Join me on Thursday for a free talk!

Join me this Thursday at a free online talk organised by Buglife where I’ll be giving an introduction to how flowers function and the ways in which their behaviour manipulates pollinators to ensure reproduction. I’ll be covering:

  • What are flowers and where did they come from?
  • How flowers function and reward pollinators.
  • Some case studies from my own research on flower and pollinator behaviour.
  • Why is it important that we understand floral biology?

Here’s the link to register for the event: https://www.buglife.org.uk/events/to-be-a-flower-with-professor-jeff-ollerton/

I look forward to seeing you there!

The value of nature, the value of guitars

How we, as a society, value nature, and the tension between valuing (or appreciating) nature versus appreciating (or pouring money into) human cultural activities, have been consistent themes of this blog since I started it almost a decade ago; see for example my posts “How do we value nature? Costanza, Monbiot and the clash of concepts” and “Is the angry response of (some) environmentalists in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire reasonable?

Putting a monetary price on nature runs counter to the personal philosophies of many conservationists, which I completely understand: I have mixed feelings too. However there’s a whole field of research devoted to it called Ecological Economics and the valuation of natural capital and ecosystem services now plays a central role in the policies and strategies of both businesses and governments: see for instance the UK Government’s recent report on “The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review“. And whether we like it or not, the Earth’s ecosystems and the biodiversity that they contain support our global economy in very tangible ways, a point that I emphasise in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society. If you’re reading this with a cup of coffee in your hand, you have to consider the ecological and financial impact of the billions of wild and managed bees that support the global coffee industry.

“What’s all of this got to do with guitars?” I hear you asking. Well, music, and especially guitars, are another constant theme of the blog, including my love of the songs of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and my restoration of an old acoustic guitar back in 2020.

These themes converged together in a rather unexpected way just over a week ago. It was my birthday and as a present Karin had offered to buy me a new guitar. So off we went to Copenhagen for the day. One of the city’s best guitar shops is Akustikken and there I tried out several makes and models of acoustic guitar, of varying price and quality, before finally settling on an Epiphone Texan in an aged sunburst finish (see the image below). It plays very nicely, felt right in my hands, and was moderately priced despite its solid wood construction (cheap guitars often use laminated wood).

The guitar that really caught my eye, however, was the one in the photograph above: a Martin 045-S Stephen Stills Signature Model. Now, this is a serious, serious guitar. Based on a 1930s model owned by Stills himself, it was hand made in the USA in a limited edition of 91, of which this was number 48. The woods from which it’s made are rare and exceptional, including Adirondack spruce, Madagascar rosewood, and ebony, all species about which there are significant conservation concerns (see Richard Hobbs’s great blog The Nature of Music for more on this – highly recommended for anyone interested in the interface between human culture and ecological conservation).

The price tag for this guitar? A mere160,000 Danish kroner, about £18,000 or $20,000…..

That was WAY outside of our budget! But when the staff learned that it was my birthday they kindly took the Martin out of its humidity-controlled glass case and let me play it. I was a bit overwhelmed and very nervous if I’m honest, it was easily the most expensive guitar I have ever had in my hands! Karin took a short video of me strumming a few chords which I uploaded to Twitter:

Now, I’d played guitars up to around $2,000 in price that day, so a reasonable question is: did the $20,000 guitar sound ten times as good? Well, not in my hands it didn’t…. But in one sense it doesn’t matter, you’re not just paying for what it sounds like, you’re paying for the story, for the association with Stills, and the highly skilled crafting of the guitar – it is an exceptionally beautiful and fine-sounding instrument.

This brings us back to nature. We know from a lot of ecological experiments that have been conducted over the years that there’s a positive relationship between biodiversity (measured by the number of species in an ecosystem) and the way in which that ecosystem functions. So if you have more different kinds of plants in a grassland, for example, there tends to be greater carbon capture, more efficient use of water and uptake of nitrates from the soil, more resilience to events like drought and fire, and so forth. This is a strong and pervasive argument for conserving species within ecosystems: the more we have, the better the “health” of that ecosystem.

But, as with the sound of guitars, there’s probably an upper limit to this and ecosystems with ten times as many species probably do not function ten times as well. But they do function better. Having said that, this is a complex area of research with some competing ideas (and scientists) – this Wiki provides quite a good summary.

