Twice a year, on a shoestring budget and with just the help of two equally passionate colleagues, UNE insect ecologist Manu Saunders organises the national Wild Pollinator Count – a project designed to inspire greater public appreciation for the insects that are vital to the health of many flowering plant species.
The count is on again, starting this Sunday. More than just a feel-good exercise, it embodies much larger questions about the health of insect life in the modern world.
“Insects are in trouble around the world, no question,” Dr Saunders said.
“In Australia we have little understanding of most of our invertebrates, 70% of which haven’t even been described.
“We know very little about what they are, where they live, what they do and how they are affected by human activities.
“I started the Wild Pollinator Count to encourage curiosity about Australia’s wild pollinators, to get people outside and discovering the insects hard at work in their backyard.”
During the week of 12-19 November, Dr Saunders is urging amateur naturalists to take 10 minutes on a warm, sunny day to record what insects are visiting flowers in their neighbourhood.
The observations will help to build a better picture of what flowers the insects pollinate and where those insects occur.
Australia is home to thousands of native insect pollinator species. The continent contains about 1800 native bee species alone, in a huge range of sizes and colours.
Blowflies, hoverflies, mosquitoes, moths, beetles, butterflies and wasps, as well as many other types of insects, also visit flowers for food and can pollinate as they go.
It was when she was completing her PhD research in 2013, on the ecosystem services that wild pollinators provide, that Manu was struck by how little people know about them.
“I was talking to farmers in Victoria and found that many only knew about European honeybees and were surprised to learn that native bees and flies are also vital for crop pollination,” Dr Saunders said.
“We know that chemical use and land clearing affect these important pollinators, but their ecology and distribution largely remains a mystery.”
But that’s where the public comes in. Anyone anywhere in Australia can take part in the Wild Pollinator Count, which is also held in April each year.
“Pollinator communities change with the seasons, so by doing the count twice a year we encourage people to see the patterns and changes in their local environment,” Dr Saunders said.
“With every year we’ve had more individuals, schools and Landcare groups take part, which adds to our database.
“We get some lovely comments from kids, especially, and most people have no idea there are so many insects in their backyard.
“We just rarely stop to admire them. There is a real excitement in studying insects; it’s like a treasure hunt.”
Dr Saunders and her team are hoping to secure a permanent home for the data collected during the Wild Pollinator Count with the Discovery portal of Atlas of Living Australia.
In the meantime, in the true spirit of discovery, the results of each count are made available on the Wild Pollinator Count website for anyone to share online.
For information on how to count pollinators, a guide to the insects you may spot and to submit your Wild Pollinator Count observations, click here.