Brexit and biodiversity: submissions invited to a Government inquiry

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Following on from my posts regarding how Brexit may affect the UK’s environmental policies and activities (see here and here) the Government has moved (surprisingly) quickly to begin an inquiry into how leaving the EU may affect issues that [quote] “include the future of funding for biodiversity and agri-environment schemes, the likely changes in the devolved administration, and the role that managed rewilding can play in conservation and restoration”.

I say “surprisingly” because the Government is no doubt focused on what they might see as more pressing concerns; but then much of this inquiry relates to how Brexit might affect biodiversity via subsidies to farmers, and the farming lobby is very powerful of course, and is no doubt pressing Defra to get a move on.

Here’s a link to the inquiry’s official website.  From that site I’ve pulled out the following text:

The Environmental Audit Committee invites submissions on some or all of the questions below:

  • What are the implications for UK biodiversity of leaving the EU, in particular the Common Agricultural Policy? To what extent do initiatives to support biodiversity in the UK depend on CAP-related payments? What risks and opportunities could developing our own agri-environment policy and funding present?
  • How should future support for UK agriculture be structured in order to ensure there are incentives for environmentally-friendly land management? What are the positives/negatives of current schemes (e.g. Countryside Stewardship) that should be retained/avoided?
  • How should future UK agri-environment support be administered, and what outcomes should it focus on?
  • What are the prospects and challenges for future environmental stewardship schemes in the devolved administrations? How much divergence in policy between the nations of the United Kingdom is likely? How can divergence be managed?
  • What are the future risks and opportunities to innovative land practices, such as managed rewilding? What role can rewilding play in conservation and restoration of habitats and wildlife? What evidence is there to support the incentivising of such schemes in any new land management policies?

There is a form for submissions (available on the website) and the deadline is Friday 9th September 2016.

I’ll be submitting a response via the Northamptonshire Local Nature Partnership, and welcome comments and ideas from any readers.

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The influence of floral traits on specialization and modularity of plant–pollinator networks in a biodiversity hotspot in the Peruvian Andes – Watts et al. (2016)

Watts et al Figure 1

The second paper from the PhD thesis of my former student Dr Stella Watts has just been published in Annals of Botanyhere’s a link to the journal’s website.  It summarises the major findings from her field work on plant-pollinator interactions in the high Andes of Peru:

Watts, S., Dormann, C.F., Martín González, A.M. & Ollerton, J. (2016) The influence of floral traits on specialization and modularity of plant–pollinator networks in a biodiversity hotspot in the Peruvian Andes.  Annals of Botany doi: 10.1093/aob/mcw114

This paper represents a major piece of research, including extensive field data collection over multiple sites in a challenging environment at altitude; state-of-the-art data analysis; and then summarising all of this into a single, digestible paper, with some great figures.  I’m very proud to have been part of it!

Here’s the abstract; please email me or Stella if you’d like a copy of the full PDF:

Background and Aims:  Modularity is a ubiquitous and important structural property of ecological networks which describes the relative strengths of sets of interacting species and gives insights into the dynamics of ecological communities. However, this has rarely been studied in species-rich, tropical plant–pollinator networks. Working in a biodiversity hotspot in the Peruvian Andes we assessed the structure of quantitative plant–pollinator networks in nine valleys, quantifying modularity among networks, defining the topological roles of species and the influence of floral traits on specialization.

Methods: A total of 90 transects were surveyed for plants and pollinators at different altitudes and across different life zones. Quantitative modularity (QuanBiMo) was used to detect modularity and six indices were used to quantify specialization.

Key Results:  All networks were highly structured, moderately specialized and significantly modular regardless of size. The strongest hubs were Baccharis plants, Apis mellifera, Bombus funebris and Diptera spp., which were the most ubiquitous and abundant species with the longest phenologies. Species strength showed a strong association with the modular structure of plant–pollinator networks. Hubs and connectors were the most centralized participants in the networks and were ranked highest (high generalization) when quantifying specialization with most indices. However, complementary specialization d’ quantified hubs and connectors as moderately specialized. Specialization and topological roles of species were remarkably constant across some sites, but highly variable in others. Networks were dominated by ecologically and functionally generalist plant species with open access flowers which are closely related taxonomically with similar morphology and rewards. Plants associated with hummingbirds had the highest level of complementary specialization and exclusivity in modules (functional specialists) and the longest corollas.

Conclusions: We have demonstrated that the topology of networks in this tropical montane environment was non-random and highly organized. Our findings underline that specialization indices convey different concepts of specialization and hence quantify different aspects, and that measuring specialization requires careful consideration of what defines a specialist.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Honey bees, Mutualism, Pollination, University of Northampton, Wasps

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

Cucumber fruit 20160713_103558

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

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

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

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

Megachile on cucumber 20160713_103627

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

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

Megachile on tomato 20160713_103712

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

Orzoco chilli 20160713_102213

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

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

 

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

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

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

Here’s the link to the Defra press release.

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

Why insects are declining globally, and why it matters.

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

 

 

 

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Scientists and gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Journal of Pollination Ecology – new volume announced

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

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

 

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How to deal with bumblebees in your roof [UPDATED]

Bombus hypnorum

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Honey bees, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

What does Brexit mean for British biodiversity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If the environmental argument for remaining in the EU wasn’t enough for you, watch this!

My previous post on the environmental argument for the UK remaining in the European Union was widely shared on Twitter and via Facebook (where there was a lot of discussion in some of the groups) and to date has been viewed almost 1500 times.  This suggests to me that there’s a large appetite for accessible, informed opinion that cuts through the hype and rhetoric of both the leave and remain camps.

With that in mind, view and share the following video by Professor Michael Dougan, an expert in EU constitutional law at Liverpool Law School. This is one of the best and most balanced over views I’ve seen of the consequences of leaving the EU; EVERYBODY who has a vote on Thursday should watch it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USTypBKEd8Y

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