Tag Archives: Biodiversity

Third International Conference on Pollinator Biology, Health and Policy – Pennsylvania – 18-20 July, 2016

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Keeping with the theme of Bees’ Needs Week, and the importance of pollinators to natural and agricultural ecosystems*, the Third International Conference on Pollinator Biology, Health and Policy takes place at Penn State University, USA,  from the 18th to 20th July.

Here’s a link to the PDF of the programme with the abstracts, speakers’ details, etc.  I won’t be attending** but I am involved as a collaborator*** in one of the talks being presented – Luísa Carvalheiro’s project on “Direct and indirect effects of soil eutrophication on pollination services“.

Best of luck to all the speakers and attendees, looks like it’s going to be a great conference.
 

 

*Wednesday’s grumpiness has almost disappeared, though it reached a new peak yesterday when we had a paper rejected by a journal after 10 months.  There was one positive review, one middling review, and then a third in which the reviewer provided no comments – just “reject”!  I was not happy about that and made my feelings known to the editor…..

**I’m actually in the Azores next week attending the Island Biology 2016 conference.  More about that at the weekend.

***With about a gazillion other people!  Luisa has pulled together an amazing data set.

 

 

“Insect pollinated” crops that don’t actually require insect pollination

Cucumber fruit 20160713_103558

Yesterday evening I learned that a large grant application that I’d submitted earlier this year had failed to secure funding.  Statistically there was a high likelihood of this happening but that doesn’t make it feel any better: weeks and weeks of work have come to nothing.

So in a mood of bloody-minded contrariness and general displeasure at the unfairness of the world I thought I’d provide an alternative to the Bees’ Needs week I mentioned yesterday by focusing on food crops that look as though they should be insect pollinated (and their ancestors certainly were) but which don’t actually require pollinators.

The example pictured above is an F1 hybrid cucumber (Cucumis sativus) variety called “Mini Munch”, kindly grown from seed and given to me by my friend and colleague Dr Janet Jackson.  Many cucumbers don’t need insect pollination, despite their large, colourful flowers, and the fact that related crops (melons, courgettes, squashes, etc.) generally do require pollinators.  Indeed some varieties taste bitter if they are pollinated.  I can recommend this web page on how to grow cucumbers for further advice.

As I was taking that photograph, and in another demonstration of how the world is against me at the moment, I spotted a bee feeding on one of the all-female flowers of this variety.

Megachile on cucumber 20160713_103627

It spent some time there probing the centre with its tongue, so I think these flowers still produce nectar despite them not needing pollinators, a hang-over from their ancestry.  Plants have a whole range of mechanisms that ensure reproduction without the agency of insects and other animal pollinators, and this has been exploited by crop breeders who have selected crop varieties for their ability to self pollinate or to reproduce asexually via apomixis (as in the case of this cucumber).

The same bee then flew onto a tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) flower (another group which varies in its demands for pollination) and I got a better look – seems to be a Leaf-cutter Bee of the genus Megachile.

Megachile on tomato 20160713_103712

The final example of a crop which requires little or no insect pollination are the chillies (Capsicum spp.) all of which are self-pollinating, I believe.  This variety is a scrambling purple type called Orzoco*.

Orzoco chilli 20160713_102213

So, crops vary hugely in their need for pollinators and the presence of certain traits of animal pollination, such as large, brightly coloured flowers and nectar, is no guarantee that the crop really does have to be serviced by pollinators.  The only way to be certain is to experimentally test the plants, a topic I hope to come back to later in the summer.

Don’t worry, this grumpiness won’t last long, in no time at all I’ll be back to banging on about the importance of pollinators.  At least Monty, one of our two cats, still loves me.

 

*At least, that’s what it said on the seed packet; I’ve also seen it referred to as Orozco – does anyone know which name is correct?

Bees’ Needs week (9th to 17th July) #BeesNeeds

Inula at Ravensthorpe 20160710_145426.png

In the current political turmoil around the Chilcot Enquiry, Brexit, leadership challenges and a change of Prime Minister you’d be forgiven for having missed the fact that 9th to 17th July 2016 has been designated “Bees’ Knees” week, as a follow on to the Pollinator Awareness Week of 2015.

Here’s the link to the Defra press release.

Unlike last year I’ve no specific plans to do any regular posts on the topic, but I will provide links to relevant items as and when I see them, starting with these two:

Why insects are declining globally, and why it matters.

Dave Goulson is trying to crowdfund a project to look at pesticides in plants from garden centres.

 

 

 

Scientists and gardens

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This morning I tied in some tomato plants to their canes and removed a few side shoots and lower leaves,  the scent of the foliage transporting me back to my father’s allotment in Sunderland.  There, in a greenhouse constructed from old window panes, he grew luscious, sweet tomatoes, fed and watered by “filtered beer”.  It was some years before we realised that he was filtering the beer through his kidneys, which didn’t impress my mother.  Stephen King captured it beautifully when he said that we don’t buy beer, we only rent it*, and feeding tomato plants rather than flushing it down the toilet is certainly the environmentally savvy solution.  Clearly my dad was an environmentalist before his time.

These childhood allotment memories represent my first exposure to horticulture, an interest and a practise that has remained with me ever since.  I’ve always gardened and, even when I didn’t own or rent a garden, I grew house plants.  This link between scientists and their gardens is a persistent one.  For example I’ve recently finished reading The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf’s great biography of Alexander von Humboldt, and gardens feature several times as places of calm and inspiration for both Humboldt and his mentor Goethe.

There are many other historical scientists who have used and been inspired by the gardens they have cultivated.  Humboldt’s friend and colleague Aimé Bonpland maintained a garden during his time in South America. Darwin’s garden at Down House certainly inspired the great man, and he carried out numerous experiments on plants and earthworms there.  The University of Uppsala maintains the garden in which Linnaeus cultivated plants that he used in his teaching and research (I’ve visited this a couple of times, well worth the trip if you are in that part of Sweden).

More recently I can think of several prominent scientists in my own area of pollination ecology and plant reproduction who are also keen gardeners.  These include: John Richards (formerly of Newcastle University); Spencer Barrett (whose garden photo gallery shows the location where he did some of the work on the mating costs of large floral displays, subsequently published in Nature!); Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex; and Simon Potts (University of Reading) who (if my memory of a talk he gave a couple of years ago is correct) has experimental plots set up on his lawn.

There must be many others and I’d be grateful for other examples – please comment below.  All of the individuals noted above are “biologists” in the broadest sense so I’d be particularly interested for suggestions of scientists in other fields who are also gardeners, or inspired by gardens.

The garden that Karin and I are developing in Northampton (pictured above) serves many functions: as a centre of quiet relaxation, a place to write, to be inspired by the pollinators and their behaviour, to enjoy physical labour, grow food, and (occasionally) to collect data.  I cannot imagine being a scientist without a garden; as Francis Bacon said, “it is the purest of human pleasures”.  However he was writing in the 16th century before the advent of pesticides, herbicides, inorganic fertilisers, electric mowers, and other gardening modernities that, one way or another, can have a profound environmental impact.  Good gardening must be tempered with a sense of how we go about those activities in a way that minimises that impact.

 

*I first read it in King’s novel From a Buick 8, but a quick google suggests that it was originally an Archie Bunker line.

Journal of Pollination Ecology – new volume announced

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The latest volume of the international, peer-reviewed  Journal of Pollination Ecology, of which I’m an editor, has just been published.  All papers are free to download – here’s a link.

Unlike most open access journals there are no page charges for authors, so if you are a researcher involved in pollination ecology, please consider submitting a manuscript.

 

How to deal with bumblebees in your roof [UPDATED]

Bombus hypnorum

This week I’ve had two enquiries from colleagues at the University of Northampton asking advice on what to do about colonies of bumblebees that have set up home in their roofs.  In both cases these were nests of the Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum), a species that only colonised the British Isles in 2001 and has since spread rapidly (see this post from last year for a more detailed account).  Because of their association with human settlements they are significant pollinators of garden produce: over the past few weeks I’ve been watching them pollinating the raspberries in our garden and we now have a large crop.

But having a bee nest in your home is, for many people, a real concern.  I thought it might be useful to discuss the issue by quoting from the email correspondence I had with my first colleague, Paul.


Paul wrote:   I wonder if you can give me some advice. I returned home from holiday on Saturday to find that a colony of bees had taken up residence in a roof space above my front porch. The bees are not domestic honey bees but large bumblebees with white rears. I am not sure how many there are, they buzz furiously when I close the door…..  They are not in the house and I cannot see them from my loft…..so they are not causing a problem at the moment other than a moderate dead rabbit smell in the porch.

I am considering contacting the local council pest controllers, but fear they may just gas and kill them as they are not honey bees. What would your advice be, would it be safe to leave them alone, if so how long are they likely to stay, how large is the colony likely to become, are they likely to cause any damage or mess?

Here’s my response:   From your description they are almost certainly Tree Bumblebees which often use loft spaces, bird boxes, etc. As the name suggests they naturally nest in holes in trees. The colony is not likely to get much bigger though over the next few weeks you may find males patrolling the front of the nest, waiting for the virgin females to emerge so that they can mate. That sometimes makes the colony seem larger than it actually is – there are not likely to be more than about 150 bees in there.

I’ve had Tree Bumblebees in my roof a few times and they’ve never caused any damage. All bumblebee colonies die over the winter and the newly-mated females fly off and hibernate. So by late August or September (perhaps earlier if the weather ever gets warmer….) the bees should have gone. At that time you could seal the entrance to the roof space, though they are unlikely to return next year (although it’s not unknown).

Yes, a pest controller would kill the colony. But they are unlikely to be aggressive unless you stick your fingers in the nest hole! My advice is to let them be and take pride in your own bee colony – they are very discerning and don’t nest just anywhere 🙂


So there you have it: my advice is, leave them alone.  Of course if you or your family have a particular sensitivity to bee stings you may need to think carefully about this advice, but in my experience bumblebees are only aggressive if they feel directly threatened.  In over 25 years of field work focused on bees and other pollinators, I’ve only ever been stung a few times, and mainly by honey bees.

UPDATE: A commenter on Facebook had a great suggestion, that I provide a link to Dave Goulson’s nice little video showing what the inside of a bumblebee nest looks like – so here it is.

 

 

What does Brexit mean for British biodiversity?

Friday 24th June 2016.  What a surreal day.  I spent it trying to understand why a small majority of the voting public had committed us to leaving the European Union, an organisation that has had a demonstrably positive impact upon our lives, our society, our economy, and our environment.  That dream-like state was not helped by the fact that I’d stayed up most of the night with my youngest son James, watching the results roll in.

Saturday 25th June 2016.  Twenty four hours later, after a good night’s sleep, I feel less dislocated but no less confused and disappointed.  It is what it is, let’s get on with it.

It’s much too early to properly answer the question of what this all means for British biodiversity, of course.  But as I pointed out in my post about the environmental arguments for remaining in the EU, there’s a whole raft of policies, legislation, agreements and initiatives that the government and NGOs need to consider.  Just to give a couple of examples, what will happen to the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, or the Special Protected Area status of places such as the Upper Nene Valley?

What I really hope is that we can continue as before, building on the current situation rather than tearing up the whole thing.  To some extent I’m optimistic that we can for the near future, because the government will have (as it sees it) bigger things to worry about.  But I do worry that eventually we will get left behind as EU environmental legislation evolves.  That’s something we have to be mindful of in the coming years.

The ecological internet is already starting to discuss these issues; here are links to a few pieces that I’ve seen:

Adventuresinbeeland has discussed what leaving the EU means for British bees and beekeepers, pointing out that EU funding has enabled bee inspectors to carry out apiary inspections and work with beekeepers on issues such as bee pests and diseases.

The Wildlife Trusts are trying to look positively at the future, with Brian Eversham, Chief Executive for the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, summing it up very well:  “Many of those who disagreed over the Referendum agree strongly that wildlife, our countryside and the natural environment matter, now and for the future. We need their voices loud and clear in the coming months. As we are now responsible for our own, independent future, it is up to all of us to make sure that we keep the environment firmly on the national agenda.”

Mark Avery has also summed up the current situation very succinctly on his blog – one cartoon says an awful lot.

Finally, here’s Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth, writing on how can we make Brexit work for the environment?

No doubt there will be more coming soon and I’ll try to provide updates on the blog.

