Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Climate change and phenology

Fig.1. David Inouye studies phenology and climate change’s effect on pollinators, such as bees, hummingbirds and flies. (Credit: David Inouye)

When David Inouye looks out the window of his Colorado home, he’s looking at the mountains. He’s traded in the D.C. suburbs for this view, which also happens to be his office.

The professor emeritus of the University of Maryland has worked at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory throughout his career, focusing on phenology and climate change’s effect on pollinators. Inouye specifically studies hummingbirds, bumblebees and flies. He has collaborated on other projects studying butterflies and solitary bees. As a graduate student in the 1970s, Inouye began to study how the timing and abundance of flowering of plants changes from day to day, year to year. With 30 plots to study during growing season and gathering data from 120 different species, the study has been ongoing.

“I’m a big supporter of field stations,” Inouye said, noting his work is in a beautiful environment while challenging him intellectually. “I think this particular research station is probably the most productive one in the country -- if not the world.”

Over the years, Inouye said he and his team have discovered that the growing season starts earlier, which can result in frost damage to wildflowers. This can also affect food security, as the production of fruit crops are also affected by the increased frequency of early spring warm spells that are followed by a cold snap.

According to a two-year study conducted by Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), pollinators are being driven to extinction, threatening not only billions of dollars of food supplies but human livelihood, as well. The document, “Thematic Assessment of Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production,” also offers ways to protect the pollinator population.

Inouye can usually be found out in the field, collecting data and specimens for study. Much of his work revolves around collecting and evaluating flower- and pollinator-count data. Regular sampling of the pollinator community clues Inouye in on how it develops, providing further insight as to what environmental variables influence population size.

But Inouye’s research hasn’t come without challenges.

“I’m fortunate to have some funding (for the long-term project),” he said.

But convincing the National Science Foundation that investing in a lengthy project has proven to be difficult, especially when getting funds can be so competitive.

Inouye will be a keynote speaker at our September workshop, Stressors and Drivers of Food Security: Evidence from Scientific Collections. He plans to highlight his work as well as what the application of his results could mean for the global impact of pollinators and food security.

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