change and mites. To make the story interesting to readers, I concluded by relating pollinators to the effects that they have on humans. 




Emory lab studies effects of colony collapse disorder, climate change on pollinators


Berry Brosi, an associate professor of environmental science at Emory University, leans over a desk in his research lab, peering into a glass box filled with dozens of small, black and golden yellow bees. Each bee is smaller than the size of a quarter but, as a group, the specimens vary in size and structure. Stainless steel tacks are pinned through each insect’s fragile legs, preserving its frozen body and pinning it to the far wall of the container. Lining the desks and walls are fabricated plastic flowers of various, vibrant colors meant to simulate a natural pollinator environment in a research setting.


Brosi momentarily looks up from his research to consider his progress.


“There are eureka moments, but these moments often lead to a very long road of trying to investigate that topic further,” Brosi reflects. “Once an idea crystallizes, it can still be a very long time before you get to see any real results.”


Brosi is one of many researchers studying the causes and consequences of pollinator declines, specifically those related to honeybees. Honeybees are well-known due to the impact of colony collapse disorder (CCD), a condition that occurs when worker bees collectively desert their queens and hives due to both natural and human-induced causes. Between 2015 and 2016, beekeepers in the U.S. lost more than 40 percent of their honey bee colonies, according to the Bee Informed Partnership.


This issue is particularly timely given the increased attention to climate change and its effects on pollinators. President Barack Obama recently established the National Pollinator Health Strategy and created the Health Pollinator Task Force under the pressure of climate change.  The plan aims to bring honey bee colonies to sustainable levels by the year 2025 to prevent further declines in their populations.


In fact, the attention Obama’s plan garnered was an impetus that made Brosi a public figure as well. In a 2015 article, Brosi described this plan as “an important wake-up call” and called for even further recommendations concerning the use of pesticides that harm pollinators.


This public attention marks a stark shift. Brosi said that when he was applying to Ph.D. programs in 2002 to study honeybees, there was little media attention towards pollinators.


However, by the time Brosi received his graduate degree from Stanford University in October 2006, media attention regarding the issue was substantial. He believes this is because of the many overlaps between humans and pollinators.


“I wanted to study a topic with a some conservation relevance,” Brosi said. “Pollination has that nice nexus between human and ecological systems.

Pollinators are responsible for the production of many products in our local supermarkets, including bell peppers and tomatoes / Vegetables in Whole Foods Market / Masahiro Ihara / Creative Commons Flickr Images


Pollinators are directly responsible for the reproduction of nearly two-thirds of all crop varieties on Earth and one-third of the calories humans consume, Brosi said. He added that pollinators are also responsible for the bulk of micronutrients that make up human diets.


Even the eating habits of primary consumers, such as cows, are indirectly affected by pollination, Holly Bayendor McConnell, president of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association (MABA), added. The grains and grasses that cows consume must be pollinated in order for them to survive.


“Everyone needs to eat, and pollinators are critical to our diets” McConnell said. “It’s just as simple as that.”  


Even more, beekeeping revenue comprises a significant portion of agricultural revenue in the US. In 2013, beekeeping revenue exceeded 298 million dollars, according to a study by IBISWorld. Billions of individuals from around the world benefit indirectly from pollinators and their processes. Without these organisms, plants used for creating fabrics like cotton, dyes and even medicinal treatments would not be pollinated. 


Now, Brosi’s goal is to learn how to break the pollinator’s cycle of decline. Given the recent impact of climate change, Brosi’s lab plans to conduct research in the summer of 2017 on the effects of climate shifts on pollination. This research is significant because pollinators and plants use cues from the environment to shape the timing of their biological events, Brosi said. 


Beekeeping provides a significant portion of income in the U.S., and was responsible for nearly 300 million dollars in revenue for the U.S. just in 2013 / Statista


For instance, pollinators tend to emerge when temperatures are warm enough to alert them that there will be blooming flowers to feed on. However, plants time their natural processes through photoperiods, the amount of time during which an organism receives sunlight. By altering temperatures, climate change will make these correlations ineffective, and plant blooming periods may lose sync with pollinators.


