Tag Archives: Nature

New article just published: ‘Pollinators and pollination: myths, misunderstandings and much more to discover’

My first (and hopefully not my last) article for the magazine British Wildlife has just appeared in the April issue. Entitled ‘Pollinators and pollination: myths, misunderstandings and much more to discover’ you can get a preview here: https://www.britishwildlife.com/article/volume-32-number-5-page-316-323

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.

Pollinators are allies in the fight against climate change: a new commentary just published in New Scientist

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.

The webinar was recorded and you can view it here: https://www.fit-for-purpose.org/engage/how-to-level-up-harness-the-energy-transition

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!

Nature can’t solve all of our issues – sometimes we need therapy! Check out this new book: The Essential Companion to Talking Therapy

Talking Therapy Blue copy.jpg

About 20 years ago I went through a very difficult relationship break up. At the time I had a young family and found the whole thing too overwhelming to deal with. No amount of talking with friends and family helped. The current fashionable advice – “getting out into nature” – also did not help. Interacting with nature by walking, gardening or getting involved in active conservation, is a wonderful panacea for some mental health conditions. But it cannot solve all of our problems, especially those that come out of the blue. So I turned to therapy and had a series of weekly sessions with a therapist who provided a safe, neutral space for me to explore my emotions, anxieties about the future, and concerns for my own mental health. It was an amazingly useful experience.

Fast forward two decades and, lo and behold, I am married to a therapist! Not the same therapist I hasten to add, it’s purely coincidental!! Having a relationship with one of your clients would be hugely unethical on the therapist’s part, and ethical behaviour is just one of the themes that is in my wife’s new book.

So this is the reason for today’s blog post: it’s publication day for The Essential Companion to Talking Therapy by Karin Blak.

It’s the first volume of its kind that explains what you can expect to experience before, during and after therapy takes places. The book also deals with the many questions that you may have, or didn’t know to ask, about the therapeutic journey. It’s an invaluable read for anyone considering or going through therapy or counselling for issues around mental health, relationships, family problems, and so forth. It’s also got a useful section for families and friends on how to support a loved one who is in therapy.

Most importantly it provides a clear and rational argument for why therapy works, something that I only discovered for myself by going through the process. I wish I’d had this book 20 years ago.

The Essential Companion to Talking Therapy is available from all online booksellers around the globe, as a paperback or e-book. There’s also an audiobook version in the works.

OK, I’m clearly biased, but it is great book: well done darling, I’m so proud of you!

How old are the flowering plants? A new study aims to reconcile the fossil and DNA evidence – but what does it mean for pollinators?

Yesterday I was contacted by a journalist to give a comment on a paper that’s just been published in Nature Ecology and Evolution:

Silvestro, D., Bacon, C.D., Ding, W. et al. (2021) Fossil data support a pre-Cretaceous origin of flowering plants. Nature Ecology and Evolution https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-01387-8

I was happy to do so as it adds a fascinating twist to a long-standing interest of mine: when did the angiosperms evolve and what role did pollinators play in that evolution?

In the end they didn’t use the text that I sent back to them, so I thought that I’d share it on the blog:

The evolution of the angiosperms was arguably one of the most significant events in the history of life on Earth, but the timing of the origin of this group of plants remains a hotly debated topic, with conflicting evidence coming from the fossil record and molecular biology. This important new study has developed a novel statistical approach to reconcile these two lines of evidence, and comes down firmly on the side of the molecular evidence to conclude that angiosperms originated much earlier than the fossil record suggests. This will be sure to stir up further debate that can only be resolved by finding well preserved and accurately interpreted fossils of an appropriate age. In the future I would like to see Silvestro et al.’s technique applied to the major groups of pollinators such as bees and wasps (Hymenoptera) and butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) where there is likewise a discrepancy between what the fossils and DNA are telling us. Pollinators have had a profound influence on angiosperm evolution and we might expect a close correlation between the origin and subsequent diversification of these different groups of organisms. This would certainly support the findings from Silvestro et al.’s study. It’s an exciting time for researchers in this field: a world without flowers and pollinators would look very different

Flowers can be assholes – quite literally!

2003-572 s G Bochum

WARNING: There’s a high yuck factor to this post, it’s not for the squeamish or easily offended!

