Pollinators: A Case Study in Systems Thinking and Sustainability

Susan H. Cusato, Department of Science Education and Environmental Studies; Suzanne Huminski, Department of Science Education and Environmental Studies, Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, Connecticut

A 2014 SENCER Model

SENCER Model Course Logo

Using scientific information and reasoning, students in Pollinators: A Case Study in Systems Thinking and Sustainability integrate systems thinking and principles of sustainability in examining the potential causes and outcomes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Beginning with a historical perspective on the relevant science, and moving through the latest techniques in genetic engineering, the course explores challenges of understanding and managing the effects of scientific and technological progress. Through readings, discussions, group projects, interviews, and engagement activities, students identify and analyze the scientific evidence for the human role in CCD. Students report an increased appreciation and understanding of the important role pollinators have in food production and in maintaining ecosystem health. Students also enhance their understanding of the role of sustainability and systems thinking to comprehend these complex scientific issues and work toward effective solutions.

Course Objectives:

  • Students will gain a global perspective on pollinators and the importance of pollination in scientific, economic, cultural, and social contexts.
  • Students will increase their awareness and understanding of the threats to pollinators from pesticides, environmental degradation, and human activities.
  • Students will use a systems thinking approach to analyze the complexity and inter-relationships that exist within ecosystems and how those factors may influence pollinator health.
  • Students will critically evaluate research articles, media reports and corporate documents to determine the scientific validity of these reports and prepare them to prioritize their actions in terms of ecological benefit.
  • Through student/beekeeper interviews, field experiences and site visits, students will be able to participate in discussions of local and global concerns about pollinator health and transition from passive understanding to civic action.
  • Students will enhance their understanding of the “three legs of sustainability” so they can apply these principles in identifying potential solutions that may prove to be successful in the long-term.
  • Students will improve their skills in observation and reflective thinking through direct experience in nature and reflective journaling, beekeeper and pesticide retailer interviews, and poster presentations.
  • Students will develop strategies and/or recommendations for enhancing pollinator health. These strategies may be residential, campus-wide and will be posted on the Sustainable Southern Website.

Course Learning Outcomes:

  • Using a Systems Thinking approach, students will identify and describe the activities and relationships within ecosystems that are dependent on pollinators.
  • Relate the ecologic and economic value that bees and other pollinator services provide and their influence on agricultural and ecological health.
  • Identify and describe the scientific processes related to the potential causes or factors involved in Colony Collapse Disorder.
  • Describe how recent outcomes of globalization affect the potential causes of Colony Collapse Disorder including chemical use, the spread of diseases, agricultural practices and economic drivers.
  • Analyze current environmental conditions affecting pollinator health in order to make recommendations based on principles of sustainability.
  • Critically evaluate research and media for scientific, social and environmental information regarding bees, pollination and food production for its impact on the quality of human life.
  • Develop strategies for action to help optimize the potential for long-term survival of pollinators.
  • Through a new lens of systems thinking, sustainability and reflections on nature, identify a personal action plan to help pollinators.

Linking Science and Social Issues

Basic Science Content

  • Plant Biology and function: A review of plant structure and function as they relate to pollination and reproduction. The relationship between native habitat loss and fragmentation and pollinator health.
  • Honey Bee Biology: Bee anatomy and physiology as they relate to the pollination process and honey gathering. The unique biology of the Queen. What about bees biology makes them susceptible to various diseases, pest and chemicals.
  • Hive Biology: How the social structure of the hive supports hive survival. Factors necessary for a healthy hive; nutrition, air quality, moisture levels and temperature. The Waggle Dance, flight patterns.
  • Soil structure and function: Characteristics of soil types and conditions. The role of organic matter in soil. Indicators of soil health. Examine traditional, industrial and organic methods of soil management.
  • Pesticide Composition and Action: The various families of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides, their chemical composition and modes of action. LD50 , MSDS sheets and labeling are covered.

Taught Through Civic Challenges:

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)

Identify chemical, biologic and environmental factors influencing pollinator health and links to CCD. Analyze factors using a systems approach. Examine positive and negative feedback loops and identify opportunities for action.

The Civic Challenge: Providing stability in food production to maintain low food costs while still protecting the environment.

Working Toward a Solution: What factors in our environment have helped contribute to CCD? How can a systems approach identify current actions that can be changed through public education and participation?

Example: Agriculture demands that honey bees from throughout the US are brought together to pollinate specific crops such as almonds and blueberries, creating a petri dish effect for the spread of diseases and pests.

Civic Engagement: Develop various dissemination methods for educating students, staff and faculty about how specific food choices may impact CCD. Posters, University websites, handouts.

