Category Archives: SEED project

Thank the insects for Christmas (REBLOG)

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It’s become a tradition (ok, only for the past two years, but a tradition has to start somewhere!) for me to post a version of this festive blog entry.  I’ve updated the stats for 2013.  Hope you enjoy it.

Christmas!  A time to relax and enjoy ourselves, to share time with family and friends, and to unwind during the cold and gloom of winter.  Whatever your faith, or lack of it, Christmas should be about taking a break and reflecting on the year that has passed.  We’re helped in that respect by the ceremonial seasonal trimmings: the Christmas tree, strings of flashing lights, baubles and tinsel.  So while you’re kissing a loved one under the mistletoe, admiring that glossy holly wreath, or tucking into your Christmas dinner, spare a thought for the insects.

What in Saint Nicholas’s name”  you are asking ”have insects got to do with Christmas?!”  Well, like the turkey, we’d be stuffed without them:  they play an essential part in providing us with the things we associate with Christmas.  If we had no flies, wasps, bees and other bugs acting as pollinators there’d be no berries on your mistletoe or your holly.  Kissing and admiring would be a less festive affair and that’s just for starters.  These insects also pollinate many of the vegetables, herbs and spices on your plate, as well as some of the forage that went to fatten your roast bird or tender joint of meat.   Not to forget much of what went into the nut roast that’s feeding the vegetarian relatives.

The economic value of insect pollination in the UK was estimated by the recent National Ecosystem Assessment to be about £430 million per year.  In fact this is a huge under valuation because the labour costs alone of paying people to hand pollinate those crops would run into billions of pounds.  This sounds far fetched but it’s already happening to fruit crops in parts of China.  The answer is to encourage wild insects, not artificially  managed honey bees, because collectively the former are far more abundant, and often more effective, as pollinators.  Their diversity is an insurance against losing any one species in the future. The NEA’s valuation is also too low because it only deals with commercial edible crops, and does not include those we grow in our gardens and allotments.  It also does not take account of ornamental crops such as mistletoe and holly, both of which are dioecious species, which is to say that individuals are either male or female, rather than hermaphrodite as are most plants.  This means that the plants cannot self pollinate and insects are absolutely vital to their reproduction and to the production of the decorative berries we so value (a holly wreath without berries is just a big spiky doughnut, in my opinion).

Whilst researching the economic value of the annual mistletoe and holly crops for this blog posting last year I had a conversation with Jonathan Briggs over at Mistletoe Matters and he told me that “the mistletoe trade in Britain is entirely unregulated and not documented in any tangible way”, and the same is true of holly.  We therefore have no idea what the economic value of these non-food crops actually is.  But some back-of-the-red-and-gold-Christmas-lunch-napkin calculations can at least give us an insight.  Auction reports for 2013  show that on average the best quality berried holly was selling for £2.50 per kg whilst equivalent quality holly without berries sold for only 80p per kg.  In other words, pollination by insects increases the value of that crop by more than 300%!   Similarly the high quality mistletoe averaged £1.20 per kg, whilst the second grade stuff was only 40p per kg.  And the best holly wreaths (presumably with berries!) were averaging £7.00 each.

These are wholesale prices, of course; retail cost to the customer is much greater.  A decent holly wreath will set you back between £15 and £30 whilst online shopping for mistletoe is in the £5 to £20 range, depending on how much you want.  The national census of 2011 shows us that there are 23.4 million households in England and Wales, plus there are 2.36 million in Scotland and 0.70 million in Northern Ireland.  Let’s round it down and say there’s 26 million households in the whole of the UK.  Let’s also be very conservative and estimate that only 5% of those households bought one holly wreath and some mistletoe at a total cost of £20.  Multiply that by the small proportion of households buying these festive crops and you arrive at a figure of about £26.5 million!  And that doesn’t include non-household use in shops, offices and businesses.  So there you have it: an industry worth a few tens of millions (at least) all being ultimately supported by insects.

