Extinction of British bees and flower-visiting wasps – a new assessment of rates and causes

Extinction of species is perhaps the most fundamental assault that we as humans can inflict on the rest of the natural world.  Extinctions take a range of forms, from the loss of a whole species (such as the sad case of the St Helena Giant Earwig, recently declared extinct by the IUCN), down to extirpation of local populations.

For an island nation such as Britain, extinctions at a country level are highly significant because there is limited opportunity for species to disperse across the sea and re-colonise areas where they previously lived.  In a new research paper published this week in the journal Science we have addressed the subject of pollinator declines in the UK and asked the following questions:

1.  How many bee and flower-visiting wasp species have gone extinct in the UK?

2.  Is the rate of extinction (e.g. number of species per decade) constant or variable over time?

3.  Can we interpret any patterns in relation to broader societal changes, for example in agricultural policy, conservation strategies, etc?

The research is a collaboration between myself and University of Northampton colleagues Dr Robin Crockett and Dr Hilary Erenler, together with Mike Edwards from the Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS), the c. 500,000 records of which were used in these analyses.  This is probably the most extensive data set on these insects available for any country and an important resource.

The answer to the first question is that 23 species of bees and flower-visiting wasps have gone extinct, ranging in time from the crabronid wasp Lestica clypeata (last observed in 1853) to the solitary bee Andrena lathyri (not seen since 1990).  All of these species still occur on mainland Europe, so these were country-level extinctions, not species extinctions.

The answer to questions 2 and 3 is that the rate of extinction is highly variable, and by using a novel statistical approach adapted by Robin to analyse the changing rate over time, we found that the main period of species loss followed changes to agricultural policy and practice just after the First World War.  This is much earlier than previously believed: until now it has usually been the Second World War and the subsequent Common Agricultural Policy which have been seen as the main drivers of pollinator loss.  This figure produced by Robin shows the results in detail:

Figure 2 colour

The four periods marked in red are the points where we estimate the rate of extinction changed (with 99% confidence intervals shown in pink).  The most rapid rate of extinction (shown by the solid blue piecewise regression lines and dashed 99% confidence intervals) is from the late 1920s to the late 1950s.  This, we believe, is the cumulative effect of agricultural changes precipitated and then augmented by the First and the Second World Wars, respectively.

The period of extinction from the late 19th into the early 20th centuries was probably caused by increased import of South American guano as soil fertilizer which increased grass productivity at the expense of wild flower diversity.  This reduced reliance on strict rotational cropping, including fallow periods with nectar- and pollen-rich weeds, and N-fixing legume years.  However it was the invention of the Haber Process in 1909, allowing industrial manufacture of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers for the first time, that fundamentally affected British agriculture.

The slow down of the rate of extinction from the early 1960s to the mid 1980s is not easily explained given the continued intensification of farming, encouraged by Common Agricultural Policy subsidies.  It could be due to the most sensitive species having been already lost, or because of conservation initiatives including the establishment of more nature reserves by organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, habitat restoration and management by groups such as the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, more farmers going organic, etc.  Or it could be a combination of both, and/or factors we’ve not yet thought of.

The final period of extinctions from 1986 to 1994, where the rate seems to increase, could be seen as evidence against the slowing in the rate of decline of pollinators in north west Europe found by Carvalheiro et al. (2013).  However  we need to be cautious here as there’s a large confidence interval around the calculated extinction rate.  The four extinctions between 1988-1990 could be an isolated cluster, or the start of a further period of relatively high extinction rate.  Only time will tell!

Bees, wasps and other pollinating insects are absolutely vital to the functioning of our natural ecosystems and for a great many agricultural crops.  We’ve known for some time that these insects are declining in Britain but now we can see how historical agricultural changes have caused species to become extinct. The big question is whether these extinctions have stopped or whether they will continue in the future. The species that have been lost to Britain still survive on the Continent and there is the possibility of natural re-colonisation or artificial reintroduction, both of which have occurred in recent years.  However in order for this to be successful we must restore as much natural habitat as possible within our farmland, which after all covers some 70% of the British land surface.  The irony of our findings, of course, is that pollinators are vital for agriculture, as the UK Government’s National Pollinator Strategy recognises.

Studies such as this illustrates the importance of maintaining the year-on-year effort of recording natural history data – the research simply wouldn’t have been possible without the BWARS records, which are mainly collected by amateur naturalists.

The full citation for the paper is:  Ollerton, J., Erenler, H., Edwards, M. & Crockett, R. (2014) Extinctions of aculeate pollinators in Britain and the role of large-scale agricultural changes. Science 346:1360-1362.  I’m happy to send a PDF to anyone who requests a copy for personal use. 

Notes:

1.  We define “extinction” as ≥ 20 years since the last recorded occurrence of the species in Britain, which is why the data stop at 1994.

2.  We have excluded single early records of species that cannot be verified as representing stable breeding populations.

