Category Archives: University of Northampton

Mini Bee Symposium – University of Northampton – 13th March 2018

All speakers 20180313_172553_preview

No, not a symposium about tiny Anthophila, but a small get together to discuss bee-related research.  One of the pleasures of my job is hosting visiting scientists from around the world and at the moment I am playing host to three colleagues here in Northampton.   Dr Pablo Gorostiague from the National University of Salta in Argentina is working with me as a visiting postdoc for six months, whilst from the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences we have Prof. Chao-Dong “CD” Zhu and Dr Michael Orr here for three days.

So in honour of these visitors, and to introduce them to a wider range of UK bee researchers (some of whom they had corresponded with but never met) I thought it would be fun to organise an informal symposium where people who are (reasonably) nearby could come and present recent bee -related research.

So it was that yesterday a group of about 20 of us spent a great afternoon together listening to 10 short talks.  Here are the presenters and a short description of their presentations:

Steven Falk (independent consultant) discussed “Breaking down barriers to bee identification in Britain” and explained the philosophy behind the structure of his recent Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland.

Stella Watts (Universities of Northampton and Haifa) described her work as a postdoc in Israel examining the structure of plant-pollinator networks centred around some endemic irises.

Chris O’Toole (University of Oxford) dealt with an intriguing phenomenon of what appears to be age-related senility in some Osmia spp.

Pablo Gorostiague told us about his work on bee (and other) pollinators of cacti in his native Argentina.

Ratheesh Kallivalappil (University of Lincoln) discussed his PhD work looking at the decline of global pollinator biodiversity in the Anthropocene.

After a tea break, Stephanie Maher (Anglia Ruskin University) described her PhD work on the nesting ecology of solitary bees in the UK, including a very successful citizen science project.  She argued persuasively for a national database of bee nesting sites.

CD Zhu discussed how modern omics approaches could be integrated into research programmes for understanding the phylogenies and interactions of large clades of species.

Michael Orr talked about the nesting behaviour of some solitary bees of SW North America, and I was surprised to learn that some species can remain in their nests for up to four years before emerging.

In a spontaneous, unscheduled talk Sam Gandy (Universities of Aberdeen and Sussex) told us about research he was involved with that aimed to assess competition between honey bees and bumblebees foraging on lavender.  He did a great job considering he’d not seen the presentation previously, it was emailed to him during the tea break!

Finally I talked about some of our ongoing work assessing the spatio-temporal stability of pollination of an endemic plant by endemic bees in Tenerife.

Following a photo call for all the speakers (see above) we decamped to a local hostelry for beer and food.  Al-in-all a great day of science and networking.  Thanks to all of the speakers and the audience for taking part!

Here are a few more images from the day:

Michael Orr 2018-03-13 16.08.15_preview

Michael Orr in action (I helped to cut that hair!)

Chris OToole 2018-03-13 13.44.37_preview

Chris O’Toole and some of his senile bees

Stella 2018-03-13 13.24.34_previewStella Watts is a blur when presenting her work!

There’s a lot more images on Twitter if you search for #MiniBeeSymposium





Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, University of Northampton

Metaphors in oak: my Images of Research entry for 2018

Metaphors in oak.png

The Annual University of Northampton “Images of Research” competition has been running for 5 years and this year’s event has seen a bumper entry of 38 images with accompanying text in fewer than 150 words (including one from our Vice Chancellor).

I think that I’ve entered an image every year – this is from 2016 – and you can see my entry from this year above.  It’s called “Metaphors in oak” and here’s my 150 words – perhaps a little fanciful in retrospect, but it’s what the photo said to me at the time:

“This photograph was taken on a recent field trip to Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. I was drawn to the colours and textures of this fallen oak branch as a piece of natural art, but also to its ecological significance. The bark has been attacked by insects then decomposed by fungi and bacteria, leaving behind the wooden core of the branch, which has subsequently been colonised by lichens and mosses. Decay, recycling, colonisation, biodiversity: fundamental ecological patterns and processes. But, with a little imagination, there are also metaphors for research to be seen in this picture. The growth patterns of the wood seem to flow, and in it we can envision a journey of both smooth waters and turbulent times. The diversity of organisms captured in the image reminds us of the varied experiences we can expect during research, not all positive, but all adding to the colour and texture of our lives. What does this image say, and what metaphors does it reveal, to you?”


Here’s a link to the exhibition catalogue and to the online voting system – well worth browsing through to see the range and diversity of research being carried out at our university.



Filed under Biodiversity, University of Northampton

A bad botanical pun

fucksia not fewsha 20171012_080602_001_preview

Not all of the poetry that I write – such as these pieces – is serious and high-minded, some of it is whimsical, funny, or just plain dumb.  Today I taught a morning class on flower structure and pollination, so in its honour here’s an example of the latter:


A Bad Botanical Pun

“Don’t become a gardener – there’s no fuchsia in it!”