With pollination, timing is everything, and Jonathan also made the point that spring flowering mistletoe and holly can be important early nectar sources for insects.  Therefore despite the poor  summer weather in 2012, that year was a good one for mistletoe berries because the pollination happened before the heavy rains began.  Despite being quite common plants, rather little research has been done on either holly or mistletoe pollination in the UK and it would make for an interesting student project.  The Landscape and Biodiversity Research Group here at the University has for many years been working to understand the ecology of plants and pollinators, and how to best conserve them.  In this blog I’ve referred a few times to some ongoing projects researching how the wider landscape is supporting pollinators in habitats such as country house gardens  (Hilary Erenler’s PhD work which she completed this year) and urban centres (ongoing PhD work by Muzafar Hussain).  There’s also the work completed a few years ago by Sam Tarrant and Lutfor Rahman on pollinator (and other) biodiversity on restored landfill sites.   Plus research that’s recently started by Kat Harrold on how whole landscapes support pollinators in the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area. This is all part of a broader programme of research into the conservation of biodiversity in our region and beyond, including our Biodiversity Index, a contribution to the Shared Enterprise Empowering Delivery (SEED) sustainability project.

Biodiversity matters and its importance to our society is being increasingly recognised by government, business and the public. So if you make one New Year’s resolution on the 31st December, let it be that you will put away your garden bug sprays for 2014 and learn to love the insects (even wasps!) who give us so much and help to support our economy in a very real way.  It costs us nothing; all we need to give them is well managed, diverse, unpolluted habitats in which to live. Have a great Christmas everyone!
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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Biodiversity Index, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Pollination, SEED project, University of Northampton

Conservation: from CSN to CSR

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The history of what might be loosely called “the conservation movement” is a complex one with roots that are both deep and ramified.  In the west, direct antecedents can be found in the work of 19th century pro-environmental writers such as Henry David Thoreau  and George Perkins Marsh, but there are arguably also more subtle influences from other sources, for example the “Northamptonshire Peasant Poet” John Clare  whose natural history inspired verse captured a rural way of life and a landscape that was rapidly disappearing:

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books

The later foundation of organisations such as the RSPB, the Audubon Society, and the precursors of the Wildlife Trusts gave impetus to environmental campaigns focused on specific issues such as species extinctions and destruction of important wildlife sites.  But it was in the 1960s that nature conservation, and environmentalism more generally, began to become of wider concern.  Again the influences were broad but certainly included both popular science writing such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and  the attitudes and campaigning of the counter-culture.   Yet a generation later, as a student studying the subject in the 1980s, it was clear to me that the mainstream had not fully engaged with what was still considered hippy, tree-hugging notions of saving the planet/whale/rainforest/ [delete as appropriate].

Having always been a fan of vintage West Coast rock,  these hippy ideals were on my mind at the start of last week when I travelled to the BBC’s Maida Vale studios to attend a recording of Radio 4’s Mastertapes featuring David Crosby and his band.  As well as playing music from his first solo album, the haunting and majestic If Only I Could Remember My Name, Crosby talked about his life and political activism.  The following evening Karin and I were back in London, this time at the Royal Albert Hall to see Crosby with his compadres Steven Stills and Graham Nash, performing as the incomparable CSN.  A number of songs from their back catalogue feature environmentalism in one form or another and, despite their vintage, they are as in touch with the political scene as ever.

Now, in the first decades of the 21st century, the green agenda has gone mainstream and it seems that every large business discusses the environment in their Corporate Social Responsibility statements.  So with only a few hours sleep I jumped from CSN to CSR, a theme that recurred during  the first Northamptonshire Local Nature Partnership conference held at the University the next day.  One hundred and twenty delegates heard talks that presented environmentalism and nature conservation from the perspectives of citizen health and well being, Christianity, on-the-ground conservation activities, and the needs of business and enterprise.  In the afternoon there were smaller showcase sessions and I presented an overview of pollination as an ecosystem service.  

Every organisation (public and private sector) wants to be “green” these days, which is a good thing of course if it’s genuine and well conceived.  But as David Rolton pointed out in his talk, businesses were few and far between at this event.  During the question-and-answer session I followed up David’s comment with a description of our experiences with the Biodiversity Index.  Despite winning a Green Apple Award, and having lots of verbal encouragement from the private sector, as soon as we explain to businesses that they have to pay to use the Index, all interest dissipates.  These are the same businesses who are willing to invest in green initiatives such as recycling and energy efficiency, presumably because it saves them money as well: it seems that CSR for most businesses does not extend beyond paying lip service to biodiversity, despite an economic input of over £30 billion that the UK receives  from the natural environment every year.  

