Category Archives: Bees

Saved by a bee: a true story, with reflections and photos from PopBio2017

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The blog has been a bit quiet of late, due to a lot of traveling on my part, starting with field work in Tenerife, then a weekend away with friends on the Isle of Wight, followed by the topic of this post: PopBio2017 – the 30th Conference of the Plant Population Biology Section of the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland in Halle, Germany.  And I’d like to begin with a story….

The organisers of PopBio2017 had invited me to be one of five keynote speakers at the conference and I was due to deliver a talk on “The macroecology of wind and animal pollination” first thing (09:00) on Thursday morning.  So the night before I duly set my phone’s alarm for 07:00, thinking I’d have enough time to get ready, have breakfast, then take the tram to the venue (a 15 minute ride/walk).

It was a very hot night and I left the windows open, but my mind was restless with thoughts of how to deliver the talk most effectively.  So I kept waking up during the night, and actually slept through the alarm.  The next thing I know it is 07:45 and I am being woken up by an urgent buzzing noise….from a bee!

I swear this is true: a bee had flown in through the window, buzzed for a few seconds right in front of my face, and woke me up in time to deliver my talk on pollinators!  It then turned around and flew straight back out of the window.

It actually wasn’t until I’d jumped out of bed and into the shower that I’d woken up sufficiently to appreciate what had happened…and wondered if anyone would actually believe me!  Anyway, I got to the venue with 15 minutes to spare, the talk seemed to go well, and it’s a story I think I’ll enjoy telling for some time to come.

The conference was really fabulous, with some very impressive science on show.  It was a good mix of postdocs, PhD students, and established researchers talking on a diverse range of plant ecology topics, not just “plant population biology” (whatever that really is – there was some discussion on that score).   The organisers had arranged the programme so that the keynotes in each session were followed by shorter talks broadly related to that topic, so I was followed by a series of presentations on pollination biology.  And very good they were too.

Here’s some photos from the week:

A slightly blurry audience waiting for my talk to begin (not as blurry as me after the dash to the venue however…):

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I was fascinated by the coypu that are common in the River Salle which flows through the city of Halle.  They are classed as an invasive species, but are very, very cute:

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Indeed so cute I couldn’t resist taking a selfie…

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Some interesting urban greenery including swales for flood defence:

 

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Wall plants surviving the graffiti:

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Halle’s most famous resident, Handel:

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There’s a Harry Potter feel to some parts of the town:

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The fabulous double-double-spired cathedral:

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There had to be a spiral or two, of course:

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On the Saturday after the talks had finished we took an excursion to the fascinating “Porphyry Hills” dry grasslands – unique western extensions of plant communities and species normally found in the east, including many plants of the steppe:

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These rocky outcrops have become exposed as agricultural ploughing caused the surrounding soil level to drop:

 

Some of the grassland areas have very thin soils with resultant high plant diversity:

 

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Lots in flower, though not as many pollinators as I would have liked:

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On the last evening a couple of us had a private tour of the university’s botanic garden, and well worth a visit it is too:

It was a thirsty conference – “To beer or not to beer….”?

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Finally thanks to the organisers of PopBio2017 for the invitation to speak, and to all of the conference attendees who made it such a special meeting.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Pollination, Bees, Urban biodiversity, Gardens, Macroecology, spirals

Generalist pollination can evolve from more specialised interactions: a new study just published

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There’s a long-standing idea in biology that ecological specialisation is an evolutionary “dead end” from which species can never emerge.  In other words, if a species becomes so adapted to a particular ecological strategy (could be feeding or habitat requirements or how it interacts with other species ) then no amount of natural selection will result in its descendants evolving different strategies, thereby diversifying into new species.  In particular it’s traditionally thought that evolving broader, “generalist” strategies from narrower, “specialised” ones is highly unlikely.