Not a great pun, but I’ve heard worse.

However, it may be pedantic, but I have to point out

That the genus Fuchsia was named in honour of Leonard Fuchs

(A sixteenth century Bavarian botanist, as you ask).

His name is pronounced as a definite, Germanic “fucks”,

Not a prim, Victorian “fewsh”.

So, don’t become a botanist – it’ll Fuchsia!


Students in the pollination practical 20171012_111355_preview


Filed under Biodiversity, Gardens, Poetry, Pollination, University of Northampton

Public evening lecture on butterfly conservation – Tuesday 16th May – free and open to all

Gatekeeper cropped P1010472

The University of Northampton has recently approved the appointment of Tom Brereton as Visiting Professor in Conservation Science.  Tom is well known for his work with Butterfly Conservation, the organisation that monitors British butterfly and moth populations, and promotes their study and conservation.  However he also works with other organisations including the charity MarineLife.

The first task of any Visiting Professor is to present a public lecture on their work, which Tom is doing next Tuesday 16th May; it is entitled:

“Butterflies and other animals: 40 years of adventure in ecology and conservation”

The lecture begins at 6pm in The Grand Hall, Newton Building, St George’s Avenue, Northampton, NN2 6JD

Coffee & biscuits will be served on arrival at 5.30pm

Following the lecture there will be an opportunity for networking and discussion over drinks & nibbles.  The lecture is free and open to all; for catering purposes please advise Val Howe if you wish to attend:

Telephone: 01604 893005

(Though if you decide to come at the last minute that’s also fine!)

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Filed under Biodiversity, Butterflies, University of Northampton

Spiral Sunday #32 – from the Guimar Badlands of Darwin’s Unrequited Isle

Guimar spiral.png

Our annual undergraduate Tenerife Field Course ends today and later I will say goodbye to the students and my University of Northampton colleagues Janet Jackson and Paul Cox: I’m staying on for another 10 days with Karin to do some additional field work.  The apartment complex where we were located had very poor wifi so I’ve not been able to post much, but we’ve moved now and I’ll try to do more in the coming week.

For Spiral Sunday this week here’s a shot of the logo for one of the protected areas that we always visit, and one of my favourite places on Tenerife: the stunning Malpais de Guimar (Guimar Badlands).

As you can see from the image below, the Guimar Badlands is a fascinating area of xerophytic scrub containing plants that are adapted to very low water levels.  It’s always the first site that we visit with the students, providing a great contrast to any habitats that they might have encountered in Britain.  A perfect introduction to Darwin’s Unrequited Isle.

Guimar 2014.png


Filed under Biodiversity, Charles Darwin, spirals, Tenerife, University of Northampton

Spiral Sunday #25 – a London Underground poster from the Osborne Robinson collection

Underground spiral 20170303_140031The University of Northampton is custodian of one of the best collections of posters in Britain.  The Osborne Robinson Collection now contains over 10,000 items and the university regularly displays them internally and at other venues.

This week’s Spiral Sunday shows a poster currently on display that caught my eye as I was passing.  The poster is by Edward McKnight Kauffer for London Underground (or Underground Electric Railways Co. of London, Ltd as it was), and dates from 1922.

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Filed under spirals, University of Northampton

Spiral Sunday #20 – a wooden bannister


As he was leaving work on Friday evening my colleague Dr Mu Mu commented on how he was looking forward to today’s Spiral Sunday.  That’s the first time anyone has said such a thing, so this week’s image is dedicated to him!  It’s the carved end of a mahogany bannister that he passes most days on his way to and from the office in the Newton Building of the University of Northampton.

The Newton Building was constructed in 1915 so the wood was probably harvested from the wild in South or Central America, rather than being from a plantation.  These solid, knife-straight bannisters have lasted over 100 years without warping, and will no doubt last for a century or more to come.  I love their smooth solidity, but they are a beautiful, daily reminder of the history of tropical deforestation.





Filed under Biodiversity and culture, spirals, University of Northampton

The road to degradation: is “naming all the species” achievable or even desirable?


In 2013 Mark Costello, Robert May and Nigel Stork published a review paper in the journal Science called “Can We Name Earth’s Species Before They Go Extinct?”  It’s a paper that I discuss with my students in their final year Biodiversity and Conservation module, and it always generates a lot of interest, and it’s has been well cited since it first appeared (143 citations* to date according to Web of Science).  There was an interesting response by Mora et al., with a riposte by Costello et al., but overall the original paper has been rather influential in framing some discussions about taxonomic effort and description of species, and the idea that we can “name everything” with additional resources.  At the end of the review Costello and colleagues answered their own question by stating: “We believe that with modestly increased effort in taxonomy and conservation, most species could be discovered and protected from extinction” [my emphasis].