It took time for businesses and other organisations to acknowledge their responsibilities to the environment, and to develop policies relating to recycling, non-pollution and resource efficiency.  It seems that businesses are only just beginning to acknowledge their societal (rather than corporate) responsibilities with regard to conservation, and it’s an ongoing process that exercises government.  But conservation of biodiversity has got to become a priority; once a species is lost it’s lost forever, and we erode not only a natural heritage that has evolved over billions of years, but also the direct and tangible benefits biodiversity gives us.  In the words of CSN: “It’s been a long time coming; it’s going to be a long time gone.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity Index, Ecosystem services, Evolution, History of science, Pollination, SEED project, University of Northampton

A (Green) Apple for teacher (reduce, reuse, recycle part 5)

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At a small ceremony attended by businesses and local authorities on Friday, the team who developed the Biodiversity Index received a Green Apple Gold Award from The Green Organisation.  I proudly accepted the award on behalf of everyone and made a short speech which, in the spirit of my “reduce, reuse, recycle” policy, I’m posting here.  Thanks to Bobbie Lane for the photo, Richard Moore for help with the speech, and Gareth Thomas for the notion of biodiversity as the “fourth resource”.  

 

Ladies and gentlemen.

In June 2011 the UK National Ecosystem Assessment reported to Government that the value of the natural environment to the British economy was at least £30 billion per year in terms of the ecosystem services it provides, such as carbon storage, soil fertility, tourism and pollination.

In contrast, earlier this year the State of Nature Report by 25 of the UK’s leading wildlife organisations, suggested that 60% of animal and plant species for which we have data have declined in the past 50 years.  To add to this, some recent work by my research group at the University of Northampton has shown that 23 species of pollinating bees and wasps have gone extinct in Britain since the late 19th century.

Clearly there’s a contradiction here: at a time when we value biodiversity more than ever, it is declining at an ever-faster rate.  So what can we do about this situation?  How can individuals and organisations help to reverse this trend?  This is one of the aims of the Biodiversity Index.

Energy, water and waste are typically the main resources actively managed by businesses and organisations, but there is growing interest in understanding and managing biodiversity as a fourth resource that is critical for society as a whole.  In contrast to some of the other speakers you have heard today, the Biodiversity Index is not going to make you money.  In fact, if you are in the commercial sector, it will cost you a small amount of cash to join.  But the broader benefits of staff engagement with wildlife conservation, and the positive effect this will have on our country as a whole, are priceless.    

The Biodiversity Index is an interactive web-based tool, developed by the University of Northampton and believed to be the first of its kind anywhere in the world.  It enables organisations with little or no knowledge of biodiversity to undertake a rapid but scientific assessment of the level of plant diversity on their site and suggests ways to improve each habitat.

The Index widens access to the knowledge and tools required to make a start in improving the management of biodiversity on urban sites, with the potential to assist schools and colleges, universities, hospitals, local authorities, SMEs and larger businesses to improve the environment in which we work and live.

The tool was developed as part of the SEED Project and was launched at the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges annual conference in April 2013.  To date the Biodiversity Index has been used by over 30 UK universities and endorsed by several companies including Ricoh UK Ltd, a Global 100 sustainability company.

On behalf of the team that developed the Biodiversity Index I am delighted to accept this Green Apple Gold Award as an acknowledgment of the innovative work undertaken in this collaboration between the School of Science and Technology and the Department of Infrastructure Services at the University of Northampton.

Thank you.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity Index, Ecosystem services, Pollination, SEED project, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Thank the insects for Christmas (reduce, reuse, recycle part 2)

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The university term has drawn to a close in a flurry of activity as we complete our pre-Christmas teaching and assessments, and the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences conducted a successful five-yearly Periodic Subject Review of its degree programmes.  I’m conscious that some of the things I wanted to write about since my last blog entry have slipped past without action, including a week that was bookended by visits with students to iconic localities on the biodiversity and conservation map.  These were a Monday trip to the Darwin Centre of the Natural History Museum in London with students on my final year Biodiversity and Conservation module; followed by a Friday visit to Wicken Fen, arranged by my colleague Janet Jackson for second year students on her Habitat Ecology and Management module.  Both great days away from the lecture room, if for different reasons.

At the Natural History Museum we looked at the insect research collections, behind the scenes where the public does not normally venture.  Wicken Fen, on the other hand, is open to all and we met birders and walkers as we toured the site.  I kept a tally of the number of bird species we identified and the final count was 29 (30 if you include the chickens being kept in a back garden close to the visitor centre).  It would have been impossible to make a meaningful species count  at the Musuem as we were overwhelmed by the statistics presented by the curators:  85,000 butterfly and moth specimens in the Lepidoptera section, 3 to 4 million specimens of true flies (Diptera).  On it went; wonderful diversity and an incredible scientific resource.

