Category Archives: Neonicotinoids

Pollinator biodiversity and why it’s important: a new review just published – download it for free

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In a new review paper that’s just been published in the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics I have looked at the question of just how diverse the pollinators are, and why pollinator biodiversity is ecologically important and therefore worthy of conservation.  I’ve taken a deep time and wide space approach to this, starting with what the fossil record tells us about when animal pollination evolved and the types of organisms that acted as pollinators in the past (the answer may surprise you if you’re unfamiliar with the recent paleontological literature on this topic).  Some of the most prominent biogeographical patterns have been highlighted, and I have tried to estimate the global diversity of currently known pollinators.  A conclusion is that as many as 1 in 10 described animal species may act as pollen vectors.

As well as this descriptive part of the review I’ve summarised some recent literature on why pollinator diversity matters, and how losing that diversity can affect fruit and seed set in natural and agricultural contexts.  Extinction of pollinator species locally, regionally, and globally should concern us all.

Although I was initially a little worried that the review was too broad and unfocused, having re-read it I’m pleased that I decided to approach the topic in this way.  The research literature, public policy, and conservation efforts are currently moving at such a fast pace that I think it’s a good time to pause and look at the bigger picture of what “Saving the Pollinators” actually means and why it’s so important.  I hope you agree and I’d be happy to receive feedback.

You can download a PDF of the review entitled Pollinator Diversity: Distribution, Ecological Function, and Conservation by following that link.

Pollination ecologists should also note that in this same volume of Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics there’s a review by Spencer Barrett and Lawrence Harder called The Ecology of Mating and Its Evolutionary Consequences in Seed Plants.  If you contact those authors I’m sure they’d let you have a copy.

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Filed under Apocynaceae, Bees, Biodiversity, Biogeography, Birds, Butterflies, Climate change, Ecosystem services, Evolution, Honey bees, Hoverflies, IPBES, Macroecology, Mammals, Moths, Mutualism, Neonicotinoids, Pollination, Urban biodiversity, Wasps

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

Oxalis fly P1030303.png

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

Recent developments in pollinator conservation: IPBES, 10 Policies, pesticide conspiracies, and more

Bee on apple blossom - 1st May 2015

It’s been a busy week for anyone interested in pollinators and their conservation, lots of things happening that I thought I would summarise in a single post with links.

First of all IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) has finally released the full text of its Thematic Assessment on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production  – nine months after it was discussed at the 4th IPBES Plenary Meeting, and three months after the Summary for Policymakers came out.  Even now the document is not in its ultimate state, it’s the text without its final layout or appendices (though it still runs to 868 pages!)  The preamble to the report states that:  “A full laid out colour version, including a preface and annexes will be posted here shortly”.

Sources tell me that there have been some delays while the exact style and colour scheme of the report are finalised, which, if true, is frankly not very encouraging : this is an important document that needed to made public at the earliest opportunity.  I accept that it’s got to be correct, and it’s a complex report, and this is not a criticism of the authors, rather of IPBES’s bureaucracy.  Pollination ecology and pollinator conservation is a fast moving field and there have already been significant scientific and policy developments since the text was finalised which will not be incorporated into this version.

To coincide with the release of the report comes two important articles in the two most prestigious scientific journals by some of the authors of the report.  In “Ten Policies for Pollinators” (Dicks et al. Science 354: 975-976) the authors set out a series of recommendations for politicians.  The article is paywalled so here’s their list with some annotations [in square brackets]:

1. Raise pesticide regulatory standards [to include our most important pollinators – wild bees and other insects!]
2. Promote integrated pest management (IPM) [rather than automatically feeding the profits of agrochemical companies].
3. Include indirect and sublethal effects in GM crop risk assessments.
4. Regulate movement of managed pollinators [lots of evidence that poor husbandry is a major cause of colony collapse disorder, for example].
5. Develop incentives, such as insurance schemes, to help farmers benefit from ecosystem services instead of agrochemicals.
6. Recognize pollination as an agricultural input in extension services.
7. Support diversified farming systems [does Brexit provide an opportunity to do this in the UK?]
8. Conserve and restore “green infrastructure” (a network of habitats that pollinators can move between) in agricultural and urban landscapes [already lots being done on this in urban areas but much less in rural areas].
9. Develop long-term monitoring of pollinators and pollination [there’s already been a report on this – expect more news early next year].
10. Fund participatory research on improving yields in organic, diversified, and ecologically intensified farming.

Overall it’s a sensible set of recommendations – the only ones that I would have added would be to develop education and awareness programmes of the importance of natural capital and ecosystem services, aimed at farmers, civil servants, politicians, planners, business and industry, developers, etc.  And also to build consideration of natural capital into local planning systems so that the loss of habitats, trees, ponds, etc. are properly accounted for.  I’m sure others can think of more – feel free to comment.