Is their optimism justified?  Can “most species be discovered”?  And what are the implications for how we go about “discovering” these species that are unknown to science?

In my professional life I’ve been fortunate enough to carry out field work with some great colleagues in some wonderful parts of the world, including tropical rainforest and savannah in Guyana and Gabon, mountain scrub in the High Andes of Peru, seasonal dry forest in Australia, montane grasslands in South Africa, Namibian desert, and Brazilian cerrado and Atlantic rainforest.  All of these were sites where non-biologists would rarely venture: off the beaten track and (usually**) away from the typical tourist haunts.  It would be tempting to describe these places as “remote” but really they were not, because they all shared something in common: accessibility.  We were able to reach these sites by traveling along roads, of variable quality, usually in four-wheel drive vehicles.  The roads were often not in good condition, and frequently not metaled, but they were roads nonetheless.

It’s sometimes said that if one were to map the geographical coordinates of plant specimens stored in herbariums such as the one at Kew, you would end up with a road map of the world.  That’s because collecting biological specimens, or carrying out field work, requires us to be able to gain access to an area.  And accessibility usually means roads, unless one is working on the coast or along a river or lake, or have lots and lots of funding to allow teams to be helicoptered into an area (which is rare, but makes for exciting television).  Therefore most collecting of biological specimens is done in areas not far from roads.

So, any initiative that intends to “name all the species” in a particular group is going to require access to the remotest parts of the planet, areas that currently have no roads running through them.

There are still areas of the world that we can consider “remote” and “wilderness”, areas that are more than 100km from the nearest road – as a study published at the end of 2016 demonstrated.  But these are often found in the most biologically rich parts of the planet, for example tropical rainforest and mountainous areas, where we wouldn’t necessarily want to put roads to make them accessible to taxonomists (or even ecologists).  That’s because where roads go, people go, and accessibility to an area is usually followed by exploitation and degradation: illegal hunting, logging, mining, poaching of specimens for sale, etc. etc.


Now, don’t get me wrong, taxonomy is absolutely vital to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity.  It also underpins much ecological, bio-molecular and agricultural research and technology.  But the trade off for taxonomists is that they must gather their specimens and data from accessible areas, and that often means roads, and roads mean degradation.

The impetus for this post came from Twitter where a taxonomist highlighted the very good work done by the Virtual Institute of Spider Taxonomy Research (VINT) and described it as an “initiative to discover all spider species of the world in 30 years”.  Interestingly I can’t find that aspiration on the VINT website, but if it exists I’m not sure it’s achievable for spiders or any other diverse group of species, without being able to access parts of the world that are best left un-degraded.  Again, this is particularly true of the tropics where species can have very limited distributions.  A number of years ago an Australian botanist told me about how he was only able to collect some epiphytic Hoya specimens in Papua New Guinea by going into areas of rainforest that had been illegally logged, removing the plants from crowns of the felled trees, with no little risk to his own safety if the loggers had spotted him.  Some of those species might have remained undescribed if the area had not been opened up by a road prior to deforestation.  That would have been a loss for Hoya taxonomy, but surely positive for conservation.

Can “most species be discovered”?  Is this even a desirable thing?  I used to think so, because of the oft-stated view that we can’t conserve what we don’t know.  Now I’m not so sure, for reasons I hope I’ve articulated.  But as always I’d welcome your comments and criticisms.


*Including one in the conference: Annual Forum on Grumpy Scientists: the Ecological Conscience of a Nation:Royal Zoological Society, Sydney, Australia.  I’d have liked to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting!

**Usually, but not always: I have a few papers where some or all data collection was done in and around back-packers hostels, hotels, and tourist lodges.  Hey, you take your opportunities where you find them in this game!


Filed under Biodiversity, Brazil, Spiders, University of Northampton

When did plastic plants become acceptable?

Plants are important.  Really, really important.  They play important roles in society and in the nature that supports our societies: plants feed us; they are a source of many pharmaceuticals; they produce oxygen and store up carbon dioxide; they can remove pollutants from city atmospheres; and they are the foundation for much of the world’s ecological functioning.  In addition they inspire poets, artists, musicians, and have huge cultural significance, as well as bringing beauty and biodiversity to even the most urban of environments. Plants positively add to our quality of life, and make us happy, whether we are aware of it or not.

OK, there’s a bit of personal bias going on here: I’ve always loved studying and growing plants, they are a huge part of my life.  But the basic facts of what I laid out in that opening paragraph are correct: plants matter.  So I find it troubling that there seems to be a recent trend in using artificial (mainly plastic) plants indoors and in outside “gardens”.  When did this happen?  When did plastic plants become acceptable?

