Something for the weekend #5

The latest in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week:

  • The British Government’s official line on the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on bee health is largely based on a widely criticised study conducted by the UK’s Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) which concluded that there was no link to bumblebee pesticide exposure and colony performance.  Professor Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex has now reanalysed the original data and shown that in fact there was a significant effect of the pesticides on those nests.  You can read the study in full here.  How could the FERA scientists get it so wrong?  Were they influenced by Defra’s desire to come to a particular conclusion?
  • It will be interesting to see how FERA responds to this criticism of their work, though it may take a while to get a full answer: the lead scientist on the study now works for agrochemicals firm Syngenta….
  • The story has also been picked up by some media outlets, notably the Guardian.  Pity they confused honey bees with bumblebees though – managed honey bees use human-made hives; bumblebees use nests (even artificial ones).
  • The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, which I talked about in a post earlier this year, has reported its results.  There seems to be good news for some species, but for others it was bad: for example, there’s been an 80% drop in observations of starling since the scheme began in 1979.  Starlings are now RSPB Red Status due to their worrying decline; whilst they are still common, they are not anywhere near as common as they used to be.

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related links.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Geology, Honey bees, RSPB

The state of bees: the European Red List has been published

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As I’ve frequently reported on this blog, there is growing global concern about declines in pollinator diversity and abundance across many regions, and much research is going on into what is causing those declines, their scale and consequences, and what can be done to reverse pollinator loss. It’s therefore great to see the publication of the European Red List of Bees which provides information on the conservation status of the c. 2000 species of bees in Europe.

The report uses standard IUCN criteria for assessing each species and has been picked up by various media and NGOs, who have typically promoted it with claims such as “Nearly one in 10 of Europe’s wild bee species face extinction“.  However the reality of what the report has found is much more complex and nuanced than the headlines suggest.  Over half of the bee species were classified as Data Deficient, meaning that we don’t have enough information to assess whether they are threatened or not.  Of those that could be classified, 7 species are Critically Endangered, including 3 that are endemic to Europe and found nowhere else in the world; 46 are Endangered including 12 endemics; 24 are Vulnerable, with 7 endemic; 101 are Near Threatened with 17 endemic; 663 are Least Concern (68 endemic), meaning that there are no immediate threats to their survival.

If we turn the “1 in 10″ headline around, then a more accurate statement would be “Over 90% of Europe’s bees (for which we have sufficient data) are not immediately threatened by extinction”.  Of course that could change once data for the poorly studied species becomes available.  These are not grounds for complacency; but neither are they grounds for panic.

The scale at which we assess biodiversity is critical if we are to fully understand the threats to species, and when and where limited funds can be prioritised for conservation actions.  Species that are locally endangered or even extinct may actually be quite common when assessed across the whole of their distributional range.  For this reason it’s important to consider the status of species in as wide a geographic region as is possible.  Preferably this would mean a global assessment; but for most species we simply don’t have enough information to be able to undertake such a study, particularly for developing countries where there are limited historical records of species occurrences on which to draw.  Even in a relatively developed region such as Europe, with a long history of natural history observation and monitoring, there are huge gaps in our knowledge – in this case for more than half of Europe’s bees.

With this in mind I looked at the European status of those bee species which are now extinct in the UK, as I discussed in December.  Two of the extinct species are considered Critical (Bombus cullumanus and Andrena tridentata); two are Near Threatened (Dufourea minuta and D. halictula); seven other species are Least Concern; and the remaining two (Andrena lepida and A. lathyri) are Data Deficient.  Clearly some of the UK extinct species are in trouble across Europe, but others are not and may re-colonise the UK in the future, as we believe may have happened in the last couple of years for Andrena vaga.  Or they could be helped to re-colonise via a reintroduction programme, as has been done for Bombus subterraneus

Another way in which to put the findings of this report into a wider context is to consider how the level of threat to bees compares with that of other groups of species.  The authors helpfully provide some comparative data in the summary, which I’ve graphed below (click on it for a better view):