This has been much discussed in the literature on the ecology and evolution of pollination systems, where traditionally this “dead end” scenario has been accepted.  However a small number of case studies have shown that generalised pollination systems can evolve within much more specialised clades, beginning with Scott Armbruster and Bruce Baldwin’s study of Madagascan Dalechampia (Euphorbiaceae), published in Nature in 1998.

To this limited body of examples we can now add another case study: in the genus Miconia (Melastomataceae), generalist nectar/pollen rewarding strategies can evolve within a clade of plants that predominantly uses a more specialised, buzz-pollinated strategy involving just bees.

The work is part of the PhD research of Vinicius de Brito who is one of the researchers I was privileged to do some field work with in Brazil when I was there in 2013 – see my post: “It’s called rainforest for a reason, right?  Brazil Diary 6“.  Vini is the guy on the left of the photo accompanying this post.  Here’s the citation and a link:

de Brito, V.L.G., Rech, A.R., Ollerton, J., Sazima, M. (2017) Nectar production, reproductive success and the evolution of generalised pollination within a specialised pollen-rewarding plant family: a case study using Miconia theizans. Plant Systematics and Evolution doi:10.1007/s00606-017-1405-z 

Here’s the abstract:

Generalist plant–pollinator interactions are prevalent in nature. Here, we untangle the role of nectar production in the visitation and pollen release/deposition in Miconia theizans, a nectar-rewarding plant within the specialised pollen-rewarding plant family Melastomataceae. We described the visitation rate, nectar dynamics and pollen release from the poricidal anthers and deposition onto stigmas during flower anthesis. Afterwards, we used a linear mixed model selection approach to understand the relationship between pollen and nectar availability and insect visitation rate and the relationship between visitation rate and reproductive success. Miconia theizans was visited by 86 insect species, including buzzing and non-buzzing bees, wasps, flies, hoverflies, ants, beetles, hemipterans, cockroaches and butterflies. The nectar produced explained the visitation rate, and the pollen release from the anthers was best explained by the visitation rate of pollinivorous species. However, the visitation rates could not predict pollen deposition onto stigmas. Nectar production may explain the high insect diversity and led to an increase in reproductive success, even with unpredictable pollen deposition, indicating the adaptive value of a generalised pollination system.

As always, I’m happy to send a PDF to anyone who wants a copy, just drop me an email.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Brazil, Butterflies, Evolution, Hoverflies, Mutualism, Pollination, Wasps

British cuckoo bees – an aide-mémoire

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The British bee season is well underway with lots of reports on social media of queen bumblebees (and even workers in the south), and male and female solitary bees (especially early emerging mining bees – Andrena).  In my own garden I’ve already spotted a couple of bumblebee species, plus the Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) and the Grey-patched Mining-bee (Andrena nitida), amongst others.  Running alongside the emergence of these nest-building bees is a whole suite of “cuckoo” or “cleptoparasitic” bees that, as the name suggests, lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, consuming the pollen that has been collected and, usually, the eggs and larvae of the host bee.

The specificity of the interactions between the cuckoos and their hosts varies a lot.  Some are very host specific, such as the bumblebee sub-genus Psythirus that only parasitises other Bombus species.  Others are much broader in their host use, such as the genus Nomada that parasitises five other British bee genera.

Personally I struggle to recall which cuckoo bees interact with which host bees, especially for those with a broader use of hosts, so I thought I would construct an aide-mémoire in the form of an interaction graph using the R package “bipartite”.  I took the information on which cuckoo bees parasitise which hosts from Steven Falk’s recent (and very good) book Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland.  If anyone spots any errors, please let me know!

The bipartite graph is structured such that the hosts (to the left, in black) are ranked from most to least parasitised (in terms of number of cuckoo genera that interact with them).  The cuckoo bees (in grey on the right) go in the reverse order, from most specialised to least specialised.  Note that this set of interactions only applies to Great Britain and Ireland; breadth of host-parasite interactions is wider on the Continent and elsewhere in the world.

