Tag Archives: Biodiversity

Neither left nor right, but international environmentalism: Australia reflections part 8

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The NASA Earth Observatory reported this week that “explosive fire activity” has caused smoke from the Australian bushfires to enter the stratosphere and be carried half way around the world.  That smoke is currently creating hazy skies and colourful sunrises and sunsets across South America.  In the coming months the smoke will complete a full circuit and arrive back in Australia, and then continue onwards … for who knows how long?

Nothing I’ve read this week sums up better the fact that the world’s environmental challenges, including climate change, are global in scale and scope.  They therefore require global initiatives to solve.  But as I’ll argue below, equating “green” politics with the left and “anti-environmental” policies with the right is an unhelpful characterisation.

Despite the need for global action, the world’s political landscape seems to be going in the opposite direction.  Inward-looking, right-wing populism is on the rise, and governments are hunkering down into a siege mentality of denying that there are any environmental problems that require serious, long-term action.  The Australian government, bolstered by the Murdoch-owned media empire (see Michael Mann’s recent piece on this in Newsweek), sees the bushfire crisis as “business as usual” even though all the evidence is to the contrary – demonstrated in this interesting piece from two Australian climate scientists.

Elsewhere in the world, Presidents Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in the USA are tearing up environmental regulations and “green tape” and allowing “the people” (or at least big business interests) to ransack the natural world for their own gain.  At the same time, one of the less-well-reported elements of Boris Johnson’s various speeches over the past few months has been its emphasis on the environment (he even used the word “biodiversity” in one of them) and the pressure he put on the other leaders of the G7 countries at their most recent meeting.  Perhaps that should come as no surprise given that Boris’s father, former Conservative MEP Stanley Johnson, has sound credentials as an environmentalist, particularly during his time with the European Commission. Indeed, in the mid 1980s Stanley Johnson received an award from Greenpeace for “Outstanding Services to the Environment”.  He’s even written for The Guardian, which is not the natural home for a member of the Conservative party.  There are other Conservatives with sincere pro-environmental attitudes (Zac Goldsmith and Rory Stewart come immediately to mind) and whatever you may think about their views on other topics, you can’t doubt their sincere environmental commitments.  And of course there are pro-environmental politicians in the Labour Party, and the Liberals and the SNP and Plaid Cymru and…..well, just about all of them.

Globally, both right- and left-governed states have variable environmental policies. Two countries recently reported that they had made extraordinary progress in tree planting restoration schemes: India (a right-wing, populist government) and Ethiopia (much more left-leaning).  China (communist in name but who knows what we should call it?) has a very mixed record on the environment, with huge investments in both solar power and coal mining.  It’s hard to get firm environmental data out of communist North Korea but the evidence so far suggests that they are not doing well: see this piece from 2009 by journalist Peter Hayes.

Closer to home, in the last few months on Twitter I’ve been called an “eco-loony” by a farmer; told that my objections to the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail infrastructure project were providing support for climate change deniers by a couple of train buffs; and accused of “sleeping with the enemy” by an environmental activist who didn’t like my stance on another large project.  The latter also tweeted a made-up quote from me to emphasise just how morally corrupt I was. Irony was lost on them I think.  I don’t know the political allegiances of those individuals but if I was a betting man I’d be fairly sure of a good return – definitely a mix across the spectrum.

Hopefully these examples make something abundantly clear: the relationship between politics and environmentalism is not straightforward.  That’s been obvious to me, and many others, for a long time.  But I’m not sure how widely understood this is because the impression that is presented to the public by both the right- and left-leaning media, is that “green equals left”.  And whilst there may be some truth to that currently in relation to the political alliances formed between various Green Parties, there is no historical basis for this correlation.  It’s even mixed up in the minds of the modern-day socialists. A few months ago a left-wing journalist opined that the left had “always” been pro-environmental, yet the (supposedly) socialist website Spiked has been publishing pieces arguing that environmentalists are against the working class and that de-carbonisation strategies will cost jobs – see this piece for instance.  Before anyone comments, I’m aware that Spiked has an odd and paradoxical history…..

