Science·What on Earth?

What a buzz: How to help save the bees with your smartphone

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at citizen-science apps that allow you to do your part for the preservation of bees, as well as the steps cities are taking to green the urban landscape.

Also: Cities are finding creative ways to green the urban landscape

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, folks! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • The feel-good buzz of photographing bees
  • The lopsided connection between wealth and carbon emissions
  • Greening the urban environment

Help save the bees with your smartphone

(Submitted by Victoria MacPhail)

There's been a lot of buzz about "saving the bees" in recent years, following mass deaths among honeybees, partially blamed on pesticides, declines in bumble bee populations and scientists' concerns that many pollinators might be headed for extinction.

This has prompted a boom in beekeeping. That involves raising domestic honeybees, which are not native to Canada. But that may actually be harmful to wild bees, who have to compete with honeybees for food. So what can you do to save the (wild) bees?

For one thing, you can take lots of pictures of them with your smartphone and upload them to citizen science apps like Bumble Bee Watch.

The photos, which are automatically accompanied by information about time and location, are then identified by bee experts. The images become part of a scientific library of information about what species of bees, and roughly how many, are found in different places — including many that scientists can't easily get to — at various times of year.

This, in turn, helps scientists learn more about:

  • Where to find and protect rare bee species.
  • What kinds of plants different bees are using for food at different times of year.
  • Whether some bee species are declining with time and factors such as climate change.

That data can be used to recommend whether certain species should be listed as endangered, or to decide what habitat to protect or what to plant to conserve certain species.

"Getting high-quality scientific data for scientists is, I would say, up there with habitat restoration for the most important things that we can do for conserving bees," said York University bee researcher Sheila Colla, who created the app and accompanying website.

Bonus: It's "easier than building a bee condo or gardening and making a native plant garden."

It's also easy compared to watching and photographing other animals, such as birds, since bees are generally found anywhere there are flowers and will let people get pretty close to them. 

Nor do you have to be a great photographer, said Victoria MacPhail, a PhD student working with Colla. Bumblebees — even individual species of them — can be surprisingly identifiable from very blurry photos, MacPhail said.

As for other pollinators, there are similar apps — including some, like iNaturalist, that use artificial intelligence to help identify a wider range of species.

Using these nature apps benefits more than the bees and butterflies. I can tell you from personal experience that it's a lot of fun (and kind of addictive) to learn more about the nature around you — and to amass a "collection" of amazing species on your phone to keep.

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Taylor Logan's article on conservation vacations last week got a lot of response, but some readers pointed out that the article missed one key facet: the ecological cost of air travel. To quote reader Rox Broughton, "the carbon emissions generated to get to many of these places completely overshadows the positive environmental effects." 

This is a fair point. Broughton passed along a link to an interactive on the Guardian website, which allows you to type in specific routes to show you just how much carbon a single flight emits.

Comments or suggestions? Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are here.

The Big Picture: Wealth and carbon emissions

While there is a lot of emphasis on the carbon emissions of individual countries and specific industries, one aspect of the analysis that gets less attention is how it correlates with people's incomes. The short answer, at least according to 2016 data from the Global Carbon Project, is that the world's most affluent are responsible for the biggest chunk of emissions. (The World Bank determines the different wealth categories by categorizing countries from "high income" to "low income." The categories are determined using gross national income (GNI) per capita, in U.S. dollars. In this formulation, "high income" is more than $12,055 US, "upper-middle income" is $3,896 to $12,055, "lower-middle income" is $996 to $3,895 and "low income" is anything below $996.)


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • One of the major tensions in the environmental movement is the role of nuclear power in meeting our energy needs in a low-carbon world. Eager to close coal plants and wary of becoming reliant on natural gas, lawmakers in places like the U.S., the Netherlands and South Korea are looking to increase the number of nuclear stations.

  • In an essay for the New York Times, arborist William Bryant Logan explains how the Fresh Kills Landfill (yes, that's its actual name) in Staten Island — which held more than 135 million tonnes of trash when it closed in 2001 has transformed into a dense, unpredictable wilderness. It takes many, many years for different types of garbage to decay (plastic shopping bag, 20 years; a plastic bottle, 700), but as Bryant writes, "The forest does not know this. It does not think. It just acts."

  • While the majority of countries worldwide acknowledge the impacts of climate change, many activists believe that existing government action isn't up to the challenge. In an unsparing essay on Medium, "sustainability strategist" Brad Zarnett puts forth some bold top-down proposals, including a "10,000 per cent tax on fuel for private jets (and yachts)" and a "200 per cent tax on the purchase price of any car worth more than 100k." He also writes that we should pay people to a) plant trees; b) ride their bikes or walk to work, and; c) go vegetarian.

Cities are seeing the benefits of even low-key green spaces

(Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The world's population is growing, and so are its cities. Urban infrastructure is booming, but in the process, it often suppresses nature, which is so key to our survival.

Many cities are working toward solutions that balance city life with a more natural environment. Some places are taking major steps. Paris, for example, is in the process of building "urban forests" around the city (including one that will be five times bigger than New York's Central Park). According to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, these spaces are meant to inspire residents to spend more time in nature and to reap the benefits of that greenery.

According to the World Health Organization, urban parks and gardens play a critical role in cooling cities, and also provide safe routes for walkers and cyclists, which helps reduce carbon emissions. 

Green spaces are also important to people's health. Having access to green spaces can improve mental and physical well-being and aid in the treatment of mental illness. Some analysis by WHO suggests physical activity in a natural environment can help remedy mild depression.

Many cities are showing, however, that you don't need to make radical changes to introduce natural elements to the urban landscape. So, where can you fit in a bit of green? In places you'd never expect, said Michelle Senayah, co-founder of The Laneway Project, a Toronto-based non-profit design team looking to bring life to the city's alleys.

"There is limited space on the street, parks are becoming crowded," Senayah said. "It's important to look at the spaces that aren't considered, and think more intelligently about these spaces to make them multi-use. " 

The Laneway Project works with local citizens and foundations to bring green to otherwise empty spaces. For example, in 2018, the project revitalized the Danforth Village laneway by installing 30 planters and 20 pedestrian-friendly, solar-powered lights — as well as 20 street art murals — to transform the alley into a more welcoming, communal space.

Other cities are taking a similar low-key approach. Montreal is decorating laneways with lush, green life, while Vancouver is encouraging the spread of "street gardens." Urban farms are popping up on rooftops in places like Hong Kong, New York and Rotterdam, the Netherlands. That country is also planting flowers on top of bus stops. 

All of these environmental initiatives use space, no matter how small, to their advantage. As Senayah said, "A lot of spaces in cities are not being used with their full potential in mind."

Taylor Logan

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty