Vikas Khanna, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, began looking at the effects of declining insect populations when he was a grad student in 2007.
“My advisor mentioned this New York Times story about the colony collapse disorder surrounding honey bees,” says Khanna, who teaches civil and environmental engineering. “He said that someone could put some kind of value on what extent the entire economy, not just agricultural crops, is dependent on bees, both managed and wild.”
Since then, Khanna has taken the study from a side project to a major research study. Recently, he received a $259,582 three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue his work, which involves building a model showing how the decline of pollinating insect populations impact the U.S. economy as a whole.
The study, titled “Collaborative Research: Quantifying the Critical Importance of Insect-mediated Pollination Service for the U.S. Economy,” is a timely one in light of the continuing downturn in bee populations. A recent survey showed that beekeepers in the U.S. lost around 44 percent of their colonies between April 2015 and March 2016, which constitutes one of the highest annual loss rates over the last six years. Experts have attributed the unfortunate phenomenon to everything from pesticides to climate change to parasites.
Khanna first submitted his proposal to the study in 2014, where he says it underwent an extensive review by the NSF.
“It was so outside of the usual stuff they get,” says Khanna. “They thought it was really pushing the boundaries and really novel, and something that really needs to be studied.”
When the NSF suggested bringing on an entomologist to strengthen his research, Khanna contacted Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State University. Grozinger, a pollinator biology expert who has done extensive research on honey bees and other insects, will receive an additional $80,000 from the NSF.
Khanna says their research differs from similar studies – many of which were done 25 or 30 years ago – because it looks beyond agriculture to show how various industrial sectors depend on pollinating insects. He also believes that presenting the issue as having far-reaching economic implications, as opposed to only being an environmental concern, will push policymakers to enact more effective conservation methods.
“They just look at what the economic value that is attributable to the crops dependent on these insects,” says Khanna. “However, what these studies fail to account for is that it’s not just the crop itself. If we were to lose the crop, it would also affect things like pesticides and chemical manufacturing. These supply chains would get affected.” Other industries possibly affected include fertilizer manufacturing and power generation.
The study will account for a variety of pollinator insects, including honey and wild bees, butterflies and bumblebees, as well as bats. It will also look at how the decline affects different U.S. regions.