Historically, both the far left and the far right have a mixed track record on the environment.  I read an appalling story recently about the Soviet Union whaling fleet killing whales simply to meet targets, not because they were of value economically; the author described it as “the most senseless environmental crime of the 20th century“.  However, communist Cuba set aside 10% of its area as national parks and biosphere reserves, and has a strong environmental track record.  In the 1950s, Maoist China had a policy of killing sparrows and other “pests” that was partly the cause of the Great Chinese Famine in which tens of millions of people died of starvation.  The first National Parks in the world were set up in the USA by what we could broadly consider conservative presidents, but the American legacy of nuclear testing and the fossil fuel industry is nothing to be proud of.  Finally, there is a long history of “green” fascism, from the environmental policies of the Nazis (I’ve not read this book but it looks fascinating), to individuals such as Jorian Jenks who was a founding member of the Soil Association, to modern day “eco-fascists” whose justification for carrying out mass-murder and domestic terrorism is rooted in arguments about reducing population growth in order to “save the Earth”.

It’s telling that Big Capitalism is starting to think more seriously about global environmental problems, how they can be solved, and at the same time create jobs and prosperity (and a buck or two for investors – I’m not naive).  Outgoing head of the Bank of England Mark Carney  has argued that firms and banks need to stop investing in fossil-fuels.  Many are following his lead, or are ahead of that curve, including the bank Goldman Sachs and the $7 trillion investment firm BlackRock which has recently stated that “climate change will become the centre of the firm’s investment strategy“.  Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman  has argued this week that Australia is showing us “the road to hell” and that governments and businesses of all political stripes and inclination better get on board with the environmental agenda.  Soon!

I firmly believe that neither the left nor the right are the friend nor the foe of environmentalism: there are plenty of historical and current examples of rapacious right-wing and left-wing governments, and also examples of such governments being highly pro-active at reducing  their country’s environmental impact.  The one thing that seems to me to be environmentally damaging is a rigid ideology that is followed through regardless of where it is positioned.

The title of this piece is a word play on a slogan adopted by the Socialist Workers Party: “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”.  The environmental challenges facing our planet, our species, and the species with which we share this biosphere, are international in scope and it requires international, multi-partisan political action to address.   Whatever your personal political leanings, if you care about the planet, that statement must be blindingly obvious.  That’s why I’m so supportive of organisations like the UN’s IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services).  Now, more than ever, the world needs this level of pan-national leadership.

If I’ve learned one thing as an ecologist it’s that the world is a complex, historically contingent and often unpredictable place: simplistic notions of socialism = good/bad and capitalism = good/bad are not going to solve the current crisis of climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and a host of other environmental problems.  Only thinking outside of narrow ideologies is going to do that, and using the tools and strategies that are available to us, including market forces, open democracy, local activism, global movements, and whatever else works.  I’m still optimistic that the world can provide humanity with the kind of  metaphorical “pleasant walks” that Charles Darwin wrote about when he visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney:

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But we have to act fast.  Otherwise the ruins of civilization, and of the biosphere, may be our species’ legacy: that’s why I chose the image that opens this piece.

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Charles Darwin, Climate change, IPBES

How are the Australian bushfires affecting biodiversity? Australia reflections part 4

2019-12-24 14.10.52

Australia’s vast, unprecedented wildfires are going to have a devastating effect on the biodiversity of the country.  To fully understand why this is the case, you need to know something about where species occur and why.

Australia is a land of lizards.  Karin and I see them everywhere we walk and frequently encounter them in gardens.  Reptiles are the most diverse group of vertebrates in Australia, with more than 1000 described species.  Of these, over half are lizards.  One family alone, the skinks (Scincidae) accounts for almost 440 species, with species new to science being described every year.  Some of these lizards are physically extremely impressive, particularly the dragons (Agamidae – about 90 species) and the monitors or goannas (Varanidae – 30 species).  We encountered lace monitors (Varanus varius) over Christmas at Port Macquarie, in coastal bushland and (very dry) rainforest at Sea Acres National Park (see photos above and below):

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Spot the goanna:

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Growing up to two metres in length, they seem to arrogantly swagger through the bush as though they own it; which of course they sort of do – they were here millions of years before people arrived.  Smaller but still impressive are the Eastern water dragons (Intellagama lesueurii) – here’s male and female checking one another out:

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Much smaller but more charming are the various skinks that seem to inhabit every garden and green space in the city; this one seems to be the Eastern water skink (Eulamprus quoyii):