3. Analyses were performed using the ‘segmented’ library in R (www.r-project.org)

4.  Thanks to Robin Crockett for the figure and the analyses, and Hilary Erenler and Mike Edwards for their input into the study.

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Winter visit to Wicken Fen

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If it’s winter, it must be time for the annual second year undergraduate field trip to Wicken Fen, a yearly pilgrimage that’s been run by my colleague Dr Janet Jackson for many years now.  The purpose of the trip is to show our ecology and environmental science students an example of large-scale habitat conservation and restoration in action, at one of England’s oldest nature reserves.  I try to go along and help out when I can, though I missed it last year because of my trip to Brazil.  It was more than a fair swap, though there’s something about Wicken’s stark winter beauty that always makes for a memorable day.

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The National Trusts’s nature reserve at Wicken Fen is one of the few remaining patches of the wetland habitat that once covered most of East Anglia.  There’s little of it left (less than 1% of the original area) but large-scale, long-term initiatives such as the Great Fen project and the Wicken Fen Vision are trying to increase this by restoring the farmland surrounding the remaining patches.  This is important landscape-scale conservation because the fenland habitat is rich in biodiversity.  Wicken Fen alone is reckoned to host more than 8,300 species of macro-organisms, most of which are invertebrates, including more than a thousand each of flies and beetles.  There’s also an impressive list of birds that use the site either for breeding or over-wintering, and on our day trip we managed to see 31 species*, highlights of which were a pair of Hen Harriers, a lone hunting Barn Owl at dusk, and a huge flock of Lapwing and Golden Plover that provided a backdrop to our guided tour.

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Another great highlight which impressed both students and staff was a close encounter with some Konik Polski ponies which were curious and friendly, and yet more or less wild, as they stay out on the Fen all year round with no shelter and the minimum of human intervention.

Konic ponies

Everyone was enchanted by these hardy little horses and it was a struggle to get the students to move on with the tour!

Konic ponies with Janet

As Carol Laidlaw, conservation grazing warden at Wicken Fen explained to us, these ponies, together with the tough highland cattle, are a vital part of Wicken Fen’s ecology.  Their grazing prevents woody plants from colonising, and this, together with their physical presence in the landscape, leaving hoof marks and dung piles, opens up both small patches and larger areas for colonisation by plants.  For anyone interested in reading more about the grazing animals I can recommend Carol’s excellent article on the project.

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Although the day was cold it was not the frozen landscape we normally encounter and there were even a few plants still in flower.  It’s been a mild winter so far – how long will that continue?  If you’ve never visited Wicken Fen I can recommend it as a day trip whatever the season or weather, there’s always fascinating wildlife to see.

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*Bird list for the trip was: Collared Dove, House Sparrow, Blackbird, Kestrel, Fieldfare, Goldfinch, Cormorant, Grey Heron, Magpie, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Carrion Crow, Snipe, Hen Harrier, Wigeon, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Feral Pigeon, Starling, Wood Pigeon, Robin, Chaffinch, Wren, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Coot, Mallard, Common Gull, Herring Gull, Jackdaw, Barn Owl.  Plus chickens being kept in the garden of one of the local cottages!

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Pollinator seminar at Westminster – the official version – and that 1,500 figure

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Last month I wrote a personal account of the National Pollinator Strategy Seminar held at Westminster.  This week the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology released their official summary of the event plus PDFs of the slides of some of the participants.  They can be downloaded from this website.  It was an interesting seminar and it’s well worth taking time to study these documents; they are very accessible for the non-specialist.

One thing that’s unclear to me from this account is with regard to the statement that:  “there are approximately 1,500 insect species that pollinate food crops and wild plants, including bees, hoverflies, wasps, flies, butterflies, beetles and moths”.  The National Pollinator Strategy also cites that figure, though says “at least 1,500″ species.

Where does the 1,500 figure come from?  Does anyone know the original citation?  I genuinely can’t recall if I’ve ever seen it published.

A quick back of the envelope, conservative calculation suggests to me that 1,500 species is too low:

Aculeates (bees plus wasps minus ants) =  500
Butterflies =     59
Macro-moths (assumed 50% flower visitors) =  400
Hoverflies =  250
Other flies (assumed 10% flower visitors) =  700
Beetles (assumed 5% flower visitors) =  200
Total species = 2109

 

Links are included to the sources of the original diversity figures.  I’ve rounded some of the figures down and the % flowers visitors figures for moths, flies and beetles is pure guestimate based on my field experience.  But they are not likely to be way out, and if anything could be an under-estimate for flies and beetles; moths could be too high, though most species do feed as adults.  Aculeate Hymenoptera (bees and wasps) could also be an over-estimate, but then that figure doesn’t include the non-aculeate “wasps” that frequently visit flowers, for example many ichneumonids and sawflies.

Does it matter?  I think so: as scientists it’s important that we provide the most accurate data that we can to governments and other bodies that may use it for policy, strategy and advocacy.

As always I’d be pleased to receive your comments.

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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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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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A giant falls: the Tolkien tree is no more

 

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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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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity Index, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

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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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Pollination