It first struck me that there had been a recent shift in how we view plastic plants back in the summer when I visited the newly refurbished main restaurant at the university’s Park Campus.  The refurb was very nicely done and there’s a big display about how much of the university’s waste we are recycling, and there’s lots of greenery about the place – except that most of it is plastic.

Then in November we visited my son Patrick in Lancaster.  We stayed a night in a nice hotel in the city centre, in a room that led out into a private courtyard – full of plastic plants.  There was a plastic lawn, a plastic palm, even plastic ivy.  Ivy!  One of the easiest plants in the world to grow – why would you need to make it out of plastic?!  It makes itself perfectly well which you can see if you peep over the wall at the back of the courtyard:


Then the following week I was in London at the Wellcome Trust to take part in a project review panel.  The Wellcome’s building near Euston Station is wonderful, really striking on the inside, full of light and life.  I was initially please to see an avenue of fig trees in large containers arrayed along the centre of the main concourse:


But when I looked closely I realised that although the trunks and branches were real, these were not living plants: the leaves are artificial, made from wire and synthetic material.  So someone has gone to the trouble of growing real fig trees only to dismember them and festoon them with faux foliage.  Please, no one tell Mike Shanahan!

I’m really surprised at the Wellcome Trust, an organisation I have a lot of respect for;  we know that real plants have a positive effect on psychology and health, though I very much doubt that the same can be said for artificial ones.  In their defence the Wellcome Trust building does have some real plants scattered about the place, but they missed a huge opportunity in not using real figs here.  Even that cathedral to capitalism that is the Milton Keynes shopping centre uses real plants in most of its displays, including some lovely tree ferns:


And splendid palms:


Finally, insult was added to injury as we entered the New Year.  As I mentioned in my Spiral Sunday post a couple of weeks ago, we bought a wreath as a Christmas decoration and I took it apart to compost and recycle at the start of the year.  What I hadn’t noticed when we bought it was that half of the holly berries were plastic:


This was hugely ironic given our recent study of how insects boost the value of holly by pollinating the female flowers that produce the berries!

All of this is more than just snobbery on my part.  Yes, you can argue that plastic plants are a bit naff and can never take the place of the “real” thing.  But my main concern here is an environmental one: plastic plants require resources (usually oil-based polymers and energy) to make.  And I doubt very much whether they are recycled very often.  Yes, real plants also cost resources to grow (though that can be minimised depending on how they are grown).  But they also provide a range of benefits and, at the end of their life, they can be composted.  Not something I can do with my plastic holly berries.  Not only that, but I suspect that most (all?) of the plastic plants that are sold are manufactured in the Far East.  Using British- or Europe-grown real plants would cut down on the carbon-miles required and support more local horticultural industries.

Early in 2017 Andrew Lucas at Swansea University, on Twitter, described what he thought was the most depressing tweet of 2017 so far:  “Transform your garden today: buy Artificial Grass from ExpressGrass. Cut to your size for easy DIY installation”.

Agreed, hugely depressing, but we can do something about it: stop buying fake plants.  Perhaps we need a Campaign for Real Plants?  Its theme tune could be Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees:

Her green plastic watering can
For her fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself…..

……It wears me out


Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Research seminar: Dr Hazel Chapman – “Conservation ecology of West Africa’s montane forest habitats – seed dispersers and their substitutes”

We start the new term with a guest speaker from New Zealand – Dr Hazel Chapman – who is coming to give a research seminar this Friday at 1pm in Newton NW205, University of Northampton, Avenue Campus. Here’s the details:
Conservation ecology of West Africa’s montane forest habitats – seed dispersers and their substitutes.
The Nigerian Montane Forest Project (NMFP) is a conservation and biodiversity research program founded on a field station located on the Nigeria-Cameroon border. Run out of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, the Project is aimed at understanding the ecology of Nigeria’s montane forest fragments for informed management of this fragile ecosystem. The research focus is predominantly plant-animal mutualisms and forest restoration. This talk will introduce the NMFP and present research aimed at understanding how seed dispersal processes are changing in response to forest fragmentation and hunting.
Hazel Chapman is an Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury (UC) NZ, where she lectures in evolutionary ecology. Hazel’s research focus is tropical forest conservation and she is the Founder and Director of the NMFP. Since 2004, the Project has seen a stream of international and Nigerian postgraduate students enrolled at UC doing their field research in Nigeria. In addition the NMFP trains undergraduate Nigerian students in conservation biology, and works with local schools and the community. The Project is run almost entirely by the local community. It is home to a 20ha Smithsonian CTFS Forest Geo Plot.
All welcome.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Mutualism, University of Northampton