Tag Archives: Science

The 31st Annual Meeting of the Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology (SCAPE 2017) – registration closes 15th September

SCAPE logo

SCAPE is my favourite annual conference by a long margin: small, friendly, welcoming (especially for Master’s and PhD students, and postdocs), and packed full of great science.  It’s the longest-running annual conference of its kind in the world and this year the 31st meeting takes place in Norway; registration closes on 15th September – here’s the link for more information.

So if you are a scientist with an interest in pollination ecology, in all of its varied expressions, consider coming along.  I’ve written a short history of SCAPE here, and these are some links to previous meetings to give you a sense of what to expect:

https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/i-want-to-see-the-bright-lights-tonight-the-30th-annual-scape-conference-part-1/

https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/scape-day-3-science-on-a-sunday/

https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/dancing-with-wolves-more-from-scape-2014/

https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/the-great-escape/

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Final thoughts from the International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen

IBC 47 Veg market

Despite my best efforts I’ve not been able to produce a daily post about the International Botanical Congress (IBC) in Shenzhen.  The days were just too busy: too many interesting people to talk to; too many great talks to see; too much cold beer to be drunk and tasty food to be eaten; and a too-comfortable bed to collapse into at the end of a long, long day.

It’s Sunday today, and the closing ceremony took place yesterday afternoon.  Speeches were made and thanks offered to our Chinese hosts.  It was a fitting end to what has been a truly remarkable conference, the like of which I’ve never previously experienced, and may never again.  It wasn’t just the scale of it – almost 7,000 delegates giving and attending hundreds of talks – but just the very positive buzz of all of these plant scientists determined to make a difference in some way, through their research and education and outreach work.  That’s been the main theme of this conference: that a healthy global population living in a safe and sustainable world is not possible without plants, and to achieve that we must take the plant sciences very, very seriously indeed.  Plants are the foundation of our civilization and the key to surviving the future.

Anyone who doubts that last sentence should have joined us the other day when we made a short visit to a local fruit and vegetable market.  Beautifully displayed on low stalls was botanical produce that reflected both thousands of years of Chinese cultivation and crop breeding, including food plants not very familiar in the west……

IBC 45 Veg market.jpg

IBC 46 Veg market

….together with the produce that’s only been a part of the Chinese diet for a few hundred years, or less, following its introduction from Europe and the Americas, including current staples such as chillies, squashes and potatoes:

IBC 43 Veg market

Global movements of food crops have enriched diets and supported the populations of entire countries: most of the fruit and vegetables that we eat in the UK, for instance, are not even native to Europe let alone the British Isles.

During this trip to the market I was able to add two new plant families to my life list of those I’ve eaten.  They were Sauruaceae (the leaves and rhizomes of Houttuynia cordata) and Portulacaceae (Portulaca oleracea being a common leaf vegetable in some parts of the world, but not the UK).  That brings my current total of pant families I’ve eaten to more than 90.

That theme of the importance of plants was codified by the launch at the IBC of the Shenzhen Declaration on Plant Sciences, on which the Natural History Museum’s Sandy Knapp has been an author; hopefully you can read the seven priorities in this image:

IBC 40 Shenzhen Declaration

The Shenzhen Declaration provides both a rallying call for plant scientists to convince their governments of the importance of their work, but also highlights how seriously China takes the whole concept of sustainable development.  It’s remarkable (but actually perfectly logical) that such a fast developing country should be the prime mover in the area of green sustainability.  Only time will tell if they are doing enough, at a pace that will make a difference.

There were a couple of awards made at the closing ceremony, including the first ever Shenzhen Award to Prof. Peter Raven, 81 years old and still going strong.  Earlier in the week a colleague introduced me to this giant of botany and evolutionary biology, and I got to shake his hand, feeling a bit awe struck I have to admit!

IBC 40 Peter Raven.jpg

The Engler Medal went to Chinese botanist Prof. Hong Deyuan for his systematic work on paeonies and other Chinese plants:

IBC 40 Hong Engler.jpg

So, that’s it for another six years.  IBC 20 will be held in Rio in 2023; the Shenzhen Congress has set a high bar, but we’re sure that Brazil can match it!

