Fire, insects, and research
Two of my good friends from graduate school, Lauren Ponisio and Katherine Wilkin, recently published a paper about their work on pollinators and forest fire. If you have access to Global Change Biology you can read the whole the here. (Maybe I should have a post about how ridiculous the current publishing system is, but that will have to wait for another day.)
Kate and Lauren spent many many hard hours hiking around Yosemite documenting pollinator diversity in places with a variety of fire types. Backpacking through Yosemite for work sounds like a pretty nice gig, right? And it can be. But it is also very hard work with long hours and uncertain rewards. This thing with research is that you mostly don’t know what you are going to find. You can have a good guess, but you’ll never know for certain. You could spent two summer collecting pollinators in the far out areas of Yosemite and then learn that fire diversity is not related to pollinator diversity.
But luckily for Lauren and Kate, that was not the case. The found, basically, that forest fires allow for more flowering plants in forests, which is good for pollinator diversity. More specifically, in areas in which there were a diversity of forest fire types, there were more flowering plants and more species of pollinators.
What is fire diversity anyway? There are different kinds, types, of forest fires. Some burn along the ground, feeding on dried grass and dead trees and never getting that hot. Or they can burn hot and in the tree tops, killing trees along the way. There are others in-between but you get the picture. Fire diversity is a measure of how many different types of fires occur in an area. Different types of fires have never different effects on the surrounding environments.
The policies of fire suppression that have been in place in the US for a long time have created conditions in which we often only have the most extreme type of forest fires. These extreme fires kill a lot of tress and cause significant destruction in an ecosystem. Kate and Lauren studied areas under that had had fire suppression and extreme fires as well as places that had more natural fires. The areas with more natural fires had more pollinator diversity (meaning there were more species and they were more abundant).
Fire diversity is important for maintaining pollinator diversity in our forests. As Lauren and Kate suggest in their paper, this information is important for fire manager to know. Changing fire management practices, shifting away from suppression, would be helpful for pollinators.
If you want to read more about Kate’s work with fire management, she has a great blog post from last year on our department’s site. Check it out! website http://ourenvironment.berkeley.edu/where-fire-working-california#1