Conservation Education Policy Research Rural development Sustainable Agriculture

Money isn’t everything when it comes to conservation

Lately, there has been a great deal of coverage on pollinator health in the media, and the need for conservation of bees in particular. Obviously, as a conservationist and an interdisciplinary agricultural professional, I am strongly in support of conserving any species, especially those with huge economic impacts in agriculture, like the pollinators. However, I can’t help but be slightly frustrated by the emphasis placed on specific pollinators, like the bees and the monarchs. Every Friday, we have our Departmental seminar, which is preceded by a coffee hour in which several of us get together and frequently discuss whatever is happening in the entomological world. This past week, several of us were once again surprised that were having another pollinator seminar, keeping in mind that our Department does so much more than pollinators. Obviously, the attention that pollinator decline is receiving is beneficial for the entire field of entomology, but with that said, so many services beyond pollination provided by arthropods have a significant dollar value, including the decomposition of organic matter, and contributions to recreation and commercial fisheries and pest control. Our professional society, the Entomological Society of America, has an entire journal dedicated to economic entomology, and the recent attention entomophagy is receiving in the United States also puts an interesting spin on the dollar value of insects as a different type of agricultural business, as well.

But, I suppose part of the reason I am frustrated by the pollinator conservation language lately, is in part due to the “these things have economic value” language that so many discussions start with, these days. Obviously, this is an effective way to appeal to various policymakers, etc., but it is also hard to put a dollar value on the loss of enjoyment that some of these animals might bring. Every year, Penn State puts on a large farm show (Ag Progress Days), and this year our Department set up several tents where people can enter and hold monarchs and other butterflies. It was surprising to me the number of times that older gentlemen, often wearing camouflage or John Deere hats, commented that they don’t see nearly the same number of butterflies now as they did when they were children. These are the same gentlemen who would ask me about cover crops or conservation tillage while they were in the tents with their grandchildren, and the very same men to whom I imagine the “pollinator decline will cost you money” lingo is probably geared. This, to me, is another indication that farmers often have a better sense of what is happening around them than we—the scientists—do, and that the media, scientists, policymakers, etc., do not give people the benefit of the doubt when we start dictating what people should care about based on economic value. Much like my own grandfather, I imagine these gentlemen definitely care about the economics associated with their agricultural businesses, but likely want their grandchildren to be able to experience simple pleasures like chasing butterflies through the forest as well.

Clearly, I am happy to use whatever language is necessary in order to affect change related to conservation of arthropods (and other resources), be it discussing the economic value of biodiversity, or otherwise. But, while using that language, I think it is important to remember that so many wonderful species exist on this planet, and that it is worthwhile to acknowledge that people do care about these creatures for reasons other than what their loss will cost us economically. I will end this blog, then, with a few pictures of some of random favorites I have come across over the years.


  1. One of my favourite quotes from grad school was when our colleague (P.A.) remarked, “this department is too bee heavy!” and I could could only laugh in agreement.

    There definitely is a LOT of widespread focus on “the bees” and I’m certainly not complaining since that’s my field, but I do feel that it’s a missed opportunity to introduce and talk about other fields/issues, that don’t have the same amount of focus, through seminars. I think there is also a positive feedback loop of self-importance that occurs with “bee people” only wanting to talk about bees.

    I like what you wrote because I, too, have been reflecting on the idea economic reasoning to support conservation. For my graduate work I was studying pollinators in agricultural systems, so the argument was clearly laid out for crops benefiting from pollination services as an economic value. However, I am now working on pollinator conservation in natural systems, where the argument is a little less clear. For example, I am studying the pollination biology of a plant species that only exists in a 2-km-sq area. Would there be any economic loss if this plant became extinct? Probably not. Do I need to justify saving it by assigning it some value? Or can we put resources into conserving it for the sake of itself?

    I’m slowly getting into this literature and would welcome any reading suggestions focusing on conservation in natural areas. Thanks for your sharing your thoughts!


  2. Thank you for posting this! Money is always a big driver, so how would you go about increasing interest in arthropods that don’t really have a monetary value?


    1. Sheena! So true and so glad you brought this perspective! This blog came out of, in part, some discussions I’ve recently had regarding exactly your first sentence. But, with that said, I could do a better job of recognizing the native bees, myself. However, I would consider them in the group of “everything else,” as we hardly discuss conservation for the inherent value of conservation in our department (e.g., that something has value because it is a thing, not just because that value exists economically). I think it is in Samways, McGeoch, and New (2010) that there’s a whole section on how to assign value to insects (a book I really enjoyed and highly recommend if you haven’t read it).

      Luckily, there is a lot in the ecology and environmental studies literature around conservation for conservation sake. But the problem is that not everyone is educated in these values, nor do people necessarily care about the field outside of their own (again, I’m pro-Carabid conservation, but completely forget the native bees all the time, so I too am at fault for this). We all have our own political ecologies governing what we have the time and energy to direct resources too, I definitely understand that, but to address Brittany’s point, we need to do a better job as a society, I feel like, bringing attention to the environment as a whole. Obviously, there’s no need to harp on the “get ’em young and early!” lingo we all hear regarding outreach, but perhaps we as grad students should take this opportunity to say “Ok, this is wonderful that pollinators are getting the attention they deserve, but how can I take away some of these lessons and make sure my voice is heard?” Rumor has it that Obama became interested in “the bees” due to a news story he heard (is this the first entomology policy urban legend?), and so maybe we should all be squeaky wheels? I have no idea what the answer is, but I definitely think starting a discussion is the first step in answering whatever the question is.

      Thanks so much, Sheena and Brittany, for thinking about it with me!

      Samways, McGeoch, and New. 2010. Insect Conservation: A Handbook of Approaches and Methods (Techniques in Ecology & Conservation). Oxford: Springer.


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