One of our Christmas presents from Karin’s son (my stepson) Oli and his girlfriend Kate was an “experience” – a chance to spend half a day with an urban beekeeping collective in London called Bee Urban. The group has a partnership with Hiver Beer which uses its honey in its brewing, and we were promised a tasting session. Bees, beer, London – what’s not to like? Karin and I finally made the trip down to Kennington yesterday and it was a really enjoyable experience, highly recommended. I know a little bit about beekeeping but it was great to see a small professional apiary at work and to take part in a hive examination. It certainly deepened my appreciation of these remarkable insects. It also made me think about having a hive or two when I retire and have the time to devote to the hobby – beekeeping is not to be entered into lightly! However there’s a time and a place for honeybees: in the wrong setting they can be a conservation problem by negatively affecting plant reproduction, out-competing native bees and passing on their diseases to bumblebees.
Bee Urban, however, is also doing its bit for wild bees in London by providing opportunities, such as drilled logs, for cavity nesting species. We saw lots of evidence that leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.) and those that seal their nests with mud (various genera) were taking advantage of these nesting sites.
Interestingly, one of the other attendees said at the outset that she was very scared of bees. I asked her afterwards if seeing beekeeping up close had helped and she said it had. Perhaps this is something that you could do with any insectophobes in your life?
The beer was great, by the way, also highly recommended!
Below are some pictures from the day. Thanks to Lena and Barnaby for hosting us and making it such an enjoyable experience.
When she saw this picture, Karin likened it to cult devotees attending a ritual – “All Hail the Bee Goddess!”:
Karin and I get up close and personal with the bees:
A real highlight of the day – seeing the queen of this hive (marked in red):
Yum! – :
Drilled logs being used by leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.):
Following on from my recent post about A train ride through American climate change, my wife Karin has extended this and written a great piece called A Climate Change Tourist in America for Medium.
It’s a really beautifully observed and thoughtful piece of writing that weaves together themes that I would never have considered dealing with: aspects of life, love, tourism, poverty, suicide and desperation, all linked by climate change. It’s only a 10 minute read: do yourself a favour and take a look.
Most summers we have a small colony of cinnabar moths (Tyria jacobaeae) reproducing in the garden. The garish yellow-and-black caterpillars feed on species of ragwort and we leave a patch of common ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) to grow in the lawn. The caterpillars eat for a few weeks, virtually destroy the ragwort, and in the process accumulate alkaloids from the host plant into their bodies. This renders them toxic in much the same way as monarch butterflies accumulate toxins from their Asclepias food plants – see my recent post about the Monarchs and Milkweeds workshop. Hence the stripes to warn birds of their unpalatability.
Ragwort is a much-maligned plant, hated by those with horses and livestock, and subject to a largely hysterical campaign of eradication – see here for example. However John Clare clearly appreciated its virtues in a poem dedicated to the plant:
Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come & litter gold,
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves;
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold,
That without thee were dreary to behold.
The full text of the poem can be found here.
Once they have fed their fill, the caterpillars dig themselves into the soil to spend twelve months or so underground as pupae, before emerging as gorgeous adult moths, advertising their toxicity with a different colour scheme.
The adults live for a few weeks at most, during which time they feed on nectar, mate, lay eggs and die. This (unposed) photograph that I snapped on my phone in the garden yesterday just about sums it up: an exhausted mother has laid her last batch of eggs then died, while a nearby young caterpillar munches away on the ragwort. And so the generations pass.
Doctorate-level research qualifications (DSc, PhD, DPhil, etc.) do not have an especially long history, although as academics we take them for granted as the usual gateway
drug qualification to professional research. In the UK the first research doctorates were awarded only towards the end of the 19th century and took some time to become fully established in the university landscape. The British Library’s EThOS site provides a searchable database of doctorates awarded by UK institutions. Although it’s not complete, the 500,000 records it holds provides a fascinating resource for anyone curious about the history of doctoral education and in research trends in their own discipline.
I thought it would be interesting to look at the history of UK ecology doctorates and, using “ecology” as a search term discovered the following:
- The earliest record for an ecology doctorate (actually a DSc) was for “An ecological survey of Natal: the Pietermaritzburg district” by J.W. Bews, awarded by the University of Edinburgh in 1912.
- As far as I can tell from the names (which often give only the initials) the first woman to be awarded an ecology PhD was Mary Seaton for “A floristical and ecological survey of West Lothian” in 1927, again at the University of Edinburgh.
- As you can see from the graph above, for the first half of the 20th century the number of ecology doctorates averaged only one or two a year, and in many years none were awarded.
- From about 1950 onward there begins a steep rise in the number of awards. I was expecting that this rise would be broadly exponential, in line with the widening of access to higher education and the increasing rate of scientific discovery. However there are some interesting peaks and troughs in the observed pattern.
- The first bulge occurs in the early- to mid-1980s, with a second bulge from the mid-1990s until the early 2000s. It would be interesting to speculate on what had caused those.
- However it’s from 2010 onward that the really steep rise in ecology doctorates occurs: in the decade from 2010 to 2019 (which I have not graphed as the year has not yet ended) 3833 doctorates were awarded. That compares to 4820 for the previous c. 100 years.
- However, one must be careful about assigning any given thesis to the field of ecology as the word is increasingly used outside of the subject, e.g. in a thesis entitled “Understanding extra-judicial responses to young people’s offending : out of court disposals and ‘diversion’ in social context” (University of Bedfordshire 2019).
- Possibly balancing that latter bias is the trend of using the word “biodiversity” rather than ecology; there are at least 700 such theses. Some of these will be taxonomic rather than ecological, but by no means all.
- I wonder whether we reached a peak in ecology doctorates in 2016 (when 506 were awarded). As of June 2019 only 92 have been awarded so the downward trend seen in the last couple of years may be continuing.
There is no doubt much more that could be discovered by someone with an interest in the history of science and the time to dig further into the topic. If anyone wants a copy of the raw data, drop me an email and I will happily send it.