The texture of the life academic is nothing if not varied. After a couple of days working from home thanks to a dose of flu, Thursday was spent supervising three one hour tests for my first year students, scattered throughout the day from 0930 to 1600. As I watched over these hurriedly scribbling undergraduates their shifting expressions ranged across boredom, panic, rapt intensity, smugness and exhaustion. The latter because it’s been a long term and we’ve worked them hard. The Easter break will be a relief. Whilst they pored over the questions I shifted between marking second year literature reviews, checking email and gazing thoughtfully out of the window.
Between tests I went back to the office and worked on completing the first draft of a manuscript that I’ve been promising to send to my co-author Clive Nuttman of the Tropical Biology Association. It’s based on data we collected in Tanzania last year during the TBA field course whilst observing aggressive interactions between nectar feeding male sunbirds and large Xylocopa carpenter bees. The bees sneak into the sunbirds’ territories and, if spotted, the birds fly at them, chasing them through the forest. The plant on which they were feeding is a member of the squash and melon family (Cucurbitaceae) and like many in that family it has separate male and female plants. Only the male flowers produce nectar; the females function, in effect, as rewardless mimics of the males. In addition it seems as though only the bees are pollinators as the birds don’t pick up pollen on their feathers and (crucially) don’t visit the female flowers. However the birds might be providing a service to the plants by driving the bees to move between plants rather than staying on the male flowers most of the time. It’s a complex story (which ones in ecology aren’t?) and we’ve only scratched the surface of what is going on, but the aggressive interactions side of it makes a nice starting point for further work. We’re calling it: “Angry Birds! Aggressive displacement of Xylocopa carpenter bees from flowers of Lagenaria sphaerica (Cucurbitaceae) by territorial male Eastern Olive Sunbirds (Cyanomitra olivacea) in Tanzania”. Let’s see if the journal editor and reviewers will go along with the tongue in cheek pre-title.
Friday started with a meeting between Muzafar Hussain, on of my PhD students you met last time, and Peter Nalder from South Court Environmental. SCE is a local co-operative dedicated to environmental projects, and organic and permaculture food production. The group is responsible for managing a number of old, remnant fruit tree orchards around Northampton. We took a look at a really interesting site over in Abington that was originally a farm. It’s now been converted into sheltered housing for old folks and a nature conservation area that includes an orchard. Muzafar is planning to incorporate some of these orchards into his urban bees surveys. This will add to what we know about the diversity of habitats available to these bees and relates it directly to the ecosystem service of crop pollination that the bees provide.
In the afternoon I drove up to the Wildlife Trust’s offices at Lings House for the first formal meeting of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area partners to be held since the announcement that we had secured the funding back in February. I intend to write more about the Nene Valley NIA in the coming months and years. But for now it’s enough to say that we’re incredibly excited about the opportunities the NIA will bring to improve the level of biodiversity conservation in the region. The university is leading on one of five objectives: to assess the range of ecosystem services being delivered in the Nene Valley and the condition of the biodiversity (including habitat as well as taxonomic diversity) that is supporting those services. We’ll focus on pollination, naturally, but also on other services including fresh water provision and flood alleviation, and possibly carbon storage. These are new areas for me and it’s going to be a steep learning curve. A PhD student has already been recruited to work on pollinator diversity and in the near future we’ll take on a post-doc for the main part of the project (if you know of anyone who might be interested ask them to send me their CVs).
Chairing the meeting was Oliver Burke the Wildlife Trust’s energetic and enthusiastic Conservation Manager who has been the real driving force behind the NIA (which on a map looks like a large intestine squiggling its way across the landscape; in honour of him I renamed it “Oliver’s Colon”. Not sure if it will stick but I intend to use it in all official NIA documents from now on). Most of the meeting was concerned with the nuts and bolts of how the finances will work, reporting of activities, membership of the steering group, etc. Dull but vital if the Nene Valley NIA is to be the success we want it to be.
Also at the meeting was Adrian Southern from the RSPB, standing in for a colleague. I keep bumping into Adrian in the most unlikely places, first at Biosphere 2 in Arizona in 2001 during an Ecological Society of America meeting that ultimately led to the Waser & Ollerton (2006) edited volume. Then a few years later at another conference when he was a PhD student at University of East Anglia. We never really kept in touch so it was a surprise to see him. Now Adrian’s with the RSPB I hope to talk more with him about some ecosystem services projects he’s working with as part of their Futurescapes programme. So add that to the lots of different things going on at the moment. But varied is good. If tiring. So looking forward to a week off over Easter.