To conduct these studies, Brosi’s lab will manipulate snowmelt at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Crested Butte, Colorado. A selection of plots will be covered with black cloth to accelerate snowmelt, increasing the amount of sunlight available to plants, said Loy Xingwen, a graduate student at Emory who conducts research in Brosi’s lab.


These plots will be compared with control plots in which snowmelt will be normal and determined solely by the environment. The studies will test the hypothesis that when snow melts more quickly, flowers will bloom earlier than pollinators will emerge, Xingwen added. As a result of this shift, plants could be unable to reproduce at optimal rates.


“Some of the plants are rare and endangered, and mountain ecosystems [like those in Colorado] are especially vulnerable to climate change,” Xingwen said to emphasize the high levels of impact that climate change could have.


The timeliness of climate change in the media coincides directly with public attention to pollinators. Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species, according to National Geographic.


“It’s sad that [this species] has to be put on the endangered species list, but as a benefit, it will bring attention and protection to that insect, which can then spillover to other pollinators as well,” McConnell said.


This policy was delayed for two months by President Donald Trump’s administration, causing many people to worry that assistance to pollinators would be revoked under his presidency. The setback of policies aimed to protect pollinators is a detriment to their survival, Brosi said.


This is why Brosi embraces policies aiming to protect pollinators. He creates environmental policies through his participation with the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This year, the IPBES released strategies to combat CCD. Recommendations included restoring natural habitats in urban areas, developing technology to decrease the impact of pesticides and increasing connectivity between habitat patches.


Similarly, in 2014, when Emory’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives announced its pledge to ban neonicotinoids, a pesticide harmful to pollinators, and to plant pollinator-friendly habitats on campus, Brosi provided his full support.


“Emory thinks that is too long for bees to wait,” Brosi wrote in an op-ed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “I am proud to work at an institution that’s taken a concrete step toward improving pollinator health.”


Brosi also stresses the importance of sharing resources and working with other schools towards this goal. He collaborates with other researchers for his research because Emory has only one honeybee colony on campus.


In partnership with the Honey Bee Program at the University of Georgia (UGA), Brosi’s lab focuses on studying how management of honeybees can affect the dynamics and virulence of parasites and pathogens. The lab uses the numerous sites at UGA for a higher ability to replicate studies. Its goal is to determine ways in which humans can help honeybees withstand varroa destructors. 


Brosi works with researchers at the University of Georgia to discover the impact of varroa destructors, parasitic mites, on honeybee populations / Varroa destructor deutonymph / Gilles San Martin / Creative Commons Flickr Images


“[The partnership] has worked out well for both groups,” Brosi said. “[UGA] is excited about the disease ecology ideas that we’re bringing to the table, and we are lucky to have [UGA’s] infrastructure and access to study sites.”


Many of these studies have not always had significant results, Brosi said. He noted that as a postdoctoral student, two of his studies failed. Regardless, he believes that this is typical of research and emphasizes that studies take time.


For instance, his idea that modern society management can lead to increased selection for more virulent parasites is one that he has been studying for over ten years. Only now, is this work beginning to crystallize into clear results, he said.


McConnell agrees it is critical that researchers continue to study bees and find alternatives to CCD.


“They’re just incredible insects,” McConnell said. “The way they live, what they do to communicate with each other, and how they build their homes is just amazing, and there’s so much to learn and know about them.”


As Brosi returns to his desk, he appears concentrated and fully immersed in his work. He flips through piles of papers filled with diagrams and graphs related to honeybees. As he does so, he seems to agree with McConnell’s thoughts, and his passion for studying human management of pollinators is clear.




Note: All interviewees have signed consent forms and are aware of how their responses are being used on my domain site.


Read my bibliography for this assignment by clicking here. Learn more about this topic through my podcast and op-ed