Monthly Archives: September 2018

The good and the bad in biodiversity

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At some point last week a small fly bit my leg, perhaps a biting midge in the family Ceratopogonidae*.   In doing so, the fly infected the wound with bacteria, possibly a Staphylococcus species.  That’s turned into a large, painful cellulitis (pictured) that is causing fever, body aches, dizziness, sweating, sleep problems, exhaustion, and general unwellness**.  Although I love biodiversity, sometimes it causes all kinds of health problems for humans.  Bad biodiversity.

A visit to my GP yesterday afternoon resulted in her prescribing me a course of antibiotics, specifically clarithromycin.  Although this is a synthetic antibiotic it was developed as a variant of erythromycin which in turn is a natural antibiotic isolated from the bacterium Streptomyces erythraea.  Good biodiversity.

There’s a temptation in environmentalism to see nature as all good, a Mother Earth that provides for us.  Which it does, and one way of considering these benefits is as ecosystem services.  However nature also inflicts a whole range of ecosystem disservices on the human population of this planet, backed up by some of its biodiversity.  Nature is neither all good nor all bad, it just is.

My first year undergraduate classes start next week with the module Biodiversity: an Introduction.  I hope to be well enough to teach it and at some point I’ll use this as an example the good and the bad in biodiversity.

 

 

*Ironically flies in this family are major pollinators of one of the main groups of plants I study in the genus Ceropegiasee this post from last year.

**And a pain in the arse to my wife – sorry Karin!  It was she who persuaded me to go and see the GP after a few days of “no, no, it will get better on its own….”

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Hornets are pollinators too!

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This morning I spent a very pleasant couple of hours walking around the farm that’s at the heart of the Warner Edwards Gin Distillery, in Harrington just north of Northampton.  We are setting up some collaborations around conservation and sustainability between the university and Warner Edwards.  The first of these involves surveys of their farm by one of our final year undergraduates, Ellie West, to assess pollinator diversity and abundance, and opportunities for habitat enhancement on the farm.

One of the highlights of this morning’s visit was seeing this gorgeous hornet (Vespa crabro) taking nectar from common ivy (Hedera helix).  I think that she’s a queen stocking up on energy prior to hibernating.  But just look at how much pollen she’s carrying!  There’s every chance that she’s a very effective pollinator of ivy, which is a key nectar resource at this time of year.  It’s such an important plant in other ways too: ivy binds the landscape physically and ecologically, in ways few other native plants do.  Pollination by insects such as hornets (and hundreds of other species) results in berries that are eaten by birds and mammals, whilst the branches and dense, evergreen canopy provides nesting sites for birds and shelter for over wintering insects.

Hornets and ivy: two of my favourite native British species.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Mammals, Pollination, University of Northampton, Wasps

Which h index should I use? UPDATED

2018-09-16 10.04.28

UPDATE:  Thanks to my kind commentators (below) who pointed out that one can change Google Scholar, taking out papers that don’t belong, merging variants, etc.  It had been a while since I looked at Google Scholar and perhaps I knew this in the past but had forgotten.  However I had an issue with it linking to my Google account and so had to delete the old profile and set up a new one.  That seems to have worked OK, I have got rid of the publications that weren’t mine, and my h-index looks to be fairly accurate at 38.  I have adjusted the text below to reflect this.

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Despite some (well founded) criticism as to its usefulness, the h-index seems to be with us to stay.  In a couple of posts I’ve articulated some of its advantages and disadvantages – see for example What’s the point of the h-index? and How does a scientist’s h-index change over time? – and it’s clear that more and more funding agencies are using it to evaluate the track record of applicants.  Just this afternoon I finished the second of a couple of grant reviews in which the applicant was asked to state their h-index.  What they were not asked was which h-index they should state, i.e. the source of the value, though I think that this is important information.  Why?  Because it varies so much depending on where the it comes from.  I’ll give you an example – here’s my own h-index values taken from a few different sources:

Google Scholar: h = 38

ResearchGate: h = 36

ResearchGate (excluding self citations): h = 34

Web of Science (all databases): h = 34

Web of Science (Core Collection): h = 29

Scopus: h = 29

There’s a 10 point difference (almost 25%) between the largest and the smallest values.  So which one should I cite in grant applications, on my CV, etc.  Well the largest one, obviously!  Right?  Well maybe, but not necessarily.  In fact none of these values are completely accurate, though some are more accurate than others.