One of my Twitter contacts, Traci Birge in Finland, has been reading Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, and making some very nice comments about it. I had to laugh at this one in which she describes some plants as “assholes” because of the way in which they deceive pollinators into visiting their flowers but offer no reward in return:

If you follow that thread you can see that Traci was closer to the truth than perhaps she realised: there are some plants with flowers that appear to mimic the anuses of dead mammals, particularly in the families Apocynaceae and Araceae. By their smell, texture, colour and hairiness they are fooling flies into visiting the flowers, because assholes, like any mammalian orifice, provide an entry point for maggots of carrion-feeding flies. Sometimes the deception is so great that the flies lay their eggs on these blooms, though of course the maggots starve.

A great example of an anus-mimicking bloom is the Dead Horse Arum (Helicodiceros muscivorus). Check out the image above: if that doesn’t look like a horse’s ass, I don’t know what does!

Other examples might be found within the stapeliads, especially the genus Huernia which often have a thickened annulus to the centre of the flower. However that could also be interpreted as mimicking an open, inflamed wound on the side of an animal:

As I point out in the book, you might imagine that there would be strong natural selection against flies visiting these flowers if they lose fitness by laying eggs on such an unsuitable substrate. But the flowers are tapping into really deep-seated behaviours and clearly the flies can’t distinguish the flowers from the real thing.

This is flower pollination that is far removed from the deliciously perfumed, cute-and-cuddly, heart-warming world of bees and flowers. Isn’t nature wonderful?

All photos from Wikipedia, as follows:

Helicodiceros muscivorus: Göteborgs botaniska trädgård (photographer: Ingemar Johansson) – http://www.mynewsdesk.com/se/pressroom/goteborgs_botaniska_tradgard/image/view/dracunculus-muscivorus-128973, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19265330

Huernia zebrina: Enzo^ – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10963668

Huernia schneideriana: Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94705877

“Bee Together” with YDMT – pollinator online talks during January and February

As I write a slow haze of fine snow is falling, covering our garden with a thin white dusting. Spring feels a long way off, despite the emerging spears of daffodil leaves. But you can get a taste of what the new season will bring by signing up for a short series of free evening online talks on the topic of pollinators that has been organised by the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust – here’s the link for the Bee Together programme – and here’s more details of the talks:

Thursday January 28 at 7pm: Pollinators and Pollination: Nature and Society
An overview of the diversity of pollinators in Britain, why they are important, and the threats to that diversity with Jeff Ollerton.

Thursday February 18 (7pm): The B-Lines Project
Buglife’s B-Lines network is an imaginative solution to the problem of the loss of flowers and pollinators. B-Lines are a series of ‘insect pathways’ running through our countryside and towns, along which Buglife are restoring and creating a series of wildflower-rich habitat stepping stones. Catherine Jones talks about mapping the recently completed B-Lines map and some of the projects that have already created habitat for pollinators.

Thursday February 25 (7pm): The Hidden Lives of Garden Bees
Brigit Strawbridge Howard will explain some of the basic differences between bumblebees, solitary bees, and honeybees – including lifecycles and nesting behaviour; the problems they all face; and, most important, what we can do to help. Brigit is a wildlife gardener, amateur naturalist and advocate of bees. She writes and campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of native wild bees, and is the author of Dancing with Bees: A Journey Back to Nature.

I hope to see some of you there: Happy New Year everyone!

Finally, a physical copy of my book!

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…

If you’re interested in buying a copy you can order it direct from Pelagic Publishing and from most of the large online booksellers. Let me know what you think.

Magnolia, Mississippi, and American politics: a guest post

This is a short guest post by Dr Peter Bernhardt who recently retired as a professor at St Louis University and continues to be active in pollination biology.

Each of the 50 American states has its own flag. On Election Day in November 2020 the citizens of the state of Mississippi will vote on whether they want a new flag featuring the flower of their state tree, the southern magnolia or bull bay (Magnolia grandiflora). Of the eight Magnolia species native to the continental United States six have natural distributions including the state of Mississippi.

