Category Archives: Biodiversity and culture

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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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, University of Northampton

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

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

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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

“The time of the singing of birds is come” – a Nottinghamshire gravestone with a bird bath

 

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Yesterday Karin and I took the day off and explored an area along the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border with friends.  In the small village of Normanton on Soar we found a very unusual headstone in the churchyard, carved in granite and surmounted by a bird bath.  Around the bowl some lead text reads:  “The time of the singing of birds is come”

The bowl was empty when we arrived so I filled it: it’s going to be a hot weekend and the birds might appreciate it.

The headstone marks the burial place of Edward Hands and Ethel Maud Hands, presumably husband and wife; the smaller marker commemorates Derek Hands (their son?).  None had a long life; Edward was 42 when he died, Ethel 56, and Derek just 36.  The headstone was erected originally for Edward (who pre-deceased his wife by 20 years) so perhaps it was he who was keen on birds?

I’ve never seen a headstone in the form of a bird bath though I can’t believe that it’s unique: does anyone know of others?

Here’s the full grave; it was only after I took the picture that I noticed the feather.

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The text around the bird bath is from the Bible, the Song of Solomon 2:12.  The fuller version is:

“The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

We didn’t hear any turtles, but here were plenty of flowers around the village, including a buddleia that was smothered in very fresh looking painted lady butterflies that are likely to have been born nearby rather than migrating over from the continent:

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It was also a time of bees such as this very active feral honey bee colony in a lovely 15th century  timber framed house:

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Is the angry response of (some) environmentalists in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire reasonable?

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Last night Karin and I returned from two weeks of field work plus a period of writing in Tenerife.  The first week was devoted to our annual University of Northampton undergraduate field course which I’ve written about before – see this recent book review for instance.

I don’t normally watch much television when I’m in Tenerife; we tend to get back from field work early evening, jump in the shower, then go for a beer and a meal, then early to bed for field work the next day.  But there were two bits of TV that I made a point of viewing, and actually for the same reasons: news reports about the fire that severely damaged Notre Dame Cathedral and David Attenborough’s documentary about the current effects of climate change.  Both of these were about the destruction of heritage (cultural and natural) and how this affects people.  I have to say that I shed a tear watching them.

The response of some billionaires and large companies, offering millions of Euros towards Notre Dame’s restoration, was criticised by some environmentalists and others concerned with social justice.  Here are some examples:

https://www.joe.ie/amp/life-style/notre-dame-feature-665670

Over at the Ecology for the Masses blog, Sam Perrin in turn criticised these responses, suggesting that “What environmentally-minded people need to start doing is examine the other cause. Why do they get more attention? How have they gone about making their issue so ubiquitous? Try and examine WHY the Notre Dame Cathedral has received over 1 billion USD in reconstruction pledges when the Great Barrier Reef languishes every day.”

Jeremy Fox of the Dynamic Ecology blog clearly agrees  with this sentiment (read his comments) and posted a link to Sam’s piece.  I have to say that I got a bit irritated at Jeremy’s use of the phrase “pet causes”, and responded that: “I wouldn’t describe wholesale destruction of habitats, over-exploitation of natural resources, species’ extinction rates orders of magnitude higher than the background, environmental degradation that is affecting people’s health and livelihoods, and the accelerating effects of climate change as a “pet cause”. We’re not talking about raising funds for new books in the local library here!”

If you follow that series of comments and replies on Dynamic Ecology you’ll see that Jeremy pushed back strongly against my response, and I replied in return.  I stand by what I said though, that people do not react to these sorts of events logically, they react emotionally.  Hence the initial emotional outpouring of offering millions of Euros to restore Notre Dame is matched by an equally emotional response of “think of all of the other things that we could do with that money”.   The response from environmentalists and others was a reasonable one, as was the offer of millions of Euros for Notre Dame.  Both are equally valid.  Whether both are equally “important” is something that we could debate forever and I urge you to read through the posts and comments and make up your own mind.