IUCN stats

Overall the proportion of threatened bees is identical to that of butterflies, perhaps because they require some similar resources (flowers on which to feed) and tend to be found in broadly similar habitats.  But other taxa are at much greater risk, particularly freshwater fish and molluscs: yet these taxa have not received the same level of publicity about their plight.  Their are no “Save the Mussels” campaigns, or television series about endangered fish in rivers and lakes.  This is surprising: clearly bees have grabbed the public’s attention because of the role they play in crop pollination, but freshwater fish are also suppliers of ecosystem services either directly (fishing) or indirectly (playing a role in maintaining the “health” of these ecosystems, as do the molluscs). Perhaps more importantly for these species, they are also indicators of water quality, an aspect of natural capital that concerns us all.

The authors of the European Red List of Bees are to be congratulated on a fine piece of work that makes a major contribution to our understanding of pollinator conservation, and is timely, coming soon after the publication of the National Pollinator Strategy for England.  However there’s still a lot of work to do to fill in the gaps for species that are Data Deficient and to understand the more detailed population trends, which are unknown for almost 80% of the bee species.

One of the most surprising findings, though, is that the honey bee (Apis mellifera), the most intensively researched pollinating insect on the planet, is considered Data Deficient “until further research enables us to differentiate between wild and non-wild colonies in order to determine the conservation status of the species in the wild.”  That’s an interesting state of affairs!

Full citation:

Nieto, A., Roberts, S.P.M., Kemp, J., Rasmont, P., Kuhlmann, M., García Criado, M., Biesmeijer, J.C., Bogusch, P., Dathe, H.H., De la Rúa, P., De Meulemeester, T., Dehon, M., Dewulf, A., Ortiz-Sánchez, F.J., Lhomme, P., Pauly, A., Potts, S.G., Praz, C., Quaranta, M., Radchenko, V.G., Scheuchl, E., Smit, J., Straka, J., Terzo, M., Tomozii, B., Window, J. and Michez, D. 2014. European Red List of bees. Luxembourg: Publication Office of the European Union.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, Pollination

How do animals respond to solar eclipses? Please share your observations.

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If you have been anywhere in the Palearctic during the past 48 hours then you can’t have missed the fact that we experienced that most rare of astronomical phenomena, a solar eclipse.  The eclipse was total only as far north as the Faroe Islands and Svalbard; further south it was partial and here in Northampton the eclipse was perhaps 80-90% total.

It’s been big news with lots of public interest.  As well as explaining the astronomy of eclipses, various commentators on current affairs and science programmes have talked about how animals respond to eclipses.  This is a topic that’s intrigued me ever since the August 1999 eclipse.  During that event I was carrying out field work in a Northampton grassland and as the eclipse reached its maximum the bumblebees and butterflies on the site stopped flying and foraging, and settled into the grass.  Once the eclipse had passed they carried on as before.  I don’t have any hard data to demonstrate the effect, it was purely an observation of what was happening around me.

Since then I’ve waited over 15 years for the next opportunity to observe how solar eclipses affect animal behaviour.  Unfortunately there are few pollinators flying at the moment so I had to content myself with watching the gulls, woodpigeons, carrion crows and other birds on the Racecourse park adjacent to the university.

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This time I took some video footage before, during and after the eclipse, noted the birds’ behaviour, flying, calls and singing.  And guess what? As far as I could tell the eclipse had no effect on the birds!  They behaved as if nothing was happening.  Even a mistle thrush than had been singing all morning from a perch in one of the boundary lime trees continued its song as the moon passed in front of the sun.

That really surprised me!  I was expecting the birds to at least reduce their activity as has been noted in previous eclipses.  But they didn’t as far as I could tell.  Perhaps it was the type of birds I was observing?  Or the time of year?  Or the fact that the eclipse was only partial?  Lots of questions but it’s difficult to do repeat observations for this kind of science – the next British total eclipse is not until 2090!