IBC 39 Rio

Today I’m off to Fairy Lake Botanical Garden to do a bit of exploring with some colleagues, then I fly home tomorrow evening.  It’s been a wonderful trip but I’m looking forward to seeing my family, our cats, and how our garden has changed in the short time I’ve been away.  My sincerest thanks to all the friends and colleagues who have made this such a stimulating and extraordinary conference.  Especial thanks to our Chinese hosts who made us feel so welcome, and the IBC Awards Committee for providing me with an “Excellent Scholar” award to enable me to take part. Over and out from Shenzhen.

IBC 37 - Jeff

 

 

 

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Wampee are not the only fruit: more from the International Botanical Congress

IBC 27.jpg

It’s been a busy couple of days so this is my first chance to post a brief update on what is happening at the International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen, China.  Not only have there been great talks to attend, but it’s been an all-too-rare chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, some of whom I’ve not seen for years.  Also I’ve been able to meet researchers whose work I know well but whom I’ve never met.  And I’m still trying to finish my talk for Saturday…..  So here’s a few glimpses of what’s been going on, in no particular order.

On Tuesday I attended two fascinating symposia, one on the patterns and outcomes of pollen transfer between species in plant communities.  The first talk was this one by the great Chinese pollination ecologists Shuang-Quan Huang.  I’ve corresponded with Shuang for years but the IBC has been my first chance to meet him.

IBC 30 - Shuang

That was in the morning; in the afternoon I went to a session on my favourite plant family, the Apocynaceae, organised by my colleague and collaborator Sigrid Liede-Schumann.  This included some great talks on the evolutionary relationships within the family, and patterns of diversity in poorly studied parts of the world.  There were two talks on my favourite genus in my favourite family, Ceropegia. The first, by Sharad Kambale, was about the endemic species found in India, followed by a second on the pollination biology of the genus by Annemarie Heiduk.  Anne’s talk complements my own on Saturday, and in fact she, Sigrid and I are co-authors on a paper on the genus that, we heard on Monday, has just been accepted by the journal Flora.  Here’s a shot of the Apocynaceae participants; Anne is far right with Sigrid next to her.  It’s a sobering thought that Sigrid and I have been collaborating for over 20 years……:

IBC 28 - Apocs

Of the keynote lectures I’ve seen in the last couple of days, I was particualrly inspired by Loren Rieseberg’s over view of plant evolution in the Anthropocene.  This is surely the only talk this week, or at any IBC, that ended with a couple of episodes of a children’s animated series about nature!  Loren’s work with Scout and the Gumboot Kids was inspired by him becoming a father and recognising that the most important contribution he will ever make is the legacy he leaves as a teacher of the next generations, rather than as a researcher (though his research work is very significant!)

I also enjoyed Peter Wyse Jackson’s talk on “International developments and responsibilities for the botanical community in plant conservation”.  Peter very eloquently set out the case for how plant conservationists can lead the way in achieving many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but the key must be to include local communities within projects and not exclude them.  It reflected a theme that’s running right through the conference, that plant science has a vital role to play in making our civilization sustainable: plants are absolutely key to this:

 

IBC 32 - Development goals

After all, humans are just Super Monkeys in evolutionary terms….

IBC 31 - Supermonkey.jpg

…and monkeys need plants, especially fruit such as these delicious wampee (Clausena lansium) a new one for me that I’d never tried before.  It’s in the same family as oranges and other citrus fruits (Rutaceae) but has a texture more like a grape and a sour, slightly phenolic taste:

IBC 34 - Fruit.jpg

In these blog posts I’m trying to give just a few personal insights into what’s been going on, but there’s much that I’ve missed: on any given day there’s as many as 28 separate symposia going on at the same time!  No wonder then that the IBC has its own daily newspaper:

IBC 36 - Congress news.jpg

Now, I must get back to writing that talk….

 

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Highlights from Monday at the International Botanical Congress

IBC 21

On the way in to the congress venue yesterday morning I spotted a small yellow bird lying dead on the street; turned out to be a Japanese White-eye, a first for me.  Can I count dead birds on my life list?

The scientific programme for the day got off to a great start with a keynote by Michael Donoghue on the value of model lineages for really exploring plant evolution in depth.  He focused on the work of his group on the genus Viburnum, and it has a masterclass in presenting a lot of complex work in an engaging and contextual way, telling a great story.

