Urban pollinators for urban agriculture (and horticulture!)

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about urban pollinators, that is to say bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and other animals, living and foraging in towns and cities.  As I recounted in my recent post about the National Pollinator Strategy seminar at Westminster, Jane Memmott presented some of the first data from the Urban Pollinators Initiative which is looking very interesting.  At the same time, Muzafar Hussain has submitted the first manuscript from his PhD study of urban solitary bees in Northampton, and will hopefully be defending his thesis early next year.  More recently I was asked to examine the PhD thesis of  Rob Fowler at the University of Birmingham, whose focus has been on pollinators across an urban-rural gradient.  Rob did very well and I look forward to seeing his work published.

Interesting though all this work is, it’s largely being done outside the context of crop pollination per se, focusing mainly on the identity and abundance of these urban pollinators.  It’s timely, therefore that a study has just been published by Thebo et al. in the journal Environmental Research Letters entitled  “Global assessment of urban and peri-urban agriculture: irrigated and rainfed croplands” which gives the first comprehensive figures on the extent of agriculture in and around the world’s large towns and cities.  The paper is open-access so you can read its findings for yourself, but the main message is that urban agriculture is more extensive and important than previously assumed, and there are significant implications for food security and water resources.

The research has (justifiably) received quite a lot of publicity in the media, for example on the BBC News website, and is a great contribution to a still limited field of study.  One aspect jumped out at me though; when discussing the limitations of their methods the authors state that: “the scale and methods used……are not structured to capture very small, spatially dispersed areas of urban croplands”.  In other words, urban gardens and allotments are not included in this assessment.  In the UK at least this is a significant limitation as we know that urban fruit and vegetable growing is widespread, though as far as I’m aware there’s no published figures on the volume and value of this local horticulture of food crops.

Which brings us back to urban pollinators: a significant fraction of these crops (large-scale and local garden) requires pollination by insects.  As I reported back in July, in our own urban garden this includes at least 15 crops (strawberries, apples, greengages, cherries, blackcurrants, squashes, courgettes, blackberries, fennel, runner beans, french beans, passion fruit, tomatoes, raspberries, and radish pods).  An integrated study of urban agriculture/horticulture in the context of pollinator diversity and abundance would be a great piece of research and is long overdue.

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Personal biodiversity, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Biodiversity conservation pays its way – Nature Improvement Areas are boosting wildlife, communities and economy

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This is the text from a national press release that’s been sent out today by the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area:

Wildlife, communities and local economies are reaping the benefits of England’s new Nature Improvement Areas, according to a report published last week (14th November).  The Nene Valley is one of these twelve Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) set up by the government in 2012, which have helped farmers to access EU grants, made valuable contributions towards university research and boosted the £210 billion rural economy.

They’ve also attracted outside investment – more than £730,000 from business partners and £7.8 million from NGOs and not-for-profit organisations.  Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss said:

“A healthy environment and a healthy economy go hand in hand. These Nature Improvement Areas show how protecting our precious wildlife and outstanding landscapes can help grow our £30 billion rural tourism industry and create more jobs for hardworking people as part of our long term economic plan.”

Almost 19,000 hectares of threatened habitat – equivalent to 23,000 football pitches- have been created or restored since the NIAs were set up with £7.5 million of government funding.  Volunteers have spent 24,300 days – or 66 years in total – surveying wildlife and improving habitats, and more than 11,000 people have taken part in educational visits.

These wild habitats are now bigger, better connected, and more widespread, enabling wildlife such as butterflies and water voles to thrive.

The Nene Valley NIA covers an area of 41,000 hectares running through the heart of Northamptonshire and skirting Huntingdonshire to the eastern fringes of Peterborough. It includes the River Nene and its tributaries, gravel pits, reservoirs and much of the floodplain. Heather Procter, Nene Valley Project Manager said:

“In the Nene Valley we must find a careful balance between the pressures for development, tourism and recreation and the valuable wildlife that the valley is increasingly known for.  Through the NIA we have so far ensured that 1,500ha of farmland is managed in a more environmentally-friendly way, created over 100ha of wildflower meadow, and engaged communities in the future of their local environment. As we work towards the end of this round of Government support for NIAs in March 2015, we urge the Minister to build on the good work already achieved through NIAs, and provide leadership and support for existing and new NIA projects into the future.”