Pesticide Use

Review Material Safety Data Sheets for common pesticides to identify the various classes and actions of these products. Analyze the impact of specific pesticides and their role in positive/negative feedback loops, then using the precautionary principle and resilience to determine the validity of their use

The Civic Challenge: Commercial and residential use of chemical pesticides has threatened the health and integrity of our ecosystems.

Working Toward a Solution: Using principles of systems thinking, sustainability and resilience thinking to identify alternative strategies for protecting food crops from weeds, insects and diseases while at the same time protecting ecosystem health.

Example: Roundup (glyphosate) use on plants leads to weeds becoming increasingly resistant to Roundup ultimately requiring more and more Roundup needing to be applied for the same effect.

Civic Engagement: Students visit local hardware/ garden supply stores near their homes, and interview store personnel regarding their knowledge of pesticides, recommended use, environmental impacts, toxicity, and alternatives like pheromone traps, sticky traps, barriers, Integrated Pest Management.

Ecosystem health depends on a complex relationship between biologic, chemical and physical features within the system.

Examine the biologic, chemical, and physical factors influencing soil health and quality; examine habitats for diversity, fragmentation and resilience; examine and appreciate the relationships that have evolved between plants and pollinators (generalists vs. specialists).

The Civic Challenge: Current science is based on a single discipline approach to understanding complex systems.

Working Toward a Solution: Using a Systems Thinking approach, the relationships between these factors are examined and the inter-dependency between factors is highlighted.

Example: Pollinators require a minimum number of plants in bloom for pollination to be worthwhile for them to make the trip from the hive.. Habitat fragmentation resulting in reduced numbers of plants may lead to poor pollination and/or starvation of pollinators.

Civic Engagement: Design a pollinator garden or pathway. Ten Tips for Pollinators is posted on the SCSU Sustainability website. Prepare SCSU campus garden for spring planting, identifying plants with different bloom times that span entire season, spring to fall. Plant seeds and care for seedlings in campus greenhouse prior to transplanting.

Local and global increase in invasive plants, pests and diseases.

Research potential threats to pollinators that originate from invasive plants, insects or diseases. Examine how globalization will continue to Map how these species impact the system and ultimately pollinators.

The Civic Challenge: Globalization has resulted the spread of invasive species of plants, animals, diseases and pests are throughout the world.

Working Toward a Solution: Using a systems approach develop concept maps of how the introduction of specific invasive species results in unforeseen impacts. Understanding how to reduce impact of introduced species through sustainable practices.

Civic Engagement: Encourage planting of native species and increase awareness of various Integrated Pest Management and agricultural techniques that intentionally introduce new species. Campus invasive species audit: Invasive plant removal on campus Currently there are numerous local and federal grants to support projects that enhance pollinator habitat, especially in K-12 settings.

Genetic Modification of Organisms (GMOs)

The scientific process of gene modification, the role of genes in providing chemical and disease resistance, enhanced nutritive value and physical characteristics. Examining the history of cross contamination of indigenous and non-GMO crops by GMO plants.

The Civic Challenge: Current agricultural practices include the genetic modification of plants and animals. Some of these modifications result in increases in pesticide use in the environment.

Working Toward a Solution: Advances in technology are often considered for the immediate benefits they provide, without requiring long-term studies to determine their impact on the environment.

Methods: Review scientific articles, laws and policies regarding the approval process for these new technologically altered products.

Civic Engagement: Make recommendations regarding the campus garden and dining hall regarding the appropriate use of modified foods. Put the Precautionary Principle in action. GMO free labelling: navigating your grocery store and farmers market

Sustainability in Science

Identify and analyze federal, state and local regulations designed to protect consumers and the environment. Examine approval and licensing for agriculture and chemicals. Use a systems approach to determine how the relationships between economics, social issues and science affect specific issues related to pollinator health.

The Civic Challenge: Current significant issues in science are predominantly complex and multi-disciplinary, large in scope, with multiple causes and impacts.

Working Toward a Solution: In recent decades, science disciplines have become more and more narrow in focus. To better understand the complexity of issues we face, scientists are collaborating with others outside their disciplines.

Methods: Students examine science topics such as ecosystem health, pesticide use and policy development from a systems approach.

Civic Engagement: Students develop a personal statement on integrating sustainability into their major and daily life.