Web of Science includes papers and book chapters that don’t belong to me, and I can easily shave a couple of points off that value.  Some of these mis-attributions are chapters from a volume that I co-edited.  Some are papers that I edited for PLoS ONE and which have been assigned to my record.  Others are for the two or three other researchers named “J. Ollerton” who are out there.  Google Scholar had some entries which are just bizarre, such as “The social life of musical instruments” by Eliot Bates, which Google Scholar seems to think I wrote and has credited me with its 102 citations.  However, as you can see form the update, I’ve corrected this.

Web of Science and Scopus don’t pick up as many citations in books or reports as does Google Scholar which is a deficiency in my opinion.  Being cited in a peer-reviewed journal is often thought of as being the gold standard of citation but frankly I’m very happy to be cited in government and NGO reports, policy documents, etc., which themselves may often be peer reviewed, just by a different type of peer.

Poised in the middle of this range, ResearchGate may be most accurate but it lacks transparency: as far as I can see there isn’t a way to look at all of your citation data per paper in one go, you have to look at each publication individually (and who has time for that, frankly?)

As far as calculating an accurate h-index is concerned I don’t think we will ever come to an agreement as to what should be considered a publication or a citation.  But systems like Google Scholar and Web of Science should at least try to be accurate when assigning publications to an individual’s record.

So which h-index should you use?  In the interests of accuracy and honesty I think it’s best to state a range and/or add a proviso that you have corrected the value for mis-attribution of publications.  In my case I’d say something like:

“Depending on source my h-index lies between 29 (Scopus) and 38 (Google Scholar)”.

If the h-index is to have any value at all (and there are those who argue that it doesn’t and shouldn’t) then it requires us as scholars to at least try to make it as accurate as we can.  Because frankly I don’t think it’s going to go away any time soon.

 

 

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Why I’m joining the People’s Walk for Wildlife on Saturday 22nd September

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If you live in the UK and have an interest in wildlife you’ve probably heard about the event that takes place in London this coming Saturday:  The People’s Walk for Wildlife.  If you follow that link you’ll find a video of Chris Packham explaining what the walk is all about and why he’s organised it, plus logistical information, timings, etc.

Karin and I are going to join the walk and I thought I’d give a brief summary of why I think it’s important for people to take part.

If you watch the video you’ll see that Chris does a great job of laying out the issue of wildlife loss, a loss not just of species but of abundance.  There are species that still can be found in Britain but which have declined in numbers by 90% or more over my lifetime.  Such species can be found in all of the major groups of biodiversity in this country:  birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians, insects and other invertebrates, fungi, and plants.  Many, many millions of individuals gone from our countryside.

Why has this happened?  Well, the causes are complex and inter-related.  Agricultural intensification over the last century has been a major issue as I’ve previously discussed on this blog in relation to pollinator extinctions.  But that’s only part of it. Another big problem that we have in the UK is an unwillingness to let nature just get on with itself.  We feel that we have to manage everything: Too many ravens?  Cull them.  Hedgerows or road verges looking a bit untidy?  Cut them.  Old tree infected with a fungus?  Chop it down.

In part this mindset is linked to an idea of what natural heritage should look like, an idea of order within a landscape, of making the countryside look pretty, and of doing things simply because that’s what our predecessors did.  A good example was recently tweeted by Dave Goulson who had found mole traps on a Natural Trust property that he visited; as Dave rightly said:  “When will we stop slaughtering harmless wildlife that causes us the tiniest inconvenience?”  There is no reason in this day and age to kill moles – what conceivable harm do they do?  In fact, as ecosystem engineers, they are an important part of the ecology of the British countryside.

One of the reasons why this is happening largely unnoticed by the government agencies responsible for the environment is that our landscapes change at a very slow rate.  Indeed places like the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands or the Chiltern Hills look much the same as they have done for hundreds of years.  Visually they are still stunning places to visit and that’s why they attract millions of tourists every year, and also why people enjoy living there.  But they have lost much of their wildlife and, with it, some of the ecological function that makes them work as ecosystems.  If this continues then natural processes such as dispersal of seeds by birds and mammals, and the subsequent maintenance of tree populations, will cease.