NIAs were first announced in the Natural Environment White Paper, the first government White Paper on the environment for 20 years, with the aim of creating 12 initial areas to reconnect nature on a significant scale through local partnerships.

The NIA partnerships have improved access to the countryside, creating new public footpaths and connecting a network of paths which will span 540km by 2015.

The NIA partnerships are on track to restore, create, enhance and maintain a further 5,500 hectares by 2015, joining up people and communities with their landscapes.

But the vision doesn’t end there. In the Nene Valley there are plans to continue to protect and enhance the landscape for the benefit of wildlife, people and the economy for years to come. Local people can help us to form our plans for 2015-20 by adding their thoughts to the interactive map on the Nene Valley NIA website http://www.nenevalleynia.org/my-nene-valley.

ENDS

Notes for Editors

The report is: Monitoring and Evaluation of Nature Improvement Areas Year 2 (2013-14) Progress Report (Defra Research Project WC1061) and can be downloaded from WC1061.

The 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) are:

Birmingham and Black Country
Dearne Valley
Humberhead Levels
Marlborough Downs
Meres and Mosses of the Marches
Morecambe Bay Limestone and Wetlands
Nene Valley
Northern Devon
South Downs Way Ahead
The Dark Peak

The Greater Thames Marshes
Wild Purbeck

  1. The Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) Programme, with funding of £7.5 million, was established, as announced by Defra in the Natural Environment White Paper (2011). This project has been supported by Defra, DCLG, Environment Agency, Forestry Commission and Natural England.
  1. Defra launched a competition to fund an initial 12 NIAs in July 2011, judged by a panel led by Professor Sir John Lawton. Seventy-six applications were received. The Nene Valley is one of the 12 successful partnerships that started work in April 2012.
  1. NIAs are large, discrete areas that will deliver a step change in nature conservation, where a local partnership has a shared vision for their natural environment. The partnership will plan and deliver significant improvements for wildlife and people through the sustainable use of natural resources, restoring and creating wildlife habitats, connecting local sites and joining up local action. http://www.naturalengland.org.uk
  1. It is not the intention for NIAs to stifle sustainable development. It is a matter for local authorities to decide what weight they wish to give to NIAs in their local plans.
  1. The Nene Valley NIA is a partnership project of more than 20 organisations in Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough and covers over 41,000 hectares including countryside, urban fringe and town centres:  www.nenevalleynia.org

Media Contact

For more information, interview requests and photographs of the Nene Valley and its wildlife please contact Heather Procter, Nene Valley Project Manager, heather.procter@wildlifebcn.org or 01604 774032.

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The National Pollinator Strategy – some reflections

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After many months of consultation and workshops, the National Pollinator Strategy for England has finally been released by Defra, and can be downloaded from this website.  It reflects an important, wider change in societal attitudes to nature, and specifically the ecosystem services it provides, though the strategy itself is by no means perfect.  I rather wish that it had been a UK-wide strategy, as biodiversity does not respect political boundaries, but such is a the nature of our partly-devolved political system. Wales already has an Action Plan for Pollinators and I hope that the rest of the UK follows, though a strategy for Northern Ireland would surely have to include the Republic of Ireland?

In the following sections I’ve quoted liberally from the summary section of the National Pollinator Strategy, and added a few comments and reflections of my own in italics.  As always, your views and comments would be very welcome.

The 10 year National Pollinator Strategy aims to deliver across five key areas:

1. Supporting pollinators on farmland

  • Working with farmers to support pollinators through the Common Agricultural Policy and with voluntary initiatives to provide food, shelter and nesting sites.
  • Minimising the risks for pollinators associated with the use of pesticides through best practice, including Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Comment: at the moment many farmers are already pro-actively encouraging pollinators and other wildlife, but most are not.  Will “voluntary initiatives“, including encouraging Integrated Pest Management, be sufficient?  About 70% of the country is farmed and any wildlife conservation strategy has got to include agricultural stakeholders.  But the influence of large agro-chemical businesses should not be under-estimated.  I’ve seen figures suggesting that fields of oil seed rape in this country receive applications of up to 20 different chemicals (biocides and fertilisers) each year.  That represents a significant profit for these companies, who will not want to change the status quo.  Data showing a slow down in the rate of decline of  plants and pollinators in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium may be evidence that CAP agri-environmental schemes have had a positive impact, but I’d like to see more data addressing that question (and not just for pollinators – farmland birds are doing worse than any other category of birds in the UK).