Regardless of the technical details, there’s no doubt that having more pollinators in an ecosystem, for example, increases the reproduction of a wider range of the plants that are present. Or that the presence of a greater diversity of dung beetles improves the rate of dung removal in grasslands.

But of course nature is more complicated than this. Just as a well made and high-value guitar is never going to sound good in the hands of a poor guitarist, likewise, species diversity in itself is insufficient. It is the interactions between those species that determines much of the way in which the ecosystem functions, and an ecosystem is never going to function well over the long term if it is inappropriately managed or if the processes that shape ecosystems, such as grazing by wild herbivores or natural fire regimes, are absent or have been altered.

Ecology is a hugely complex science but perhaps by exploring metaphors like this, some of that complexity can be made accessible to a wider range of people. Tell me what you think, does the metaphor work for you?

Listen to an interview with me on the Environmental Professional’s Radio podcast!

text and logo over a background picture of a person posing for the camera

I was recently invited to chat about careers and writing and pollinators and pollination with the folks from National Association of Environmental Professionals for their Environmental Professional’s Radio podcast. You can listen to it here:

https://www.environmentalprofessionalsradio.com/

We covered a lot of ground and it was great fun – thanks for having me!

Leonard B. Thien (1938-2021) – botanist and pollination biologist

I was saddened to learn recently of the death of Professor Leonard B. Thien of Tulane University who passed away at the end of October after a long illness. Although I didn’t know Professor Thien personally, I knew of his work in floral ecology, pollination biology and plant evolution, topics on which he had worked for since obtaining his PhD in 1968. Over the course of his career he published more than 80 articles on a huge range of botanical subjects, including ground-breaking work on mosquito pollination of orchids (Thien 1969). The orchid species Alaticaulia thienii is named in his honour.

The studies Leonard Thien published that really inspired me when I was first starting out on my journey as a researcher, however, involved his work on “relictual” angiosperms, i.e. flowering plants that have very long evolutionary histories and deep phylogenetic roots back to the early Cretaceous period, for example Magnolia and Illicium. Papers with titles such as “Patterns of pollination in the primitive angiosperms” (Thien 1980) piqued my interest and motivated me to work on Australian Piperaceae for a short while following my PhD (Ollerton 1996). It was a topic that I struggled to gain further funding for, and later molecular systematic studies changed many of our ideas about what constitutes the most basal groups of extant flowering plants. But nonetheless, the questions that Leonard inspired in me, regarding the ecologies of these relictual taxa, and whether we can infer the reproductive ecology of the earliest flowering plants from studies of their surviving descendants, are ones that intrigue me to this day (van der Kooi and Ollerton 2020).

Leonard Thien kept up this interest even as new DNA technologies over turned old ideas, and he was the first to study the reproductive ecology of Amborella trichopoda on New Caledonia, a species now considered to be the earliest surviving clade of flowering plants (Thien et al. 2003). This is just one part of a legacy of work that current and future generations will build upon as we develop our understanding of the relationships between pollinators, plants, and evolutionary processes.

I’m grateful to Peter Bernhardt for prompting this post and for sending me a copy of the In Memoriam article that he and and David White will publish in the Plant Sciences Newsletter in March, and to Lorraine Thien for providing the photograph that accompanies this post.

References

Ollerton, J. (1996) Interactions between gall midges (Diptera: Cecidomyiidae) and inflorescences of Piper novae-hollandiae (Piperaceae) in Australia. The Entomologist 115: 181-184

Thien, L.B. 1969. Mosquito pollination of Habenaria obtusata (Orchidaceae). American Journal of Botany 56: 232-237.

Thien, L.B. 1980. Patterns of pollination in the primitive angiosperms. Biotropica 12: 1-14

Thien, L.B., Sage, T.L., Jaffre, T., Bernhardt, P., Pontieri, V., Wesston, P.H., Malloch, D., Azuma, H., Graham, S.W., McPherson, M.A., Hardeep, S.., Sage, R.S. & Dupre, J.-L. 2003. The population structure and floral biology of Amborella trichopoda (Amborellaceae). Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 90: 466-490

van der Kooi, C.J. & Ollerton, J. (2020) The origins of flowering plants and pollinators. Science 368: 1306-1308

Growing a butterfly garden? Olivia shows the way!

