Monthly Archives: October 2014

“one of the referees says floresianus actually means ‘flowery anus’ so it should be floresiensis

Tring 8

In a parallel universe I work as a paleoanthropologist, a topic that has fascinated me ever since as a teenager I read Donald Johanson’s account of the discovery of Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis).  At university I took a short human evolution course and could easily have been swayed into doing research in that area were it not for my fascination with plants and ecological interactions (there are also parallel universes in which I’m a marine biologist, palaeontologist, gardener, sound engineer, etc….you get the picture).  I still keep half an eye on the paleoanthropological literature and enjoyed reading this interview on the Nature website with the discoverers of Homo floresiensis, the so-called “hobbit” fossil hominids, which added significantly to our understanding of the biodiversity of the human evolutionary lineage.

The line that “one of the referees says floresianus actually means ‘flowery anus’ so it should be floresiensis“, and some of the other anecdotes, give lovely insights into how science works, and the way it often follows a random, haphazard path, not at all the clear and logical route that non-scientists assume.  And it shows how the peer-review process can pick up and correct errors in a manuscript that could haunt any scientist’s career…..

A Westminster pollinator seminar and The Great British Big Bee Count


In the run up to Defra’s publication of a National Pollinator Strategy, due for release some time before Christmas, the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology yesterday ran a two hour seminar at Westminster.  It was a full meeting in one of the small rooms, and apparently over-subscribed which doesn’t surprise me: there’s huge interest in pollinator conservation in the UK at the moment.  So it would have been better moved to a larger room to allow more scientists, practitioners, MPs, civil servants and other interested parties to attend.  In any case it was a useful couple of hours, with some interesting updates on what’s happening in relation to British pollinators.

The event was chaired by Sarah Newton MP and was kicked off by Adam Vanbergen from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology who got everyone up to speed by giving an overview of the science of pollination, pollinator diversity, and the issues affecting pollinator populations.  In the process he cited our “How many flowering plants are animal pollinated?” paper which has fast become the default citation to use as evidence to support the ecological importance of biotic pollen transfer.  That’s hugely gratifying and is what it was designed to do.  We now have additional data with wider geographical coverage and I hope to update that analysis in the near future.  A lot of the information Adam was using can be found on the Insect Pollinators Initiative website.

Adam’s talk was followed by a presentation by Simon Potts from the University of Reading who discussed how we value pollination as an ecosystem service and how we can safeguard pollinator abundance and diversity.  There were some stark statistics on the economic contribution of pollinators to crops such as apples, including data from a study by Garratt et al. (2014) which suggests that both quality and quantity of apples could be improved by having more pollinators in British orchards.  Perhaps another way of viewing those data is that the UK apple industry is already experiencing the kind of pollinator deficit that conservationists have predicted?

Jane Memmott from Bristol University was next, presenting the preliminary results of the Urban Pollinators Initiative which is the first comprehensive study of the distribution of pollinators in large British cities.  The data look really exciting and it will be great to see the results finally published as it will make for an interesting comparison with Muzafar’s data on solitary bees in Northampton, the first manuscript from which has recently been submitted to a journal.

Finally Chris Connolly from Dundee University talked about pesticides in a presentation entitled “Why pick on the neonicotinoids?” and provided some disturbing statistics on how little we really know about what happens when the c. 350 types of pesticides (plus about 700 herbicides and fungicides) that we use in modern British agriculture combine in the environment to produce synergistic effects.  It’s also worrying that there is little understanding of the amounts of pesticides being applied because systematic data are not collated.  Chris is a neuroscientist working mainly in a medical context and gave the analogy of how combinations of therapeutic drugs can have unforeseen (even deadly) side effects.  Chris also used an image of Nigel Farage to illustrate a point which was a brave thing to do in the Houses of Parliament in the current political climate, but which got him a big laugh.

There followed 30 minutes of questions and discussion, and I managed to get in a plug for the Biodiversity Index when making a point of how difficult it is to get business to engage with biodiversity.  That led to an interesting conversation afterwards with a consultant that I need to follow up later today.

Out into the unseasonably warm London air by about 6.30pm, there were people standing outside pubs and sitting at cafe tables, as if we were in southern Europe rather than England in late October.  It reinforced some of the things I discussed in a post earlier this summer about climate change and current weather patterns.

Coincidentally (or not) Friends of the Earth released the results of their Great British Bee Count, a Citizen Science project designed to augment the monitoring work being done by specialist groups such as the Bees, Ants and Wasps Recording Society (BWARS).  I have mixed feelings about the Great British Bee Count.  On the one hand it’s great to engage the public in campaigns that raise the awareness of the importance of pollinators, and to get them out looking at bees.  But the reality is that the 832,110 records submitted to the count have very limited scientific value, despite what Friends of the Earth might claim.  That’s because it is very, very difficult to identify bees to even broad groups unless you’ve had some training, and (apart from some distinctive species) impossible to identify to species level unless you are a specialist.  I’ve been studying pollinators for 25 years and there are whole groups within our c. 250 native species that I have great problems identifying, and defer to the opinion of real specialists such as Stuart Roberts, chair of BWARS.