2. Supporting pollinators across towns, cities and the countryside

  • Working with large-scale landowners, and their advisers, contractors and facility managers, to promote simple changes to land management to provide food, shelter and nest sites.
  • Ensuring good practice to help pollinators through initiatives with a wide range of organisations and professional networks including managers of public and amenity spaces, utility and transport companies, brownfield site managers, local authorities, developers and planners
  • Encouraging the public to take action in their gardens, allotments, window boxes and balconies to make them pollinator-friendly or through other opportunities such as community gardening and volunteering on nature reserves.

Comment:  “simple changes to land management” can do a lot for supporting local biodiversity, even in the most unlikely, urban settings, which is the underlying philosophy behind our award-winning Biodiversity Index tool.  Quite a number of local authorities are getting the message that it’s A Good Thing to reduce the frequency of cutting amenity grasslands, both for pollinators and for budgets.  But local authorities are also taking foolish decisions with regard to developing sites that should be protected, and brownfield areas are being specifically targeted for building urban housing, despite the fact that we have long known that they are some of our best sites for pollinators.  How do we reconcile these different priorities?  Brownfield sites by their nature are transitory, early successional habitats, so perhaps local authorities should be encouraged (made?) to have a rolling stock of a minimum proportion of undeveloped brownfield sites as part of their portfolio of land holdings?  Or how about a requirement that all developed areas of brownfield land are replaced by an equivalent area of brown roofs?

3. Enhancing the response to pest and disease risks

  • Working to address pest and disease risks to honey bees whilst further improving beekeepers’ husbandry and management practices to strengthen the resilience of bee colonies.
  • Keeping under active review any evidence of pest and disease risks associated with commercially produced pollinators used for high-value crop production.

Comment:  interestingly there’s no mention of disease risks to non-managed pollinators, yet we know that honey bee diseases can be passed to bumblebees, for instance.

 Actions to support these priority areas:

4. Raising awareness of what pollinators need to survive and thrive

  • Developing and disseminating further advice to a wide range of land owners, managers and gardeners as part of Bees’ Needs.
  • Improving the sharing of knowledge and evidence between scientists, conservation practitioners and non-government organisations (NGOs) to ensure that actions taken to support pollinators are based on up-to-date evidence.

Comment: yes, dissemination of sound, evidence-based knowledge has got to be a priority.

5. Improving evidence on the status of pollinators and the service they provide

  • Developing a sustainable long-term monitoring programme so we better understand their status, the causes of any declines and where our actions will have most effect.
  • Improving our understanding of the value and benefits pollinators provide, and how resilient natural and agricultural systems are to changes in their populations.

Comment: monitoring of pollinators is a real sticking point in the strategy, as there’s still no consensus on what should be monitored, how, where, and how frequently.  This was the subject of a workshop at the Natural History Museum in London that I attended about a year ago, and there’s still much that is undecided.  I know that a partnership led by CEH Wallingford is working on this at the moment, and hopefully a scheme will be in place by next year.  Let’s see what they come up with.

In taking action across these five areas, the National Pollinator Strategy wants to achieve the following outcomes:

  • More, bigger, better, joined-up, diverse and high-quality flower-rich habitats (including nesting places and shelter) supporting our pollinators across the country.
  • Healthy bees and other pollinators which are more resilient to climate change and severe weather events.
  • No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species.
  • Enhanced awareness across a wide range of businesses, other organisations and the public of the essential needs of pollinators.
  • Evidence of actions taken to support pollinators.

Comment:  “More, bigger, better, joined up…” has been the buzz phrase in British conservation since at least the Lawton Report.  One of the outcomes of that report was the setting up of twelve flagship Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs), one of which is the Nene Valley NIA, a project on which my research group has been working.  The Strategy mentions the NIAs several times and states that “extending the monitoring and evaluation framework for Nature Improvement Areas to include pollinators” is one of its interim aims.  But as I recently mentioned, funding for the NIAs finishes at the end of March 2015 and Defra has indicated that there will be no additional government money.  How will this aim be met?  I’d be very interested to know as the Nene Valley NIA is one of the few which specifically focused on pollinators as part of our remit.  It would be a terrible shame to lose the expertise and momentum that we’ve built up when funding stops next year.  As regards “No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species“, the talk I gave at SCAPE 2014 was on that very topic and a paper outlining our results is currently in press.  I hope to be able to share those findings with the broad readership of this blog very shortly.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity Index, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Hedgerows, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Nene Valley NIA, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