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And here’s where we get to the main point of this post.  All of the lizards I mentioned above are endemic to Australia, it’s the only place on Earth where they naturally occur.  But they are all widespread species found across a huge area in the east of the country, from Queensland to Victoria, a linear distance of over 2,000 km.  This is unusual for species in Australia, and indeed in the rest of the world; most organisms naturally occur over a much smaller area.  To see what I mean, look at the image below from Steve Wilson & Gerry Swan’s book A Complete Guide to Reptiles of Australia:

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The maps adjacent to each species description illustrate the distribution of these organisms. The garden skink and the grass skink live in suitable habitat over vast areas. But the other two species are much more restricted in their ranges, which are so small that they need to be highlighted with arrows.  The elongate sunskink (Lampropholus elongata) for instance is found only “in the vicinity of Grundy Fire Tower and “The Flags”” at 1180-1455 m in the Great Dividing Range.  This is more typical of species distributions in Australia: most are restricted, and some are extremely restricted.  This is true of other reptiles, plants, birds, insects and fungi, in fact all major groups, not just the lizards.  Such a skewed distribution of species occurrences, with many rare and localised, and a few common and widespread, is natural; it’s an outcome of the processes of natural selection and evolution.  But it’s been exacerbated by habitat loss across the world, including Australia.  According to the Wilderness Society of Australia, the country “has lost 25% of rainforest, 45% of open forest, 32% of woodland forest and 30% of mallee forest in 200 years”.

But even these figures do not reflect the full scale of the loss: I’ve seen estimates that more than 90% of the temperate rainforest exemplified by Sea Acres National Park has been destroyed.  Given what I’ve said about the limited distribution of many species, that must mean that locally endemic species have gone extinct in the past.  The huge extent of some of the Australian bushfires, individually covering tens of thousands of hectares and collectively around 6 million hectares, means that most or all of a species’ population could be wiped out.  To give just one example, a small marsupial mammal, the Kangaroo Island dunnart (Sminthopsis aitkeni), is found only on Kangaroo Island.  Indeed, it’s restricted to the western part of the island, where a large bushfire has been raging out of control in recent days.  We will only know whether this species has survived, and in what numbers, once ecologists are able to survey the area once the danger is over.

However even for widespread species the fires can have a massive effect on their genetic diversity, which is an important component of biodiversity.  When we lose individuals from a population we lose genetic variants too.  A recent assessment by ecologists at the University of Sydney has suggested that almost half a billion reptiles, mammals and birds have been killed so far by the fires.  Losses of trees and other flowering plants, as well as insects, spiders and so forth, will be much, much greater of course.

This destruction of biodiversity has a human impact too.  On television news reports we’ve heard farmers and fire fighters describing the emotional trauma of seeing animals on fire and hearing the screams of koalas as they burn in the tree tops.  All of this biodiversity serves to ensure that Australian ecosystems function effectively and sustainably now and in the future. Ecosystems which are crucial for reducing the future effects of climate change, for ensuring supplies of fresh water, supporting agriculturally-important pollinators and predators of pests, and bringing in billions of tourist dollars.  All in all these fires are a tragedy for Australian biodiversity, as well as for the human population of this fabulous country.

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Biogeography, Climate change, Mammals

Biodiversity and climate change: a hierarchy of options

Conservation hierarchy image

The related issues of how to conserve biodiversity and reduce the impacts of climate change have never had such a high public profile as they do at the moment.  The activities of Extinction Rebellion caught the attention of the media around the world, for example here in London.  Numerous organisations, cities, regions and countries have declared a Climate Emergency.  And IPBES – the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Serviceshas released a summary of its first global assessment with the full report due later this year, and explicitly makes the link between conservation of biodiversity and reducing the effects of climate change.

Timed to coincide with all of this, the University of Cambridge has announced that it is setting up a Centre for Climate Repair in order to explore hi-tech “fixes” to climate change, such as spraying sea water into the atmosphere in order to reduce warming at the poles, and sucking CO2 out of the air using large machines.  I think it’s fair to say that this was met with some scepticism on social media; here’s some examples:

Other people have pointed out that nature-based solutions are the most likely to be successful, and provide a boost for biodiversity at the same time:

All of this reminds me of the Waste Hierarchy in its various iterations – you know the sort of thing – “Reduce > Reuse > Recycle”, where reduction in waste produced is best, followed by reuse of waste resources, with recycling being the least good option (but still better than just land-filling the waste).  As far as the link between conservation of biodiversity and reduction of the effects of climate change goes, there’s a parallel hierarchy – see the image at the top of this post – that sets out the order of priorities:

PROTECTION of ecosystems using the full force of national and international laws and conventions has got to be the top priority.  Otherwise any of the other activities will result in, at best, humanity running to catch up with what the world is losing.  Let’s stop cutting down ancient forests and degrading peatlands that have accumulated millions of tons of carbon over thousands of years!

FIX – by which I mean the kind of hi-tech solutions proposed above – should be the lowest priority: they do little or nothing directly for biodiversity and there is no compelling evidence that they will even work as intended.

Between these two are RESTORATION of currently degraded habitats (such as re-wetting peatlands as in the Great Fen Project) and PLANTING of trees, which can be a form of habitat restoration under some circumstances.  Large scale examples of this include

Grain for Green – China’s attempt to restore vegetation to abandoned farmland to reduce soil erosion and flooding.

Great Green Wall – a multinational initiative in Africa aimed at restoring the vegetation on the southern edge of the Sahara to combat desertification and mitigate climate change.

While doing a bit of research for this blog post* I became aware that a Conservation Hierarchy has already been developed by the Convention on Biological Diversity but that really only deals with habitat destruction, mitigation of destructive activities, etc.  What I’m suggesting is related more to the direct link between conservation of biodiversity and mitigation of climate change.  So what to call this particular hierarchy?  Perhaps the BioCC Hierarchy?  Can anyone suggest a better name?  Maybe it doesn’t need a name at all, it just needs people to be aware of it and for governments to act logically.

 

*I googled the term “Conservation Hierarchy” – you get the quality of research you pay for on this blog….

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Climate change, Ecosystem services, IPBES

Have we broken the planet?

sea-ice-graph-november-2016

A graph showing this year’s figures for area of global sea ice, in comparison with the same data for the past c. 40 years, was widely shared on Twitter yesterday, resulting in a lot of discussion and consternation.  I’m not on Twitter (yet…) and picked this up from Terry McGlynn’s Facebook feed.  The graph shows an anomalously low extent of sea ice compared with what we would expect at this time of the year, in fact a drop of about 25%.

As you can see, something looks to be seriously wrong.  For more discussion about the graph, see this piece over at The Verge.

I’ve not discussed climate change much on this blog, it’s not my area of specialism and there are plenty of other good bloggers out there who are far more knowledgeable than I.  But graphs like this are hugely worrying because they not only suggest that aspects of our climate may be at a tipping point where they change from one state/predictable pattern to another.  That’s a concern on a global level, because it’s strong evidence for global warming.  However the reduction in sea ice also has huge implications for the biodiversity that depends upon the ice.

If I hear any more news on this I’ll post it, but in the meantime it’s worth pondering whether perhaps the UK’s signing up for the Paris Climate Agreement this week is a bit too late.  As my colleague Duncan McCollin put it: “we’ve broken the planet”.  I hope he’s wrong.

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The macroecology of animal versus wind pollination – a new study just published

In collaboration with colleagues in Brazil, Denmark, and elsewhere in the UK, we’ve just published a new research paper which looks at the global spatial distribution of wind and animal pollinated plant species, and the underlying historical and contemporary ecological causes of that distribution.  It’s a study that builds on my “How many flowering plants are animal pollinated?” paper in Oikos, and has been a long time in its gestation.  We’re very excited by its findings and plan to develop this project in the future.

As a bonus we made the cover of the journal with the amazing image below!  Big thanks to Pedro Viana and Jesper Sonne for the photos.

Here’s the citation with a link to the publisher’s website; the abstract is below.  If anyone wants a PDF copy, please ask.

Rech AR, Dalsgaard B, Sandel B, Sonne J, Svenning J-C, Holmes N & Ollerton J (2016) The macroecology of animal versus wind pollination: ecological factors are more important than historical climate stability. Plant Ecology & Diversity 9: 253-262

 

Abstract:

Background: The relative frequency of wind- and animal-pollinated plants are non-randomly distributed across the globe and numerous hypotheses have been raised for the greater occurrence of wind pollination in some habitats and towards higher latitudes. To date, however, there has been no comprehensive global investigation of these hypotheses.