What did you see?  Did you notice any effect of the eclipse on animal behaviour?  Or did you, like me, see no effect of the eclipse.  I’d be interested to hear your observations.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Butterflies, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Something for the weekend #4

The latest in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week:

 

  • It’s been a good week for birds: Jerdon’s babbler, a species thought to have been extinct for over 70 years, has been rediscovered in Myanmar, whilst the Blue-bearded helmetcrest, a hummingbird not seen for 69 years, has recently been photographed in Colombia.

 

 

  • Related to this, prominent ecologist Charley Krebs asks why physical sciences take the largest share of science budgets, given the importance (and urgency) of global environmental problems.  Charley’s text books have long been required reading on our undergraduate degrees, including his latest The Ecological World View.

 

 

 

 

  • Finally and close to home, the Northampton Greyfriars Bus Station, widely regarded as one of the ugliest buildings in Britain, was demolished with a set of controlled explosions.  What’s that got to do with biodiversity, I hear you ask?  Well the area of green space visible as a still before the video starts, and shown later at 0:45 and 1:15, was one of the field sites used by my PhD student Muzafar Hussain during his surveys of urban solitary bees, which I’ve talked about previously, e.g. here and here.   That patch of green, a rather neglected area of urban grassland with some scattered trees, was home to at least 17 species of bees.  Will they survive the demolition?  Hopefully, though the future redevelopment of the area may result in their loss.  But that’s been happening to urban bee populations for centuries, and they are adaptable and mobile.  I’ll talk more about Muzafar’s work in a post in the near future as the first manuscript from his PhD research has been accepted for publication.

 

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related links.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Ecosystem services, Urban biodiversity

Something for the weekend #3

The latest in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week:

 

  • A new report by WWF documents over 1000 new species discovered in Papua New Guinea between 1998 and 2008, and the risks to their survival from logging and other human activities.

 

  • How does history inform ecological restoration?  Ian Lunt has a great post on this topic.

 

 

  • In the latest in a series of high-profile rewilding initiatives, the conservation charity Lynx UK Trust has launched a survey to elicit public views on their proposal to reintroduce these large cats – make your views known here.

 

 

  • The University of Northampton’s annual Images of Research exhibition is available to view online and you can vote for your favourite three images.  Now I’m not saying that you should vote for “An ecosystem in a cup”.  But you could.  If you wanted to.

 

  • Staying with the University of Northampton, the Press Office has made me the first Staff Blogger of the Month.  Which is nice.  Not sure exactly how many other staff blog, but my impression is that it’s not many so it may be only a matter of time before I’m honoured again.  I thought I’d share what I wrote when asked about why I blog:

“Why do I blog? The main aim is to communicate the science relating to the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services (and therefore why we need to conserve species and habitats) to as wide an audience as possible, including the general public, students, non-governmental organisations, businesses, and policy makers, as well as other academics.  Some of that communication relates to examples from our own research, and I also draw on the work of others in the field.  A secondary aim is to give my students a flavour of what it is that I actually do in the rest of my job: teaching is only part of the story!”

 

  • All of which links nicely to the recent post by Jeremy Fox, and subsequent discussion, over at Dynamic Ecology about whether science blogging (and specifically “ecology” blogs, whatever they might be) is on the decline.  For what it’s worth, I don’t think it is and I also think that the definition of what “ecology” blogging actually covers is much wider than the discussion suggests.

 

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related links.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Personal biodiversity, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

What Einstein didn’t say about bees – UPDATED

https://i0.wp.com/www.impawards.com/intl/misc/2012/thumbs/sq_more_than_honey.jpg

 

In the 100th anniversary year since Albert Einstein published the paper on his General Theory of Relativity, it’s saddening to think that one of the things that he will be best remembered for is something he did not say.  There are various versions of it, but they all amount to the same thing:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

This statement could be dissected and disproved in numerous ways:  for example, there’s over 20,000 species of bees, so what is “the bee”?  Plus most of our crops are not bee (or even insect) pollinated, they are wind pollinated grasses such as wheat and rice.  Etc. etc.

But what is particularly annoying about it is – EINSTEIN NEVER SAID IT!  As far as anyone is aware he had no interest in bees whatsoever and the original source was a Canadian beekeepers’ journal in the 1940s.