A giant falls: the Tolkien tree is no more

 

March 2009 - Oxford Botanic Garden 012

Perhaps more than any other aspect of biodiversity, big trees hold a special place in our emotions.  Sure, whales do too, but it’s hard to hug a whale.  Trees on the other hand can be approachable behemoths, instilling awe into the observer and grandeur into a locality.  So I was hugely saddened to discover today that the vast Black Pine (Pinus nigra) at Oxford Botanic Garden had been badly damaged a few months ago and has been felled.  I’ve known this tree since 1987, and have introduced generations of undergraduates to it during our annual trip to the Garden.  Each time I tell the story that it was one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s favourite trees and probably inspired his creation of the ents in Lord of the Rings.

The damage to the tree and its subsequent felling has been caught on camera, though I should warn you that for anyone who knew and loved the tree it’s an emotionally charged video.  The tree has been propagated and its offspring will live on, but it will be another 200 years before one of them becomes quite so majestic.

March 2009 - Oxford Botanic Garden 011

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“one of the referees says floresianus actually means ‘flowery anus’ so it should be floresiensis

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In a parallel universe I work as a paleoanthropologist, a topic that has fascinated me ever since as a teenager I read Donald Johanson’s account of the discovery of Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis).  At university I took a short human evolution course and could easily have been swayed into doing research in that area were it not for my fascination with plants and ecological interactions (there are also parallel universes in which I’m a marine biologist, palaeontologist, gardener, sound engineer, etc….you get the picture).  I still keep half an eye on the paleoanthropological literature and enjoyed reading this interview on the Nature website with the discoverers of Homo floresiensis, the so-called “hobbit” fossil hominids, which added significantly to our understanding of the biodiversity of the human evolutionary lineage.

The line that “one of the referees says floresianus actually means ‘flowery anus’ so it should be floresiensis“, and some of the other anecdotes, give lovely insights into how science works, and the way it often follows a random, haphazard path, not at all the clear and logical route that non-scientists assume.  And it shows how the peer-review process can pick up and correct errors in a manuscript that could haunt any scientist’s career…..

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A Westminster pollinator seminar and The Great British Big Bee Count

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In the run up to Defra’s publication of a National Pollinator Strategy, due for release some time before Christmas, the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology yesterday ran a two hour seminar at Westminster.  It was a full meeting in one of the small rooms, and apparently over-subscribed which doesn’t surprise me: there’s huge interest in pollinator conservation in the UK at the moment.  So it would have been better moved to a larger room to allow more scientists, practitioners, MPs, civil servants and other interested parties to attend.  In any case it was a useful couple of hours, with some interesting updates on what’s happening in relation to British pollinators.

The event was chaired by Sarah Newton MP and was kicked off by Adam Vanbergen from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology who got everyone up to speed by giving an overview of the science of pollination, pollinator diversity, and the issues affecting pollinator populations.  In the process he cited our “How many flowering plants are animal pollinated?” paper which has fast become the default citation to use as evidence to support the ecological importance of biotic pollen transfer.  That’s hugely gratifying and is what it was designed to do.  We now have additional data with wider geographical coverage and I hope to update that analysis in the near future.  A lot of the information Adam was using can be found on the Insect Pollinators Initiative website.

Adam’s talk was followed by a presentation by Simon Potts from the University of Reading who discussed how we value pollination as an ecosystem service and how we can safeguard pollinator abundance and diversity.  There were some stark statistics on the economic contribution of pollinators to crops such as apples, including data from a study by Garratt et al. (2014) which suggests that both quality and quantity of apples could be improved by having more pollinators in British orchards.  Perhaps another way of viewing those data is that the UK apple industry is already experiencing the kind of pollinator deficit that conservationists have predicted?

Jane Memmott from Bristol University was next, presenting the preliminary results of the Urban Pollinators Initiative which is the first comprehensive study of the distribution of pollinators in large British cities.  The data look really exciting and it will be great to see the results finally published as it will make for an interesting comparison with Muzafar’s data on solitary bees in Northampton, the first manuscript from which has recently been submitted to a journal.