Here’s a link to a better quality PDF of the plot that you’re free to use for your own use: Cleptoplot

Here’s the data matrix (Clepto) and here’s the R script if you want to play with it:

> library(bipartite)

#Turns the CSV data file into a data frame and assigns the first column to be the row names

> Clepto2<-data.frame(Clepto, row.names=1)

#Basic plot of the web

> plotweb(Clepto2)

#To turn the plot 90 degrees and centre the image, change spacing and text size, colours, etc.

> plotweb(Clepto2, method=”normal”, text.rot = 90, labsize =1.5, ybig = 0.7, low.y = 0.7, high.y = 0.98, plot.axes = FALSE, y.width.low = 0.05, y.width.high = 0.05, col.high = “lightgrey”, bor.col.interaction=”black”, bor.col.high=”black”, low.spacing=0.03, high.spacing=0.08)

#Note: save the figure as a PDF, much better quality than PNG

#With thanks to Kat Harrold who provided some of the script

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Dispelling the myth that orchid species usually only have a single pollinator

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The idea that members of the plant family Orchidaceae (the orchids) “typically have exclusive relationships with their pollinators“, such that each orchid has only one pollinator, is a persistent one.  Recently I’ve encountered it on horticultural websites (follow that last link), in grant proposals, and on Wikipedia.

The problem is that it’s not true: it’s a myth that is perpetuated by people (often botanists or horticulturalists) who may know a lot about orchids but don’t know as much as they think they know about pollination ecology.

Orchids certainly have some fascinating and often quite intricate floral mechanisms to ensure pollination, but these have not necessarily evolved to attract and exploit just one species of pollinator.  Even in the case of sexually deceptive orchids that fool their (male) pollinating insects into believing that they are mating with a female of the same species, it is sometimes the case that more than one insect species is involved.  For example, in the well studied genus Ophrysflowers are pollinated by a narrow taxonomic range of pollinators, from a single species to up to five closely related species“.  As the authors of that last paper state, this is not the same as the mythological “extreme case of one orchid/one pollinator”.

Likewise different species of orchid bees may pollinate the same orchid flowers as they visit to collect scent compounds; for example in the Brazilian species Dichaea pendula, species from at least two different bee genera act as pollinators (Nunes et al. 2016).

The fact that “one orchid/one pollinator” is a myth is not new knowledge, it’s been widely discussed in the pollination ecology literature for decades.  For example, in our 1996 paper “Generalization in Pollination Systems, and Why it Matters” we showed data from the late 19th/early 20th centuries that clearly indicated a range of specialization in European orchids (follow that link and look at  Figure 3B).  Even earlier than this, in his 1992 paper “Trends in the pollination ecology of the Orchidaceae: evolution and systematics” Raymond Tremblay showed that only about 62% of species for which he could find data had a single pollinator, and that this varied considerably between different subfamilies of Orchidaceae, with some subfamilies being more specialized than others.

More recently, in a chapter in the 2006 book I co-edited with Nick Waser entitled “Geographical Variation in Diversity and Specificity of Pollination Systems” Steve Johnson, Andrew Hingston and myself looked at data from southern African compared to North American and European orchids; here’s the figure from that assessment:

 

Ollerton et al Figure 7 - JPEG

Orchids  are more specialized in southern Africa compared to Europe and North America (as are a number of other plant groups including the asclepiads, which we’re comparing them with here).  But even in southern Africa, only about 65% of the orchids studied have a single pollinator species.  It’s worth pointing out, though, that many of the species included in this analysis, and in Raymond Tremblay’s paper, have been studied only at single sites and often in single years, meaning that we have no idea if there is any spatio-temporal variation in the pollinators a particular orchid species exploits.

