Tag Archives: Books

Auto-bee-ography – a new genre of writing?

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In the post today I was pleased to find a copy of Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s first book Dancing With Bees that she had kindly signed and sent after I reviewed some of the text.  It was great timing – I’ve just finished Mark Cocker’s Our Place, a really important historical and future road map of how Britain got to its present position of denuded and declining biodiversity, and what we can do to halt and reverse it. Highly recommended for anyone interested in environmental politics and action.  So Brigit’s book will be added to the pile on my bedside table and may be next in line, though I still haven’t finished Dave Goulson’s The Garden Jungle – perhaps I will do that before I start Dancing With Bees?

And thereby lies a problem – there’s just too many interesting books to read at the moment if you are interested in the environment, or indeed even just in pollinators.  Because a new genre of writing seems to be emerging that I call “auto-bee-ography”. A number of writers are using bees to frame their memoirs and anecdotes.  Dave’s trilogy of Buzz in the Meadow, Sting in the Tale, and Bee Quest is probably the best known. Then there’s Buzz by Thor Hanson; Following the Wild Bees by Thomas Seeley; Bees-at-Law byNoël Sweeney; Keeping the Bees by Laurence Packer; Bee Time by Mark Winston; Bees Make the Best Pets by Jack Mingo; Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee
by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut; The Secrets of Bees by Michael Weiler; and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury.

All of these books fall more-or-less into the category of auto-bee-ography, and I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed (feel free to add to the list in the comments below).  They follow a strong tradition in natural history and environmental writing of using encounters with particular groups of organisms, for example birds and plants, as a way of exploring wider themes  Which is great, the more high profile we can make all of these organisms, including pollinators, the better in my opinion*.

However there’s not enough written about the other pollinators, that does seem to be a gap in the literature.  Mike Shanahan’s Ladders to Heaven has a lot about his encounters with figs and their pollinating wasps, but that’s about it, unless I’ve missed some?  Perhaps in the future I’ll write something auto-fly-ographical called No Flies on Me.  But before that, look out for Pollinators and Pollination: nature and society which I’m currently completing for Pelagic Publishing.  It should be out in Spring 2020.


*Though not in everyone’s – I had a very interesting discussion on Twitter with some other ecologists recently about whether pollinators had too high a profile compared to organisms that perform other functional roles in ecosystems such as seed dispersers.  You can follow the thread from here: https://twitter.com/JMBecologist/status/1165565465705496576

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Book review, Pollination

The most important book you’ll read this year: What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper

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Being on holiday should be about getting away from the pressures of work and the daily routine, and relaxing with an easy novel or some magazines, turning off your brain and recharging ready for a return to reality. So what am I doing writing a book review in a sun-flooded apartment in Nice on France’s Cote d’Azur? A good question that is answered by the fact that this is a book that has been engaging me since I bought it at the airport on the way out. I’d known for some time that What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper was about to be published as I’d received an invitation to the book launch in Cambridge in February. It was an invitation precipitated by the small contribution I’d made to the research for the book, when I was happy to provide some facts and figures on pollinator importance and decline in Britain. Unfortunately I missed the launch due to a prior engagement, and a poorly stocked WH Smith at Luton Airport was my first opportunity to buy a copy.

Tony Juniper is well known for his environmental writing and broadcasting so I had an idea that the book would be readable and interesting. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was just how good the book actually is, and that it’s the most important book you could read this year. Let me rephrase that: it’s the most important book that our politicians, business leaders, bankers and economists could read this year. In fact individuals with any leverage to influence government policies and business strategies should be made to sit down and read this book. But for anyone with an interest in the future of this country (and indeed of the planet) this really is a book worth reading. And, if you are British, preferably read it before the General Election in May.