It’s even more annoying that, despite the fact that we’ve known the statement is both factually incorrect and not by the great man, documentary film makers and journalists are STILL using it to support their work.  The latest example I’ve seen is this documentary, the poster of which is shown above.

Rant over: back to reading paperwork for a meeting this afternoon.

 

UPDATE:  I’d forgotten that Tom Breeze at University of Reading posted a fuller account of Einstein’s (non) quote last year – here’s the link.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Ecosystem services, History of science, Honey bees, Pollination

Something for the weekend #2

The second in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week**.

 

 

  • If you’d like to help raise money for bird conservation projects, please consider sponsoring Northants County Bird Recorder Mike Alibone’s team in the Champions of the Flyway event

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Finally, if you’re the only person on the planet who has not seen a weasel riding on the back of a woodpecker, would you like to?  Of course you would!
*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related links.
**Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Ecosystem services

Monitoring the biodiversity impact of the new Waterside Campus

Waterside winter 2014-15 - 2

All human activities can potentially have an impact on the biodiversity of the local environment in which they occur.  That impact can be positive or negative, depending upon how the activity is managed, how impact is mitigated, and the metrics that we use to measure the effects that are occurring.  This is particularly true of large infrastructure developments such as big buildings,  housing developments, roads, and, a category close to home for me at the moment, new university campuses.

I’ve written before about the University of Northampton’s plans to build the new Waterside Campus on brownfield land close to the River Nene, here and here.  It’s a huge project, likely to cost in excess of £330 million on a site covering about 20 hectares.

As you might imagine, such an ambitious scheme has not been without its controversies and there is much debate within the university about changes to how we work and interact with colleagues and students, provision of teaching and research spaces, etc.  There’s also been much discussion within the town, though the general feeling amongst the public (as far as I perceive it) is that bringing the university closer to the centre of Northampton will provide a much-needed economic boost and add significantly to the town’s life.

But what effect will such a development have on the wildlife in and around this peri-urban site, given that it’s in the middle of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area and very close to internationally important bird sites?

Over the past few months, together with my colleague Dr Janet Jackson, I’ve been taking part in meetings with the Waterside project’s landscape architects (LUC), other partners from the NIA project board, and the local Wildlife Trust. We’ve been discussing the current plans for the green infrastructure of the campus and thinking about how these can be enhanced.  It’s been a fascinating process as initial disagreements have been negotiated towards compromises and additions that everyone is happy with, balancing budgetary, function and space restrictions with habitat creation and landscape enhancement.

There’s too much been discussed to give a full account at this stage, and it’s possible that some details will change over time, but  the current Ecology Strategy document produced by LUC shows that there will be more than 10 hectares of habitat creation on the site, including species-rich grassland, woodland patches, brown and green roofs, swales and damp areas, and recreated brownfield habitat.  The latter is particularly exciting and something of an experiment, as much of the (albeit limited) current wildlife interest on the site relates to the brownfield element, including the “urban tundra“.

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To put the 10 hectares into perspective, the adjacent Wildlife Trust Local Nature Reserve of Barnes Meadow is only 20 hectares in area, so it’s potentially increasing that site by 50%.  It’s rare for academic ecologists such as Janet and myself to be able to influence large building developments, so this has been an exciting opportunity for us to make a contribution that (if all goes to plan) will have a positive effect on biodiversity conservation in the Nene Valley.

But how will we know if the Great Waterside Experiment has been a success and that the biodiversity of the new campus is at least as rich, and preferably richer, in species than it was before building took place?

Monitoring of the wildlife is key to this.  Fortunately we have some base-line surveys of birds, plants and invertebrates (including bees and butterflies) from before building started that we can compare with later surveys during and after the campus build.  That process has already started, and with my colleague Dr Duncan McCollin and with two keen second-year students, Jo and Charlie, we have already completed three winter bird surveys to get a sense of how the current site clearance and ground works is affecting the presence of birds in and around the development, including those using the River Nene.  The plan is to continue these surveys up to and after the campus opens in 2018, to give us a data series showing the influence of the campus on bird diversity and numbers.