Why does this myth persist?  I think it’s for the same reason that myths are retold from generation to generation: they are great stories that fascinate the teller and the audience.  Indeed, orchids are very special plants with some amazing floral and vegetative adaptations, fascinating relationships with fungi, and incredible diversity.  But we don’t have to mythologise their relationships with their pollinators to try to make orchids more special than they already are.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, History of science, Pollination

The Danish for garden is “haven”: five reasons why I love Gardeners’ World

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The latest series of the BBC’s flagship horticulture programme Gardeners’ World started on Friday, heralding its 50th year of broadcast – quite an achievement.  I’ve long been a fan, and a few years ago jumped at the chance to take part in one Science in the Garden special episode with Carol Klein (which I’ve posted about previously).  Since Friday I’ve given some thought as to what I get from the programme and have come up with a list of the main reasons why I love watching it:

1.  At its heart, Gardeners’ World is about the main subject of this blog and of my career: biodiversity.  Specifically the programme is centred on the biological richness of wild plants and the diversity of the horticultural varieties that we have created from them, for food and for ornament.  Spinning off from this is the acknowledgement that, although much of it is not native to Britain, this plant biodiversity (and the way in which we manage it in our gardens) can have important positive benefits for the wildlife of our country, including birds, amphibians and reptiles, and insects such as bees and butterflies.  This is particularly the case in urban settings and I’ve noticed a welcome trend in recent years for Gardeners’ World to include more features about city horticulture.

2.  Gardeners’ World has long championed a more environmentally friendly approach to horticulture, bringing in ideas about using peat-free compost, minimal use of biocides, recycling and upcycling, composting, and growing your own food, long before any of this became fashionable.  Indeed there’s a strong argument to be made that earlier presenters such as the late Geoff Hamilton were responsible for such fashions gaining mainstream exposure, influencing the habits of millions of people in Britain.  That kind of influence should not be under-estimated.

3. Gardeners’ World reminds me of my dad, who died in 1996.  I can recall him watching it back in the 1970s when Percy Thrower was the presenter and my dad had an allotment a short walk from our small terraced cottage house, with its tiny concrete backyard.  Some of my earliest memories of plants and nature relate to that allotment: a huge rambling rose along the fence; a greenhouse made from old window panes, filled with the rich scent of tomatoes; a toad that dad put in that greenhouse to eat the slugs; rainwater tanks hosting little communities of wriggling insect larvae.  After the allotment plots were cleared by the local council and sold for development my dad erected a greenhouse in the backyard, and grew shrubs and bedding in large pots.  In the early 1980s this was joined by a second small greenhouse for my cactus and succulent collection, many of which I still have.  Some of the best stories in Gardeners’ World are as much about people and their relationships with one another and with their gardens, as they are about plants and gardening per se (see also number 5, below).

4.  Despite having watched the programme for many years I still get new things from it.  Each season I gain inspiration for new plants and new ways of working with the garden that Karin and I are developing here in Northampton, which I’ve talked about quite a few time; see for example:  Renovating a front garden…, my post about Scientists and gardens, and the series I did on pollinators in the garden for Pollinator Awareness Week.  Gardeners never stop learning.

5. Being from the north of England I’m intrigued by the linguistic links between that part of our country and Scandinavia, particularly shared words such as “bairn”, and place-name elements such as “holm”.  Karin is Danish and these connections of language are something we often discuss.  Recently she pointed out that the Danish word for garden is “haven”.  Although it’s not pronounced in the English manner that word is probably the best single way of describing how I feel about our garden; it’s a haven from from the outside world, a place of rest and security, contemplation and physical activity, emotionally supporting us, and providing resources and space for the wildlife that uses it.  Although we don’t do much work in the garden during the winter, each year the start of a new season of Gardeners’ World reminds me of the pleasures to come in our own haven.

Of course there are sometimes things that irritate me about the programme: it can be a bit too cosily middle class at times, occasionally the advice offered can be simplistic or inaccurate, and some of the “scientific” trials of plant varieties lack rigour and replication.  Nonetheless, it’s a programme I have grown up with and one that I love to watch.  Happy Anniversary Gardeners’ World, here’s to 50 more years!