Over the course of nine chapters, Juniper looks at how nature (broadly defined and including geology and physical processes, as well as biodiversity) underpins our society through its positive contributions to food production, water resources, flood mitigation, energy security, and our physical and mental health. At the end of each chapter Juniper sets out a series of manifestos that he challenges the government of the next five years to adopt and develop. Whichever party/ies form the government come the May election, its MPs need to rise to this challenge. And whichever parties are in opposition, it’s important that they read them too because they should understand where and how the government can get it right and get it wrong.

One of the refreshing things for me was how holistic and connected are the scenarios Juniper develops as he tours Britain to find case studies of where people and organisations are getting it right, working WITH nature, not against it. It’s easy for those of us working in particular fields, as academics or practitioners, to become over-focused on one’s own specialism: for me that would be obsessing about biodiversity, for others it could be energy generation or the economics of farming or infrastructure investment or wastes management. What this book does brilliantly is to bring together all of these elements, and more, and weave them into a single, seamless narrative. For example, large offshore wind farms generate renewable energy AND contribute to reducing CO2 emissions AND create marine nature reserves for sea life AND thereby boost regional fish stocks AND create jobs on the local mainland AND provide investment opportunities for banks and pension schemes AND develop new, exportable technologies. Yes, there may be downsides and Juniper doesn’t shy away from discussing these, for example bird collisions with turbines. But it ought to be possible to minimise these negatives, such as with appropriate design and siting strategies.

Although I was aware of many of the broad arguments presented in this book, it’s been a revelation to see the details set out so clearly and the linkages made so effectively, and with rigour: my word there’s an impressive amount of research on show here. I mentioned that I was consulted, but Juniper and his researcher Lucy McRobert have talked wide and deep with academics, conservationists, business leaders, civil servants, and other experts. The acknowledgements section runs to more than five pages and I counted over 100 names of individuals who were thanked for their contributions. Presumably everyone who was quoted was given the chance to comment on what was being written, as I was.   The sources for the information presented are provided on Juniper’s website (http://www.tonyjuniper.com/). This is a thorough book, all the more impressive because it had to be researched and written quickly in order to be published, and read, prior to the election.

Juniper’s vision of a future Britain is one in which we can have it all: economic security, functioning ecosystems, endless energy, jobs aplenty, and solutions to our most pressing environmental problems, including future effects of climate change. Clearly he’s an optimist. And that’s refreshing in a country where pessimism and cynicism seems to be the plat du jour (sorry, been eating in too many over-priced French restaurants).  If he isn’t right then the worst that will have happened will be that we have engaged in a series of experiments with our social, natural and economic capital that are no worse, and could be a lot better, than some of the experiments that have been foisted upon us by a series of government and private business strategies. But my gut feeling (supported by the evidence) is that he’s right and that this book provides us with a road map towards a virtuous ecological circle with society at its centre.

The sad thing is that the people who really ought to be reading this book, and who would gain most from its vision, are those politicians, business leaders and economists who are least likely to open its pages because either they’ve “heard it all before”, and disagree, or because the momentum of their vested interests and entrenched views leaves no opportunity to redirect the course on which they are travelling.

Although the focus is on the United Kingdom, the proposals that Juniper sets out could apply to any country and the book be renamed “What Nature Does For _____” [insert country of choice].  In truth the issues presented, and their broad solutions, are global. So, this is the most important book you could read this year, wherever you live.  Buy a copy, read it (on holiday, in bed, while commuting, or wherever) and pass it on to the person you know who is least likely to buy it for themselves. Or send it to your local MP.  That’s what I will be doing in the days following the election.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Book review, Ecosystem services

Book review: “Pollination and Floral Ecology” by Pat Willmer

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Review of “Pollination and Floral Ecology” by Pat Willmer (2011) Princeton University Press. £65. pp. 832.

Some backstory:  In early 2012 I was asked by the review editor of the journal Annals of Botany to review this book, and I jumped at the chance as it’s the first major single-author overview of the field of pollination ecology for a number of years, by a well respected academic in the field.  Unfortunately the review took a lot longer than I expected, in part because I was also coordinating my department’s Research Excellence Framework submission, on top of other teaching, research and admin duties, and it was taking up quite a bit of my time.