The initial results are currently being analysed and it appears that the current phase of building has reduced overall bird diversity by about 30%, and that red and amber status birds (of most conservation concern) have been affected more than green status birds, as this figure demonstrates (click on it for a closer view):

Waterside bird surveys

These rough figures hide a lot of detail, however.  For example, there has been some addition of species in 2014-15 that were not recorded in 2012-13, including Coot, Treecreeper and the amber-status Stock dove.  More importantly, some of the amber status birds that we didn’t record on site in 2014-15, we know from additional surveys are still present in habitats within 500 metres of the development, for example Dunnock, Green woodpecker, and Bullfinch.  Similarly, red status birds such as resident Starling, and winter migrant Fieldfare and Redwing occur within at least one kilometre of the site.  Hopefully as the building work progresses towards completion these (and other) species will return, so at the moment we’re not too concerned by their disappearance from the site.

Later in the spring we will conduct a couple of breeding bird surveys, and continue surveying for the next few years until the campus opens in 2018.  Only then will we see exactly how successful our influence has been.  In the mean time I’ll report back as and when we have more data to share.

Waterside winter 2014-15

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Butterflies, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Something for the weekend #1

Two of my favourite blogs, Dynamic Ecology and Small Pond Science, both produce end-of-week compilations of links to interesting items on the web.  On the basis that plagiarism imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I thought I’d follow suit with a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week**.  This is the first one.

 

  • In an article in the Times Higher, John Warren and colleagues discuss their concern about the decline in graduates with species identification skills.  They raise some valid points that echo worries that others have raised in the past, but I question their assertion that “each year there are fewer than 10 UK graduates who are proficient enough in field identification skills to be employable”.  I’d like to see some evidence to back that up.
  • Mr Spock has died; I’ve always loved Star Trek and Leonard Nimoy’s passing is sad news.  But he lived long, and he prospered, and we can’t ask more from life than that.
  • Tropical deforestation may have actually accelerated, not decreased, according to a new study.  But Brazil is faring better than other countries.
*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related links.
**Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, Pollination

Clever crows!

Clever crows

Back in October I was staring out of the window of the office that I share with my colleagues, something I often do when I’m pondering a question or trying to add a tick to our “Birds Seen Out of the Window” list*, when I spotted something odd.  A pair of crows had focused their attention on a brown patch of lawn and appeared to be eating the grass.  I’m not much of a birder but I do know enough about crows to realise that grass is not a regular feature of their diet.  The same behaviour was observed a few other times after that, and on other occasions magpies were seen doing the same thing.  What could be going on?

Once I’d taken a closer look at the patch of dead grass the explanation was clear.  During our first year undergraduate induction week about a month earlier there had been a barbeque set up on that spot which had leaked hot fat onto the grass.  What the birds were eating was dead grass coated in lard, a useful source of fat to store for the cold conditions of the oncoming winter.

That’s one of things I love about urban birds such as corvids and gulls: they are adaptable and will exploit any resource that becomes available.  But how had they located the patch of fatty grass?  Were they simply exploring the lawn and stumbled across it by accident?  Seems plausible especially as they often feed on earthworms on the adjacent parkland.  Could they smell it?  The acuity of birds’ sense of smell has been the topic of considerable debate, but that’s certainly a possibility.

I was reminded to post this (originally half-written before Christmas) by a story on the BBC news website this morning about a young girl in the USA who receives gifts from the crows in her garden.  If you’ve not read it, please do: it’s a wonderful example of positive interactions between humans and the rest of biodiversity.

Crows (and other corvids) get a bad press, being often described as “evil” (surely a term that only applies to humans) and blamed for the demise of “nicer” birds – a reputation that is not completely justified, as a recent post on Kaeli Swift’s crow research site demonstrates.

So, learn to appreciate (even love) the crows in your local neighborhood; they will reward you with some entertainment as you watch their behaviour, if not necessarily with gifts.

 

*currently standing at 19 species and rising every month.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Birds, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity