Author Archives: jeffollerton

Pollinators (not) on the menu at Kew

Recently Phil Stevenson and I advised on an art/science project called Minus Pollinators which considered what a small café menu might look like if there were no pollinators to help produce the many, many fruits and vegetables and nuts that are animal pollinated.

The project is a collaboration between writer and consultant Max Fraser and artist Freddie Yauner. To quote Freddie’s description on his website, the project represents:

A dystopian future in the form of a drinks kiosk where the staples such as coffee, teas, juices, chocolate etc. are no longer available due to pollinator decline…the mobile drinks kiosk acts as an exhibition display, with artworks painted in pollen…and a take-away pamphlet…detailing the importance of insect pollinators for our collective future on this planet.

Minus Pollinators was commissioned as part of a summer-long event called Food Forever at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, after which it goes to the Groundswell festival.

It was a pleasure to work with Max, Freddie and Phil on this because art/science projects are a great way of getting the message across about the importance of biodiversity and the current environmental crisis that we are facing.

How can the European Rail Network support biodiversity? A new report just published

Rail travel is my favourite form of transport and always has been. I like its slower pace and the fact that on a long journey you can sit back, read or work, and watch the landscape unfold. Not only that but it’s one of the most environmentally friendly types of mass transport. So when I was asked to be one of the lead authors on a report outlining how the European Rail Network can support biodiversity along its 230,000 km length, I was happy to be involved! And that’s one of the main projects that I’ve been working on over the past 12 months, during which I’ve researched the literature, written and revised drafts, and learned a huge amount about the ecology of the rail network!

The report, which was formally released yesterday, was commissioned by the International Union of Railways (Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer or UIC), founded in 1922 as the global industry body for rail transport. The writing and desk top research was led by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).

If you follow the link you can find out more about the European Railways: Strategies and Actions for Biodiversity report and download a PDF copy.

That’s not the end of my involvement, however: the next stage is a technical guide and I’m already starting to work on that. I will report back once it’s complete.

Tracking trends in Neotropical pollinators: how good is our understanding and is more data always better?

In my recent book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society I discussed the current state of our knowledge of how populations of pollinators have changed over time. Although we have some quite detailed data for particular, often charismatic, species or for certain geographic localities or regions, for most species we know almost nothing. As I wrote in the chapter “The shifting fates of pollinators”:

“For most pollinators we are ‘data deficient’, in other words, we don’t know how their populations are performing. They could be doing well, but they may not be”

This is particularly true for those regions for the world that hold the greatest terrestrial biodiversity: the tropics. For the vast majority of species in the tropics we know precious little about trends in their populations and how their distributions have changed over time in the face of wide-scale land transformation and recent climatic shifts. Filling in some of the gaps in our knowledge of Neotropical pollinator distributions is one of its aims of SURPASS2, a collaboration between South American and UK ecologists, and one of several research and outreach projects with which I’m involved.

In a new study that’s come out of that work, led by Rob Boyd from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, we’ve used the GBIF database to look at the changing distributions of four important groups of pollinators: bees, hoverflies, leaf-nosed bats and hummingbirds. In particular we were interested in understanding the kinds of biases that come with such publicly available data, and whether recent efforts to add data to GBIF has improved our understanding of trends.

Our overall conclusion is that there are significant limitations and biases inherent in all of these data sets even for groups like hummingbirds which one would imagine are well documented by scientists and bird-watching naturalists. In addition, having more data does not necessarily help matters: it can introduce its own biases.

The paper is open access and feely available; here’s the reference with a link:

Boyd, R. J., Aizen, M.A., Barahona-Segovia, R.M., Flores-Prado, L., Fontúrbel, F.E., Francoy, T.M., Lopez-Aliste, M., Martinez, L., Morales, C.L., Ollerton, J., Pescott, O.L., Powney, G.D., Saraiva, A.M., Schmucki, R., Zattara, E.E., & Carvell, C. (2022) Inferring trends in pollinator distributions across the Neotropics from publicly available data remains challenging despite mobilization efforts. Diversity and Distributions (in press)

Here’s the abstract:

Aim
Aggregated species occurrence data are increasingly accessible through public databases for the analysis of temporal trends in the geographic distributions of species. However, biases in these data present challenges for statistical inference. We assessed potential biases in data available through GBIF on the occurrences of four flower-visiting taxa: bees (Anthophila), hoverflies (Syrphidae), leaf-nosed bats (Phyllostomidae) and hummingbirds (Trochilidae). We also assessed whether and to what extent data mobilization efforts improved our ability to estimate trends in species’ distributions.