Stuart has made public his concerns at the quality of the data being submitted to the Great British Bee Count, and the fact that records cannot be checked because no photograph was taken and (worse) there are no specimens to compare.  The issues are neatly embodied in the fact that four species which were  recorded from Northern Ireland (Tawny mining bee, Hairy-footed flower bee, Red mason bee, and Tree bumblebee) have never previously been seen in Ireland and can all be confused with other similar species.  Of particular concern is the fact that Friends of the Earth expects the National Biodiversity Network Gateway to archive the data.  If that happens the Great British Bee Count data MUST be kept separate from the high quality, verified data on bee distributions that NBN already possesses, otherwise it will completely devalue the latter.  By all means let’s get the public engaged with pollinators and biodiversity more broadly, which is one of the purposes of this blog after all!  But let’s also be realistic about what can be achieved by these kinds of campaigns.



Dancing with wolves: more from SCAPE 2014


Tovetorp Research Station has a small colony of wolves, though we weren’t allowed to visit them as they are being observed as part of a study of canid behaviour.  But I did see a White-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) which was just as good!  And on the last night of the SCAPE meeting there was the usual post-banquet bout of Scando-European dancing by the younger members of the conference, which gave me the idea for the title of this post.

But on to the science!  I’ve already talked a little about some of what I learned or was excited about from the Thursday & Friday talks, and Saturday’s sessions continued in the same vein, with interesting and novel research in abundance, including:

  • species in 166 different plant families lack nectar as a reward, with an estimated 15-20,000 species (from 72 families) utilising buzz pollination (Mario Vallejo-Marin, University of Stirling)
  • Alocasia sarawakensis employs a brood-site pollination system analogous to figs and yucca moths, but without destroying any ovules (Florian Etl, University of Vienna)
  • floral scents are more complex in their geographical and anatomical distribution than we realised, and may be used to cheat pollinators into thinking there is a reward in a flower (Magne Friberg, Amy Parachnowitsch & Rosie Burdon, Uppsala University)
  • exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides can cause very subtle effects on bumblebee behaviour when they forage on apple blossom, which doesn’t seem to translate into an effect on apple pollination (Dara Stanley, Royal Holloway)
  • it may be possible to assign environmental niches to native and introduced pollinators in order to understand how invasive species out-compete native ones (Jonas Kuppler, University of Salzburg)
  • functional diversity of floral traits is greater than that of vegetative traits in alpine plant communities (Robert Junker, University of Salzburg)

As I said before, these are just some of the highlights, there were many others. My own talk was about the rate of extinction of bees and flower-visiting wasps in Britain, involving some new analyses I’ve been doing with colleagues over the past 6 months or so.  The work seemed to be mostly well received, though there was scepticism from some quarters about the methods we’ve used, and a suggestion that there are better ways to assess extinction which I’m going to follow up.

I returned to the UK at 7pm last night.  On the drive home from the airport, Karin asked me what I’d most enjoyed about the conference.  The answer was all of it, of course, but what these meetings really provide is an opportunity to discuss science in an informal, friendly (though rigorous and argumentative!) atmosphere, outside the formal talks.  Not just the science itself, but also the way we do science, manage our careers, and communicate our findings.  I spent some time chatting with Amy Parachnowitsch, who blogs over at Small Pond Science, and her research student Rosie Burdon about the role of blogging in science communication and what we’re aiming to do by releasing these thoughts out onto the internet. Paradoxically these are conversations that are best had face to face I think!

The problem with SCAPE is that it’s over and gone too quickly, but perhaps that’s the point: it leaves us wanting more and looking forward to next year, when it will be in Denmark.  Thanks again to the organising committee for a stimulating and enjoyable few days.  Any pollination scientists, at all stages of their career, who wish to come along to future SCAPEs would be guaranteed a warm welcome and should drop the organisers a line to be added to the mailing list, or search for the Facebook page of the group and ask to be added.

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The bare-foot conference: SCAPE 2014


Not strictly bare-foot, most of us are wearing socks and padding around the Tovetorp Research Station in Sweden, where outdoor shoes are banned in the building.  The Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology is holding its 28th annual meeting here, starting Thursday evening with three initial talks, and continuing all today.  I’ve posted about SCAPE previously: it’s my favourite conference by a long margin, friendly and informal and attracting some great science.  Although I missed it last year due to my trip to Brazil, coming back this year is a little like coming back to a family gathering, where as well as the elder aunts and uncles, there’s also a large group of younger nieces and nephews, and some long-lost cousins – it’s a great mix of older professors, and newer PhD students.

