The article focuses on some of the myths and misunderstandings that I dealt with in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society. It also points out that, even in a place like Britain with a long tradition of natural history study, there’s still much for the patient observer to discover. If you’re interested in a PDF, drop me a line via the Contact page.
Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between the “Climate Emergency” (CE) and the “Ecological Emergency” (EE), and how they overlap considerably in terms of causes and solutions, but that the priorities of the CE often trump those of the EE. One of the outcomes of this has been a commentary that’s been published in New Scientist this week. It’s free to access – here’s the link:
It’s extracted from a much longer article that discusses the role of pollinators in relation to climate change. Hopefully that will be published in the not too distant future.
The other thing that’s happened this week is that, in my role as Visiting Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Northampton, I was asked to take part in a webinar that’s one of a series being produced in support of the Levelling Up Goals. The LUGs, modelled on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have cross-party support in Parliament and aim to bring economic prosperity to those parts of the country that have lagged behind in recent decades. The “Green Economy” is seen as central to this.
It was interesting and I learned quite a bit, for example about how the government is investing the state pension pot in sustainable energy projects. The format of the webinar, however, with the chair asking individuals a question and each of us responding, was a little frustrating as there was no real opportunity to counter statements being made, particularly by the MP for Hexham.
Yesterday Karin and I had out first COVID-19 vaccination; today we both feel a little under the weather, but it will pass. It’s certainly better than the alternative!
Yesterday I was delighted to finally receive an advance copy of my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society! It’s been over three years in the writing and production, much longer than I had anticipated. But, as I describe in its pages, the book is the culmination of >50 years of experience, study and research. So perhaps three years isn’t so bad…
This year’s Missouri Botanical Garden/St Louis University John Dwyer Public Lecture in Biology will be given by Alan Mosswho researches Himalayan bumblebees and their interactions with flowers. The lecture is being live-streamed on YouTube – details are in the flyer above.
In the next few months my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society will be published. As you can imagine, I’m very excited! The book is currently available to pre-order: you can find full details here at the Pelagic Publishing website. If you do pre-order it you can claim a 30% discount by using the pre-publication offer code POLLINATOR.
As with my blog, the book is aimed at a very broad audience including the interested public, gardeners, conservationists, and scientists working in the various sub-fields of pollinator and pollination research. The chapter titles are as follows:
Preface and Acknowledgements
1. The importance of pollinators and pollination
2. More than just bees: the diversity of pollinators
3. To be a flower
4. Fidelity and promiscuity in Darwin’s entangled bank
5. The evolution of pollination strategies
6. A matter of time: from daily cycles to climate change
7. Agricultural perspectives
8. Urban environments
9. The significance of gardens
10. Shifting fates of pollinators
11. New bees on the block
12. Managing, restoring and connecting habitats
13. The politics of pollination
14. Studying pollinators and pollination
UPDATE: turns out the figure I cited for number of bee species is out of date so I’ve corrected it below. Thanks to John Ascher for pointing this out.
Publication of my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society by Pelagic Publishing has been pushed back until the end of this year or early in 2021. The current pandemic has created problems for the printing and distribution sectors, as it has for so many industries. Therefore, to celebrate World Bee Day, here’s a preview of the bee section from Chapter 2 which is entitled (ironically enough) “More than just bees – the diversity of pollinators”.
2.3 Bees, wasps and sawflies (Hymenoptera)
The bees and their relatives rank only third in terms of overall pollinator diversity. Within this taxonomic Order, bees are not especially species rich (17,000 or so described species, perhaps 20,000 in total) – over 20,400 (see: https://www.catalogueoflife.org/col/details/database/id/67) compared with the other 50,000 social and solitary wasps, sawflies, and so forth. But what they lack in diversity the bees make up for in importance as pollinators of both wild and agricultural plants, and in their cultural significance. The general notion of what a bee is, and how it behaves, looks to the honeybee (Apis mellifera) as a model: social, with a hierarchy, a queen, and a large nest (termed a hive for colonies in captivity). In fact, this view of bee-ness, though long embedded within our psyche, is far removed from the biology of the average bee: most of them have no social structure at all, and a fair proportion of those are parasitic. In Britain we have about 270 species of bees, give or take (Falk 2015) though there have been extinctions and additions to this fauna (see Chapters 10 and 11). These species provide a reasonable sample of the different lifestyles adopted by bees globally. They can be divided into four broad groups.
Honeybees include several highly social species and subspecies of Apis, of which the ubiquitous western honeybee (A. mellifera) is the most familiar. Most colonies are found in managed hives, though persistent feral colonies can be found in hollow trees, wall cavities, and other suitable spaces. They are widely introduced into parts of the world where they are not native (e.g. the Americas, Australia, New Zealand) and there is some debate as to whether they are truly native to Britain and northern Europe, with supporting evidence and arguments on both sides. Colonies can be enormous and contain thousands of individuals, mostly female workers, with a single queen. Unmated queens and males (drones) are produced by the colony later in the season.
Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) are typically also social, though their nests are much smaller (tens to hundreds of individuals). Depending upon the species these nests can be in long grass, rodent holes, or cavities in buildings and trees. Twenty-seven of the more than 250 species have been recorded in the UK, but six of these are not strictly social; they are parasitic and belong to the subgenus Psithyrus which will be described below.
The so-called solitary bees are by far the largest group in Britain (about 170 species) and worldwide (more than 90% of all species). In the UK they belong to 15 genera, including Andrena, Anthophora, Osmia, Megachile, etc. The females of most of these bees, once they have mated, construct nests that they alone provision with pollen for their developing young. Nesting sites can be genus- or species-specific, and include soil, cavities in stone or wood, and snail shells. Some species are not strictly solitary at all and may produce colonies with varying levels of social structure, though without a queen or a strict caste system; we term them “primitively eusocial”. In fact sociality has evolved and been lost numerous times in the bees and in the rest of the Hymenoptera (Danforth 2002, Hughes et al. 2008, Danforth et al. 2019). It’s also been lost in some groups that have reverted back to a solitary lifestyle, and even within a single genus it can vary; for example in the carpenter bee genus Ceratina (Apidae: Xylocopinae) tropical species are more often social than temperate species (Groom & Rehan 2018).
The final group is termed the cuckoo bees and, like their avian namesake, they parasitise the nests of both social and solitary bees (though never, interestingly, honeybees). There are about 70 species in 7 genera, including the bumblebee subgenus, Psithyrus. Other genera include Melecta, Nomada and Sphecodes. In some cases the parasitic species are closely related evolutionarily to their hosts and may resemble them, for example some Psithyrus species. In other cases they may be only distantly related and in fact look more like wasps, e.g. Nomada species. Some genera of cuckoo bees are restricted to parasitising only a single genus of bees, others are parasites of a range of genera (Figure 2.4).
Although we often think of bees, overall, as being the most important pollinators, in fact species vary hugely in their importance. Pollinating ability depends upon factors such as abundance, hairiness, behaviour, body size, and visitation rate to flowers (Figure 2.1). Size is especially important for three reasons. First of all, larger animals can pick up more pollen on their bodies, all other things being equal. Secondly, in order to bridge the gap between picking up pollen and depositing it, flower visitors must be at least as large as the distance between anthers and stigma, unless they visit the stigma for other reasons. Finally, larger bee species tend to forage over longer distances on average (Greenleaf et al. 2007) thus increasing the movement of pollen between plants. However, most of the world’s bees are relatively small as we can see from the analysis of British bees in Figure 2.5. Many species have a maximum forewing length of only 4 or 5 mm, and the majority of species are smaller than honeybees. Remember also that these are maximum sizes measured from a sample; individual bees can vary a lot within populations and even (in the case of Bombus spp.) within nests (Goulson et al. 2002). So the assumption that all bees are good pollinators needs to be tempered by an acknowledgement that some are much better than others.