These photos tell you about the scale of these keynotes and the need for video feeds of the presentation.  It’s all working well though:

IBC 23

IBC 24

In the afternoon things got a little more intimate when the themed symposia started.  For now I’ve decided not to try to move between sessions to cherry pick talks I really want to hear and instead stick with the single sessions.  The first of these was on “Pollination by non-flying mammals” and a series of speakers outlined some of the diversity of these animals and how flowers are adapted to be pollinated by them.  As camera traps have become more widely used, especially at night using infra red lighting, the range of mammals known to pollinate flowers has increased and now includes species such as genets and elephant shrews.  The latter wins the prize for outrageous cuteness!  Check out some of the images of these pollinators at this BBC site.

That session ended at 3.30pm and there was just time to chat to a few people and grab a quick coffee before I was speaking at 4.00pm in the “Evolution of floral traits” session, in a vast hall that seemed mainly empty but actually probably had a couple of hundred people in it:

IBC 25

My talk was on “Spatio-temporal stability of an island endemic plant-pollinator interaction involving floral colour change”. It seemed to be well received though in retrospect I probably focused too much on the pollinator side of what’s happening in our Tenerife study system.  The talks that came after were a great mix of scales and approaches but by 6.00pm the jetlag had caught up with me and I couldn’t stop myself falling asleep towards the end of a fascinating talk by Adam Roddy (sorry Adam!)  That was bad enough: then I started snoring and was jerked awake when Kathleen Kay punched me (thank’s Kathleen!)  Oh the science shame….

Much chatting afterwards then whisked off to dinner by some Chinese and American colleagues, in the fanciest hotel I’ve ever seen: we were met out of the lift by a gaggle of singing waitresses…. A very pleasant evening.  Back to the hotel by 9.30pm, for a beer and some tv, but could hardly keep my eyes open.  Slept until 6.00am – huzzah – jetlag seems to be over!  Now to breakfast and the start of a new day.  Must finish writing my talk for Saturday though….

IBC 26

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Feeding of the 7000 – the International Botanical Congress steps up a gear

So it turns out that the figure of 6000 delegates at the International Botanical Congress was wrong: it’s actually almost 7000!  The official figure is 6,953 people from “109 countries and regions” [not quite sure what that means].  There are 3,519 talks scheduled to be given by scientists from 85 countries: botany is such an incredibly international venture!  But then you can say that about all of the sciences.

Yesterday the IBC stepped up a gear with some public lectures in the afternoon.  I managed to catch the one by Steve Blackmore on why greening of  cities is so important, and the role of plants in improving urban living through microclimate modification, food production, aesthetic enhancement, etc.  Couldn’t agree more and it’s a recurring theme in the IBC’s exhibition centre.  The Chinese take this very seriously and Shenzhen has some lovely planting and green spaces; I hope to post more images about this later in the week but here’s one example I snapped on the way to the venue yesterday morning:

IBC 18

The other talk I saw was by the venerable Peter Raven, now in his 80s but still going strong and an inspiration to all of us youngsters 🙂  The theme of Peter’s talk was “Saving plants to save ourselves”, and the importance of the plant sciences for sustaining the Earth in the face of exponential population growth:

IBC 11

Peter introduced the “Shenzhen Declaration” –  an open letter or manifesto that challenges international governments to take the plant sciences seriously and provides something of a road map for how that can be done.  More on the Declaration in a later post.

At 6pm there was a welcoming reception to which all delegates were invited; simply getting that many people into one of the halls was a triumph of logistics, but they were also fed and able to drink as much as they wanted, all for free.  Quite a feat to pull off; this shot was taken fairly early on in the proceedings; there was more than twice that number behind me:

IBC 19

Some more photos from the venue, starting with part of the main display about Chinese conservation.  Not sure that a couple of stuffed pandas sends quite the right message, but who am I to quibble:

IBC 15

A behind-the-scenes shot of just part of the registration desk area:

IBC 16

The IBC is the only conference I’ve attended that has a SWAT team with automatic weapons, attack dogs, and riot shields on constant standby.  You can just see some of them at the back of this shot, about as close as I dared photograph…..:

IBC 14

No conference is complete without an irritating robot giving out information in a cutesy, high pitched voice:

IBC 12.jpg

So the main scientific programme starts today; I’ll be going to a couple of the keynote lectures in the morning, then there’s a session after lunch on “Pollination by non-flying mammals” that I’m looking forward to.  I’m then speaking at 4pm in the session on “Evolution of floral traits”, discussing some of the work that we have been doing in Tenerife.  Wish me luck!