Finally Chris Connolly from Dundee University talked about pesticides in a presentation entitled “Why pick on the neonicotinoids?” and provided some disturbing statistics on how little we really know about what happens when the c. 350 types of pesticides (plus about 700 herbicides and fungicides) that we use in modern British agriculture combine in the environment to produce synergistic effects.  It’s also worrying that there is little understanding of the amounts of pesticides being applied because systematic data are not collated.  Chris is a neuroscientist working mainly in a medical context and gave the analogy of how combinations of therapeutic drugs can have unforeseen (even deadly) side effects.  Chris also used an image of Nigel Farage to illustrate a point which was a brave thing to do in the Houses of Parliament in the current political climate, but which got him a big laugh.

There followed 30 minutes of questions and discussion, and I managed to get in a plug for the Biodiversity Index when making a point of how difficult it is to get business to engage with biodiversity.  That led to an interesting conversation afterwards with a consultant that I need to follow up later today.

Out into the unseasonably warm London air by about 6.30pm, there were people standing outside pubs and sitting at cafe tables, as if we were in southern Europe rather than England in late October.  It reinforced some of the things I discussed in a post earlier this summer about climate change and current weather patterns.

Coincidentally (or not) Friends of the Earth released the results of their Great British Bee Count, a Citizen Science project designed to augment the monitoring work being done by specialist groups such as the Bees, Ants and Wasps Recording Society (BWARS).  I have mixed feelings about the Great British Bee Count.  On the one hand it’s great to engage the public in campaigns that raise the awareness of the importance of pollinators, and to get them out looking at bees.  But the reality is that the 832,110 records submitted to the count have very limited scientific value, despite what Friends of the Earth might claim.  That’s because it is very, very difficult to identify bees to even broad groups unless you’ve had some training, and (apart from some distinctive species) impossible to identify to species level unless you are a specialist.  I’ve been studying pollinators for 25 years and there are whole groups within our c. 250 native species that I have great problems identifying, and defer to the opinion of real specialists such as Stuart Roberts, chair of BWARS.

Stuart has made public his concerns at the quality of the data being submitted to the Great British Bee Count, and the fact that records cannot be checked because no photograph was taken and (worse) there are no specimens to compare.  The issues are neatly embodied in the fact that four species which were  recorded from Northern Ireland (Tawny mining bee, Hairy-footed flower bee, Red mason bee, and Tree bumblebee) have never previously been seen in Ireland and can all be confused with other similar species.  Of particular concern is the fact that Friends of the Earth expects the National Biodiversity Network Gateway to archive the data.  If that happens the Great British Bee Count data MUST be kept separate from the high quality, verified data on bee distributions that NBN already possesses, otherwise it will completely devalue the latter.  By all means let’s get the public engaged with pollinators and biodiversity more broadly, which is one of the purposes of this blog after all!  But let’s also be realistic about what can be achieved by these kinds of campaigns.

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Dancing with wolves: more from SCAPE 2014

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Tovetorp Research Station has a small colony of wolves, though we weren’t allowed to visit them as they are being observed as part of a study of canid behaviour.  But I did see a White-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) which was just as good!  And on the last night of the SCAPE meeting there was the usual post-banquet bout of Scando-European dancing by the younger members of the conference, which gave me the idea for the title of this post.

But on to the science!  I’ve already talked a little about some of what I learned or was excited about from the Thursday & Friday talks, and Saturday’s sessions continued in the same vein, with interesting and novel research in abundance, including:

  • species in 166 different plant families lack nectar as a reward, with an estimated 15-20,000 species (from 72 families) utilising buzz pollination (Mario Vallejo-Marin, University of Stirling)
  • Alocasia sarawakensis employs a brood-site pollination system analogous to figs and yucca moths, but without destroying any ovules (Florian Etl, University of Vienna)
  • floral scents are more complex in their geographical and anatomical distribution than we realised, and may be used to cheat pollinators into thinking there is a reward in a flower (Magne Friberg, Amy Parachnowitsch & Rosie Burdon, Uppsala University)
  • exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides can cause very subtle effects on bumblebee behaviour when they forage on apple blossom, which doesn’t seem to translate into an effect on apple pollination (Dara Stanley, Royal Holloway)
  • it may be possible to assign environmental niches to native and introduced pollinators in order to understand how invasive species out-compete native ones (Jonas Kuppler, University of Salzburg)
  • functional diversity of floral traits is greater than that of vegetative traits in alpine plant communities (Robert Junker, University of Salzburg)

As I said before, these are just some of the highlights, there were many others. My own talk was about the rate of extinction of bees and flower-visiting wasps in Britain, involving some new analyses I’ve been doing with colleagues over the past 6 months or so.  The work seemed to be mostly well received, though there was scepticism from some quarters about the methods we’ve used, and a suggestion that there are better ways to assess extinction which I’m going to follow up.

