Bound for the Great Southern Land

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Great Southern Land, in the sleeping sun
You walk alone with the ghost of time
They burned you black, black against the ground
And they make it work with rocks and sand

Great Southern Land by Icehouse

Today Karin and I are packing before heading to the airport for a flight tomorrow to Australia.  It will be Karin’s first trip to the Great Southern Land, and my second: I spent part of 1993 and 1994 there on a short postdoctoral research project.

We’ll be there for about two months. Karin will be writing (she’s working on a book and will be contributing further articles to Medium and other outlets).  I’ll be working with Angela Moles and Stephen Bonser at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) on an Australian Research Council-funded project looking at whether species interactions affect the invasibility of plants native to Europe that are running wild in Australia. So it’s test of the “enemy release hypothesis” (leaving behind the herbivores and parasites) but with the addition of a “making new friends” hypothesis, i.e. gaining pollinators and other mutualists. That grant, plus a Visiting Fellowship to UNSW, is funding the trip.

In a post back in May I mentioned the Australian PhD researcher, Zoe Xirocostas, who is also working on this project.  Zoe surveyed plant populations in the UK, Spain, France, Austria and Estonia over the summer. She is now back and in the middle of surveying in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.

As well as that project I want to spend time finalising my forthcoming book, collecting some data on Apocynaceae pollination ecology (of course!) and do some community-level surveys of wind/animal pollination to add to a global data set I am compiling.  Karin and I are also running a workshop at UNSW on “Writing for non-academic audiences” and I’m also giving a research seminar there and at Western Sydney University.  In addition we are visiting friends and family over Christmas and the New Year.  We’re packing a lot into a trip of two months!  And of course work at the University of Northampton never goes away – I have project students and PhD researchers to advise and there’ll be the usual weekly blizzard of emails to clear…

Having not been back to Australia since 1994 it will be interesting to see how it’s changed – a lot drier and smokier I imagine…  I’ll be updating the blog as the work progresses; over and out until we land in Sydney.

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More on historical honey bee numbers in Britain

Bees hives with earlier data points - 18th Nov

Following on from my post last week on historical changes in honey bee numbers in Britain, I decided to add the two extra, earlier data points to the graph just to illustrate what they mean for our understanding in how honey bee numbers may (or may not) have changed over the last 100 years.

The first data point is the Bailey & Perry (1982) estimate of 800,000 hives in the 1920s (which I’ve placed at 1929) that, as I mentioned, I think is wrong in terms of how they did the calculation.

The second data point is of 32,500 hives in 1919.  It’s from the article that Andrew Hubbard drew my attention to, which seems to be a fairly solid government statistic, or at least no less solid that much of the other government stats (unless anyone knows any better).

If we accept the 800,000 figure at face value then we see a massive increase in number of hives of over 76,000 new hives per year between 1919 and 1929.  And remember that’s being conservative as to what “the 1920s” meant to Bailey & Perry; if we peg the date at 1925 then we’re talking more than 127,000 hives being added to the British stock every year.  In my opinion that’s not a feasible proposition.

A much more likely scenario is that the number of hives grew during the second quarter of the 20th century and reached a peak in numbers at some point between the 1940s and 1950s.  That’s an increase of around 13,000 hives per year.  It’s still a lot, but is not unreasonable in light of post-World War 1, and subsequently World War 2, agricultural reforms that I highlighted in my post about British bee and flower-visiting wasp extinctions.   I’ve termed that “Jeff’s speculation” in the figure above because, in the absence of hard data, that’s all it can be.

As always, I welcome your comments.

 

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Two bee species new to science named in honour of pollination ecologists

New Eucera species

Last week the Israeli bee taxonomist Achik Dorchin published a new paper entitled “Taxonomic revision of the aequata-group of the subgenus Eucera s. str (Hymenoptera, Apidae, Eucerini)” .  The paper focuses on a little-known group of “longhorn” bees from the Eastern Mediterranean region, a part of the world with an extraordinarily high bee diversity.  In this taxonomic account, Achik has named two bees new to science in honour of two pollination biologists:

Eucera dafnii is named by Achik for Prof. Amots Dafni, whom he describes as his “teacher and friend…a pioneer pollination ecologist of the Mediterranean region, who has led the research project during which much of the type series was discovered”.  Amots is almost legendary in the field, he’s been conducting research on the flora, fauna, and pollination ecology of the region since the late 1960s, and remains a productive and influential scientist.