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Urban biodiversity

Some upcoming public lectures

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Giving public lectures to special interest groups in and around Northamptonshire is always a pleasure as the audiences are usually very receptive.  Just been through my diary and realised that I’m giving five such lectures over the next few months, on pollinators, conservation,  ecosystem services, and so on:

8th March – “Bees for dinner?  The importance of pollinators in a changing world” – Long Buckby Women’s Institute – open to all and not just women!

22nd March – “A city without trees is like a bird without feathers” – Litchborough Gardening Club [title is slightly wrong on that link…]

5th April 2 – “Darwin’s Unrequited Isle: a personal natural history of Tenerife” – Friends of Linford Lakes (Milton Keynes)

27th June – “Pollinator diversity” – Chalfonts Beekeepers (Buckinghamshire)

12th July – “Plants & pollinators – more than just honey bees” – Cancer Research UK ladies lunch club fundraiser at Wellingborough Golf Club

Some of these will certainly be open to guests if you’re not a member and want to come along and hear what I have to say.

Happy to discuss giving a talk to other groups, please do get in touch, though I’m probably not available until after the summer as I’m also giving a keynote lecture at the PopBio conference in Germany in May and a couple of short talks at the International Botanical Congress in China in July.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Gardens, Honey bees, Pollination, Tenerife

The decline of the “humble bee” – a short follow-up from yesterday’s post

The piece I posted yesterday about whether the names two of our most well known pollinators should be spelled honey bee/honeybee or bumblebee/bumble bee generated a lot of interesting comments on Facebook, Twitter, and on the blog.  A few people pointed me to the “Snodgrass Rule” that informal names should be combined only if the species concerned are not members of that particular taxon (e.g. “butterfly” rather than “butter fly”, because they are not “flies”), in which case “honey bee” and “bumble bee” are correct.

If I was ever aware of this entomological convention I’d certainly forgotten about it, but it strikes me that there’s a lot of examples outside of entomology that break the rule, e.g. hummingbird, goldfinch, catfish, ground ivy, etc.

A couple of commentators also asked me about the old term “humble bee”, as used in Frederick Sladen’s 1912 book “The Humble-Bee, its Life-History and How to Domesticate It”.  So I added this to the bumblebee/bumble bee search on the Google Ngram Viewer, taking the time frame back to 1500, and the results are very intriguing:

screen-shot-2017-03-01-at-09-59-55 It would appear that “bumble bee” pre-dates “humble bee” by a considerable period, with the former being superseded by the latter from the late 1600s onwards, until “humble bee/humblebee” started to decline in use from the end of the 19th century.

I’ve also searched using the term “dumbledore”, which is an old local name, but it was also applied to other buzzing insects such as chafers, making interpretation of the results difficult.  There’s more on the etymology of bumblebees on Wikipedia if you’d care to follow it up.

Many thanks to everyone who contributed to the discussion!

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity and culture, Honey bees

Honey bee or honeybee; bumblebee or bumble bee?

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Language is fascinating, particularly the way in which it changes over time to incorporate new words, or old words used differently.  In science this has important implications for understanding: semantics matter.  With this in mind I’ve been curious about the alternative ways in which authors write the informal names of species.  Scientific names (Genus species)  should be fairly stable in their spelling and presentation (though not always, especially in the older literature); but “common” names of species vary widely geographically and temporally.

Here’s an example using Google’s Ngram Viewer which is a useful tool for tracking changes in word use over time.  Different authors currently use the terms “honey bee” and “honeybee”, sometimes in the same publication.  But as the image above shows. historical analysis suggests that “honey bee” is the more traditional term, and that “honeybee” only came into common usage from the start of the 20th century, and by the late 1920s had taken over “honey bee”.

Likewise “bumblebee” and “bumble bee”; despite “bumble bee” having a much earlier usage, “bumblebee” has dominated since the late 19th century:

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-10-16-51It’s interesting to speculate about what might have caused these shifts in use, and it’s possible that in these examples it was the publication of especially influential books that used one term over another and influenced subsequent writers.  Could make a good project for a student studying how use of language varies in different time periods.