Aims: Investigating a range of hypotheses for the role of biotic and abiotic factors as determinants of the global variation in animal vs. wind pollination.

Methods: We analysed 67 plant communities ranging from 70º north to 34º south. For these we determined habitat type, species richness, insularity, topographic heterogeneity, current climate and late-Quaternary climate change. The predictive effects of these factors on the proportion of wind- and animal-pollinated plants were tested using correlations, ordinary least squares (OLS) and logistic regression analyses with information-theoretic model selection.

Results: The proportion of animal-pollinated plant species was positively associated with plant species richness and current temperature. Furthermore, in forest, animal pollination was positively related to precipitation. Historical climate was only weakly and idiosyncratically correlated with animal pollination.

Conclusion: Results were consistent with the hypothesised reduced chance for wind-transported pollen reaching conspecific flowers in species-rich communities, fewer constraints on nectar production in warm and wet habitats, and reduced relative effectiveness of wind dispersal in humid areas. There was little evidence of a legacy of historical climate change affecting these patterns.

andre-capa-1

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biogeography, Brazil, Climate change, Macroecology, Pollination

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

The biodiversity of restored landfill sites: a new study of snails just published

Snails - 20160813_124310

The latest paper in a series* studying the biodiversity of restored landfill sites in comparison to nearby nature reserves has just been published.  This work comes from the linked PhD research of two of our former students, Dr Lutfor Rahman and Dr Sam Tarrant.

This new paper deals with the larger snails to be found on these novel grasslands and assesses the value of such sites for conserving the diversity of an ecologically important group of molluscs.  Snails play a vital role in nutrient turnover and are a major food source for higher trophic levels, such as some birds, small mammals, and beetles.

The take home message from the study:  restored landfill sites are as rich in species as nature reserves, but a higher proportion is of non-native, introduced species.

Here’s a link to the paper, with the abstract below; it’s paywalled but if you’d like a PDF, just ask:

Rahman, L. Md., Tarrant, S.,Ollerton, J. & McCollin, D. (2016) Effect of soil conditions and landscape factors on macro-snail communities in newly created grasslands of restored landfill sites in the UK.  Zoology and Ecology (in press)

 

Abstract

Though restored landfill sites provide habitat for a number of taxa, their potential for land snails remains unexplored. In this study, large-sized land snails (>5 mm) were surveyed using transect sampling at nine restored landfill sites and nine corresponding nature sites in the East Midlands region of the UK, during 2008. The effect of restoration was investigated by examining the composition, richness and diversity (Shannon index) of land snail species in relation to habitat and landscape structure. Thirteen macro-snail species were recorded in total, and rarefied species richness and diversity at restored landfill sites was not found to be statistically different from that of reference sites. One third of the snail species at restored landfill sites accounting for 30% of their total abundance were non-native species. Soil electrical conductivity was the strongest predictor of richness and diversity of land snails. Road density was found to be positively related to snail species diversity. Given the high percentage of introduced species at study sites, further research is needed to elucidate management implications of restored landfill sites and dynamics of native vs. non-native species.

 

*The other papers in this series are:

Rahman, L. Md., Tarrant, S., McCollin, D. & Ollerton, J. (2015) Vegetation cover and grasslands in the vicinity accelerate development of carabid beetle assemblages on restored landfill sites. Zoology and Ecology 25: 347-354

Tarrant, S., Ollerton, J., Rahman, L. Md., Griffin, J. & McCollin, D. (2013) Grassland restoration on landfill sites in the East Midlands, UK: an evaluation of floral resources and pollinating insects. Restoration Ecology 21: 560–568

Rahman, L. Md., Tarrant, S., McCollin, D. Ollerton, J. (2013) Plant community composition and attributes reveal conservation implications for newly created grassland on capped landfill sites. Journal for Nature Conservation 21: 198-205

Rahman, L. Md., Tarrant, S., McCollin, D. & Ollerton, J. (2012) Influence of habitat quality, landscape structure and food resources on breeding skylark (Alauda arvensis) territory distribution on restored landfill sites. Landscape and Urban Planning 105: 281–287

Rahman, L. Md., Tarrant, S., McCollin, D. and Ollerton, J. (2011) The conservation value of restored landfill sites in the East Midlands, UK for supporting bird communities. Biodiversity and Conservation 20: 1879-1893

Again, if you’d like PDFs of any of these, just ask.