Which brings me neatly to the main topic of this entry: the importance of insects at Christmas!  I’ve mentioned before that one of the intentions of this blog was to reuse some of the writing I’ve done over the years in various fora, sometimes updating and re-casting it ro reflect recent activities or events (hence the “reduce, reuse, recycle” epithet).  The publication this month of the final report of the Government-sponsored workshop Insect Pollinators: Linking Research and Policy in which I was involved has prompted me to modify and re-post an entry that first appeared on the University of Northampton’s blog at this time last year.

The social and economic news is not great, global poverty is on the increase even in the richest countries and the range of human-influenced assaults on the natural environment seems to be escalating on a weekly basis.  But at least it’s Christmas!  A time to relax and enjoy ourselves, to share time with family and friends, and to unwind during the cold and gloom of winter.  Whatever your faith, or lack of it, Christmas should be about taking a break and reflecting on the year that has passed.  We’re helped in that respect by the ceremonial seasonal trimmings: the Christmas tree, strings of flashing lights, baubles and tinsel.  So while you’re kissing a loved one under the mistletoe, admiring that glossy holly wreath, or tucking into your Christmas dinner, spare a thought for the insects.

What in Saint Nicholas’s name”  you are asking ”have insects got to do with Christmas?!”  Well, like the turkey, we’d be stuffed without them:  they play an essential part in providing us with the things we associate with the Christmas.  If we had no flies, wasps, bees and other bugs acting as pollinators there’d be no berries on your mistletoe or your holly.  Kissing and admiring would be a less festive affair and that’s just for starters.  These insects also pollinate many of the vegetables, herbs and spices on your plate, as well as some of the forage that went to fatten your roast bird or tender joint of meat.   Not to forget much of what went into the nut roast that’s feeding the vegetarian relatives.

The economic value of insect pollination in the UK was estimated by the recent National Ecosystem Assessment to be about £430 million per year .  In fact this is a huge under valuation because the labour costs alone of paying people to hand pollinate those crops would run into billions of pounds.  This sounds far fetched but it’s already happening to fruit crops in parts of China.  The answer is to encourage wild insects, not artificially  managed honey bees, because collectively the former are far more abundant, and often more effective, as pollinators.  Their diversity is an insurance against losing any one species in the future.

The NEA’s valuation is also too low because it only deals with edible crops.  Mistletoe and holly are both dioecious species, which is to say that individual plants are either male or female, as is the case with most animals.  This means that the plants cannot self pollinate and insects are absolutely vital to their reproduction and to the production of the decorative berries we so value (a holly wreath without berries is just a big spiky doughnut, in my opinion).  Whilst researching the economic value of the annual mistletoe and holly crops for this blog posting I’ve been having a conversation with Jonathan Briggs over at Mistletoe Matters and he tells me that “the mistletoe trade in Britain is entirely unregulated and not documented in any tangible way” and the same is true of holly.  We therefore have no idea what the economic value actually is.  But some back-of-the-red-and-gold-Christmas-lunch-napkin calculations can at least give us an insight.  Auction reports this year  show that on average the best quality berried holly was selling for £2.50 per kg whilst equivalent quality holly without berries cost only 75p per kg.  In other words, pollination by insects increases the value of that crop by over 300%.   Similarly the high quality mistletoe averaged 80p per kg, whilst the second grade stuff was only 20p per kg.  And the best holly wreaths (presumably with berries!) were averaging £3.40 each.  These are wholesale prices, of course; retail cost to the customer is much greater.  A decent holly wreath will set you back between £15 and £30 whilst online shopping for mistletoe is in the £5 to £15 bracket.  The national census of 2011 shows us that there are 23.4 million households in England and Wales, plus there are 2.36 million in Scotland and 0.70 million in Northern Ireland.  Let’s round it down and say there’s 26 million households in the whole of the UK.  Let’s also be very conservative and estimate that only 5% of those households bought one holly wreath and some mistletoe at a total cost of £20.  Multiply that by the small proportion of households buying these festive crops and you arrive at a figure of about £26.5 million!  And that doesn’t include non-household use in shops, offices and businesses.  So there you have it: an industry worth a few 10s of millions (at least) all being ultimately supported by insects.

