When I tell people about my research with biodiversity and coffee farms, most people look at me confused and ask, “Wait, what does coffee have to do with biodiversity?” I understand that this question is not unfounded. Although about 1 billion cups are coffee are consumed worldwide daily–most people do not link the dark, velvety liquid in their coffee cup with the diverse and abundant wildlife that inhabit the lands where that coffee is grown.
Coffee can be good for both people and for wildlife
The reality is that coffee farms can provide a refuge for wildlife. Coffee is grown in tropical areas that host high levels of plant and animal diversity. The way that coffee farms are managed varies widely–from a monoculture of coffee plants with little or no shade trees intermixed with the crop (often referred to as “sun coffee”) to farms that with many different types of trees and vegetation interspersed between the coffee plants (also known as “shade coffee”). The former provides little habitat value to wildlife, whereas the latter, which mimics natural forests, provides food, shelter, and habitat for the animals that live in and around these coffee farms. Shade coffee farms can also support ecosystem services such as soil erosion reduction, water clarification, and crop pollination.
As a research scientist with the Bird Friendly Coffee program within the Smithsonian Institution’s Migratory Bird Center, my work involves conducting field research to determine how to provide the best habitat for wildlife on these farms. I am interested in sustainable solutions for the protection of natural resources. Agricultural crops grown sustainably could be a win-win solution to protect biodiversity and ecosystem services while also providing for human livelihoods. I have done research in India, Mexico, and Costa Rica to understand what makes good habitat for mammals in coffee farms–a group that is understudied in coffee agroforestry research (see Scientist At Work and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center).
Farming with pollinators can be beneficial to production and to nature
My most recent research venture, however, looked at bee communities in coffee farms in Costa Rica. Arabica coffee, which is the most abundant type of coffee in Latin America, is self-pollinating—meaning it does not need bees for the coffee plants to fruit. Interestingly though, if the coffee plants are pollinated by bees, there can be a 30-50% increase in coffee yield. Thus, it is in the interest of the farmers to create an attractive environment for the bees.
Science at work: the challenges and rewards of studying biodiversity in agroforestry systems
I spent the last couple of months living and working on a coffee farm in the mountains of southern Costa Rica. Over the years, I learned that fieldwork is unpredictable. To me, that is what makes it fun and interesting, but also challenging. Pollination studies in coffee require a lot of patience. The coffee flowers are open for only three days before they wilt, dry up, and fall to the ground. All of your data for the pollination takes place in only a few days, so you have to be ready to go and have everything in place for that first day of flowering.
But to collect data on the bees and pollination, you need coffee flowers…for the coffee flowers to bloom, you need rain…and this year, there was a drought in the region of our study site. The coffee plants had small flower buds, but they were in a holding pattern, refusing to open until it rained. Every day, my field team and I hiked through our sites, examining the buds trying to assess if they were growing and when they would open. We monitored the clouds, as if we were meteorologists, trying to predict when the rains would come. We wearily crossed the days off the calendar, watching as the X’s got closer and closer to our scheduled departure date. Then finally, the rains came and the coffee flowers bloomed, infusing the farm with a jasmine-like scent. Bees swarmed, gathering pollen from the flowers and my research team and I were finally able to collect our data!
I will use the information that we collected to determine what habitat requirements within the coffee farms are related to higher bee diversity. The results of this study will provide more information to farmers about how they can provide a better habitat for bees on their coffee farms and increase their coffee yields. I am interested to see what we find out!Amanda Caudill, PhD is a postdoctoral research scientist at the Migratory Bird Center of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, DC. Her research focuses on sustainable agriculture as a means to provide wildlife habitat and conserve biodiversity, while providing for human livelihoods. Special thanks to Robert Rice, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and to the field crew for the Costa Rica pollination research: Julia Brokaw, Dejeanne Doublet, and Kristian Moore.