Tag Archives: Christmas

The holly, the mistletoe, and the pollinators: an update on an old story

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Holly and mistletoe are two of Europe and Scandinavia’s most iconic plants, steeped in folklore and cultural significance, and redolent of the dark days of mid-winter and its festivities.  Last year, together with my colleagues Jim Rouquette and Tom Breeze, I published a study of the value that pollinators add to the wholesale auction prices of these two plants using data from the UK’s largest holly and mistletoe auction that has been held in the town of Tenbury Wells for 160 years.

Holly and mistletoe are excellent subjects for a study of the added value that pollinators bring to a crop as they are 100% reliant on pollination by a range of wild bees, flies and other insects.  This is because both species are dioecious with separate sex plants, therefore any berries produced on a female plant must be due to the activities of pollinators.

Here’s a link to last year’s blog post about that paper and here’s the reference for the paper itself, with a link to the journal where you can download it for free:

Ollerton, J., Rouquette, J.R. & Breeze, T.D. (2016) Insect pollinators boost the market price of culturally important crops: holly, mistletoe and the spirit of Christmas. Journal of Pollination Ecology 19: 93-97

The data set in that paper only developed the story up to 2015 as the 2016 auctions took place too late to include within our analyses.  However I’ve collected the auction reports for 2016 and 2017 and added them to the data set.  The results are graphed below*.

The auction price for holly with berries is rather volatile, but on average over this time period, berried holly has twice the commercial value of holly without berries.  Indeed in the last auction of 2017, holly without berries failed to sell, hence the value of £0.00.  The very wintry weather on the auction day reduced the number of buyers, but nonetheless, to have no one bidding for the unberried holly was unprecedented.

Holly auction prices plot

The pattern for mistletoe is rather similar, but in this case the value of berried material is less volatile than that of holly, and the average value is around three times greater than for auction lots of unberried plants.

Mistletoe auction plot

This data set offers a unique insight into the value of pollinators for two culturally important crops (all other such studies have focused on food or, rarely, fibre crops).  I’ll continue to archive the auction reports and to update these analyses every few years in the run up to Christmas.  If anyone is interested in accessing the data, please drop me a line.

If you want to learn more about the botany of different types of mistletoe follow this link to Mike Fay’s blog post on the Kew website.

Also worth checking out is Manu Saunders’ recent piece highlighting some old Christmas-themed blog posts.

Yesterday was my last day in the office, I’m now officially on leave and looking forward to a restful Christmas and New Year break.  Season’s greetings to all of my readers and thank you for your continued support and interest in biodiversity!

 

 

*There are three auctions each year and therefore three data points per annum, except for 2016 when only two auction reports were produced.

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Spiral Sunday #16 – Christmas is over

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Yesterday we took down the Christmas decorations that have festooned the house this year.  Whilst I was taking apart the wreath we’d hung on the door I noticed for the first time that the bow had a lovely spiral design.  I thought it would make a nice Spiral Sunday for this year, and we’ll re-use it next year.

More on that wreath later in the week….

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Spiral Sunday #14 – Merry Christmas!

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A double helping of Spiral Sunday for Christmas Day 2016 – two glass baubles on our Christmas tree with very different spiral forms.  In the first, the spiral is integral to the design, it is spiral in form.  In the second, molten coloured glass has been trailed in a spiral pattern on the surface to create the pattern.  Both very different, but both beautiful in their own way.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Insect pollinators boost the market price of holly and mistletoe: a new study just published

Holly and mistletoe 20161211_103252.png

Each year I’ve always added at least one Christmas-themed biodiversity post to the blog, for example: Thank the insects for Christmas, A Christmas vignette, and Six Kingdoms for Christmas.  That’s partly because I really like Christmas as a winter festival, with its folklore and customs.  But it’s also because these are a great vehicle to demonstrate how pervasive and important is natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides to society.

This year I’ve gone one stage further and actually published some Christmassy research to back up the blog post.  Now, in a new study published in the Journal of Pollination Ecology, we have shown how important insect pollinators are in determining the market value of two of the most emblematic of Christmas plants: holly (Ilex aquifolium) and mistletoe (Viscum album).  Here’s the full reference with a link to the paper itself, which is open access:

Ollerton, J., Rouquette, J.R. & Breeze, T.D. (2016) Insect pollinators boost the market price of culturally important crops: holly, mistletoe and the spirit of Christmas. Journal of Pollination Ecology 19: 93-97

Holly and mistletoe are two seasonal crops that play a culturally important role as symbols of Christmas across the world, though both also have pre-Christian pagan roots. Now for the first time the role of insect pollinators in determining the commercial value of these plants has been investigated, using sales records going back over the last eleven years from Britain’s largest annual auction of holly and mistletoe, held every year in Worcestershire.

Analysis of the sales records of Nick Champion Auctions in Tenbury Wells shows that insect pollination raises the sale price of these crops by on average two to three times. This is because holly and mistletoe with berries is more sought after than material without berries, with wholesale buyers paying higher prices at auction. These berries in turn are the result of pollination by insects such as flies and bees: both holly and mistletoe are 100% dependent on insect pollination due to their having separate male and female plants.

There is some annual variation to the prices, and in years where berries are scarce (possibly due to low insect numbers) the price difference can be four-fold.

Due to concerns about pollinator declines and food security there is huge interest in the role of bees and other insects in supporting agriculture, and how we can value that role. However we believe that this is the first study showing that insect pollinators play a large part in determining the value of culturally symbolic, non-food crops. Almost all of the economic valuations of insect pollination to agriculture have focused on food crops such as beans, apples, cocoa, coffee, and so forth. Very little is known about how the value of non-food crops (fibres, construction materials, pharmaceuticals, ornamentals, etc.) is enhanced by insect pollination. This is an area where much more research is required.

But in the mean time, where better to end than with a bit of seasonal John Clare?

The shepherd, now no more afraid,
Since custom doth the chance bestow,
Starts up to kiss the giggling maid
Beneath the branch of mistletoe
That ‘neath each cottage beam is seen,
With pearl-like berries shining gay;
The shadow still of what hath been,
Which fashion yearly fades away.

The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827)

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Six Kingdoms for Christmas: the cultural biodiversity of a winter festival

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Since beginning this blog in 2012 I’ve traditionally posted one or two Christmas-themed items around this time of year, including a piece on “Thanking the pollinators for Christmas” and a true story from 2013, “A Christmas vignette“.  The role of pollinators in producing much of the traditional Christmas fare has subsequently been picked up by others (last year the University of Bristol, this year a blog from Trinity College Dublin) so I’ve decided to break with tradition and consider the ways in which biodiversity (both wild and farmed, though the latter of course originated as the former) adds to the cultural experience of Christmas through its traditions and rituals.

In this regard I’m coming at the topic as a north-European agnostic who values Christmas as an opportunity to relax and unwind at the darkest, coldest* part of the year, rather than as a Christian.  And because I’m a British scientist much of what I say relates to British customs, though I’ve tried to include non-British examples where I’m aware of them – feel free to let me know about examples I’ve missed by commenting below.

I’ve decided to structure this post taxonomically and focus on a Six Kingdom Classification** of life on Earth as that’s been the theme of my first year undergraduate teaching since October.  Four of the six Kingdoms can be dealt with fairly quickly as their significance to Christmas is marginal or non-existent.  The two “bacterial” Kingdoms (Archaea and Eubacteria) contribute little to Christmas other than providing much of the gut flora that’s going to help us digest our Christmas dinner. Important but not specifically festive.  Likewise the protists and algae (Kingdom Protoctista) add nothing specific to Christmas unless there are traditions associated with seaweed of which I am unaware.