In terms of my day job as an academic at the University of Northampton, things will also change across the whole British Higher Education sector, of course.  On one level that’s a different set of issues to what I’ve been discussing, but there are also links: a great deal of ecological research activity is being funded by the European Union and involves cross-border collaborations.  Scientists across Europe have to continue to make that work.

Silver Medal for the BES’s pollinator’s display at RHS Chelsea Flower Show!

RHS Silver Medal

An early train to London yesterday got me to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in time for the gates opening at 8am.  I’d agreed to spend the day staffing the British Ecological Society’s Animal Attraction: The garden and beyond display, which deals with the relationships between plants and their pollinators – see my recent posts here and here.

The first thing I noticed as I approached the display was how impressive and well designed it looked, with some wonderful planting to complement the simple, bold scientific information.  The second thing I noticed was that we had won a Silver Medal!  The whole team was very pleased – it’s the third year that the BES has been represented at Chelsea, but the first time that it’s won a medal.  I’m proud to have made a small contribution to that by advising on the plants and the scientific content, but the main kudos goes to the BES’s staff and to the garden designer Emily Darby.

Over the course of a long day we talked to hundreds of visitors about the display, what it represented, and the different ways that flowers are adapted to their pollinators.  There was a huge amount of public interest and support, very gratifying to see.  Here’s some pictures from the day:

RHS display

RHS crowd

RHS crowd with fig

RHS Jeff

RHS display

 

Pollinators at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

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Pollinators, as regular readers of this blog will know, are diverse and important, both ecologically and agriculturally.  But that diversity is declining and it’s an issue that deserves greater publicity and action.

To that end, for the past eight months I’ve been advising a team from the British Ecological Society (BES) on the content for a display at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show which is running all next week.  The display is called “Animal Attraction: The Garden and Beyond” – if you follow that link you’ll get a sense of what the display is all about, but in essence there are three key messages that the BES is trying to get across:

  • Celebrating the diversity of pollinators (not just bees!) both in the UK and globally.
  • Flowers have evolved many different ways of attracting and rewarding pollinators, leading to the fantastic diversity of floral form that gardeners appreciate.
  • Planting a diversity of flowers in your garden can only be a good thing for helping conserve pollinator populations.

As you can see from my wristband, I’ll be helping to staff the stand all day Tuesday 24th May, so if you’re at the show come and say hello and take a look at what the BES team has produced.

Design and Testing of a National Pollinator and Pollination Monitoring Framework – report published today

B pasc on sunflower

This morning there were swifts flying above the garden – summer’s [almost] here!  As if on cue, the eagerly anticipated report on “Design and Testing of a National Pollinator and Pollination Monitoring Framework“, one of the key recommendations of the National Pollinator Strategy, has been published today by Defra.  Here’s a link to the report and its annexes.

I’ve not had time to read the full report, and even the Executive Summary (ES) is quite long and detailed, but the Conclusion to the ES captures the key points (emphases in bold are mine):

“…there is considerable scope to enhance monitoring of pollinators and pollination services to ensure a robust and rigorous evidence-base to support the needs of policy, however this project has demonstrated clear trade-offs between likely cost and data quality, especially in terms of the taxonomic resolution and accuracy of species identifications. Currently the volunteer sector, namely the NSS*, provides the expertise to deliver monitoring of changes in species occurrence or distributions at a national scale for many, but not all, species. Indeed the total value of voluntary work provided by BWARS and HRS….is estimated, based on current levels, to reach in excess of £5M over ten years. Repeated systematic sampling from a stratified network of sites not typically covered by the NSS has the potential to add considerable value, providing data on pollinator abundance that may link with provision of pollination services and filling gaps in the spatial extent and species coverage. Enhancements to improve the range and accuracy of monitoring pollinators and pollination services over large spatial and temporal scales will depend on adequate resources to support capacity building, coordination and implementation.”

In summary, the volunteer schemes are a hugely valuable asset that need to be enhanced by funding from the public purse in order to set up a pollinator and pollinator monitoring scheme that will be fit for purpose.  Will the current Government show the necessary vision and leadership to provide that funding?  Watch this space….

* NSS = National Recording Schemes and Societies, e.g. Bees Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS), Hoverfly Recording Scheme (HRS), etc.