International pollinator study first of its kind to incorporate indigenous knowledge

A large honeycomb covered in bees, held by a beekeeper whose face is blocked.

Study co-authored by Professor of Biology Gretchen LeBuhn examines links between people and nature on a global scale 

This story originally appeared on the University’s Bold Thinkers blog, which ran from May 2018 to Nov. 2019.

Can you think of any sports mascots that are pollinators? What about tech company logos? Questions like these can hold important information about what our culture values, according to San Francisco State University Professor of Biology Gretchen LeBuhn. LeBuhn was recently part of an ambitious international study that pulled together knowledge about how pollinators are perceived and used by people all over the world — including, importantly, by indigenous peoples — to better understand how the important group of wildlife can be conserved.

“If we’re going to solve problems, we want to use as much knowledge as we can,” explained LeBuhn. “This is the first time that an intergovernmental panel has made a concerted effort to use indigenous and local knowledge, and I think it sets a new standard for science and for inclusion.”

The study originated from a 2016 assessment of the world’s biodiversity organized through the United Nations, called the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (or IPBES). Twenty-one of the scientists putting together that assessment were tasked with evaluating the available knowledge about pollinators, which they did through two years of collecting both academic and non-academic sources spanning 60 countries.

The study highlights the cultural relationships and unique knowledge that different cultures have about their local pollinators. 

One striking example of that knowledge is the Gorotire-Kayapó people of the Brazilian Amazon, who differentiate between 56 species of stingless bees in their language. As indigenous languages are lost, knowledge like this disappears with it. So the team also laid out strategies for preserving the knowledge that indigenous groups have about their environment. The team published their work in the prestigious journal Nature Sustainability on March 11.

LeBuhn is no stranger to looking outside of academia for knowledge and expertise: She’s the director of the Great Sunflower Project, a citizen science initiative including over 100,000 members that aims to track pollinator populations in the U.S. But this research entailed an even broader search for knowledge. Looking for evidence of how pollinators are used and valued in North America led her to calling tribal leaders, poring over books and even surveying sports mascots and corporate branding for pollinator representation. There’s reason to pay attention to symbols like these. “Maybe it’s one more tool in our arsenal that helps us recognize what biodiversity we want to preserve,” LeBuhn explained.

And though this study was the first at its scale to incorporate indigenous knowledge, LeBuhn expects that it won't be the last. “By opening ourselves up to both different kinds of knowledge and setting a standard for communicating that is as broadly inclusive as we can, I think we’ll do a better job,” she said.