Location
The Neotropics.

Methods
We used five data-driven heuristics to screen the data for potential geographic, temporal and taxonomic biases. We began with a continental-scale assessment of the data for all four taxa. We then identified two recent data mobilization efforts (2021) that drastically increased the quantity of records of bees collected in Chile available through GBIF. We compared the dataset before and after the addition of these new records in terms of their biases and estimated trends in species’ distributions.

Results
We found evidence of potential sampling biases for all taxa. The addition of newly-mobilized records of bees in Chile decreased some biases but introduced others. Despite increasing the quantity of data for bees in Chile sixfold, estimates of trends in species’ distributions derived using the postmobilization dataset were broadly similar to what would have been estimated before their introduction, albeit more precise.

Main conclusions
Our results highlight the challenges associated with drawing robust inferences about trends in species’ distributions using publicly available data. Mobilizing historic records will not always enable trend estimation because more data do not necessarily equal less bias. Analysts should carefully assess their data before conducting analyses: this might enable the estimation of more robust trends and help to identify strategies for effective data mobilization. Our study also reinforces the need for targeted monitoring of pollinators worldwide.

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SURPASS2 has been a hugely productive project as you’ll see if you look at the Publications page of the website. There’s much more to come and I’ll report on those research papers as they appear.

Common Elder: a natural and cultural history – new article just published

Common Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a plant that has fascinated me since my childhood, when I spent many happy hours scrambling around in its branches and pelting friends with the small fruits that stained our clothes and skin. I was therefore delighted to be able to finally write about my fascination in an article in the May issue of British Wildlife magazine. Although many dismiss it as a rather weedy, commonplace plant, I hope that readers are pleasantly surprised by just how interesting Common Elder is, in terms of its utilitarian value, the mythology and superstitions associated with it, and of course the wildlife that it supports.

I’m developing a talk based on this article, which I’m happy to present online for any natural history or botanical groups. If it’s of interest, drop me a line via my Contact page.

Watch my recent interview on Earth To Be

Recently I enjoyed chatting with Dr Daniela Scaccabarozzi for the YouTube channel that she runs called Earth To Be. In a wide ranging interview we discussed my recent book, how it came about, some of the things that intrigued me during its research (including a cockroach-pollinated flower!), and the role of people and pollinators in the wider ecosystem. Thanks to Daniela for the invitation to chat! Here’s the link to the interview.

Do bumblebees make honey? Yes and no…and…maybe [UPDATED]

As kids, my friends and I did a lot of digging. We always seemed to be burrowing into slopes or excavating trenches, pretending to be archaeologists or treasure hunters. Indeed, there was a lot of ground treasure to be found in the part of Sunderland where I grew up. The area has a long history of pottery and glass making, and ship building, and the remnants of these industries could be uncovered every time we stuck a spade in the earth. Over time I developed my own small museum of interesting, unearthed fragments, including bits of hand-painted ceramics, glass bottles, and unidentifiable metal shards, alongside various animal bones I’d excavated. My parents quietly indulged this interest, and my muck-streaked face and clothes, even if they didn’t quite understand what I was doing.

Aged about 10, my first encounter with a bumblebee nest was during one such dig. On the waste ground behind a large advertising hoarding, we began digging into a low, grass-covered mound and accidentally excavated what was probably a small nest of Buff-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). I can recall being fascinated by the waxy, odd shaped cells and by the sticky fluid that some of them were leaking. Being an adventurous sort of child I tasted the liquid: it was sweet and sticky, and that was my first encounter with bumblebee “honey”.

I’m going to leave those quotation marks in place because if you do an online search for “do bumblebees make honey?” you generally find that the answer is “no, only honey bees make honey”.

Now, defining honey as something made by honey bee strikes me as a circular argument at best. And it also neglects the “honey” made by meliponine bees that is central to the culture of stingless bee keeping by indigenous groups in Central and South America, and the long tradition pre-colonial tradition of honey hunting by Aboriginal Australians. So if we widen our definition of “honey” as being the nectar*-derived fluid stored in the nests of social bees, then Apis honey bees, stingless bees and bumblebees must all, by logic, make honey. And likewise there’s wasps in the genus Brachygastra from Central and South America that are referred to as “honey wasps” because, well, I’m sure you can work it out!

