Remote sensing can track flower availability for pollinators

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The flowers available to pollinating insects can change from day to day and place to place, especially when human activities such as agriculture are involved. Agriculture and deforestation are changing landscapes in ways that affect all pollinators, causing populations to plummet in many parts of the world. But these flying insects can get unexpected help – from something flying above them: drones and satellites.

Image credit: Pixabay.

We know surprisingly little about how changes in flower distribution affect pollinators. This is largely because traditional methods of floral sampling (such as manual flower counting) are time consuming and geographically limited, making it very difficult to obtain detailed information at large scales. .

Researchers at the University of Exeter now believe that drones and satellites are well suited for this task, as they are able to capture changes in the richness and abundance of floral resources through aerial imagery (RGB and spectral and structural data). Technology has come a long way in recent years, reducing costs and opening up opportunities, like helping pollinators.

“With some species of pollinators in decline, including many wild bees, we urgently need this understanding to protect not only pollinators in general, but also the great diversity of species that each play a vital role in ecosystems. complex,” lead author Dunia Gonzales said in a statement. . “Drones can now give us fine details of a landscape.”

Technology for pollinators

Pollinating insects vary according to the distance they travel for food or during migrations, with small insects traveling as little as a kilometer or so and larger ones sometimes traveling hundreds of kilometres. There are manual methods for tracking the movements of insects in the field, but this is usually difficult given their small size and rapid movements. This is where satellites come in.

Image credit: The Researchers.

The team combined remote sensing approaches with traditional methods of quantifying insect movements in the field. This is particularly important due to the rapid development of many rural habitats into agricultural fields or urban environments, which can affect the quantity and quality of floral resources.

“Along with behavioral studies of insects, this will help us understand the threats they face and design conservation programs,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “With some pollinator species in decline, we urgently need this understanding to protect not only pollinators in general, but also the great diversity of species that play vital roles.”

But this is still only the beginning for this type of approach. Gonzalez and his team recognize that using remote sensing to measure floral resources is still new in the field of pollination. Satellite imagery has been the most popular so far, they argued, due to the amount of information already available and the fact that most of the time it is free. But although satellite data is readily available, its resolution is not amazing.

Drones could be a good complement to satellites as they can capture more detailed images, including details of individual flowers that can be detected and quantified. The use of drones could facilitate studies of how pollinators interact with different flowers, offering detailed insights that are particularly important for pollinators that depend on particular food sources for their survival.

Drone image showing the distribution of wildflowers. Image credits: Karen Anderson.

Combining drone imagery with behavioral observations of pollinating insects could also show how changes in flower numbers and species richness influence their populations from year to year or over decades. Drones could also be essential for modeling habitat requirements for different pollinators and identifying areas of suitable habitat.

“Until now, most research using satellites has focused on large-scale agricultural landscapes such as rapeseed, corn and almond farms,” ​​Gonzales said. “We emphasize the need to study landscapes with complex communities of plants and pollinators. The joint use of satellites and drones is a good way to learn more about these local differences. »

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

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