In addition I had mixed feelings about the book and wanted my review to do it justice, not be over-critical but at the same time highlight what I saw as flaws.   In the words of the  Fairport Convention song, Who Knows Where the Time Goes? – my review was only completed last Christmas and duly submitted. Turns out that the journal has a backlog of book reviews to publish and the editor asked that, given it’s been a couple of years since the book was published, would I mind if the review was posted on the Annals of Botany blog rather than in the printed journal.  I happily agreed as it’s likely to get more readers on the blog, and said I’d also post it on my own blog.  So here it is:

 

Any text book that tries to assess and summarise the whole of a multidisciplinary research field such as pollination ecology and floral biology is required to be four things:  (1) comprehensive in its scope; (2) up to date in its coverage of the literature; (3) accurate in its assessment of the current state of the field; and (4) authoritative in the conclusions it presents.

This volume by Professor Pat Willmer of the University of St Andrews certainly ticks the first box.  It’s a huge book, and covers everything relating to the evolution of flower attraction and reward systems, ecological interactions with pollinators, biochemistry, physiology, agriculture and conservation; all in 29 chapters split into three sections, with 87 pages of references.  The literature extends to 2010, which is impressive for a book published in 2011 (though see my comments below about completeness of the literature).   Specialist terms are highlighted in bold to direct the reader to the glossary at the back, a useful device even if there are a few inaccuracies, which I’ll mention later.

So far so good, and the author is to be congratulated on putting together such a comprehensive, not to mention timely, single-author book.  It’s clearly the summation of a career devoted to studying pollinators and flowers, and the author’s passion for her subject is apparent throughout.

However when we come to points 3 and 4, things are less straightforward.  There are some issues with accuracy that are troubling in a book aimed at newcomers to the field as well as established researchers.  To give just a few examples:

– on p.18 we are told that asclepiads have “one stamen” (they have five); on p.169 and in the glossary that asclepiad pollinia are the pollen grains from one anther (they are the contents of half an anther); and on p.170 that the pollinaria are “glued” to pollinators (they actually clip on).

– in the glossary, tree ferns are referred to as “cycads”, an error that is repeated on p.89.

– on p.88 there is a statement suggesting that tree fern spores were dispersed by “animal fur” 300 million years ago, long before the evolution of mammals, and that this (and dispersal of spores of fungi and mosses) is the equivalent of pollination: it is not, it equates to seed dispersal.

These are troubling errors of basic botany that are forgivable in an early draft of the book (everyone makes mistakes) but not in the final published version, after it’s been read, reviewed, checked and edited.  If the book goes to a second edition I hope that these (and other) mistakes will be fixed.  But they do hint at a fundamental problem with a book (and a field) as large and complex as this: a single author is arguably unlikely to be able to do justice to all of the subject matter.

There are parts of the book where it is unclear (to me at least) what the author is actually saying.  For example, on p.96 there is a graph which, it is suggested, demonstrates that pollination by animals is “technically uncommon when assessed in terms of the numbers of broad taxonomic groups that use it”, though the legend to the figure claims that “most orders of plants have no families” that possess wind pollination.  This is confusing: what is to be concluded by someone new to the field?  Is animal pollination common or rare?  Likewise, on p.91 we are told that the “first angiosperms…would probably have had their pollen moved mainly by wind…”, but then on p.92 that “an element of insect pollination could be regarded as almost ancestral”.  Which is correct?

There are other aspects to the book that are simply out of date; for example the linear, rather deterministic schemes set out in Figures 4.6 and 4.8 showing that Cretaceous flowers were open and radially symmetrical, and only later evolved into complex, bilateral flowers in the Tertiary, ignores fossil discoveries showing that orchids evolved in the Cretaceous (Ramírez et al., 2007).  Likewise, discussion of “counterproductive” crypsis in flowers (p.124) neglects recent findings of cryptic, wasp-pollinated plants in South Africa (e.g. Shuttleworth & Johnson, 2009).