With pollination, timing is everything, and Jonathan also made the point that spring flowering mistletoe and holly can be important early nectar sources for insects.  Therefore despite the poor  summer weather, this year has been a good one for mistletoe berries because the pollination happened before the heavy rains began.  Despite being quite common plants, rather little research has been done on either holly or mistletoe pollination in the UK and it would make for an interesting student project.

The Landscape and Biodiversity Research Group here at the university is playing its part by working to understand the ecology of plants and pollinators, and how to best conserve them.  In this blog I’ve referred a few times to some ongoing projects researching how the wider landscape is supporting pollinators in habitats such as country house gardens   (Hilary Erenler’s PhD work which she’s currently writing up) and urban centres (ongoing PhD work by Muzafar Hussain).  There’s also the recently completed work by Sam Tarrant and Lutfor Rahman on pollinator (and other) biodiversity on restored landfill sites.   Plus work that’s only just started by Kat Harrold on how whole landscapes support pollinators in the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area. This is all part of a broader programme of research into the conservation of biodiversity in our region and beyond, including a contribution to the Shared Enterprise Empowering Delivery (SEED) sustainability project.   Biodiversity matters and its importance to our society is being increasingly recognised by government, business and the public.

So if you make one New Year’s resolution on the 31st December, let it be that you will put away your bug sprays for 2013 and learn to love the insects (even wasps!) who give us so much and help to support our economy in a very real way.  It costs us nothing; all we need to give them is well managed, diverse, unpolluted habitats in which to live.

Have a great Christmas everyone!

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity and culture, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Hoverflies, Nene Valley NIA, Pollination, SEED project, University of Northampton

Business and Biodiversity: Oil & Water?

An early start yesterday to get to London for a meeting/workshop called “Biodiversity & ecosystem services: new collaboration opportunities for academics with businesses”.  The meeting was organised by the Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network , a fairly new government initiative trying to link industry/businesses with university-level researchers and third sector organisations.  The aim of the day was to:

“….bring together academics and businesses with an interest in the Natural Capital/Ecosystem Services approach that the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) envisages for the UK.  The Natural Environment White Paper has put business at the centre of the stage to deliver the sustainable economy that the Government pledges to provide.”

There’s a lot of scepticism in both camps about whether businesses and researchers can really ever talk mutually comprehensible languages or have convergent priorities.  But I’m open minded enough to attend these events and see what I can learn from them.  It was also an opportunity to catch up with some old friends who I hadn’t seen for a while, and to promote the biodiversity bit of the SEED project.

Highlight of the day for me (other than seeing said friends) was Professor Ian Bateman’s presentation on the UK National Ecosystem Assessment and the ecosystem services approach to valuing nature.  Whilst there wasn’t anything in the presentation that I was not already broadly familiar with, it was a wonderfully clear and forthright exposition on just how much we have under valued the natural capital of the UK.  Putting a monetary value on our biodiversity leaves a lot of scientists and activists uncomfortable and I share some of that discomfort.  But it may be our best opportunity to safeguard biodiversity for the future.

Also impressive (and dryly funny) was the presentation by Martin Ross from South West Water on how his company is providing grants to farmers with land in their catchments to manage farms in a way which minimises pollution and therefore the cost of water treatment.

Lowlight of the day was a (rather young and I think naive) environmental consultant’s claims that “we know almost nothing about biodiversity in this country except for a few charismatic species” and “nature conservation has failed in the UK”.  I thought that a guy from the JNCC was going to explode when he heard that last statement!   The first comment betrayed a lack of historical understanding: we have an enormous reservoir of biodiversity knowledge in this country, added to and developed by both professional and amateur researchers.  What we lack is a truly comprehensive method of bringing all of this together in a way that is usable for biodiversity planning.

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.  Don’t think they were convinced.

Left a very sunny, spring-y London on a packed train, arriving in a colder, over cast Northampton.  A short taxi ride took me to the university in time to enjoy a really stimulating evening lecture by photographer John Hilliard, part of the School of The Arts’ Articulation series.  Great to see a packed audience of mainly students listening intently to an artist of his reputation.  Look forward to next week’s talk by Ian McKeever.

Home by 8.30pm to enjoy delicious chicken soup and (at 9.00pm) furious ranting at the BBC Horizon programme about the subconscious mind, both courtesy of my psychotherapist partner Karin.  Too exhausted by 10pm to watch anything more than the news headlines.  Sleep came easily….

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Filed under Ecosystem services, SEED project