Eucera wattsi is named in honour of Dr Stella Watts, “a talented pollination ecologist, who collected much of the type series and contributed important floral observation and palynological data for this study”.  Stella completed her PhD at the University of Northampton in 2008, with a thesis on “Plant-flower visitor interactions in the Sacred Valley of Peru”, and then went on to do a post doc with Amots in Israel.

It’s fitting that these bees are named in their honour: congratulations Amots and Stella!

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Historical changes in honey bee numbers in Britain – how much do we know? UPDATED

Bee hives figure - 12 November

UPDATE:  On Twitter, Andrew Hubbard kindly drew my attention to the short article from 1919 at the bottom of this post in which it was estimated that British bee stocks at the time were as low as 32,500 hives.  As Andrew pointed out, this means that the estimate by Bailey and Perry of 800,000 hives in the 1920s cannot be correct.

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In one of the chapters of the book that I’m currently completing I deal with the question of the evidence for changes in the abundance and diversity of pollinators over time, both in Britain and globally.  Are we really in danger of losing most of our pollinator species?  Have honey bee numbers plummeted?  Has pollination of wild and crop plants been affected?  The evidence is mixed and too complex to deal with in a short blog post: you’ll have to read the book 🙂  However I want to present some data that I’ve collated on changes in honey bee hives in Britain to gauge opinions on what has gone on.  I’m not a specialist in bee keeping by any means, others are far more knowledgeable, so as always I’d be interested in peoples’ thoughts on this.

The graph above has been pieced together from data presented in various sources – see below.  From a post-WW2 peak of about 450,000 hives, numbers dropped to about 150,000 hives in the 1970s.  That seems very clear.  Numbers remained fairly stable until the early 1990s and then….what?  There are two possibilities: either numbers of hives crashed to fewer than 100,000 by 2008; or they increased hugely to more than 250,000.  Both scenarios cannot be correct!

There are huge uncertainties about the data during this period, however the most recent data from Defra is fairly solid, though it does require beekeepers to register their hives on BeeBase.   Given the wide range of the low and high estimates, the fact that bee keeping has become more popular over the past decade, and that the recent data sit more-or-less within this range (at least initially), I wonder whether honey bee numbers have actually remained quite stable over the past 25 years or so, and indeed have hovered around the 150,000 hives or so since the 1970s.

Of course an alternative scenario is that the varroa mite (which arrived in Britain in 1992) led to that huge collapse in bee numbers.  But I wonder if there’s really any evidence for that?  Were whole apiaries wiped out by varroa?  It’s notable that the decline in this period started much earlier than the arrival of varroa, in 1985.  Why was that?

Data sources:

The earliest data available are those in Bailey & Perry (1982 – Bulletin of Entomological Research 72: 655-662) that span 1946-1982. This should be fairly accurate for England and Wales, though their estimate of 800,000 hives in the 1920s needs to be treated with caution as they make a number of assumptions in their regression-based analysis that may be incorrect; I’ve therefore not included that data point on the graph. Unfortunately the UK stopped returning official numbers of hives to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN-FAO) in 1977, and their data up to 1987 is an unofficial estimate (http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#home). From 2003 the UK had to report bee hive numbers to the European Union to claim money for the National Apiculture Programme (https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/sites/agriculture/files/honey/programmes/programmes_en.pdf), but the figures were rather suspiciously constant between years. More recently beekeepers have been encouraged to register their hives with BeeBase (http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/) and hopefully these estimates are more realistic.

Data for part of this period were also presented in Potts, S.G. et al. (2010) Declines of managed honeybees and beekeepers in Europe? J. Apic. Res. 49, 15–22  Thanks to Prof. Simon Potts for sharing the data from that study.

Britsh Bee Journal 1919 - from Andrew Hubbard

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Beexploitation in social media – UPDATED

2019-07-28 11.15.10

UPDATE:  I should really have linked to Charlotte de Keyzer’s “bee-washing” site – https://www.bee-washing.com/ – it’s making much the same argument in a more comprehensive and elegant way.  That’s what happens when you post blogs first thing in the morning before the (bee pollinated!) coffee has properly kicked your brain into gear…..