The Course

Pollinators Syllabus

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Pollinators: A Case Study in Systems Thinking and Sustainability fulfills a science requirement in the Honors College at Southern Connecticut State University. This course focuses on the role of pollination in food production and in maintaining healthy ecosystems, the current challenges facing honeybees and many other pollinators including Colony Collapse Disorder, honeybees as livestock, diseases, chemical exposure, and healthy habitat loss. Over 70% of the worlds flowering plants require a living organism for pollination. Many of these plants include the fruits, vegetables and grains humans consume, as well as feed for livestock and plants necessary to support wildlife.Although numerous organisms act as pollinators, the honeybee is the most important for agricultural production. Large scale, chemically based agricultural practices are unsustainable for many reasons, and a case study of the honeybee demonstrates that the decisions we make as consumers drive economic forces causing not only pollinator decline, but decline of ecosystem health and resilience overall. This semester-long course is built around four themes. The first theme focuses on nature as nested systems, and the relationships between pesticide use, soil health, and ecosystem health from local and global perspectives. The second theme helps students gain appreciation of the complexity and beauty of honeybee biology and social structure. The third examines the relationships between agriculture, economics and the environment. The fourth provides a broader understanding of the unique roles and importance of all pollinators and the interdependence that exists between plants, pollinators, economics, and human health and culture.Throughout the course, students learn to utilize a systems thinking framework to understand dynamic relationships between course topics. For example, they examine how pollinator health is directly related to factors such as habitat fragmentation, antibiotic use in hives, and widespread chemical use to control weeds and pests on plants bees depend on for nectar and pollen. Students are required to apply such tools as the Precautionary Principle and Resilience Thinking to various systems as a means of exploring and developing feasible solutions to address pollinator decline.

Evaluating Learning

Graded assignments include 15 written reports (a reflective journal), two interviews, a poster presentation, mid-term, and final.

Background and Context

Pollinators: A Case Study, was first offered in the 2011 spring semester. The concept of using pollinators as a case study developed out of an increasing scientific and social interest in Colony Collapse Disorder and the general decline of pollinator and ecosystem health. It is almost impossible to go more than a week without an article in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or one of the respected scientific journals publishing an article related to the threats to pollinators. Throughout this course, these up-to-date publications are shared with students in class or posted on Blackboard. Students appreciate learning about a topic that is clearly important, actively investigated and relevant to their health and prosperity. Much of the knowledge and many of the skills they gain are directly transferable to students daily lives.

The complex nature of the issues surrounding Colony Collapse Disorder provides an ideal format for learning the multi-disciplinary and integrated nature of many of our most important scientific and social issues. By providing these kinds of experiences early in the careers of these students, we can better prepare them to take a holistic, integrated, sustainable approach to issues they face today and in the future.

The course meets over a 16-week semester. The first offering did not include systems thinking as a focus. It became clear after the initial offering, that a more formalized approach was needed to enhance student learning. Class meetings are twice per week for 1 hour and 15 minute sessions. Both faculty are present and engaged in each class session.

he Honors College science courses were developed as an opportunity for our most academically advanced undergraduates to fulfill their general education requirements through completing courses that reflect an integrated approach to the disciplines. Understanding that learning science outside of any opportunity to apply what is learned to social, environmental or ethical context diminishes a students’ appreciation of how that learning adds to their life experience. HON 260-The Idea of Nature is designed to enhance students learning of nature through scientific investigation. Hon 260 s generally taught to freshman or sophomores. All Honors courses are team taught by faculty with divergent academic backgrounds. In Pollinators: A Case Study, one faculty member has degrees in plant science, biochemistry and environmental studies (and is also a hobbyist beekeeper) and the other faculty member has a background including history and environmental education.

Related Resources


References, Bibliography, and Resources


Benjamin, Allison and Brian McCallum, A World Without Bees. Pegasus Books New York, 2009.

Bonney, Richard E., Hive Management: A Seasonal Guide for Beekeepers. Storey Publishing, 1990.

Brown, Lester, Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge In An Age Of Falling Water Tables And Rising Temperature. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2004.

Buchmann, S. and Gary Paul Nabhan. The Forgotten Pollinators. Island Press, Washington DC, 1996.

Bush, Michael, The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally. X-Star Publishing. 2011.

Carson, R., Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1962.

Conrad, Ross, Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture.Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2007.

Dillard, Annie, “Seeing,” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, New York, Bantam, 1974.

Grissell, Eric Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensible Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens. Timber Press, Portland Oregon, 2010.

Jacobsen, Rowan, Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2008.

Marchese, Marina C., Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper. Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York, 2009.

Penn State, College of Agricultural Sciences, Beekeeping Basics, 2007.

Sammataro, Diana and Alphonse Avitable, The Beekeepers Handbook 3rd edition. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1998.

Schacker, Michael, A Spring Without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply, The Lyons Press, Guilford Connecticut, 2008.

Xerces Society Guide, Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Buterflies. Storey Publishing, North Adams, Massachusetts, 2011.