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About The Great Sunflower Project
The Science Behind the Great Sunflower Project
As you sit at the table today, do you know where the water you are drinking came from? 85% of the drinking water in San Francisco comes from the Sierra. How about the last prescription medicine you took? It probably originated from a natural source. Of the top 150 prescription drugs used in the U.S., 118 originate from natural sources: 74 percent from plants, 18 percent from fungi, 5 percent from bacteria, and 3 percent from a species of snake! And, where did the ingredients for your lunch and dinner come from? One of every three bites you took probably came from a plant pollinated by wild pollinators. This is just the beginning of list of the services provided by healthy, natural ecosystems.
Economists and ecologists have started working together to find a way to place a financial value the contribution of natural ecosystems to human existence. The estimates are eye-opening. For example, the value of pollination services from wild pollinators in the U.S. alone is estimated at four to six billion dollars per year. While these ecosystem services are currently produced for “free”, replacing the natural ecosystem would cost many trillions of dollars. Unless human activities are carefully planned and managed, valuable ecosystems will continue to be impaired or destroyed.
To maintain biodiversity and to meet the increasing demands for ecosystem services, we must move conservation science into cities (Rosenzweig 2003). Cities are important for conservation for two reasons. First, 80% of the United States population already lives in urban areas (United States Census Bureau 2003). Second, cities encompass about 3% of land (59.6 million acres) in the United States and 230,000 additional acres become urban each year. Because of their large human populations, cities are the places where many ecosystem services, such as environmental quality of life, are delivered (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). Given the growth of the urban population, it is clear that we need to develop the knowledge necessary for maintaining natural habitats in the urban setting and find a way to give urban dwellers access to nature.
We know that pollinators are declining in certain wild and many agricultural landscapes. However, little is known about urban pollinators. Our recent data on bumble bees in an urban setting suggests that urban bees may also be declining (McFrederick & LeBuhn 2006, Fenter and LeBuhn submitted). While the loss of these pollinators is important, it is more important to understand what effect these losses have had on pollinator services.
We do not know much about how healthy bee populations are maintained in an urban environment. Because natural habitats are uncommon in urban landscapes, they may not provide enough resources to support viable pollinator communities. However, if other habitats, such as urban gardens and restored areas, are sufficiently connected to natural habitat, then native populations may thrive.
By finding a way to track and value the goods and services provided by natural ecosystems, we will find a future in which conservation is not a luxury but a guiding principle of daily decision-making throughout the world. The data you collect from your sunflower willbe a start. It will provide an insight into how our green spaces in the urban, suburban and rural landscapes are connected as well as shedding light on how to help pollinators. What we need are innovative strategies to maximize the benefits of our wild and semi-wild habitat remnants. The Great Sunflower Project is the first step.
Gretchen LeBuhn is an associate professor at San Francisco State University. She has a broad interest in issues surrounding conservation. She is particularly interested in the effects of climate change on bee communities in alpine environments, the ecology of vineyards and the biology of urban parks and gardens. She has her master's in Botany from the University of Connecticut and her PhD in Biology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. When she isn't doing research or teaching, she can be found gardening with her twins. You can reach her at:
Department of Biology
San Francisco State University
1600 Holloway Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94132
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