By voting in the magnolia flag Mississippians drop its 126-year old predecessor, which incorporated an emblem (the stainless banner) adopted by southern states during the American Civil War (1861-1865). This will also mean that Mississippi will be the only state with a flag depicting a flower in which tepals, stamens and carpels are all arranged in a continuous spiral and is pollinated by beetles (see Leonard Thien’s study published in 1974). 

The popularity of M. grandifora far exceeds silviculture in the American south as successful exports stretch over two centuries and its cultigens are found as far as China and Australia.

Politics in America have turned floral in the last months of 2020: kamala, as in vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris, is an Indian word for sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera). 

To which Jeff adds: the flag above is the one that Mississippi citizens will be voting on – follow the link at the start to get the full story of the competition that was run to select a new flag.

Just published: An empirical attack tolerance test alters the structure and species richness of plant–pollinator networks

The latest paper from Paolo Biella‘s PhD work, on which I collaborated and that I’ve discussed before on the blog, has just been published in the journal Functional Ecology. It’s entitled “An empirical attack tolerance test alters the structure and species richness of plant–pollinator networks“. The paper presents more of Paolo’s work showing how the experimental removal of the floral resources provided by the more generalised plants in a community can significantly (and negatively) affect the patterns of interaction between flowers and pollinators that we observe. It’s another piece of evidence that demonstrates how important it is to not neglect the common plants that attract a lot of flower visitors when considering how to manage a habitat.

If anyone has trouble accessing the PDF, drop me a line and I will send it to you.

Here’s the reference:

Biella, P., Akter, A., Ollerton, J., Nielsen, A. & Klecka, J. (2020) An empirical attack tolerance test alters the structure and species richness of plant-pollinator networks. Functional Ecology DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.13642

Here’s the abstract:

Ecological network theory hypothesizes that the structuring of species interactions can convey stability to the system. Investigating how these structures react to species loss is fundamental for understanding network disassembly or their robustness. However, this topic has mainly been studied in‐silico so far.

Here, in an experimental manipulation, we sequentially removed four generalist plants from real plant–pollinator networks. We explored the effects on, and drivers of, species and interaction disappearance, network structure and interaction rewiring. First, we compared both the local extinctions of species and interactions and the observed network indices with those expected from three co‐extinction models. Second, we investigated the trends in network indices and rewiring rate after plant removal and the pollinator tendency at establishing novel links in relation to their proportional visitation to the removed plants. Furthermore, we explored the underlying drivers of network assembly with probability matrices based on ecological traits.

Our results indicate that the cumulative local extinctions of species and interactions increased faster with generalist plant loss than what was expected by co‐extinction models, which predicted the survival or disappearance of many species incorrectly, and the observed network indices were lowly correlated to those predicted by co‐extinction models. Furthermore, the real networks reacted in complex ways to plant removal. First, network nestedness decreased and modularity increased. Second, although species abundance was a main assembly rule, opportunistic random interactions and structural unpredictability emerged as plants were removed. Both these reactions could indicate network instability and fragility. Other results showed network reorganization, as rewiring rate was high and asymmetries between network levels emerged as plants increased their centrality. Moreover, the generalist pollinators that had frequently visited both the plants targeted of removal and the non‐target plants tended to establish novel links more than who either had only visited the removal plants or avoided to do so.

With the experimental manipulation of real networks, our study shows that despite their reorganizational ability, plant–pollinator networks changed towards a more fragile state when generalist plants are lost.

The chapter titles for my book: Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society

A few people have asked me about what’s covered in my book which is being published by Pelagic and is currently in production. Here’s the chapter titles:


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      The 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                                                  

As you can see it’s a very wide-ranging overview of the subject, and written to be accessible to both specialists and non-specialists alike. To quote what I wrote in the Preface:

“While the book is aimed at a very broad audience, and is intended to be comprehensible to anyone with an interest in science and the environment, and their intersection with human societies, I hope it will also be of interest to those dealing professionally with plants and pollinators. The subject is vast, and those working on bee or hoverfly biology, for example, or plant reproductive ecology, may learn something new about topics adjacent to their specialisms. I certainly learned a lot from writing the book.”

The book is about 100,000 words in length, lots of illustrations, and there will be an index. My copy editor reckons there’s 450 references cited, though I haven’t counted. I do know that they run to 28 pages in the manuscript, and that’s with 11pt text. All going well it will be published before Christmas.