The session I’m talking in ends at 6pm.  I’m still jet lagged and have been up since 4am so at that point I’ll be ready for a beer and some food!

 

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6000 scientists can’t be wrong: the International Botanical Congress 2017

IBC 1

A late afternoon flight from Heathrow got me to Beijing International Airport just in time for me to enjoy a nine hour delay in my connecting flight to Shenzhen in southern China.  I finally arrived at my hotel at 2:15am, exhausted and sweaty in the 30 degree night time heat.  The one consolation is the the hotel was short of rooms so upgraded me to a suite the size of a small city, with a shower like a tropical rainstorm.  Perfect to wash off the dirt of travelling before collapsing into bed.

Why am I here and why is the hotel short of rooms?  Because 6000 scientists have descended on Shenzhen for the 19th International Botanical Congress (IBC).  The IBC is a six-yearly event that rotates around the world; I attended in 1999 in St Louis and 2005 in Vienna, but missed Melbourne in 2011.  At this IBC I’m giving two talks, one at the beginning and one at the end of the conference.  More on that later in the week.

Six thousand botanists need a big conference venue and this morning, after a late breakfast, I strolled up to the convention centre where it’s being held.  It’s enormous, the scale of the thing is overwhelming.  I wandered around whilst they were getting ready for registration opening this afternoon and took some images on my phone.

IBC 2IBC 3IBC 4

There are some fabulous displays of living plants, including this one at the main entrance:

IBC 5

These are attracting pollinators: in 10 minutes I counted lots of honey bees, one butterfly, at least two species of wasps, and a large carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) visiting flowers.  I only managed to photograph the first two though:

IBC 7

IBC 6

On the way back to my hotel I gatecrashed an international turtle expo.  Who knew turtles were such a big thing in China….?

OK, that’s all for now: I have to head back to the convention centre to register, so I’ll leave you with the view I’m seeing from where I’m writing this.  Shenzhen is quite a place and I’ll write more about it later in the week:

IBC 8

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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:

Email: valerie.howe2@northampton.ac.uk
Telephone: 01604 893005

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

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Proposals to “sequence the DNA of all life on Earth” suffer from the same issues as “naming all the species”

Tanzania ichneumonid P1000757

There’s a short piece on the website of the journal Science this week entitled “Biologists propose to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth“.  I don’t propose to say much about it except to say to anyone interested: read that piece, then read my recent post entitled “The road to degradation: is ‘naming all the species’ achievable or even desirable?

In my view “naming all the species” and “sequencing the DNA of all life” suffer the same issues and flaws. At a time when research funding is becoming ever more difficult to obtain (in part because it’s becoming more concentrated on fewer institutions and individuals) such multi-billion dollar initiatives make great headlines, but are they value for money?

At the moment Science also has a series of stories on its conservation news web pages, and you can find others all over the web, that point to our inability to conserve even large, charismatic species such as elephants and the big cats, and how this in turn can impact on human survival and wellbeing.  Perhaps we should devote more funding and more research energy to fixing these issues before we attempt such large-scale projects?

As always, your opinions and comments are welcomed.

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What’s the point of the h-index? UPDATED

UPDATE: I’ve increased the sample size of EEB scientists I used in the analysis.

——————————————————-

Over at the Dynamic Ecology blog yesterday, Jeremy Fox posted an interesting analysis of which metrics correlate with the chances of early career researchers in ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) gaining an interview for an academic post in North America.   Spoiler alert: none of them correlate, except the number of job applications you submit.

These metrics include number of papers published, number of first author papers, number of large (>$100,000) grants held, number of years post-doc, and h-index.  Nada, zilch, nothing, nowt is significantly correlated.  Which is good: as Jeremy (and the stream of commenters) discuss, it means that interview panels are looking roundly at individuals and what they can offer a university department, and not relying on (sometimes dubious) metrics.