This is a quick post before we have dinner and the bar opens.  In the last 24 hours I have learned a lot about pollination ecology that I didn’t know before, including:

  • Vincetoxicum hirundinaria does not vary in its outcrossing rate, regardless of the size of population (Anne Muola, Swedish Agricultural University)
  • Arum italicum and Arum maculatum hybridise in some populations (Marion Chartier, University of Vienna)
  • variable weather conditions can result in low bumblebee numbers and increased fly pollination in a north American mountain plant community (Diane Campbell, University of California)
  • nocturnal pollination by moths is more common than expected in Spanish mountain plant communities (Marcos Mendez, Rey Juan Carlos University)
  • “double mutualists” that both pollinate plants and disperse their seeds seem to be more common on islands than elsewhere (Jens Olesen, Aarhus University)
  • colour “purity” is more important than other aspects of flower colouration (Klaus Lunau, Heinrich-Heine University)
  • there’s very little evidence to support any of the current hypotheses regarding the evolution of andromonoecy (Marcos Mendez, again!)

Those are just a few of the highlights from a conference that’s showcasing some of the best pollination ecology research currently being conducted.  Looks like dinner’s ready so I’ll sign off for now.  My talk is tomorrow at 4.30pm – wish me luck!

Biodiversity miscellany

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It’s been a few weeks since my last post, not because I’ve had nothing to say, but rather because there’s been too much to say, and too much to do to have time to say it!  A lot has been happening personally, professionally and in the wider world that I could have talked about, so I’ve summarised a few things below.

Late September saw the start of a new academic year, with all of the organisation and effort that entails.  Recruitment in our Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences is healthy and the new intake of students are bright and keen.  In addition to my usual teaching and research in the Department I’ve been asked to take on the role of Head of Research and Enterprise for the whole School of Science and Technology.  Which will be interesting as it covers a vast range of subjects, including computing, leather technology, and engineering, as well as the environmental and geographical area with which I’m more familiar.  It’s a two-year post which should be enough time to do some good work.

The Local Nature Partnership annual meeting took place at the university on 25th September. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science Lord de Mauley popped up again, and gave a better and more focused speech than he did previously at the recent Nature Improvement Area conference in London.   It’s a pity he didn’t stay for the afternoon session as there was a very interesting presentation from the company who are developing the Rushden Lakes site in the Nene Valley. Part of the development is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and it’s within the Special Protection Area, designated for over-wintering birds.  The Wildlife Trust is working closely with the developers and, if the latter deliver what they say they will deliver, it will enhance and protect the site even further.  Time will tell; you can watch a video of the plans here.

Lots of news stories related to biodiversity and conservation have appeared recently, including a scare-mongering piece in the Guardian that “The Earth has lost half its wildlife in the last 40 years” according to a report from WWF.    Of course that’s journalistic crap and the report does not say that at all.  I can’t sum it up any better than did our former student Ian WIlson, now Reserves Manager at Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows, who commented (on Facebook) that “There have been terrible losses but this sort of misuse of statistics is unhelpful and misleading. It particularly undermines the ecosystem services arguments which suggest that loss of wildlife will directly affect human populations. You can’t maintain that argument and claim that we’ve lost 50% of wildlife over the last 40 years without having to explain why human populations are still so high. Conservation would be better served by more good science and less journalistic sound bites.”  Well said Ian!  Fifty percent of wildlife has not be lost; the statistic is actually that “the Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent since 1970”.  Those “representative populations” are highly skewed towards large, easily counted species of vertebrates, predominantly in temperate areas, and exclude plants and invertebrates – you can download the full report here.  I’m not suggesting that these statistics are anything less than worrying, but the scale of the loss of “wildlife” (in its fullest sense) is not as great as the Guardian’s report suggests.

There’s been huge concern about the disturbing Ebola outbreak in West Africa and beyond, including a statement from IUCN on the links between emergent diseases such as Ebola and loss of biodiversity.  In short, deforestation allows humans to hunt animals in previously unexploited areas, increasing the likelihood that rare and novel diseases that use wild animals as a vector (such as Ebola) can pass to humans.  Worrying, and yet another reason why we need to slow down, and ultimately stop, such habitat destruction.

On a happier note, my colleague Duncan McCollin had a paper entitled ‘Reconstructing long-term ecological data from annual census returns: a test for observer bias in counts of bird populations on Skokholm 1928–2002‘ published in the journal Ecological Indicators.  It highlights a really nice example of an ecological monitoring scheme that, as Duncan puts it, deserves “the recognition of such long-term data for science in terms of an appropriate conservation designation”.

Finally, here’s a link to an impassioned blog post by my friend and colleague Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex.   Dave is a longstanding researcher and campaigner about the adverse effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinators and other biodiversity.  Dave’s post originated as a letter in reply to a (misinformed and biased) opinion piece in The Times, which the newspaper saw fit not to print (freedom of the press, eh?)  It’s well worth reading and sets out the scientific case for the impact of these pesticides.  And if Dave’s blog is not sufficient for you, there’s also been a recent paper from Charles Godfray’s group at Oxford called “A restatement of the natural science evidence base concerning neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators” which received comments and input from many scientists involved in pollinator research (myself included) as well as formal peer review.  Hopefully that’s enough rigour for the sceptics.