But this is where things become a little trickier, because turning nectar* into honey involves some complex evaporation and enzymatic activity, so that the resulting fluid is more concentrated and dominated by the sugars glucose and fructose. Although analysis of honey bee honey is commonplace, and there’s been some research conducted on the honey of stingless bees, I don’t know of any studies that have compared Bombus honey with that of other bees, or with what is stored in the nests of honey wasps**. If I’ve missed anything, please do comment and let me know, but this strikes me as an area of research demanding some attention.

So do bumblebees make honey? That very much depends on our definitions, but I’m happy to accept that they do because “honey” is not a single thing: it’s an insect-derived substance that can take a range of forms but serves the same broad purpose of feeding the colony. And although insects have probably been producing it for millions of years, I think I’ve known the answer to the question for almost 50 of them…

UPDATE: A couple of people have commented on social media that there are legal definitions of “honey” as a foodstuff. Here’s the definition according to UK law***:

“the natural sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen and mature”

So, legally, we can’t call anything that isn’t made by Apis mellifera “honey”, at least from a foodstuffs regulation perspective. But that’s clearly different to what we have been discussing above, which is about a biological definition of honey.

It’s also interesting to look at the compositional requirements of honey as a foodstuff (presented in Schedule one of that document, if you follow the link above). The lower limit for moisture content is 20%. Now if you consider that most nectar in flowers has a sugar content of between about 20% and 50%, clearly there’s been a lot of evaporative work done by the bees to reduce the amount of water in the honey. I would love to know how bumblebee (and other insect) “honey” compares to this: do they put the same kind of effort into evaporating the water from the stored nectar? Given that the purpose of reducing the water content is to prevent fermentation by yeasts when it’s stored for a long time, and that there are bumblebee species which have colonies that are active for more than one year, I imagine that at least some species in some parts of their range may employ similar tactics.

Thanks to everyone who has been commenting and discussing the topic. It never ceases to amaze me how much we still do not understand about some fundamental aspects of the natural history of familiar species!

*And honeydew to a greater or lesser extent.

**I’m going to ignore honey pot ants for now as this is complex enough as it is and they don’t store the “honey” in nest cells.

***From what I can gather definitions in other countries are similar.

Nature’s graffiti: lichens pattern clay tiles

Following on from my recent blog post about biological crusts, I was intrigued by the patterns formed by these lichens on the clay tiles capping the brick gate columns of our local cemetery. It looks as though they have been created by successive waves of growth, but I may be wrong about that. Any lichen experts out there who can tell me what’s going on?

I think the species is Xanthoria parietina, but again I’m happy to be corrected. Below is a cropped close-up from a slightly different angle.

What are the best books about bees and other pollinators?

Clearly that’s a very subjective question and everyone has their own view on which books about a particular subject they would recommend! So coming up with a list of just five for the Shepherd book recommendation site was not easy. My list features authors such as Brenda Z. Guiberson, Megan Lloyd, Steven Falk, Dave Goulson, Mike Shanahan and Stephen L. Buchmann, which will hopefully inspire you to read some of these books.

Here’s the link: https://shepherd.com/best-books/bees-and-other-pollinators

If you think that I’ve missed your favourite from the list, please do comment below. And if you’re an author, consider signing up for Shepherd and curating your own list, they’ve been really helpful and it’s a useful service for readers and authors.

A new study shows that even short-tubed flowers can specialise on hawkmoths as pollinators

Of all of the “classical” pollination syndromes, flowers that are hawkmoth pollinated have one of the highest levels of predictability. If a flower is pale in colour, opens at night, is highly scented, and possesses a long tube at the bottom of which is a supply of nectar, there’s a very high likelihood that it’s pollinated by long-tongued hawkmoths (Sphingidae).

Indeed, one of the foundational stories about the development of our understanding of how pollination systems evolve, relates to Charles Darwin, the long-tubed orchid Angraecum sesquipedale and the hawkmoth Xanthopan morganii praedicta.

Fast forward 160 years and we now know that pollination syndromes are more complex than 19th and early 20th century scientists imagined – see my recent book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society for a discussion of this topic. That’s not surprising because, as I point out, we probably have data on the interactions between plants and their pollinators for only about 10% of the estimated 352,000 species of flowering plants. There’s still much to be discovered!

As an example of how our understanding of specialised flower-hawkmoth interactions is developing, consider this recent study that I’ve just published with my Brazilian colleague Felipe Amorim and other collaborators. In it we have shown that, contrary to expectations, a species of Apocynaceae (Schubertia grandiflora) with a relatively short floral tube can specialise on hawkmoths with much longer tongues than we might predict.