I returned to the UK at 7pm last night.  On the drive home from the airport, Karin asked me what I’d most enjoyed about the conference.  The answer was all of it, of course, but what these meetings really provide is an opportunity to discuss science in an informal, friendly (though rigorous and argumentative!) atmosphere, outside the formal talks.  Not just the science itself, but also the way we do science, manage our careers, and communicate our findings.  I spent some time chatting with Amy Parachnowitsch, who blogs over at Small Pond Science, and her research student Rosie Burdon about the role of blogging in science communication and what we’re aiming to do by releasing these thoughts out onto the internet. Paradoxically these are conversations that are best had face to face I think!

The problem with SCAPE is that it’s over and gone too quickly, but perhaps that’s the point: it leaves us wanting more and looking forward to next year, when it will be in Denmark.  Thanks again to the organising committee for a stimulating and enjoyable few days.  Any pollination scientists, at all stages of their career, who wish to come along to future SCAPEs would be guaranteed a warm welcome and should drop the organisers a line to be added to the mailing list, or search for the Facebook page of the group and ask to be added.

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The bare-foot conference: SCAPE 2014

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Not strictly bare-foot, most of us are wearing socks and padding around the Tovetorp Research Station in Sweden, where outdoor shoes are banned in the building.  The Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology is holding its 28th annual meeting here, starting Thursday evening with three initial talks, and continuing all today.  I’ve posted about SCAPE previously: it’s my favourite conference by a long margin, friendly and informal and attracting some great science.  Although I missed it last year due to my trip to Brazil, coming back this year is a little like coming back to a family gathering, where as well as the elder aunts and uncles, there’s also a large group of younger nieces and nephews, and some long-lost cousins – it’s a great mix of older professors, and newer PhD students.

This is a quick post before we have dinner and the bar opens.  In the last 24 hours I have learned a lot about pollination ecology that I didn’t know before, including:

  • Vincetoxicum hirundinaria does not vary in its outcrossing rate, regardless of the size of population (Anne Muola, Swedish Agricultural University)
  • Arum italicum and Arum maculatum hybridise in some populations (Marion Chartier, University of Vienna)
  • variable weather conditions can result in low bumblebee numbers and increased fly pollination in a north American mountain plant community (Diane Campbell, University of California)
  • nocturnal pollination by moths is more common than expected in Spanish mountain plant communities (Marcos Mendez, Rey Juan Carlos University)
  • “double mutualists” that both pollinate plants and disperse their seeds seem to be more common on islands than elsewhere (Jens Olesen, Aarhus University)
  • colour “purity” is more important than other aspects of flower colouration (Klaus Lunau, Heinrich-Heine University)
  • there’s very little evidence to support any of the current hypotheses regarding the evolution of andromonoecy (Marcos Mendez, again!)

Those are just a few of the highlights from a conference that’s showcasing some of the best pollination ecology research currently being conducted.  Looks like dinner’s ready so I’ll sign off for now.  My talk is tomorrow at 4.30pm – wish me luck!

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Mutualism, Pollination

Biodiversity miscellany

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It’s been a few weeks since my last post, not because I’ve had nothing to say, but rather because there’s been too much to say, and too much to do to have time to say it!  A lot has been happening personally, professionally and in the wider world that I could have talked about, so I’ve summarised a few things below.

Late September saw the start of a new academic year, with all of the organisation and effort that entails.  Recruitment in our Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences is healthy and the new intake of students are bright and keen.  In addition to my usual teaching and research in the Department I’ve been asked to take on the role of Head of Research and Enterprise for the whole School of Science and Technology.  Which will be interesting as it covers a vast range of subjects, including computing, leather technology, and engineering, as well as the environmental and geographical area with which I’m more familiar.  It’s a two-year post which should be enough time to do some good work.