The other three Kingdoms are the ones where cultural biodiversity associations are more apparent.  The Kingdom Fungi (yeasts, mushrooms and moulds) provides us with several Christmas traditions including (in Germany) hanging mushrooms on the Christmas tree for good luck, and in parts of Scandinavia hanging strings of dried mushrooms around the house as decorations and as a source of winter food.  There is also the association between the red-and-white colour scheme of fly agaric magic mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) and the robes of Santa Claus, though I’ve seen that idea debunked in a few places and it appears that the “traditional” interpretation of Santa’s suit originated in the USA in the 19th century.

The Kingdom Animalia (both invertebrates and vertebrates) affords us a host of cultural connections to Christmas.  Birds include the turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) which in times past were famously walked to London from Norfolk; the domestic goose (Anser anser domesticus); and much of the song Twelve Days of Christmas refers to birds, including the turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) one of the UK’s most declining and threatened bird species.  Mammals we associate with Christmas include of course reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) pulling Santa’s sleigh, led by the nasally-advantaged Rudolph, but also domesticated farm animals.  For example in Denmark in osme households it’s more traditional to eat pork (Sus scrofa domesticus) for Christmas dinner than goose.

Staying with the vertebrates, in our house it’s traditional to have smoked salmon (Salmo salar) with scrambled eggs for breakfast on Christmas Day, and (again in Denmark) sild (Clupea harengus) is also traditionally served as a starter, but I don’t know of other fish traditions.  Likewise I’m unaware of any invertebrates that are specifically associated with Christmas, though there have been recent reports of sustainably-sourced lobsters (Homarus americanus and H. gammarus)  becoming “traditional” in Europe.  There are also some local traditions such as honey bees singing in their hives on Christmas Eve.

The last of the Six Kingdoms is the Plantae, which, whilst the least taxonomically diverse, provides us with a wealth of cultural associations to Christmas.  These traditionally include evergreen plants that have been used to decorate homes, probably since the earliest pagan Yuletide festivals, such as: Christmas trees (various conifers in the genera Picea, Abies and Pinus); European ivy (Hedera helix); holly (Ilex aquifolium); and mistletoe (Viscum album).  However such traditions evolve and adapt to local needs and availability of plants.  For example in North and South America other genera of conifers not found in europe, such as Pseudotsuga and  Araucaria, may be used as Christmas trees***.  Likewise the absence of European mistletoe in North America means that people have adopted native mistletoes in the related genus Phoradendron for decorating and snogging traditions.  Over at her blog, ecologist Manu Saunders has recently discussed how native Australian species can substitute European plants for Christmas decorations.

The final example from the Plantae is the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) which I’ve pictured above.  In many ways this is an unusual plant to have such a strong cultural association with Christmas: it’s a mildly toxic species of spurge from tropical Mexico that was introduced to North America in the 19th century, then subsequently to Europe.  However its festive connotations date back to the earliest period of Spanish colonisation in the 16th century, so it’s older than some of the other Christmasy traditions I’ve discussed.

Of course biodiversity is about more than just species and taxonomic diversity, it also encompasses the diversity of habitats in which that life is found.  Here too we see strong influences of the natural world on the culture of Christmas, including festive scenes of snow-bound boreal conifer forest.  As our planet warms, however, that might be a view that is found only on Christmas cards and old movies, rather than directly experienced*.

And on that sobering note, I wish all of my readers and restful and biodiverse holiday: have a great Christmas everyone!

 

*Ha!  It’s looking to be the warmest December on record, and at times has felt more like early summer than mid-winter.

**I’m aware that there are other Kingdom-level classifications out there which could be used, but the Six Kingdom approach is a good starting point.

***Closer to home, colleagues in the office adjacent to mine have adorned their large weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) with home-made Christmas decorations.  Looks good.

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Did you remember to thank the insects for Christmas?

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This year I decided not to re-post my traditional “Thank the insects for Christmas” piece, in part because I don’t want to bore the good readers of this blog with too much repetition, but also because the idea has been taken up by the Urban Pollinators Project at the University of Bristol, and developed into an infographic (on which I advised) that you can view here.  The BBC News Website used the information for a nice article called “The insects that made Christmas“.  So look back on your Christmas dinner, if you had one, and give thanks to the many invertebrates that made it happen!