 

 

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Snails, University of Northampton

Identifying the “Wild Bees” in John Clare’s poem – UPDATED

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John Clare is one of the most celebrated English poets of rural landscapes and nature in the 19th century. To quote his biographer, Clare was “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature”.  Not only that, he was born and lived for much of his life in my adopted county, hence his epithet as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”.

One of his less well-known poems is called Wild Bees and is a stunning example of Clare’s ability to make detailed observations of the natural world and to translate those observations into poetry.  So good are those observations that, as I show below, it’s possible to identify Clare’s bees from the descriptions he gives.  First of all, here’s the full poem:

Wild Bees

These children of the sun which summer brings
As pastoral minstrels in her merry train
Pipe rustic ballads upon busy wings
And glad the cotters’ quiet toils again.
The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole
In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies,
And never absent couzen, black as coal,
That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs,
With white and red bedight for holiday,
Right earlily a-morn do pipe and play
And with their legs stroke slumber from their eyes.
And aye so fond they of their singing seem
That in their holes abed at close of day
They still keep piping in their honey dreams,
And larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe
Round the sweet smelling closen and rich woods
Where tawny white and red flush clover buds
Shine bonnily and bean fields blossom ripe,
Shed dainty perfumes and give honey food
To these sweet poets of the summer fields;
Me much delighting as I stroll along
The narrow path that hay laid meadow yields,
Catching the windings of their wandering song.
The black and yellow bumble first on wing
To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers,
Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring
Who stints his rambles with her frequent showers;
And one that may for wiser piper pass,
In livery dress half sables and half red,
Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass
And hoards her stores when April showers have fled;
And russet commoner who knows the face
Of every blossom that the meadow brings,
Starting the traveller to a quicker pace
By threatening round his head in many rings:
These sweeten summer in their happy glee
By giving for her honey melody.

 

Here are the bees that I think Clare is talking about:

The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole, In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies

This is the least obvious of the bees to identify, but my best guess, due to the “little hole” and “white nose“, is one of the small Yellow-Faced Bees (Hylaeus spp.) some of which (despite the name) have white faces.  UPDATE:  following discussion with Matt Smith in the comments (below) I’m going to change my mind and suggest that Clare is referring to male Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) – I think the “never absent couzen” part is the give-away.

And never absent couzen, black as coal, That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs

This has to be the female Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) which is all black except for its orange pollen brush on its rear legs, and which also nests in old walls.

The black and yellow bumble first on wing, To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers, Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring

I’m going to suggest that this is referring to the Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), the queens of which tend to emerge earlier than other, similar species, hence “first on wing“.  It also usually nests in rodent holes.

In livery dress half sables and half red, Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass

This can only be the Red-shanked Carder Bee (Bombus ruderarius) the only red and black bee in the UK that makes a mossy nest above ground.

And russet commoner who knows the face, Of every blossom that the meadow brings

Finally, this must be one of my favourite bumblebees, the all-brown, Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum), which is as common as the name suggests, and is renowned for foraging on a wider range of flowers than most others, and therefore “knows the face of every blossom“.

If you have any suggestions for alternative bee identifications, please comment below.

UPDATE:  it occurred to me after I posted this that all of the bees that Clare describes are still common in Northamptonshire with the exception of the Red-shanked Carder Bee (Bombus ruderarius) which has seen a huge decline throughout its range – see the BWARS account for this species.

 

 

 

 

 

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Brexit and biodiversity: submissions invited to a Government inquiry

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Following on from my posts regarding how Brexit may affect the UK’s environmental policies and activities (see here and here) the Government has moved (surprisingly) quickly to begin an inquiry into how leaving the EU may affect issues that [quote] “include the future of funding for biodiversity and agri-environment schemes, the likely changes in the devolved administration, and the role that managed rewilding can play in conservation and restoration”.