On our last full day in Tenerife Karin and I explored an area of xerophytic scrub vegetation that surrounded a small rocky hill (see image below).  On top of the hill is a set of ancient rock carvings produced by the indigenous Guanches, one thousand years ago or more (the image at the start of this post).  The Guanches had positioned some of the rocks so that they produced different notes when struck.  It was clearly a site that had deep significance to these people prior to the European conquest of the islands.  However the site is completely unprotected and there’s been no effort to interpret what is a culturally important bit of archaeology – such carvings are not common in the Canary Islands.  In addition the surrounding vegetation is being slowly degraded by illegal tipping of rubbish.  These struck me as a depressingly fitting accompaniment to the subject of this post.

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Should environmentalists be optimistic in a time of uncertainty?

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Over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog Joern Fischer posted a really interesting piece on 1st January called “A new kind of hope” about the current state of the world and whether, from an environmental perspective, there’s really anything to be optimistic about.  If environmental collapse via climate change and over-exploitation is inevitable, the collapse of civilization is not far behind.  Joern’s piece is well worth reading, lots to think about in there, and I highly recommend that you take a look.

I posted a comment there which I’m going to copy here and add to because I think it bears repeating.

Going back to at least my student days I always thought that there was only a slim chance of our civilization making it to the end of the 20th century without some kind of catastrophe wiping us out.   So it was a surprise to celebrate the millennium as December 1999 segued into January 2000. Since then, whilst I think there’s lots to be optimistic about such as the increase in renewable energy, large-scale habitat restoration in some regions, and a growing recognition of the environmental damage of biocides and plastics, there’s also the nagging fear that it’s too little, too late.

These days I alternate between wild optimism and deep depression over the fate of humanity and of the planet. It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex of negative environmental narratives and ignore the positive ones. Especially so if you actively use social media.  So I try hard to be optimistic and resist the urge to just give up, but the political situation across much of the world makes that difficult. As I learn more about the natural world through my own research and that of others’, and as world events such as Brexit and the rise of the Far Right unfold, I realise how little any of us really know about anything at all. Thus I have a deep suspicion of anyone who spouts certainties, whether they be moral, philosophical, religious, scientific, political, or artistic. All we can do is feel our way into the future, cautiously.

With respect to the question that Joern poses of “If we have to re-build something after some kind of collapse … do we have ideas for what that something will be?”, this is the rationale behind the Dark Mountain Project, a loose collaboration of writers, artists, thinkers, etc., who are trying to look for new narratives for humanity and the planet we depend upon. I’ve written a couple of pieces for their journal, most recently for issue 10 where I discussed the role of poetry in science.  And although I don’t buy into their certainty that there will be a collapse, I think it’s an important project for understanding where we are now, where we’ve been, and where we might be going to.  Here’s a link to the project’s website.

The discussion over whether we should be optimistic about the future of the planet that supports us, and how that optimism will play out, is important for scientists, and society at large, to be having.  By coincidence as I was writing this post the map above started circulating on Twitter.  It’s a Russian teaching aid from 1928 showing the different biomes of the USSR and can be downloaded from this site.

What really struck me about this graphic was the certainty with which it represents the natural world, as if all of this could never change. There are polar bears on ice flows and a frozen tundra in the far north; water still fills the Aral Sea, hyenas feast in the steppe, snow leopards haunt the mountains, Siberian tigers prowl the pine forests.  And an optimistic looking whale heads towards Japan.  Some of this is gone, some will almost certainly change, but a lot of it we could save, if we want to, saving ourselves in the process.

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Climate change at Christmas: did the hot, dry summer of 2018 cause the record-breaking prices of holly and mistletoe?

Over the past two festive seasons I have posted about the research we published assessing the auction prices of holly and mistletoe, two culturally important seasonal crops that are 100% pollinator dependent for berry production.  The first post was called Insect pollinators boost the market price of holly and mistletoe: a new study just published; the second was The holly, the mistletoe, and the pollinators: an update on an old story.

Follow those two links to get the full background to this research and a link to the original paper published in the Journal of Pollination Ecology.

I’ve collated the auction prices for the 2018 season and added them to the time series data set, and it’s clear that something very interesting has occurred.  Both berried holly and mistletoe have achieved record-breaking average prices, whilst auction prices for material without berries have hardly changed at all.  Here are the updated graphs; each data point is the average price per kilo paid at an auction:

Holly and mistletoe prices 2018

So what’s gone on this year?  What could have affected the auction prices?  One interesting possibility is that the long, dry summer of 2018, a likely consequence of climate change, has negatively affected berry production in these two species.  This could come about if the holly or the mistletoe host trees are water stressed and shed part of their berry crops.  It’s unlikely to be a consequence of too few pollinators as these species flower too early in the year to have been affected by the dry weather.   We have more work planned in the future using these data and this will be an interesting question to address.

Yesterday I popped out to do some Christmas shopping and tried to buy mistletoe at a local garden centre.  That’s the second time I’ve tried this year (the first was at a nearby green grocer’s) and the second time that I’ve been told that they have none because it’s very expensive this year and not worth stocking.  That seems predictable from the wholesale auction results I’ve just described.  Has anyone else in the UK had similar experiences this year?

The British holly and mistletoe market is relatively small and clearly seasonal, and probably not worth more than a few millions of pounds each year.  However it seems to be very sensitive to external factors and may be a microcosm for how some crops, at least, might respond to future extreme weather brought about by climate change.  Brexit might also have an effect in the coming years as we import a large amount of mistletoe from northern France.  But then Brexit is going to have an effect on large areas of British society…..

On that sour note, Happy Christmas to all of my readers, however you voted in the referendum.  I hope you have a restful holiday, spending it as you wish, with the people you want to!  And if you, or someone you know, are spending the festive season on your own this year, take a look at Karin’s latest blog post:  Preparing a Christmas Just For You.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Climate change, Ecosystem services, Journal of Pollination Ecology, Pollination

Photograph and poem: the only alien here

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Wind the propagator propels air-borne seeds

To urban refuge and new opportunity

Where they germinate, elongate, grow, and flower,

Roots seeking soil, making do with mortar and render,

As, persistent in its invader role,

Buddleia grips a gable cliff, dispensing offspring

From house wall warmth into frigid space

And a clear night of stars backdrops the only alien here.

 

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The biological mutualisms at the heart of sourdough bread

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During the road trip to Denmark that I mentioned in a post back in September – see “There ain’t no b(ee) in Starbucks” – my wife Karin received a special gift from her sister Pia.  It was a small jar containing a starter culture for sourdough bread, a culture that Pia has been using since she received it from a friend, who long ago received it from another friend.  I didn’t know much about sourdough bread and did some reading. That Wikipedia link is a good introduction but don’t be put off by the complexities of “refreshment” – we’ve kept the starter culture in the fridge since early September and it’s been fine.  Karin used the culture for the first time this morning and made the rye bread you see above.

But on to the biology.  In essence the sourdough culture is a mix of wild lactic acid bacteria and wild yeasts, plus flour and water.  When added to the bread mix (which in our case contained water, salt, seeds and molasses, as well as rye flour) the yeasts feed on some of the sugars within the mix and the lactic acid bacteria feed on other sugars that the yeast cannot metabolise.  During that bacterial fermentation, byproducts are also produced on which the yeasts feed.  The yeasts in turn produce carbon dioxide which serves to leaven the dough, and the bacteria produce lactic acid as another byproduct, which gives the bread its slightly sour flavour.  This lactic acid also lowers the pH of the environment and, together with the production of anti-fungal chemicals, the lactic acid bacteria prevent the growth of other bacteria and moulds.  The yeasts, however, can tolerate these conditions and they thrive.

At least six species of yeast and 25 species of lactic acid bacteria have been shown to be  involved in this process, often as multi-species mixtures.  The exact biodiversity of the culture is dependent upon its source: micro-organisms vary a lot across the world.  But the heart of the relationship between yeasts and bacteria is always the same: they each facilitate the growth and reproduction of the other, and so the relationship is mutualistic, much like (most) relationships between plants and pollinators, birds and berries, and sea anemones and clownfish.

Of course there is a third organism involved in this mutualism: Homo sapiens.  By producing the resources on which these organisms feed, and then distributing the starter culture, we are providing the right conditions for the yeast and lactic acid bacteria to increase their populations.  In turn the yeast and bacteria play an important role in producing food for us, and in fact this way of making bread is thousands of years old.  Microorganisms and people all benefit: what could be more mutualistic than that?  Indeed, these interactions could be classified as a rare example of a ménage à trois mutualism.

There’s also a social-cultural dimension to all of this as the passing of gifts such as the starter culture binds friendships.  If any of our local friends are reading we’d be happy to share the sourdough culture once we’ve bulked it up.  The bread that it makes is delicious and from now on we’re going to try to give up buying the shop-bought kind.

If you want to read more about all of this, and have a try at making your own starter culture from scratch, there’s some great information and links on the Microbial Menagerie blog.

Many thanks to Pia for sharing the starter culture, and to Karin for baking the bread!

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The explosion in orchids as houseplants: what does it tell us about how flowers evolve?

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One of the major trends in horticulture over the last 20 years or so has been the rise in popularity of orchids as house plants.  Orchids used to have a reputation as being delicate, choosy, costly things that needed expensive glasshouses, heating, and humidity systems to grow.  Some groups of orchids are certainly like that, but many are not (Orchidaceae is one of the two largest families of plants, after all).  These days it’s impossible to walk into any supermarket or department store and not see orchids for sale at a reasonable price, orchids that are tough and can withstand the relatively dry, centrally heated houses in which most of us in Britain live. 

The majority of these orchids are varieties of Phalaenopsis, the moth orchids.  Intensive hybridisation by commercial growers has meant that there is an almost inexhaustible range of flower colours, shapes, sizes and patterning available.  Take a look at this gallery of images and you’ll see what I mean, or go into a shop that sells such orchids and observe that almost no two are alike.

This is the stuff of natural selection: genetic variation in the phenotype that can be acted upon by a selective agent.  In this case it’s the growers of orchids who choose the most attractive types to sell and discard the others.  If this variation emerged in wild populations most of it would disappear over time, but some, just occasionally, would be selected for by a different group of pollinators and go on to form a new species.  This is much more likely to happen if the individuals with this variation are isolated from the rest of the population in time or space, for example if they flower later or have been dispersed to a distant valley or mountaintop (termed allopatric speciation).  But it can also happen within populations – sympatric speciation.

Back in 1996, near the start of this orchid explosion, one of my earliest papers was a speculative commentary in Journal of Ecology called “Reconciling ecological processes with phylogenetic patterns: the apparent paradox of plant-pollinator systems”.  It generated some interest in the field at the time and has picked up >250 citations over the years, mostly other researchers using it as supporting evidence for the discrepancies we see when trying to understand how flowers evolve within a milieu of lots of different types of potential pollinators selecting for possibly diverse and contradictory aspects of floral form.  In that paper I made a passing comment that I expected the reviewers to criticise, which they did not.  Once it was published I thought that perhaps other researchers in the field would critique it or use it as a jumping off point for further study, which has not really happened either.  This is what I wrote:

         “It appears that pollination systems are labile and may evolve quite rapidly….plant breeders can obtain a fantastic range of horticultural novelties through selective breeding over just a few generations.”

This is horticulture holding up a mirror to the natural world and saying: “This is how we do it in the glasshouse, look at the variety we can produce over a short space of time by selecting for flower forms; can nature do it as quickly, and if so what are the mechanisms?”  

I still believe that pollination ecologists could learn a lot from horticulture and there’s some fruitful (flowerful?) lines of enquiry that could be pursued by creative PhD students or postdocs.  Here’s one suggestion: part of the reason why these Phalaenopsis orchids are so popular as house plants is that they have very long individual flower life times, often many weeks.  Now we suspect that floral longevity is under strong selection; see for example research by Tia-Lynn Ashman and Daniel Schoen in the 1990s.  This showed that there is a negative correlation between rate of pollinator visitation and how long flowers stay open.  Plants with flowers that are not visited very frequently stay open much longer, for example the bird-pollinated flowers of the Canary Islands that may only be visited once or twice a day, and which can remain open for more than 20 days.  Is the floral longevity shown by these orchids (or other groups of plants that have been horticulturally selected) beyond the range found in natural populations?  If so, what are the underlying physiological mechanisms that allow such extreme longevity?  If not, does this mean that there is an upper limit to the lifespan of flowers, and if so, why?  

In the mean time I’m going to enjoy the orchids above that sit on our kitchen windowsill.  They actually belong to my wife Karin who has developed something of an interest in them in recent months.  The big spotty one is a late birthday gift for her that I picked up this morning from a local flower shop, and which stimulated this post as I was walking home.  I’d bet that we never see another one like it!

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Birds, British Ecological Society, Evolution, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Pollination