Yesterday a teacher got in touch with me via my Contact form to tell me about work he was doing with his students about pollinators. The students had done some online research and one of them, Olivia, came across a really interesting article about how to grow a butterfly garden. She has asked me to share it with my blog readers so here it is:

https://billyoh.com/resource/grow-butterfly-garden/

It’s great to see school kids getting inspired and engaged with conserving pollinators such as butterflies. Thank you for pointing this out to me Olivia, and good luck with your studies!

Earning a living as an independent academic and author: here’s what I’ve learned in my first year

It’s just over one year since I stepped down from my full time professorship at the University of Northampton in order to work independently as a consulting scientist and author. It was a move precipitated by a number of factors, not least that after 25 years at that institution I needed some new challenges. I was starting to feel stale, jaded, and not a little burned out.

Since making the decision to leave the university (where I still hold a Visiting Professorship) Karin and I have down-sized our lives by selling our house, disposing of possessions that we didn’t need (though there’s still a lot in storage in the UK) and moving to Denmark, where we are renting a small apartment for the time being. Karin is Danish and, yes, both Brexit and the pandemic have played a role in our decision making.

A few people have asked me recently how I’m managing to earn a living as an independent academic so I thought I’d share with you my experiences so far. I’ve looked at my various sources of income over the past year and put them into four broad categories: Conservation, Research, Education and Writing. Then I worked out the proportion of my income that can be attributed to each area, keeping in mind that there’s overlap between them. This is the result:

Conservation-related activities accounted for the largest fraction, about 46% of my income. This includes direct advisory and consulting, on pollinator-related projects but also on wider, biodiversity-related topics. For example I worked with the Stanwick Lakes nature reserve in Northamptonshire, advising on how best to enhance and manage the site for pollinators.

It’s a site that I know very well but which was set up mainly because it’s important bird habitat. Seeing it from a pollinator’s perspective allowed me to make suggestions for improving the amount and timing of floral resources, opportunities for ground nesting bees, and so forth.

I’ve also been working with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (Wallingford) on a biodiversity strategy for the European railway network which I’ll write more about later this year when the final report is published.

Also included in the Conservation category are the many, many talks (mainly online) that I’ve done for various natural history, gardening and beekeeping groups, plus training sessions that I’ve done with ecological consultancies, estates departments, and local government. There’s a list of those available on my training and public speaking page.

Research projects funded by UK and international agencies accounted for about 32% of my income. Some of these are projects that started when I was still employed at the University of Northampton and which are paying for my time (including completing the supervision of my remaining PhD students), others are new ones. You can find a list of present and past projects on this page of my website.

I am a partner on several funding applications that are in the process of being assessed and I’ll report back when we know if they have been successful.

As well as my own research I’m also reviewing grant applications for funding organisations, advising research groups and departments on their research strategies, and working with the Turkish Journal of Botany to promote the work it publishes to a wider international audience.

Education is the third, very broad category that includes things such as external examining (both taught and research degrees), assessing staff applications for promotion, and doing the occasional online lecture. It accounted for 11% of my income, less than I might have expected given that I’ve spent over 30 years teaching in higher education, educational consulting is quite a crowded field and unless you’re a high-profile specialist, it doesn’t pay well.

Writing accounted for about 11% of my income. As well as royalties from my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, I earned money from writing for magazines such as BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, New Scientist, British Wildlife, and Bees & Other Pollinators Quarterly.

In addition I’ve done some advisory work for publishers, including reviewing text and making suggestions for a forthcoming children’s book about bees and other pollinators, and some paid manuscript editing.

At the moment the balance of my work feels about right; I’ll never stop being a scientist so working on research projects is, and always will be, an important part of my life. I wish that it was possible to earn more from writing, but outside of the best-seller lists it’s difficult for authors to earn a decent living. However I’m working on my next book at the moment, as is Karin whose Essential Companion to Talking Therapy has been well received.

Working independently in this way, and putting together what amounts to a “portfolio career”, is not for everyone. It’s hard work and there are lots of uncertainties along the way, especially with regard to month-to-month consistency of one’s income. However a career as a university academic has prepared me for this in ways which I’m only just beginning to discover. Aside from the obvious subject expertise, familiarity with literature searching, and confidence when giving talks, the uncertainties associated with the high proportion of unsuccessful funding applications and navigating the (often contradictory) requirements of peer reviews has been extremely valuable experience. And of course I’ve established a large and diverse network of colleagues with whom I can collaborate and go to for advice. The diversity of paid work with which I’m engaged, plus the pro bono activities such as peer reviewing for journals, ensures that there’s never a dull day. I have absolutely no regrets about this latest step in my career!