Getting politicians to take notice of these recommendations in an age where scientific experts are derided as no different to “soothsayers and astrologers” will be a challenge though.

Lead author Lynn Dicks discussed these recommendations on the BBC Radio 4 Farming Today programme (from about 3:27) – well worth a listen.

Following on from this some of the authors of the 10 recommendations article were also involved in a review published this week entitled “Safeguarding pollinators and their values to human well-being” (Potts et al. Nature) – hopefully that link will take you to the full text of the article which is being widely circulated for free in a read-only form (it can’t be downloaded unless you have an e-subscription to Nature).

On the subject of safeguarding pollinators (and specifically from pesticides) a video of Dave Goulson speaking at the 2015 National Honey Show appears to have been edited to remove his comments about neonicotinoid pesticides (about 34:08 to 34:28).  Dave’s not sure if this is conspiracy or cock-up, but it’s an odd coincidence that this is the only glitch in an otherwise well-produced video.

At about 39:20 Dave talks about the importance of engaging kids with nature and specifically pollinators.  I completely agree and last week did a live Q&A phone interview with Year 7 pupils at Abbeyfield School in Northampton who are doing a project on bees.   The kids asked some great questions and were very well informed – a credit to their teachers!

This week there was a lot of pollinator and pollination ecology being discussed at the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference – Manu Saunders has produced a Storify to summarise the talks and Twitter comments – here’s the link.

Linked to this, against my better judgement and as an experiment, I’ve finally joined Twitter.  It’s a bit of an experiment to see how I get on and so far I’m enjoying it, though I’m sticking to science and environmental news – my handle is @JeffOllerton if you want to follow or tweet at me.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, IPBES, Neonicotinoids, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Bees and pesticides – a major new study just published – UPDATED

Male B lap on Salvia cropped P1120309

An important new study about the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on wild bees has just been published in the journal Nature Communications – here’s the details and a link to the paper, which is open access:

Woodcock, B. A. et al. (2016) Impacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England. Nat. Commun. 7:12459 doi: 10.1038/ncomms12459

As I’ve previously discussed on this blog (e.g. here and here) there are widespread concerns amongst environmentalists, and some scientists, about the impact that these relatively new pesticides are having on pollinators and other biodiversity.  The Woodcock et al. paper is a major contribution to this discussion as it uses a huge dataset to model the changes in populations of 62 wild bee species that are known to forage on oilseed rape (canola) over 18 years.  These changes can be related to the spatial extent of oilseed rape cultivation and the authors found that whilst bees “….foraging on oilseed rape benefit from the…[nectar and pollen provided by]….this crop….[they]….were on average three times more negatively affected by exposure to neonicotinoids than…” bees which didn’t forage on the crop.

The authors further conclude that “This study provides the first evidence for community level national scale impacts on the persistence of wild bee populations resulting from exposure to neonicotinoid treated oilseed rape crops.”

Neonicotinoid pesticides are, of course, not the whole story when it comes to understanding declines in pollinator diversity and abundance.  But these pesticides are the latest in a long history of changes to British agriculture that have had significant consequences for the biodiversity of our country (as we showed in our study of bee and wasp extinctions).

Reactions to the study have been, well, predictable.  A long feature on the BBC News website* quoted a representative from Bayer as saying:

“we believe….[the study’s]….findings would be more correctly headlined that intensive agriculture is causing some issues with pollinators…..  Whether this is due to the use of insecticides is not clear; a lack of nesting sites and pollen and nectar sources in these areas may also be critical factors.”

Which rather ignores the fact that this was a comparative study of bees that forage on oilseed rape versus those that don’t.

Likewise the National Farmer’s Union’s position was that:

“While this study claims to provide an important contribution to the evidence base underpinning the current EU moratorium on some uses of neonicotinoids, experts reviewing all the evidence have concluded that there are still major gaps in our knowledge and a limited evidence base to guide policymakers”

Which sounds to me like a statement designed to fudge the issue: the “experts reviewing all the evidence” would not have reviewed this particular study!  And which begs the question – how much evidence and how many studies would be enough for the NFU?

The study’s authors do not make any suggestions as to what the next step should be in this continuing saga but are quoted as saying that “simplistic solutions” such as banning these pesticides are not the answer because this will encourage use of pesticides that are even more damaging.  That may be the case but it’s clear that an independent root-and-branch reassessment of the use of pesticides (and herbicides) in UK agriculture is long overdue.

 

*As an aside, this BBC News piece wrongly states that bumblebees were not included in the study, which is not the case.

 

UPDATE:  After I published this post I noticed that Manu Saunders has also written about the bee study, plus a second study that I’d not seen linking neonicotinoid use to declining butterfly populations in California.  Here’s a link to Manu’s blog.

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Neonicotinoids, Pollination