For my own part I tend to prefer “honey bee” and “bumblebee”, but I can’t precisely articulate why; perhaps it’s because in Europe we talk about “the honey bee” as a single species (Apis mellifera) but not “the bumblebee” because there is usually more than one co-occurring Bombus species in a particular area.  Do others have a particular preference?

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Filed under Bees, History of science, Honey bees

Links to some recent pollinator-related papers, posts, projects…. and pedals

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For weeks now I’ve been meaning to post some links to pollinator-related items that have caught my eye, but have only just found time to pull them together, hence some of these are a little dated but should still be of interest:

  • By pure coincidence Hazel Chapman (the senior author of that paper) came to Northampton a few weeks ago to give a seminar about her Nigerian Montane Forest Project which is well worth checking out and which, in the future, will have a large pollinator focus.
  • The Journal of Pollination Ecology (where I remain an editor) has a new volume out – it’s open access and has some really nice papers – here’s the link.
  • There’s been a few stories doing the rounds about robot pollinators and how they are going to replace insects.  It’s all nonsense, of course, and in a recent blog post Dave Goulson nails the arguments very well – see: Are robotic bees the future? [spoiler alert – the answer’s “No”].  Likewise, over on her blog, Manu Saunders opines that: “Artificial pollinators are cool, but not the solution“.  What the technologists who are promoting these ideas, and related concepts around the “Internet of Things”, don’t seem to get is that all of this tech has environmental costs associated with it: resource/pollution costs for making it; energy costs for using it; and disposal/pollution costs when it reaches the end of its life.  Applying a green wash of “let’s use drones for pollinating flowers” doesn’t make the tech any more environmentally sustainable, quite the opposite.  Sorry, rant over…
  • Ben Geslin and colleagues have written an interesting review in Advances in Ecological Research called “Massively Introduced Managed Species and Their Consequences for Plant–Pollinator Interactions” that focuses on both mass-flowering crop plants (e.g. oil seed rape) and domesticated, highly abundant pollinators such as honey bees, and what their increase might mean for natural communities of plants and pollinators, particularly in sensitive environments such as oceanic islands.
  • There’s a guitar effects pedal called the Pollinator – from the review:  “The Pollinator is a living thing, sensitive to its environment and surroundings, and it becomes an extension of the guitarist playing it.”  Quite.
  • Nine species of bee in the genus Perdita that are new to science have been described from localities in the the southwestern USA.  Here’s a link to a lovely video that shows these bees, their distinguishing features, and how they were named (mainly for characters from Shakespeare’s plays).  Not very impressed with the snarky “if scientists had bothered to look” title of the article though.
  • Finally, a new citizen science project has been launched designed to understand how hoverflies evolve mimicry of bees and wasps – looks interesting, please take part – here’s the link.  Just be aware, it’s a bit addictive!

As always, feel free to suggest links to items you found of interest.

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Should scientists accept funding from agro-chemical companies? The devil’s in the details

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The relationship between use of pesticides (particularly neonicotinoids) and the decline of pollinators is one that I’ve touched on a few times in this blog – see for example:  Bees and pesticides – a major new study just publishedButterflies and pesticides – a new study and a smoking gun; and Pesticides and pollinators: some new studies and contrasting conclusions.  It’s an important and controversial topic that’s unlikely to go away any time soon.  In an article in the New York Times, journalist Danny Hakim has given that particular pot a further stir by discussing Scientists Loved and Loathed by an Agrochemical Giant.

Although it’s been online since New Year’s Eve, the first I heard about the article was when an American colleague sent me a link this morning (the day it appeared in the printed version) and asked me if I had any thoughts and comments about one of the scientists featured – James Cresswell of the University of Exeter.  I’ve known and respected James for over 20 years and I think his contribution to this article provides a brave and open answer to the question I pose in the title of this post: should scientists accept funding from agro-chemical companies?