But that’s okay isn’t it?  Trees and shrubs not establishing themselves: go out and plant them by hand.  Is this really what we want?  If it is then we will end up turning our countryside into a museum.  And not even a very good museum at that: not a museum with dynamic interactive displays, rather a static, dull set of exhibits that you can only peer at through dusty glass.

So that’s why we are joining the People’s Walk for Wildlife next Saturday: this is an important issue and people need to show government that they are concerned.  I hope you agree and I hope you will join us.

Dave G. has promised to come dressed as a bumblebee; I’ve seen his costume and he’s a man of his word, so it’ll be worth looking out for him.  I can’t promise anything so flamboyant but I may well take a placard that says something like:  “Save ALL of our pollinators, not just bees!”  If you spot it, do some over and say hello.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services

There ain’t no b(ee) in Starbucks

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I do love a road trip.  Karin and I are just back from a drive too and from her homeland of Denmark, via ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland, in order to pick up a porcelain dinner service that belonged to her grandparents.  It was a great trip and I hope to put up some photos from that shortly.  But before then I thought I’d write a short post about a key element of any good road trip:  coffee.

If I drive for two hours or so I have to take a break and top up with at least a coffee, possibly also a snack, certainly lunch at the appropriate time.  Last Friday, en route to Harwich, we stopped off at a motorway service station that had a Starbucks.  Whilst waiting for my coffee (Americano, no milk, thank you very much) I noticed that there was quite a lot of text on the walls all about where and how coffee grows, its cultivation and harvesting, and so forth.  Being the sort of ecologist who is interested in how plants flower and set fruit I focused on the relevant text (see the photo above).  It’s a little indistinct but, in essence, this is what it says:

“Coffee plants flower once a year…..the flowers are jasmine scented….and then some magic happens….and nine months later you get coffee fruit”

Okay, I made up the bit about “magic” but, seriously, that’s what is implied by this text: that by some hocus pocus, coffee flowers turn into the coffee fruit that contain the beans.  No mention made of the fact that pollinators (mainly wild and managed bees) are important in this process.  Although coffee can self pollinate (which is fairly magical I suppose) without the pollinators we would have much less coffee of poorer quality.

In my recent review of pollinator diversity and conservation I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations of coffee production to illustrate the dependence of modern human society on animal pollination. Here’s what I wrote:

“Coffee is pollinated by a range of wild insects (mainly bees) and managed honeybees (Ngo et al. 2011), is second only to oil in terms of its value as a commodity, and supports millions of subsistence farmers. Global coffee production in 2016 amounted to 151.624 million bags, each weighing 60kg (International Coffee Organisation 2017). One coffee bean is the product of a single fertilisation event following the deposition of at least one pollen grain on a flower’s stigma. The mean weight of a single coffee bean is about 0.1g which means there are approximately 600,000 beans in a 60kg bag. The total number of coffee beans produced in 2016 is therefore 151.624 million bags multiplied by 600,000 beans per bag, which equals 90,974,400,000,000, or >90 trillion coffee beans. However coffee is on average 50% self pollinating (Klein et al. 2003) and a single bee visit may pollinate both ovules in each coffee flower, so we can divide that figure by four: nonetheless global coffee production requires at least 22 trillion pollinator visits to flowers. Clearly the global coffee market is supported by many billions of bees that require semi-natural habitat as well as coffee plantations in order to survive”.

I don’t want to pick on Starbucks, it just so happens that that’s where we stopped, and I have certainly seen similar displays in Costa, for instance, with again no mention of bees.  Apparently Starbucks et al. don’t want to acknowledge the role of these bees in supporting their (very lucrative) industry, at least not in the cafes themselves.  If you Google “Starbucks pollinators” then you find some information online about how the company values bees, etc. etc.  But come on coffee sellers, you’re better than this, let the public know in the places where the public goes!  If you need advice from an expert, someone to write some text for you, I’m more than happy to act as a consultant.

References

International Coffee Organisation. 2017. Coffee production statistics for 2016. http://www.ico.org/prices/po-production.pdf Accessed 20th June 2017

Klein AM, Steffan-Dewenter I, Tscharntke T. 2003. Fruit set of highland coffee increases with the diversity of pollinating bees. Proc. R. Soc. B. 270: 955–961

Ngo HT, Mojica AC, Packer L. 2007. Coffee plant – pollinator interactions: a review. Can. J. Zool. 89:647–660

 

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