The full reference with a link to the study is shown below, followed by the abstract. If you would like a PDF, please drop me a line via my Contact page:

Amorim, F.W., Marin, S., Sanz-Viega, P.A., Ollerton, J. & Oliveira, P.E. (2022) Short flowers for long tongues: functional specialization in a nocturnal pollination network of an asclepiad in long-tongued hawkmoths. Biotropica https://doi.org/10.1111/btp.13090

Abstract:

Since Darwin, very long and narrow floral tubes have been known to represent the main floral morphological feature for specialized long-tongued hawkmoth pollination. However, specialization may be driven by other contrivances instead of floral tube morphology. Asclepiads are plants with a complex floral morphology where primary hawkmoth pollination had never been described. We detailed here the intricate pollination mechanism of the South American asclepiad Schubertia grandiflora, where functional specialization on long-tongued hawkmoth pollinators occurs despite the short floral tube of this species. We studied two plant populations in the Brazilian Cerrado and recorded floral visitors using different approaches, such as light-trapped hawkmoths for pollen analysis, direct field observations, and IR motion-activated cameras. Finally, using a community-level approach we applied an ecological network analysis to identify the realized pollinator niche of S. grandiflora among the available niches in the pollinator community. Throughout a period of 17 years, long-tongued hawkmoths were consistently recorded as the main floral visitors and the only effective pollinators of S. grandiflora. Flowers rely on highly modified corona and gynostegium, and enlarged nectar chambers, to drive visitors and pollination mechanism. Despite its relative short-tube, network analysis placed S. grandiflora in the module including exclusively long-tongued hawkmoth pollinators and the most phenotypically specialized sphingophilous plants in the community. These results represent the first example of functional specialization in long-tongued hawkmoths in an asclepiad species. However, this specialization is uncoupled from the long floral tubes historically associated with the sphingophily syndrome.

The value of butterfly specimens for understanding species extinctions – a new study just published.

The Chequered Skipper Reintroduction Project has featured in several posts over the last few years – see here and here – and University of Northampton PhD researcher Jamie Wildman has been working hard to complete his thesis under the less-than-ideal conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The first paper from the project has just been published and it deals with Jamie’s monumental efforts to bring together all of the scattered data relating to preserved Chequered Skipper specimens held in museums and private collections. An existing database contained just 266 records; Jamie’s efforts increased that by an order of magnitude, adding a further 3,533 new records that document where and when specimens were collected, and by whom.

This 1,328 % increase in data means that we now know much more about the historical distribution of this butterfly and how that changed over time.

The Chequered Skipper went extinct in England in 1976 and this enhanced database will allow us to understand why that extinction occurred. This initial paper documents the strategy used to find the additional records as a road map for how others might proceed in the future. The full reference with a link to the paper is here:

Wildman, J.P., Ollerton, J., Bourn, N.A.D., Brereton, T.M., Moore, J.L. & McCollin, D. (2022) The value of museum and other uncollated data in reconstructing the decline of the chequered skipper butterfly Carterocephalus palaemon (Pallas, 1771). Journal of Natural Science Collections 10: 31-44

This is the abstract:

The chequered skipper butterfly Carterocephalus palaemon (Pallas, 1771) was declared extinct in England in 1976 after suffering a precipitous decline in range and abundance during the 20th Century. By searching and collating museum and other records, we show how a deeper understanding of this decline can be achieved, thus furthering conservation objectives. A preexisting Butterflies for the New Millennium (BNM) database of United Kingdom butterfly species records, created by Butterfly Conservation in conjunction with the Biological Records Centre (BRC), contained 266 historic C. palaemon records from England. United Kingdom (UK) museums and natural history societies were contacted for specimen data, and these sources added 2175 new records to the BNM. Owners of private specimen collections were also contacted, and these collections accounted for a further 465 records. Specimens originating from UK museums, other institutions, and private collections represent 2640 (71%) of total new records. Other sources, such as personal accounts held in museums, published and unpublished texts produced an additional 894 records. A further 437 records from museums, private collections, and other sources were considered partial and omitted from the data due to limited or misleading date and/or locality information. In summary, data from UK museums and other sources has infilled English C. palaemon distribution prior to 1976, offering further insight into potential environmental and anthropogenic drivers of decline at key sites. The quality and quantity of data obtained using the method outlined in this study suggests similar work could be carried out for other extinct or declining butterfly species to improve our knowledge of habitat requirements and historical distribution via modelling, identify causes of decline, and provide valuable information for potential reintroductions.