Please do read that article, it’s fascinating, if not entirely objective in its own right.  The tone and focus of the piece is best summed up by the one-sentence summary at the start, which incorporates a quote from Dave Goulson (University of Sussex):  “With corporate funding of research, “there’s no scientist who comes out of this unscathed””.  In fact that quote is taken rather out of context because Dave’s point was about perceptions of motives and biases, rather than actual corruption of the science and scientists concerned.

Having said that, the article does present a prima facie case that some scientists (though I emphasise not James himself) are playing fast-and-loose with the evidence related to pesticides and GM crops.

Back to perceptions.  Industry funding of university-led scientific research is incredibly common, far more common than the public probably realises.  There are three reasons for that.  First of all, universities are where many subject experts are based, of course.  Secondly, scientific research is expensive: it requires staff, facilities, equipment, funding for overheads, etc.  University researchers are therefore always hunting for money to enable them to carry out research (which in turn is linked to promotion success, career development, and so forth).  Thirdly, external income is an important performance indicator for universities and their constituent departments: James himself is quoted as saying “I was pressured enormously by my university to take that money”, a sentence that will resonate with many UK researchers.

In general the public’s perception (as far as I can tell) is that most of that research is not being corrupted by the industry funding that is attached to it.  In my own faculty at the University of Northampton, for instance, my colleagues have obtained industry funding for research and consultancy work in areas such as product design, lift engineering, materials science, leather processing, computer networks, app development, and so forth.  All controversy-free.

In much of the environmental sector that’s also the case: we’ve had funding from a large water utilities company to write a report on habitat management strategies for reducing rabbit densities close to water bodies, and one of my current research students is being funded by a solar farm company.  Likewise colleagues have been funded by wastes management companies to advise and research in that field.  None of this has generated any negative perceptions, with the possible exception of some aspects of wastes management where issues such as “waste-to-energy” remain controversial.

In other areas of environmental research, however, there have always been accusations of bias levelled at university researchers who are perceived to be industry shills, especially if they are not seen to be toeing a particular line.  I’m deliberately using that word – shill – because it’s something I was accused of being during a heated social media discussion of causes of pollinator declines.  A commenter claimed that I was an “industry shill” for daring to suggest that this was a complex topic, and that there were no easy answers to why (some) pollinators are declining, but that neonicotinoid pesticides were not the only cause.  “Which chemical company is funding your research?” she aggressively demanded to know.  I think I convinced her that I was not (and never have been) funded by chemical companies.  But it raised an interesting question: would I ever accept funding from such companies, if it was offered?

The simple answer is that I don’t know.  It depends what the money was for and what strings were attached in terms of non-disclosure, ownership of data, etc.  As the title of this post states, the devil’s in the details.  I know quite a number of researchers in my field who have had funding from Syngenta, Bayer, and other agro-chemical companies.  Some of these are colleagues with whom I have published research papers.  In general I have no reason to believe that the research conducted by any of these colleagues has been corrupted by their association with the funders.  However in one instance I had a disagreement with a colleague who was not (in my opinion) objective in how they wished to frame part of a paper’s discussion and who may (in my opinion) have been influenced by their association with a particular funder.  In the end this didn’t change the conclusions of the research (which was not itself industry funded) but it did make me pause to consider these subtle biases, which I’m sure could affect anyone*.  Again, perceptions are key here.

Money for the kind of research that’s done by colleagues and myself is always, always going to be in short supply and competitively pursued, and failure to obtain it will always be much more common than success.  Unless funding to address important ecological research questions from government (i.e. taxpayer money) and charities vastly increases, industry will be there to fund research in its own interests, and the perception of scientific bias will remain, whether or not it actually exists.

 

*I’m not prepared to say more about this particular example so please don’t ask.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Honey bees, Neonicotinoids, University of Northampton