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I am fond of new words – neologisms – and if pollinators can be included, so much the better.  For example see my recent post about autobeeography.  That refers to memoirs which focus around work or encounters with bees, of course.  So here’s a new one:  “beexploitation”.

Beexploitaton is a play on blaxpoitation of course, and refers to articles, campaigns, social media, etc., that seeks to make financial or reputational gain from making wild and unsubstantiated claims about pollinators, most often honeybees.  Here’s an egregious example that caught my eye this morning and stimulated this post:  https://www.boredpanda.com/influencer-bee-b-fondation-de-france/

Worryingly, this is set up by the French Government and is aimed at raising money from well meaning people to “save the bees”.  But it’s full of nonsense claims such as that bees pollinate cocoa plants to give us chocolate.  They don’t – the pollinators of cocoa are primarily, perhaps exclusively, small flies.  There are other errors too and we know that honeybees, globally, are not as important as wild pollinators for crop plants.  We need to highlight and critique this sort of rubbish because it diverts money and attention away from genuinely well thought out initiatives to conserve pollinators.

As always, I’m happy to receive comments and other examples of beexploitation.

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Are you ready for SCAPE 2019?

SCAPE logo

Later this week the 33rd annual meeting of the Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology (SCAPE) takes place at a venue near Lund in Sweden.  Here’s a link to the conference website on which you can find the programme and the abstracts.

SCAPE is the longest running such conference in the world and this year’s meeting promises to be a bumper one, with at least 130 delegates and two great keynote speakers: Prof. Rachael Winfree and Prof. Sharon Strauss.

For the first time I’m giving a short “flash talk” of just four minutes which will be interesting…..will I be able to stick to time?

I will try to post some thoughts from the meeting on the blog but to be honest I’m more likely to tweet using the hash tag #SCAPE2019 and the account @SCAPE_Poll_Ecol.  Watch out for those if you’re on Twitter.

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The role of press freedom in protecting the environment

Ollerton et al Press freedom Figure 1

Recently I’ve been working with a couple of journalist colleagues at the University of Northampton on a short article exploring the relationship between press freedom and environmental protection in different countries.  That piece has just been published on the Democratic Audit website – here’s the link.

I think that the findings are really interesting, and timely in an age when press freedoms are being eroded and journalists physically attacked and even murdered.

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Celebrating the environmental and historical heritage of the Nene Valley

One of the great privileges of the job I have is working with individuals and organisations across all aspects of conservation and science; people who are asking the most fundamental of ecological or evolutionary questions, through to those addressing on-the-ground questions of habitat management and restoration.  One of my current roles is as a board member for Nenescape Landscape Partnership Scheme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (2016-2021) and involving multiple Northamptonshire partners, with the University of Northampton acting as the Competent Authority for the financing of the scheme.  Our students and staff are also involved in various ways, volunteering their time and expertise.

Friday and Saturday this week was taken up representing the University and the Nenescape board at events that showcased Nenescape-funded projects.  First up was the East Northants Greenway project where we admired the new benches that had been installed, the clearance of rubbish along this former railway, tree planting, the All Aboard for Rushden Art Codes project, and a new mural, and chatted with local residents who seem to be very happy with the work that’s been done.  Then it was along to Rushden Transport Museum to look at the work that’s been done on the old railway goods shed.  On Saturday I was up at Ferry Meadows near Peterborough to try out the new boardwalk that has been installed and to see the restoration of Heron Meadow as a site for overwintering wild fowl and waders.  I now have temporary tattoos of pollinators…. Later in the afternoon I headed to Stanwick Lakes for a celebration of the new barn and heritage garden that’s been created as part of the Settlers of the Nene Valley project, complete with a Viking re-enactment group.  Here are some images from the two days:

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2019-09-21 14.43.51

 

2019-09-21 17.47.26

2019-09-21 17.38.28

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Nene Valley NIA, Nenescape, Northants LNP, University of Northampton

What exactly is a “pollination system”?

Pollination systems

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time, but have never got round to.  What’s catalysed me is an email this morning from Casper van der Kooi asking me about how I define the term “pollination system”, as he’d had some discussions about its use with his colleagues in The Netherlands.

“Pollination system” is one of those terms that seems to mean different things to different people. The way I use it, and I think the way we meant it in the 1996 paper Generalization in pollination systems and why it matters, is that the pollination system = floral phenotype + pollinators.  That is to say, the colour, shape, size, odour, rewards, etc. produced by a flower (or an inflorescence functioning as a single reproductive unit) plus the animals that effectively transfer pollen.

To me this is distinct from a “pollination syndrome” which refers only to the floral phenotype, or “pollinator guild/functional group” which refers only to the flower visitors.  However I have seen “pollination syndrome” used to include floral phenotype + pollinators.  But to my mind they are distinct things.

I have also seen other authors use “pollination system” to mean the community of plants and pollinators in an area, or as analogous to the breeding system, but neither of those are the way that I use it.  I decided to look at the history of the term on Web of Science and the earliest use on there is a paper by Levin & Berube (1972): Phlox and Colias – efficiency of a pollination system.  There were a few other papers from the same decade and all were using pollination system in the way I described above, i.e. floral phenotype + pollinators.

To look for earlier usage of pollination system I searched the Google Ngram Viewer; as you can see in the image above, I found examples of the term back as far as the 1940s in which the pollination system of grasses is referred to as being “cross pollination” (i.e. what we would now refer to as the breeding system).  There’s also texts from the 1950s referring to artificial wind pollination of date palms as a “helicopter pollination system”.

Does it matter how “pollination system” is used, or that it varies in meaning according to the author?  Probably not as long as the meaning is defined in the text.  Ecology is replete with terminology that has slightly different usage according to the researcher (“biodiversity” being an obvious example) and I don’t get a sense that this has held back the field.  Or is that too optimistic a conclusion?  Do you use the term in a different way to me?  As always, your comments are welcomed.

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Auto-bee-ography – a new genre of writing?

20190904_134703

In the post today I was pleased to find a copy of Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s first book Dancing With Bees that she had kindly signed and sent after I reviewed some of the text.  It was great timing – I’ve just finished Mark Cocker’s Our Place, a really important historical and future road map of how Britain got to its present position of denuded and declining biodiversity, and what we can do to halt and reverse it. Highly recommended for anyone interested in environmental politics and action.  So Brigit’s book will be added to the pile on my bedside table and may be next in line, though I still haven’t finished Dave Goulson’s The Garden Jungle – perhaps I will do that before I start Dancing With Bees?

And thereby lies a problem – there’s just too many interesting books to read at the moment if you are interested in the environment, or indeed even just in pollinators.  Because a new genre of writing seems to be emerging that I call “auto-bee-ography”. A number of writers are using bees to frame their memoirs and anecdotes.  Dave’s trilogy of Buzz in the Meadow, Sting in the Tale, and Bee Quest is probably the best known. Then there’s Buzz by Thor Hanson; Following the Wild Bees by Thomas Seeley; Bees-at-Law byNoël Sweeney; Keeping the Bees by Laurence Packer; Bee Time by Mark Winston; Bees Make the Best Pets by Jack Mingo; Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee
by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut; The Secrets of Bees by Michael Weiler; and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury.

All of these books fall more-or-less into the category of auto-bee-ography, and I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed (feel free to add to the list in the comments below).  They follow a strong tradition in natural history and environmental writing of using encounters with particular groups of organisms, for example birds and plants, as a way of exploring wider themes  Which is great, the more high profile we can make all of these organisms, including pollinators, the better in my opinion*.

However there’s not enough written about the other pollinators, that does seem to be a gap in the literature.  Mike Shanahan’s Ladders to Heaven has a lot about his encounters with figs and their pollinating wasps, but that’s about it, unless I’ve missed some?  Perhaps in the future I’ll write something auto-fly-ographical called No Flies on Me.  But before that, look out for Pollinators and Pollination: nature and society which I’m currently completing for Pelagic Publishing.  It should be out in Spring 2020.


*Though not in everyone’s – I had a very interesting discussion on Twitter with some other ecologists recently about whether pollinators had too high a profile compared to organisms that perform other functional roles in ecosystems such as seed dispersers.  You can follow the thread from here: https://twitter.com/JMBecologist/status/1165565465705496576

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Book review, Pollination