Inclusion as an Ecological Imperative

Two Diadasia bees cuddle together inside a flower. He/she/they – Or something for which we have no pronoun? Photo by Joe Neely.

About four months ago, this lovely photo by Joe Neely of Diadasia bees sleeping together in a flower appeared on Bored Panda and promptly went viral.

Based on my experience as a biologist, I concluded at once these individuals were two adult females, perhaps sisters, cuddled for warmth as they were sleeping.

Recently, it occurred to me others may have seen a different story behind this photo. Flowers have strong romantic associations. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that as this photo made the rounds on social media, some people assumed the bees were male and female, romantically bonded in a romantic setting.

Reading the original Bored Panda article doesn’t clarify the matter, as photographer Joe Neely’s account confuses the sex of the individuals in question:

“Soon, all the vacant flowers were occupied and this one bee was left out,” Joe Neely reports, according to Bored Panda. “She crawled over to this open flower and got inside with the other one. I was watching as he stumbled around almost drunk-like and then got settled in.” 

The emphasis on she and he is mine, to point out the same individual is referred to as female in one sentence and male in the other. It’s unclear whether the error lies with Neely, or if he was misquoted by Bored Panda.

Truth is, I don’t know Diadasia as a genus, so I’m not sure whether these two bees are both females (or males), or one of each. But the fact that I concluded they were females while others might have concluded differently is one small example of a larger phenomenon: Biases affect how we perceive the world around us.

The impact of bias on perception in the sciences was a focus of the plenary address at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), which I attended last week. With the theme Bridging Communities and Ecosystems: Inclusion as an Ecological Imperative, ESA’s annual meeting brought together inspiring people doing inspiring work across the Americas. It’s been a while since I’ve attended an ESA conference, but I noticed the shift to a more humanistic focus. I don’t recall other conferences being so welcoming or interactive.

Over the next couple weeks, I’d like to share with you some of the presentations from the conference. ESA has made this possible by posting keynote lectures on their YouTube Channel. Unfortunately, they focused the camera on the speakers, so you won’t be able to view the very cool slides. The good news is the speakers are so eloquent you don’t need slides to understand what they have to say.

This week, I’m sharing Dr. Karen Warkentin’s opening plenary on the importance of diverse perspectives – with a focus on queer and feminist perspectives – in the sciences.

Dr. Warkentin is a professor in the Biology Department and the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program at Boston University and a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. In her plenary address, she integrates several important themes, including (1) how biases in our perception affect science as a social process; (2) the effect of heteronormativity on what we know about animal behavior; (3) the value of weird observations and diverse perspectives for science; and (4) the biological basis of developmental and behavioral plasticity, and how this informs our understanding of sexual variation in humans.

The take home point? Sound science depends on diverse perspectives and backgrounds. Dr. Warkentin speaks with great eloquence as well as an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge. It will be well worth your time to listen to her.

The plenary address was crafted for a professional audience, but it’s delivered in accessible language. The video should be embedded to begin with her presentation, about 15 minutes in.

Enjoy – And come back next week, when I’ll share Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Keynote Address: P-Values and Cultural Values: Creating Symbioses Among Indigenous and Western Knowledges to Advance Ecological Justice. 

ESA 2019 Opening Plenary: All the Variations Matter

Dr. Karen M. Warkentin


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