Which brings us to the h-index….  Jeremy linked to an old post of mine called “How does a scientist’s h-index change over time?“, a piece that was far and away my most viewed post last year (and second-most viewed post in 2015).  This suggests that there’s still a huge “appetite” for the h-index, in terms of understanding what it is and how it can/should (or cannot/should not) be used.  Even before the Dynamic Ecology post came out I was planning to update it and give examples where I think it might be useful, so this seems like a good time to do that.

Opinions on the h-index vary hugely.  Some of the links in my original post were to writings by scientists who really like the idea of being able to use it to track the academic impact of an individual (or at least some measure of it).  Others despise it, and indeed all academic metrics, as pernicious and potentially dangerous to science – see David Colquhoun’s video on this topic, for instance.

I’m somewhere in the middle – I recognise the weaknesses of the h-index, but I also think that it’s measuring something, even if the something that it’s measuring may not be directly translatable into a measure of “quality” or “impact”, and especially not “employability” or “worthy of promotion” (and I would certainly never countenance using the h-index as a the sole measure of the latter two).

So when is the h-index useful?  Well one use is as a personal tracker of one’s own standing or contribution within a field, assessing the trajectory of a career, and perhaps gauging when it’s time to apply for promotion (at least in the UK system which is a less transparent process than in North America, or at least that’s my impression).  To illustrate this I’ve collated the h-indexes and years since first publication for 72 EEB scientists using Google Scholar (GS).  I used GS rather than Web of Science (WoS) as, although GS is less conservative, WoS seems to be becoming noticeably less accurate; for example it’s recently assigned to me chapters on which I was not an author but which are included in a book that I co-edited.  Another advantage of GS, of course, is that it’s publicly available and not pay walled.

It’s long been known that a scientist’s h-index should increase over their professional lives, and indeed that’s what we find if we plot number of years since first publication against an individual’s h-index:

h-index-graph

It’s a fairly strong correlation, though with a lot of scatter (something Jeremy noted in his blog) and it suggests that EEB scholars accrue their h-index  at a rate of about 1.6 papers per year, on average, though with a big range (0.3 to 4.2 papers per year).  One (albeit fanciful*) way to think about this graph is that it’s analogous to a Hertzsprung–Russell (HR) diagram in astronomy, where, as they age, stars shift position predictably on a plot of colour versus magnitude.  In a similar way, as EEB scientists age professionally, their position on this plot moves in ways that may be predictable from their scientific output.

There’s a lot of structure in HR diagrams, including the famous Main Sequence, where most stars lie, as well as stellar evolutionary tracks for Giants, Super Giants, White Dwarfs, etc.  In this modest sample I think we’re starting to see similar structure, with individuals lying far above or below the “h-index Main Sequence”, indicating that they are accruing greater or fewer citations than might be expected.  UPDATE:  In particular, three individuals who are “Super Giants” (to use the astronomical terminology) and lie far above the Main Sequence.  Carlos Herrera makes an interesting point in the comments (below) about self-selection in GS which could mean that there are far fewer people with low h-indexes represented than we might expect.

One of the things that could be explored using these type of data is exactly why it is that this is happening: is it a question of where they are based, or their nationality, or where they publish, their sub-field, or what?  One easy analysis to do is to assess whether there is a difference between female and male scientists, as follows:

h-index-graph-mf

Previous research has suggested that women on average receive fewer citations for their papers than men (see this 2013 study in Nature for instance) and this graph gives some support to that idea, though I’ve not formally tested the difference between the two lines. What is also interesting is that the R-squared values are identical, indicating as much variation in female as male career trajectories, at least as measured in this way.

UPDATE:  These additional data suggest that the h-indexes of male and female researchers diverge over time, and that most of the difference is for mid to late career scientists.  It’s unclear to me why this might be the case, but we could speculate about factors such as career breaks to have children.  Note that I struggled to find female EEB scientists with an h-index larger than about 80 – if I’ve missed any please let me know.

The data set I used for this analysis is certainly not random and contains a lot of people I know personally or by reputation, so a larger, more systematic analysis could come to some rather different conclusions.  However I thought this was an interesting starting point and if anyone else wants to play with the data, you can download the anonymised spreadsheet here.

 

*I’m not at all convinced about this analogy myself and am happy for anyone to explain to me why it’s a very poor one 🙂  UPDATE:  Though Stephen Heard seems to like it.

 

 

 

 

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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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