I say “surprisingly” because the Government is no doubt focused on what they might see as more pressing concerns; but then much of this inquiry relates to how Brexit might affect biodiversity via subsidies to farmers, and the farming lobby is very powerful of course, and is no doubt pressing Defra to get a move on.

Here’s a link to the inquiry’s official website.  From that site I’ve pulled out the following text:

The Environmental Audit Committee invites submissions on some or all of the questions below:

  • What are the implications for UK biodiversity of leaving the EU, in particular the Common Agricultural Policy? To what extent do initiatives to support biodiversity in the UK depend on CAP-related payments? What risks and opportunities could developing our own agri-environment policy and funding present?
  • How should future support for UK agriculture be structured in order to ensure there are incentives for environmentally-friendly land management? What are the positives/negatives of current schemes (e.g. Countryside Stewardship) that should be retained/avoided?
  • How should future UK agri-environment support be administered, and what outcomes should it focus on?
  • What are the prospects and challenges for future environmental stewardship schemes in the devolved administrations? How much divergence in policy between the nations of the United Kingdom is likely? How can divergence be managed?
  • What are the future risks and opportunities to innovative land practices, such as managed rewilding? What role can rewilding play in conservation and restoration of habitats and wildlife? What evidence is there to support the incentivising of such schemes in any new land management policies?

There is a form for submissions (available on the website) and the deadline is Friday 9th September 2016.

I’ll be submitting a response via the Northamptonshire Local Nature Partnership, and welcome comments and ideas from any readers.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Northants LNP, Rewilding

The influence of floral traits on specialization and modularity of plant–pollinator networks in a biodiversity hotspot in the Peruvian Andes – Watts et al. (2016)

Watts et al Figure 1

The second paper from the PhD thesis of my former student Dr Stella Watts has just been published in Annals of Botanyhere’s a link to the journal’s website.  It summarises the major findings from her field work on plant-pollinator interactions in the high Andes of Peru:

Watts, S., Dormann, C.F., Martín González, A.M. & Ollerton, J. (2016) The influence of floral traits on specialization and modularity of plant–pollinator networks in a biodiversity hotspot in the Peruvian Andes.  Annals of Botany doi: 10.1093/aob/mcw114

This paper represents a major piece of research, including extensive field data collection over multiple sites in a challenging environment at altitude; state-of-the-art data analysis; and then summarising all of this into a single, digestible paper, with some great figures.  I’m very proud to have been part of it!

Here’s the abstract; please email me or Stella if you’d like a copy of the full PDF:

Background and Aims:  Modularity is a ubiquitous and important structural property of ecological networks which describes the relative strengths of sets of interacting species and gives insights into the dynamics of ecological communities. However, this has rarely been studied in species-rich, tropical plant–pollinator networks. Working in a biodiversity hotspot in the Peruvian Andes we assessed the structure of quantitative plant–pollinator networks in nine valleys, quantifying modularity among networks, defining the topological roles of species and the influence of floral traits on specialization.

Methods: A total of 90 transects were surveyed for plants and pollinators at different altitudes and across different life zones. Quantitative modularity (QuanBiMo) was used to detect modularity and six indices were used to quantify specialization.

Key Results:  All networks were highly structured, moderately specialized and significantly modular regardless of size. The strongest hubs were Baccharis plants, Apis mellifera, Bombus funebris and Diptera spp., which were the most ubiquitous and abundant species with the longest phenologies. Species strength showed a strong association with the modular structure of plant–pollinator networks. Hubs and connectors were the most centralized participants in the networks and were ranked highest (high generalization) when quantifying specialization with most indices. However, complementary specialization d’ quantified hubs and connectors as moderately specialized. Specialization and topological roles of species were remarkably constant across some sites, but highly variable in others. Networks were dominated by ecologically and functionally generalist plant species with open access flowers which are closely related taxonomically with similar morphology and rewards. Plants associated with hummingbirds had the highest level of complementary specialization and exclusivity in modules (functional specialists) and the longest corollas.

Conclusions: We have demonstrated that the topology of networks in this tropical montane environment was non-random and highly organized. Our findings underline that specialization indices convey different concepts of specialization and hence quantify different aspects, and that measuring specialization requires careful consideration of what defines a specialist.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Honey bees, Mutualism, Pollination, University of Northampton, Wasps