There is a theme emerging here: some of the botany that the book presents is inaccurate, confused or out-dated.  Fortunately the zoological aspects of the book are much better, as one might hope from a Professor of Zoology.

The final criterion, that the book should be “authoritative in the conclusions it presents”, is however, in my view, the main weakness of this volume.  The author is unhappy with recent developments in the field, particularly as they relate to community-scale assessments of plant–pollinator interactions, in terms of network analyses and predictive utility of pollination syndromes.  Clearly Professor Willmer is on a mission to rebalance what she perceives as failings within some of the current trends in studying pollination.  A book review is not the place for a technical dissection of the author’s arguments, which is best left to the peer-reviewed literature (though I would argue that that’s also the place to present some of the criticisms the author introduces, rather than into a text book such as this).  I could focus the whole of this review on these topics because: (a) they take up a large proportion of the book, about one-third of the text pages; and (b) they are highlighted on the cover as being one of the main contributions of the book; specifically, that the author provides a critique of previous work that does not distinguish between “casual visitors and true pollinators” that can in turn result in “misleading conclusions about flower evolution and animal-flower mutualism”. Unfortunately her targets are straw men, and one – I believe quite telling – example will suffice.

On p.447 there is a criticism of the use by Waser et al. (1996) of Charles Robertson’s historical data set, and specifically that the analyses they present “…did not distinguish visitors from pollinators even though Robertson’s database did include information on this”.  However Waser et al. clearly state (p.1045 of their paper) that only pollinators were included in the analyses, not all flower visitors, and that “visitation is not a synonym for pollination…non-pollinating visitors are excluded (as in Robertson 1928)” (p.1048).

Why should Professor Willmer make a statement to the contrary?  Evidently she wishes to impress upon her readers that (in her opinion) there are fundamental problems in current approaches to studying pollination at a community level.  But even if that were the case (and I don’t believe it is) misrepresenting previous studies to suit an argument is poor scholarship at best.

Regardless of whether some of her criticism is well founded, the author does not seem to appreciate that plant–flower visitor interaction networks are ecologically important regardless of whether or not a flower visitor acts as a pollinator.  More fundamentally, true pollination networks possess similar attributes to flower visitor networks, for example a nested pattern of interactions, and arguments about level of generalisation of species are a matter of scale, not category (Ollerton et al., 2003).

At the end of her Preface, Professor Willmer reveals to us quite a lot about her personal attitude to research when she states that some readers might find her approach “too traditional” in an “era where ecological modelers [might be claimed to] have more to tell us than old-style field workers”.  What the author fails to appreciate is that this is a grossly false dichotomy and that most of the pollination ecologists who have embraced new analytical methodologies for understanding plant–pollinator interactions are also “old-style field workers” with considerable experience of studying the ecology of flowers and their pollinators beyond the computer screen.

In summary this is a book that, for all its good qualities of comprehensiveness and (mostly) up to date coverage, should be read with caution: parts of it are neither as accurate nor as authorative as the field of pollination and floral ecology deserves.

 

LITERATURE CITED

Ollerton J, Johnson SD, Cranmer L, Kellie, S. 2003. The pollination ecology of an assemblage of grassland asclepiads in South Africa. Annals of Botany 92: 807-834.

Ramírez SR, Gravendeel B, Singer RB, Marshall CR,  Pierce NE. 2007. Dating the origin of the Orchidaceae from a fossil orchid with its pollinator. Nature 448: 1042-1045.

Shuttleworth A, Johnson SD. 2009. The importance of scent and nectar filters in a specialized wasp-pollination system. Functional Ecology 23: 931-940.

Waser NM, Chittka L, Price MV, Williams N, Ollerton J. 1996. Generalization in pollination systems, and why it matters. Ecology 77: 1043-1060.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Book review, Evolution, Mutualism, Pollination