If you’re interested in working with me or want to discuss any aspect of what I’ve written about, please do get in touch via my Contact page.

Why are there camels carved on this late medieval tomb?

In past posts I’ve written about my fascination with grave markers and the depictions of animals and plants that are sometimes featured, or their dual use as both tombstone and bird bath. It’s part of my broader interest in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature, and specifically biodiversity and culture. I’m intrigued by what taxa we choose to use as decoration and symbolism, and conversely those species that are rarely or never a part of the human cultural expression of life on Earth. Graveyards and churches are prime hunting grounds for this sort of enquiry, and I find it difficult to walk past an old cemetery without at least a quick visit.

During our recent Christmas family gathering in Glastonbury Karin and I briefly dropped into St John’s Church and I spotted an intriguing late medieval tomb decorated with what are clearly Bactrian camels.

I have not previously seen camels depicted on a tomb – even the grave of the famed desert explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton can only manage a Bedouin tent. Also, the date of the tomb – 1487 – seemed very early for such an exotic depiction. So I did a little sleuthing on the topic of camels in medieval Britain and came across Dr Caitlin Green’s blog post asking “Were there camels in medieval Britain?“. The answer is yes, and as Dr Green’s research has shown, they were often depicted in illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, stained glass and other media, at dates even earlier than the late 15th century.

But why are there camels on this particular tomb? The memorial belongs to John Camel and I suspect that the carvings are simply a play on his name – a sculptural pun. John is described as a lay treasurer for Glastonbury Abbey and may also have been involved in legal work, all of which sounds very dry and prosaic. But if it was John himself who commissioned this tomb, or his family that wanted a memorial which reflected his personality, it suggests to me that he certainly had a sense of humour.

“Camel” is a common place-name element in the south west of England: there’s both a river and a hill with that name, and of course King Arthur’s Camelot is reputed to be located here. The etymology of camel in this geographical sense is varied and sometimes obscure, but one thing is certain: it’s nothing to do with the even-toed ungulate mammals of the genus Camelus.

As I was writing this post it occurred to me that Burton’s Sufi-inspired poem The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî includes some fitting lines on which to end:

“All other Life is living Death, a world where none but Phantoms dwell,
A breath, a wind, a sound, a voice, a tinkling of the camel-bell”

Anchorage: trees rooted in rock

Towards the end of our stay in Glastonbury, Karin and I took an omega-shaped circular walk that looped over the famous Tor, through the town, and back to our cottage. At one point the road we walked passed through a cutting in the Jurassic sandstone called Wick Hollow. Several very large oak and beech trees had anchored themselves into this stone, their roots finding cracks in the rock and no doubt widening them over time as they grew. The trees were spectacular and I took a few shots with my phone, though these really don’t do them justice.

The shade and structure created by the trees allowed a diversity of ferns, mosses, lichens and seed plants to grow. I’m always amazed by the power and adaptability of plants, even large trees, to find a foothold in the unlikeliest of places and by doing so, create microclimates that allow other species to flourish. Life supports life.

A healthy Christmas and a biodiverse New Year to all of my blog readers!

On Sunday, following almost a week of form-filling, covid-testing and passport-stamping, Karin and I flew back to the UK to see friends and spend time with our kids. We’ve rented a large cottage in Glastonbury for the duration and the above image is taken from the back garden.

I hope that all of my blog readers have a healthy and happy Christmas, and that the New Year is both more prosperous and more biodiverse for you.

After being in rural Denmark for five months, Britain feels very congested and busy. All going to plan, we’ll be back walking the beaches of Odsherred and enjoying the scenery. See you in 2022!

Harnessing nature’s regenerative powers: more evidence that tree planting is not (always) the best solution

An interesting study published this week in the journal Science has provided more evidence that natural regrowth of forests is faster and more efficient than tree planting for restoring habitats. Here’s the Guardian‘s take on it:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/dec/09/tropical-forests-can-regenerate-in-just-20-years-without-human-interference

Here’s a link to the original study in the journal:

https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abh3629#

And here’s a link to something that I wrote on this topic last year, arguing that pollinators and seed dispersers play a vital role in this process:

Tree planting has its place, of course, especially as a way to get local communities engaged in positive action for the environment. But it’s not the solution for large-scale habitat restoration: in order to do that we need to harness nature’s own regenerative abilities.