The Local Nature Partnership annual meeting took place at the university on 25th September. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science Lord de Mauley popped up again, and gave a better and more focused speech than he did previously at the recent Nature Improvement Area conference in London.   It’s a pity he didn’t stay for the afternoon session as there was a very interesting presentation from the company who are developing the Rushden Lakes site in the Nene Valley. Part of the development is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and it’s within the Special Protection Area, designated for over-wintering birds.  The Wildlife Trust is working closely with the developers and, if the latter deliver what they say they will deliver, it will enhance and protect the site even further.  Time will tell; you can watch a video of the plans here.

Lots of news stories related to biodiversity and conservation have appeared recently, including a scare-mongering piece in the Guardian that “The Earth has lost half its wildlife in the last 40 years” according to a report from WWF.    Of course that’s journalistic crap and the report does not say that at all.  I can’t sum it up any better than did our former student Ian WIlson, now Reserves Manager at Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows, who commented (on Facebook) that “There have been terrible losses but this sort of misuse of statistics is unhelpful and misleading. It particularly undermines the ecosystem services arguments which suggest that loss of wildlife will directly affect human populations. You can’t maintain that argument and claim that we’ve lost 50% of wildlife over the last 40 years without having to explain why human populations are still so high. Conservation would be better served by more good science and less journalistic sound bites.”  Well said Ian!  Fifty percent of wildlife has not be lost; the statistic is actually that “the Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent since 1970″.  Those “representative populations” are highly skewed towards large, easily counted species of vertebrates, predominantly in temperate areas, and exclude plants and invertebrates – you can download the full report here.  I’m not suggesting that these statistics are anything less than worrying, but the scale of the loss of “wildlife” (in its fullest sense) is not as great as the Guardian’s report suggests.

There’s been huge concern about the disturbing Ebola outbreak in West Africa and beyond, including a statement from IUCN on the links between emergent diseases such as Ebola and loss of biodiversity.  In short, deforestation allows humans to hunt animals in previously unexploited areas, increasing the likelihood that rare and novel diseases that use wild animals as a vector (such as Ebola) can pass to humans.  Worrying, and yet another reason why we need to slow down, and ultimately stop, such habitat destruction.

On a happier note, my colleague Duncan McCollin had a paper entitled ‘Reconstructing long-term ecological data from annual census returns: a test for observer bias in counts of bird populations on Skokholm 1928–2002‘ published in the journal Ecological Indicators.  It highlights a really nice example of an ecological monitoring scheme that, as Duncan puts it, deserves “the recognition of such long-term data for science in terms of an appropriate conservation designation”.

Finally, here’s a link to an impassioned blog post by my friend and colleague Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex.   Dave is a longstanding researcher and campaigner about the adverse effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinators and other biodiversity.  Dave’s post originated as a letter in reply to a (misinformed and biased) opinion piece in The Times, which the newspaper saw fit not to print (freedom of the press, eh?)  It’s well worth reading and sets out the scientific case for the impact of these pesticides.  And if Dave’s blog is not sufficient for you, there’s also been a recent paper from Charles Godfray’s group at Oxford called “A restatement of the natural science evidence base concerning neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators” which received comments and input from many scientists involved in pollinator research (myself included) as well as formal peer review.  Hopefully that’s enough rigour for the sceptics.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Pollination, University of Northampton

Nature Improvement Area Annual Forum 2014 – influencing the future of conservation in England

NIA Forum - Sept 2014

The Nature Improvement Area (NIA) Annual Forum took place in London yesterday and the Nene Valley NIA was well represented, with five of us from the University of Northampton attending, plus representatives from our partners in the Wildlife Trust, the River Nene Regional Park, the RSPB, and the River Restoration Centre.  It was an opportunity to see and hear what the twelve NIAs have achieved in the two and a half years since their inception, to compare notes, and (importantly) to think about the future of the NIAs.

The NIAs, as I’ve mentioned before, were meant to be pilot, flagship schemes to show how the future of conservation in England could become bigger, better and more connected across large swathes of landscape.  Their origin lies in the Lawton Report and Professor Sir John Lawton kicked off the day with a general introduction that, from the very beginning, brought up the one thing on everybody’s mind that day: the financial sustainability of the NIAs. The money runs out in March 2015, so where do we go from there?  All of the NIAs (ourselves included) have been applying for funding to continue the good work being done, but, as John Lawton, pointed out, if the Government is serous about the NIAs and wishes them to continue, there needs to be an investment of public money.  I deliberately use the term “investment” because we know that the natural environment of our islands plays a significant role in public health and the national economy more broadly.