The other reason for not doing a full re-post of that piece is that I was feeling worn out by a long university term that ended not with a whimper, but a stressful double-bang of publication of our pollinator extinctions paper (and the associated media interest, which I may talk about early in 2015) and the release of the results of the Research Excellence Framework, which I coordinated for my department.  We were pleased with the outcome, with over 40% of our research papers rated as “world leading” or “internationally excellent”, and most of the rest being “recognised internationally”.  For a young, mainly teaching-focused, non research-intensive institution such as the University of Northampton (which doesn’t enjoy the facilities and funding of older, larger universities), that’s an impressive result.

A final bit of news is that this blog made it onto the MySciBlog survey 2014, by Paige Brown Jarreau (Louisiana State University) who asked more than 600 science bloggers “to list up to the top three science blogs, other than their own, that they read on a regular basis”.  The initial results can be found at Figshare, and I’ve inserted network graphic below (click on it for a larger view).  The size of a node is proportional to the number of respondents who read that blog regularly and my blog is part of the green section near the top, tucked just under the dominant Dynamic Ecology.  It’s gratifying to know that other bloggers are reading this in significant numbers!

Thanks to everyone who has read my blog over the past year, particularly those who have commented on the ideas and information I’ve presented: best wishes to you all for 2015!

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A Christmas vignette (re-post from 2013)

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First posted Christmas 2013, I thought it was worth re-posting as it’s as resonant this year as last.

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This afternoon I booked half a day’s leave to go into Northampton town centre to pick up some final Christmas gifts.  A crowd of shoppers in Abington Street was eager to lay their hands on the freebies being distributed by that traditional Yuletide apparition, The Coca Cola holidaysarecomingholidaysarecoming Big American Truck.  As red and shiny as Rudolf’s nose, it was pedalling its cheap brand of Christmas sentimentality to a willing audience.  

Shopping completed and daylight fading fast, I headed back to the multi-storey car park, again passing the Coca Cola queues, skirting them, determined not to be sucked in.

The car park was cold and ugly, as they tend to be.  But on the second floor, level with the bare crown of a tree that emerges from an adjacent pub garden, a mother and her young son stood.  Hands full of shopping bags, they had paused to listen to a male blackbird singing as the dusk drew in.  As I passed I heard them chatting about its song: both agreed it was beautiful.

Driving out of the car park I wound down my window: the blackbird was still singing.

I could give a very academic spin to this tale and talk about the cultural and spiritual ecosystem services that are provided by such birds, which nourish us in ways that no amount of corporate marketing ever could.  But I shan’t: it was a perfect Christmas vignette and a perfect contrast to the earlier soulless commerciality.  And that’s sufficient.

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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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A Christmas vignette

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This afternoon I booked half a day’s leave to go into Northampton town centre to pick up some final Christmas gifts.  A crowd of shoppers in Abington Street was eager to lay their hands on the freebies being distributed by that traditional Yuletide apparition, The Coca Cola holidaysarecomingholidaysarecoming Big American Truck.  As red and shiny as Rudolf’s nose, it was pedalling its cheap brand of Christmas sentimentality to a willing audience.  

Shopping completed and daylight fading fast, I headed back to the multi-storey car park, again passing the Coca Cola queues, skirting them, determined not to be sucked in.

The car park was cold and ugly, as they tend to be.  But on the second floor, level with the bare crown of a tree that emerges from an adjacent pub garden, a mother and her young son stood.  Hands full of shopping bags, they had paused to listen to a male blackbird singing as the dusk drew in.  As I passed I heard them chatting about its song: both agreed it was beautiful.

Driving out of the car park I wound down my window: it was still singing as I passed the tree.

I could give a very academic spin to this tale and talk about the cultural and spiritual ecosystem services that are provided by such birds, which nourish us in ways that no amount of corporate marketing ever could.  But I shan’t: it was a perfect Christmas vignette and a perfect contrast to the earlier soulless commerciality.  And that’s sufficient.

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