Figure 2.5: The sizes of British bees. Forewing length is a good measure of overall body size and the data are maximum lengths recorded for species, except for the social bumblebees and honeybee I have used maximum size of workers (queens are often much larger). The blue line indicates the honeybee (Apis mellifera). The biggest bee in this data set is the Violet Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa violacea) which, whilst not generally considered a native species (yet), has bred in Britain in the past. Data taken from Falk (2015).
Last week, during one of my lockdown garden pollinator surveys, I spotted a bee visiting Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) in the garden that I didn’t recognise. It initially confused me as it looked superficially like a Blood Bee in the genus Sphecodes. However the bee was clearly collecting pollen, which Sphecodes spp., being cleptoparasites, don’t do. A quick check in Steven Falk’s Field Guide to the Bees of GreatBritain and Ireland and a look at Steven’s Flickr site, suggested that it was almost certainly the Red-girdled Mining Bee (Andrena labiata), which is frequently associated with Germander Speedwell.
I posted this video on Twitter and Steven kindly confirmed my identification:
The Red-girdled Mining Bee is considered “Nationally Scarce” and it has a scattered and southerly distribution, as you can see from the map above, which is from the National Biodiversity Network Atlas account for the species. It’s only recorded from about half a dozen sites in Northamptonshire according to Ryan Clark, the County Bee Recorder. However Steven tells me that it’s being seen more and more frequently in gardens, and indeed just the other day Sarah Arnold, who is also carrying out surveys, emailed me to say that she had spotted it in her garden in Kent.
So this is a bee that’s definitely one to look out for, especially if you have Germander Speedwell growing.
One of the research projects and collaborations that I’m involved with is a BBSRC-funded project entitled “Modelling landscapes for resilient pollination services in the UK” with colleagues from the University of Reading, the University of Huddersfield, and the Natural Capital Solutions consultancy. As part of that project we are surveying opinions on what people in the UK value as landscapes and how these landscapes contribute to supporting biodiversity.
If you are based in the UK and are interested in taking part in this short survey, please read the following text and click on the link to take the survey:
Bees and other insect pollinators are major contributors to UK agriculture. Despite their importance for crop production, pollinator populations are threatened by many modern land management and agricultural practices. This raises questions about how secure this service may be to future changes: will we have enough pollinators where we need them? Will populations be able to withstand changes to the way we manage land? What might be the costs to us, both financially and socially, if we get it wrong?
Our research aims to address this knowledge gap. Our team of ecologist, economists and social scientists are working together to model the ecological, economic and ‘human’ costs of different land management methods.
As part of this we have designed a short online survey to capture the ways that people value and use the countryside, what features they prefer and why.
The survey takes less than 10 minutes and asks you to rate a series of images and say what you think about the landscapes that are illustrated. It can be found here:
Well, we’re back in the UK now and have just about got over the jet lag. I’ve returned to teaching, admin, and meetings, and both Karin and I are trying to find time to finish our books. But the persistent backdrop to our stay in Australia – the bushfires and the role of climate change, and the ensuing tensions between scientific evidence and politics – is still fresh in our minds. It’s timely, then, to highlight two new papers that focus on extreme events, climate change and pollinators. The first is one of my own, led by Dr Hilary Erenler who carried out her PhD research in my group. It’s an invited mini-review in the journal Current Opinion in Insect Science entitled “Impact of extreme events on pollinator assemblages” (Erenler et al. 2020). The review is available as a pre-print on the journal’s website; we’ve not yet even seen the proofs, though the final version should not be too different. If you want a copy, just ask.
In this essay we focus on what we term SHOCKS: events that provide a Sudden, High-magnitude Opportunity for a Catastrophic ‘Kick’ to the environment that can negatively affect pollinator assemblages in many different ways. Such events can be natural, human-mediated or human-enhanced, and occur suddenly, at a high-magnitude and with possibly catastrophic outcomes for those pollinators. There are many examples of such SHOCKs, as we illustrate in the figure above which comes from the paper. However one of our main conclusions is just how little we understand about the outcomes of such events on pollinators. Ideally we need before, during and after event monitoring to assess how pollinators have been affected and may respond. But SHOCKs are, by their very nature, infrequent and unpredictable, and often we don’t have the baseline data with which to compare to post-event data. I know from conversations with Australian pollination ecologists that some have had their field sites burned and they are going to use this as an opportunity to assess how the fires have impacted pollinators. Field experiments such as the one by Biella et al. (2019) that I discussed last year, in which flowers were removed from a plant community, may also give us some insights into the response of plant-pollinator networks to sudden SHOCKs. But we need more research focus on this topic, especially consideration of how the impacts of SHOCKs can be reduced and mitigated.
One set of emerging human-enhanced SHOCKs highlighted by Erenler et al. (2020) is extreme weather events that are being exacerbated (in scale or frequency) by anthropogenic climate change. We cite several papers and reviews that have considered this, but there’s still few empirical studies that have actually looked at how weather SHOCKs might be impacting pollinators. It’s therefore timely that this week’s Science includes a very impressive study of how climate change has affected populations of bumblebees (Bombus spp.) in Europe and North America (Soroye et al. 2020).
The title of the paper rather gives away its findings: “Climate change contributes to widespread declines among bumble bees across continents“. This study shows that, for the 66 species of Bombus studied, there had been a decline in species diversity in 100 km x 100 km quadrats of, on average, 46% in North America and 17% in Europe. This loss of diversity has occurred in the period 2000–2014, relative to a baseline of 1901–1974. Using some sophisticated analyses they show that climate change has been the main driver of these losses, and has been more important than factors such as changes in land use, pesticides, etc. Which is not to discount those other contributors to pollinator loss: they can interact with climate change and are all part of the assault that we are imposing on the environment.
The most significant finding of the Soroye et al. (2020) study, and the reason why I’m discussing Erenler et al. (2020) in the same post, is that it’s extreme heat which seems to be the driving factor in determining Bombus declines. Bumblebees are large, hairy insects because they are adapted to cooler conditions: they are not, by and large, tropical insects, except in mountainous areas. Not surprisingly, then, it is the number of days of temperatures higher than those historically encountered by particular bee species that is the main driver of their loss from a region. In relation to the figure above, this is the result of human-enhanced SHOCKs, and for heat-sensitive species like bumblebees, they are occurring more often than we had imagined when we wrote our review. I fear that the coming years will see more examples of this as the effects of anthropogenic climate change continue to play out and our world experiences more extremes of weather events that are hotter, wetter, colder, drier, windier, and more combustible than we have previously known.
Biella P., Akter A., Ollerton J., Tarrant S., Janeček Š., Jersáková J. & Klecka J. (2019) Experimental loss of generalist plants reveals alterations in plant-pollinator interactions and a constrained flexibility of foraging. Scientific Reports 9: 1-13
Erenler, H.E., Gillman, M.P. & Ollerton, J. (2020) Impact of extreme events on pollinator assemblages. Current Opinion in Insect Science (in press)
Soroye, P., Newbold, T. & Kerr, J. (2020) Climate change contributes to widespread declines among bumble bees across continents. Science 367: 685-688 [see also the commentary by Bridle and van Rensburg pp. 626-627 of the same issue]
On a trip to the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney yesterday Karin and I came across an interesting colonial-era statue in which a colony of feral, non-native honey bees had taken up residence. These bees are yet another alien invasive species that can create conservation problems in parts of the world where they don’t belong naturally. But it was funny enough to inspire a bit of Ogden Nash-style poetry on Twitter; you need to watch the video to fully appreciate it:
Sir John Robertson Kay-See-Emm-Gee Turned his head Into a home for bees The people came From far and near To watch the honey Dribble out of his ear pic.twitter.com/A3tz5Pz5kR