I've just arrived at the El Marques lab in San Marcos, Costa Rica, where I'll be leading volunteer teams from Earthwatch Institute in conducting fieldwork for the next month as part of an ongoing research project on sustainable coffee production across the central highland region known as Tarrazu. We've been working with farmers from CoopeTarrazu, a local cooperative of over 2600 coffee farmers in the Tarrazu region, for the past few years in a project linking farmer pratices to both coffee yields and the environment. This year we're focusing on pollinators - specifically, on the economic value of bees to coffee farmers in the region. Coffee normally self-fertilizes, so it is not as dependent on pollinating insects as much as some other well-known crops (e.g., almonds) - but there is some evidence that having native pollinators around may enhance yields as much as 20% under the right conditions. The Tarrazu region is, as are many agroecosystems, a patchwork of farms and forest fragments -- and one thing we'll be exploring is how useful those forest fragments are as habitat that can support important pollinators of the coffee - that is, to what extent forested areas are providing "ecosystem services" to coffee farms. To this end, we'll be looking at the diversity and abundance of native and non-native bees in coffee farms and adjacent forest fragments, as well as conducting manipulative experiments such as manually pollinating coffee flowers and comparing their yields with those of flowers that have netting placed on them to exclude pollinators. Data from these and other experiments we're conducting should give us a better understanding of the benefits of forest conservation in and around coffee farms - and more generally point the way to establishing best practices in agricultural ecosystems. The first volunteer team arrives in a few days; in the meantime, I'll be unpacking my equipment trunks and going through the field protocols with local colleagues today and tomorrow.
It's pouring rain as I'm writing - the kind of downpour typical of afternoons in the tropics - we'll be focusing on getting our fieldwork (capturing and observing bees) done in the mornings, and saving our lab work (sorting and preserving specimens) for the rainy afternoons!