John Lawton’s introduction was followed by a short speech by Lord de Mauley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science (who, incidentally, gave a nod in his speech to the National Pollinator Strategy). The Minister said a lot of the right things, how impressed he was with the NIA programme, that the government was committed to it in practice (but not necessarily financially), etc., etc.  There followed another speech by Andrew Sells, Chair of Natural England, who listed some of the achievements of the NIAs (see below), including the fact that for every £1 of Government funding, £3.50 was leveraged from other sources to support the activities of NIAs across the country.

There was an opportunity to ask questions of the first two speakers, plus representatives from the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission, the first of which came from our own Oliver Burke who asked about the government’s vision of the future of the NIAs.  All of the panel agree that there was a future, they just were not sure what it was, though there was commitment from Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) that their staff would continue to advise and support NIA activities as part of their core activities.  That’s promising though perhaps not surprising given the nature of most of the partnerships, involving organisations that the NE and the EA would normally work with anyway.

The question I wanted to ask, had I found the right form of words, would have been about the current Government’s poor record on the environment.  But by the time I worked out a way of saying it that didn’t make it sound like a simple attack on the coalition, the opportunity was over.  A whistle-stop tour by the Minister and his coterie of the displays set out by the NIAs followed, which John Lawton later said had visibly impressed Lord de Mauley.  Amongst the achievements of the twelve NIAs, after only two years of activity, are:

  • Tens of thousand of hectares of priority and other habitats created, restored and/or improved in condition
  • Hundreds of kilometres of boundary and linear habitat (e.g. hedgerows) restored/created/improved
  • Tens of thousands of days of volunteer time devoted to the NIAs
  • Thousands of  people participating in educational visits.
  • Thousands of hectares of habitat managed specifically for ecosystem services such as improving water quality.

After lunch there were further talks including one from Simon Smith about the Cotswolds Ecological Networks project which had been one of the 70 applicants for NIA funding, was unsuccessful, and (impressively) went ahead with the project anyway as an “unofficial” NIA.  The Nene Valley NIA’s interactive website and photography competition was also highlighted in a talk by Helen Ashley from Dialogue by Design, and Dr Andy Stott from Defra discussed the monitoring and evaluation report for year 2 of the NIA programme.

Later in the afternoon we had a workshop at which, in small groups, we brainstormed some pressing questions, including (not surprisingly) innovative funding streams, and using the evidence base to demonstrate the effectiveness of the NIAs.  With regard to the latter it would seem sensible to use independent, long-term monitoring data such as the repeated species counts done by Butterfly Conservation (e.g. Big Butterfly Count) and the British Trust for Ornithology (e.g. Breeding Bird Survey) to verify whether or not the NIAs are being effective, though this of course requires that surveys have historically taken place within the NIAs (something that is certainly true for the Nene Valley NIA).  This would require quite a bit of coordination with the NGOs concerned, but should be doable.  I’d happily develop such a project if there’s someone out there with funding!

And then, with some final, supportive words from John Lawton, the day was over and we started to disperse out into an unseasonably warm mid-September London.  Several of us from the Nene Valley and the RSPB decamped to a great local pub (The Lord John Russell) to discuss the day.  One of the topics that everyone was talking about was, of course, the Scottish Referendum.  As I write this the country is absorbing the news that Scotland is to remain part of the UK.  As far as I’m concerned that’s a very good thing because (amongst other reasons) I think that a vote for independence would have negatively affected conservation in the British Isles.  Political focus of all government departments would move from environmental issues and on to trying to manage the split, which would take up a huge amount of time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.  And NGOs such as the RSPB would have to devote time and resources to considering how they manage and fund their organisations, given their cross-border roles. That could have been to the detriment of Scottish conservation given that most of the funding is flowing south to north (which is purely a function of population size – there are many times more members in England and Wales than in Scotland).

Thank you Scotland, you’ve done the right thing.  And thank you to all 12 NIAs, you’ve shown the Government how successful large-scale nature conservation can be: let us hope they take notice.

 

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Hedgerows, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton