Category Archives: Biodiversity

Should environmentalists be optimistic in a time of uncertainty?


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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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Climate change, Dark Mountain Project

When scientists get things wrong: is coffee the second most valuable global commodity?

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If this blog has a purpose beyond highlighting the importance of biodiversity, and recent developments in the field of pollination biology in particular, it’s to demystify science and the scientists who produce new knowledge.  Hopefully my posts over the past seven years have shown that scientists can have all kinds of backgrounds, even northern English working class, and need not have attended the most prestigious universities.  I’d also hope that what I write about my own research gives some insights into how new knowledge is generated and how it can be communicated to both specialist and non-specialist audiences.

Something should be clear from all of this: scientists are human just like everyone else, with the same foibles, foolish notions, prejudices, passions, and blind spots.  And they make errors.  Just like everyone else.

This is by way of an introduction to admitting that I made a mistake in one of my recent papers.  Not a massive mistake, and not one that requires me to retract the paper, but one which bugs me and which I need to correct for the sake of accuracy.  Hopefully it will stop others repeating the same error.

In “Pollinator Diversity: Distribution, Ecological Function and Conservation” (Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 2017) I stated that:

“Coffee…is second only to oil in terms of its value as a commodity”.

That’s a “fact” that I’ve heard repeated for years, in lots of different places, so I didn’t bother citing a source because, well, it’s just true, isn’t it?  Only trouble is, it’s not true.  It’s been debunked several times over the years, as discussed in this summary on the website:  No, coffee is not the second-most traded commodity after oil.

Mea culpa.  I should have done due diligence and checked my facts, especially as I’ve posted before about how many of the “facts” concerning bees as pollinators are incorrect – see Who is feeding the honey bee bullshit machine?   

But, we all get stuff wrong.  I’m sure I’ve made other errors in the past and not spotted them, and I bet there’s not a published scientist who hasn’t made some kind of mistake in their writing.  We may all be standing on the shoulders of giants, but even giants have their flaws….  That doesn’t make me feel any better though.


Filed under Biodiversity

What are my most read blog posts of 2018? A short review of the year

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On this last day of 2018 I thought I’d review twelve months of blogging by highlighting the 10 posts that I published this year which have received the most reads, and the perennial favourites from previous years.

The most viewed post of 2018 was Should we stop using the term “PhD students”? with 1,743 views.  That’s perhaps not surprising as there is a huge appetite for information related to early career researchers.

More surprising, but very satisfying, with 1,081 views The evolution of pollination systems in one of the largest plant families: a new study just published – download it for free was the second most viewed post published this year.  The fact that the paper it relates to has gestated, in concept and in execution, for over 20 years, has 75 authors from almost 20 countries, with a roughly 50:50 gender split, made this my personal favourite of the year.

The guest post by Karin Blak, my wife, on How can academics help students with anxiety issues?  generated a lot of comments on Twitter and Facebook, and comes in third with 729 views.  If you’ve not read any of Karin’s posts on her own blog, which relate to all types of relationships, intimacy, and so forth, they are highly recommended.

Fourth most viewed was Is there really a “battle for the soul of biodiversity” going on at IPBES? (456 views) which I updated just this week to reflect the latest correspondence in Nature.

Number five is XI International Symposium on Pollination, Berlin, April 16th -20th, 2018 (424 views).  I’m pleased that this helped to generate a lot of interest in the conference as I was asked by the organisers to present the keynote lecture, initially agreed, but then had to pull out as the timing in relation to our undergraduate Tenerife Field Course was problematical.  I heard from those who attended that the symposium was great and I’m sure that David Inouye did a much better job than I could have done at delivering the keynote!

The impact of building a new university campus on urban bird diversity and abundance: a seven-year study is sixth with 407 views.  Expect an update on this in 2019 as we complete the final round of winter and spring surveys.

Being ill is good for blogging as demonstrated by the 406 views of the seventh-ranked The good and the bad in biodiversity.  It was also a useful example to use in my first year biodiversity class.

The weird weather of March last year clearly interested people:  Can pollinators survive sudden changes in the weather? (362 views) was the eighth most viewed.

And of course pollinators are always popular: There ain’t no b(ee) in Starbucks (356 views) came ninth, whilst Hunting the Chequered Skipper: an encounter with England’s latest species reintroduction project (296 views) was tenth.

Those are the statistics for posts that I published in 2018.  But all of these are exceeded by a post first published in 2016: How to deal with bumblebees in your roof received 6,395 views this year, six times as many as it has had in the previous two years.  Not sure what has gone on here: are bumblebees nesting in roofs becoming more frequent?  Perhaps so – the main roof nester is the Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) which has become ever-more common since its arrival in the British Isles in 2001.

The second most viewed post overall was also published a while ago, in 2015: How does a scientist’s h-index change over time? was viewed 4,081 times.  This no doubt reflects an increasing focus on such easily measurable (but rather flawed) metrics for evaluation (self- and external-) of an individual’s progress as a scientist.

Interestingly these are also the two most viewed posts of all time on my blog, though the order is different: How does a scientist’s h-index change over time? has had 12,355 views and How to deal with bumblebees in your roof has had 7,549.  I suspect that posing a question in the title of a blog post has some influence on viewing figures – most of my all-time viewed posts are phrased as questions and people searching for information often google a question.  I just pitched that idea to Karin and she half agreed but suggested that it’s also because people want answers.  So they come looking for an answer to the question that is posed in the title, whereas having a bald statement in the title does not inspire them to look any further.  Would be interesting to devise a test to differentiate between these two effects.

So that’s my blogging year in summary.  What were your favourite posts of 2018, either from my blog or from other’s?

Happy New Year everyone, I hope that 2019 brings you things that make you happy!



Filed under Biodiversity

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.


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

The biological mutualisms at the heart of sourdough bread


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!


Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Mutualism

Seven things that I learned at the SCAPE 2018 meeting in Ireland

SCAPE 2018 group photo

The 32nd meeting of the Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology took place last week, and from Thursday through to Sunday 87 researchers from around the world met to discuss their latest findings.  For the first time the conference was held outside of Scandinavia, at Avon Rí, Blessington in Ireland.  As always it was a friendly and stimulating meeting, and a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and colleagues, and make new ones.

Here’s a link to the full programme with the abstracts.  I gave a talk about our recent work on the evolution of pollination systems in the plant family Apocynaceae which seemed to go down well enough and generated some discussion later in the bar and over breakfast.  The quality of the research and the standard of the presentations was very high and I don’t intend to single out individuals, but I did learn some things during the meeting that I wanted to highlight:

  • Some bird pollinated penstemons produce scent volatiles, even if we can’t detect them (Amy Parachnowitsch, University of New Brunswick).  Relates to this post of mine from earlier in the year on how hummingbirds have a sense of smell.
  • Staying with the theme of dispelling bird pollination myths – many of the supposedly sunbird-pollinated species of Aloe in southern Africa are in fact pollinated by non-specialist passerines such as bulbuls (Steve Johnson, University of KwaZulu-Natal).
  • There’s a data set on plant-pollinator interactions from the far north of Finland from the end of the 19th century and this area is being re-surveyed to assess changes between then and now (Leana Zoller, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg).
  • Farmers who grow watermelons in Tanzania can improve their yields by encouraging more pollinators in their fields; the yields are better than adding fertliser or irrigating the crop (Thomas Sawe, Norwegian University of Life Sciences).
  • A weevil was introduced into Indonesia in the 1980s to improve yields of oil palm by increasing the rate of pollination (Lynn Jørgensen, University of Oslo).
  • There’s strong evidence that the current distributions of plants with specialised pollination systems in southern Africa are constrained by the environmental niche, and thus the distribution, of their pollinators (Karl Duffy, University of Naples).
  • Mobile saunas are a thing!  I took a photo of one (below) just to prove it.  Thanks to Dara Stanley and Jane Stout for organising that, and the rest of this brilliant conference!  Hope to see you all next year in Lund.

There was a lot more tweeting going on at SCAPE this year and you can see comments and images by searching Twitter for #SCAPE2018

If you attended SCAPE, what did you learn?  What surprised or interested you?  Please comment below.

SCAPE 2018 sauna


Filed under Biodiversity, Pollination

Pollinator availability, mating system and variation in flower morphology in a tropical savanna tree – a new, open-access study

Curatella image by Pedro Lorenzo

Widespread plant species can encounter a variety of different pollinators across their distributional range.  This in turn can result in local adaptation of flowers to particular pollinators, or to an absence of pollinators that results in adaptations for more self pollination.   A newly published study by one of my former PhD students, André Rodrigo Rech in Brazil, has looked at this in the widespread South American savanna tree Curatella americana.  André studied 10 populations separated in space by thousands of kilometres, in cerrado vegetation, one of the most threatened habitat types in Brazil.  Here’s the abstract:

Widely distributed organisms face different ecological scenarios throughout their range, which can potentially lead to micro-evolutionary differentiation at specific localities. Mating systems of animal pollinated plants are supposed to evolve in response to the availability of local pollinators, with consequent changes in flower morphology. We tested the relationship among pollination , mating system, and flower morphology over a large spatial scale in Brazilian savannas using the tree Curatella americana (Dilleniaceae). We compared fruit set with and without pollinators in the field, and analyzed pollen tube growth from self- and cross-pollinated flowers in different populations. Populations with higher natural fruit set also had lower fruit set in bagged flowers, suggesting stronger barriers to self-fertilization. Furthermore, higher levels of autogamy in field experiments were associated with more pollen tubes reaching ovules in self-pollinated flowers. Morphometric studies of floral and leaf traits indicate closer-set reproductive organs, larger stigmas and smaller anthers in populations with more autogamy. We show that the spatial variation in mating system, flower morphology and pollination previously described for herbs also applies to long-lived, perennial tropical trees, thus reemphasizing that mating systems are a population-based attribute that vary according to the ecological scenario where the plants occur

Here’s the full citation with a link to the paper which is open access:

Rech, A.R., Ré Jorge, L., Ollerton, J. & Sazima, M. (2018) Pollinator availability, mating system and variation in flower morphology in a tropical savannah tree. Acta Botanica Brasilica (in press)

The illustration of Curatella americana  and its pollinators is by Pedro Lorenzo.

This paper is a contribution to a special issue of Acta Botanica Brasilica dedicated to floral biology and pollination biology in Brazil It’s all open access and if you follow that link you can download the papers.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biogeography, Brazil, Evolution, Pollination

Is there really a “battle for the soul of biodiversity” going on at IPBES? UPDATED x 3

Carved demon

No.  But perhaps I should give some context to both question and answer…

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) describes itself as “the intergovernmental body which assesses the state of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services it provides to society, in response to requests from decision makers”.   Sounds a little dry, I agree, but in fact IPBES is the most exciting and innovative international environmental body to have emerged in recent years.  Exciting because its remit is specifically to assess how society is affecting global biodiversity in toto, but also its value to humans.  Innovative because it’s a broad church that is trying to bring together the knowledge and expertise of both natural and social scientists, practitioners, indigenous peoples, and stakeholders of all kinds. This broad approach is something which some other international bodies have not, traditionally, been so keen to adopt.

IPBES has its critics who see it as superfluous in that its mission overlaps too much with that of organisations such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Ecosystem Services Partnership, and the United Nations Environment Programme.  However I certainly think that there’s room for such an organisation.  We need as many voices as possible shouting about how important these issues are, at all levels of society, from the work of local conservation volunteers and the People’s Walk for Wildlife upwards to the highest levels of international governance.  So I’m a supporter of what IPBES is trying to do; perhaps I’m biased but I was especially impressed by the fact that the first major output of IPBES was a badly needed Assessment Report on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production for which I acted as an expert peer reviewer over its two iterations.  I’ve written posts about this a couple of times – see for example this one.

In recent weeks, however, there’s been some reports of in-fighting within IPBES, and between IPBES and other organisations, that science journalists have seen as being a major war of ideas.  It culminated in Nature publishing a piece entitled “The battle for the soul of biodiversity“, backed up by an editorial suggesting that “the global body for biodiversity science and policy must heal rifts“.

The crux of the perceived disagreements centre on terminology and concepts as much as anything, and specifically the notion of ‘ecosystem services’ versus ‘nature’s contributions to people”.  These seem to me to be saying much the same thing using different words, and I have to say that I was shocked when I read those articles and wondered what the hell was going on: was IPBES really falling apart before it had even managed to firmly establish itself (remember it only launched in 2013)?  Or was this just journalistic hyperbole of the kind that serves no real purpose other than to increase sales and page views?

I have no inside track to IPBES’s workings so I kept an eye on developments.  I was delighted, therefore, to see the 19th September issue of Nature publish four letters from IPBES insiders and experts from other organisations.  All of these, plus the articles I linked to above, are open access.

The first letter is from Jasper Montana of Sheffield University pointing out that “ideas need time to mature” and that “debates are grist to the mill of innovation for environmental governance”.  In other words, IPBES is a young organisation and the sorts of terminology being used are far from mature: terms such as “ecosystem services” and “natural capital” are at most a few decades old.  Clearly there is an urgency in building governance systems that can effectively conserve biodiversity, but debates around the best terms to use will not hinder that process.

The second letter from Bernardo Strassburg in Brazil entitled “honour guidelines that reconcile world views” pointed out that IPBES’s own guide to such concepts notes that the ecosystem services approach is just one of several, all perfectly valid, ways of viewing the relationships between people and nature, and of seeing people as part of nature.

The next letter is from IPBES chair Sir Bob Watson assuring us that “squabbles don’t obscure the bigger picture” and that a diversity of opinions and ideas is one of IPBES’s strengths.  It’s worth noting here that the original model for IPBES was the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) which has in the past been criticised for not allowing a diversity of opinions among contributors to its reports.  You can’t please all the people all of the time, and clearly not Nature journalists….

Finally Rudolf de Groot, chair of the Ecosystem Services Partnership, plus colleagues Pavan Sukhdev & Mark Gough, argued that “sparring makes us strong” and write the most critical of the four letters, stating that they “strongly object to the tone and content” of the original article.  They assure us that the Ecosystem Services Partnership and IPBES are not in competition and that there is mutual respect for different opinions and concepts.  Furthermore “both organizations…stand united against biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation…. Irrespective of the terminology used, our community is undivided in our knowledge that we fundamentally depend on nature in countless ways.”

So there you have it.  The Nature article and editorial were, in my opinion and those of the letter writers, over the top, exaggerating debates and disagreements that, whilst certainly real, do not endanger IPBES nor its mission.  I urge you to read the original articles then the letters, and make up your own mind.  Comments welcome as always.

UPDATE 1:  Just after I tweeted this post the Natural Capital Coalition added it to the bottom of a tweet thread that they had started when the original articles were published.  I confess that I missed these first time round but the thread adds extra detail to why the articles were misleading.  Well worth reading – here’s the start of the thread:


UPDATE 2:  It seems Nature is happy to continue the exchange of views following the article; the current issue of the journal contains another letter (once again open access), this time from Jim Harris (Cranfield University) and Janne S. Kotiah (University of Jyväskylä, Finland) pointing out that “the debate around which framework to use to value biodiversity could stem from the relatively recent coining and adoption of the concept of nature’s contribution to people (NCP).  Google Scholar returns only 19 hits for NCP and nearly 100,000 for ecosystem services, mainly because the latter has been in use for much longer“.

They go on to say (as all the correspondents on this article have) that they see no reason why the two worldviews of NCP and ecosystem services are irreconcilable. NCP seems new and different because it’s unfamiliar jargon   All of this reminded me of one of my first posts on this blog – “Business and biodiversity: oil and water?” which documented an event that I attended in London called “Biodiversity & ecosystem services: new collaboration opportunities for academics with businesses” .  It’s worth quoting what I said with regard to jargon within the field:

“In the workshop I attended there was some discussion as to whether technical language such as “biodiversity”, “natural capital” and “ecosystem services” (which one contributor referred to as “eco-babble”) deters senior business managers from engaging with nature conservation. I pointed out that words and phrases such as “email”, “internet” and “world wide web” were not so very long ago similarly considered to be technical jargon but are now part of our every day language.”

I still stand by this: technical language is only a barrier to engagement if people do not take the time to understand the jargon.  And jargon can become everyday language very swiftly.

UPDATE 3: This issue rolls on and Nature is still allowing commentary.  Just before Christmas Jonathan Davies and Peter Stoett wrote on behalf of the authors of the biodiversity section of the newest Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) from UNEP  (due March 2019) that “Biodiversity loss is dire, don’t get distracted“.



Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, IPBES, Pollination

The good and the bad in biodiversity


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….”


Filed under Biodiversity

Hornets are pollinators too!


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.



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