Nature’s sugar shack

Following on with the theme from my last post, here’s an article I wrote for the latest issue of the wonderful Wildlife Australia magazine.

Scale insects get a hard time. We usually think of them as pests, based on our experience with them in gardens and farms. But if a scale insect is living on a tree in the middle of a forest far from any human community, is it a pest? Or part of a complex web of interactions? Every living thing contributes to ecosystem function somehow and there are lots of interesting interactions that we overlook by focusing on simplistic labels.

Click on the image below to read the article.

© Manu Saunders 2018

Honey by any other name…

Did you know that honey bees aren’t the only insect that can make honey?

Read my article at The Conversation:

Wasps, aphids and ants: the other honey makers

There are seven species of Apis honey bee in the world, all of them native to Asia, Europe and Africa. Apis mellifera, the western honey bee, is the species recognised globally as “the honey bee”. But it’s not the only insect that makes honey…..

© Manu Saunders 2018

The research niche in academic community ecology

I loved this recent blog by Staffan Lindgren. I followed a very non-linear path to my current position and I’ve been struggling a lot lately with defining my research specialisation.

In high school, I failed chemistry, barely scraped through physics and maths, didn’t study biology, excelled at English, geography and history. I loved nature and being outdoors, but didn’t know there was a science career in that. So I went off to uni and did a Humanities degree (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and spent my early 20s trying out corporate communications, office admin, media, governessing on a remote cattle station, but nothing stuck. By this time, I’d discovered that science wasn’t all about lab coats and test tubes, so I went back to uni to study environmental science.

I didn’t plan to pursue a research career – I nearly failed undergrad statistics and never fit the norm of the ‘successful scientist’ promoted within the academic community. For my Honours year, I followed the well-worn path to vertebrate ecology, but had to switch projects halfway through the year because my supervisor disappeared on his own remote field work for the rest of the year without telling me. The only available project I could feasibly do in the 4 months left of my degree was monitoring a tingid biocontrol agent on its host, an invasive environmental weed. An insect career wasn’t even on my radar then, but that’s when I discovered how much I liked insect ecology. After two false starts at a PhD, I finally found a supervisor and project combination that clicked and the rest is history.

So it’s comforting to read of winding roads that have led others to long and inspiring science careers. Fingers crossed! Continue reading

Evidence-based Half Earth

The argument that half our planet should be set aside for Nature has been in the news lately. A few years’ ago, E.O. Wilson wrote Half-Earth, his plan to save the biosphere by dedicating half the planet’s surface to nature. Other scientists have published supporting arguments, for example here and here.

The idea is commendable and inspiring. Modern human civilisation is having huge, sometimes irreversible, effects on natural processes and ecosystem function. In return, the outcomes of these effects are having terrible impacts on human wellbeing, e.g. climate change, loss of natural vegetation, plastic and agrichemical pollution etc.

To sustain life, we (all of us) really need to change the way we use our local and global environments.

So is the ‘half earth’ proposal realistic and effective for achieving this goal? Continue reading

Entomologising

I recently discovered this gorgeous book, loaned to me by a colleague (Elizabeth Hale, who blogs over at Antipodean Odyssey).

mad lousia

These days, children’s books and popular media often portray insects as scary creepy-crawlies, and the decline in outdoor play and education means many kids rarely encounter an insect that’s not a household pest.

Back in Victorian times, before screentime entertainment, things were a bit different. Victorian entomologists wrote widely on the wonders of insects, from their roles in Shakespeare’s plays to the ecosystem services they provide. Continue reading

Sugar teaspoons for bees and science communication

Fakenewsflash: the recent Facebook post claiming to be from David Attenborough, suggesting that we should feed floundering bees a sugar solution to ‘save’ them, was faked.

I’m not on Facebook, but I saw the original post via Twitter, where many popular non-profit and government organisations promoted it (it now seems that many have deleted their posts).

I didn’t know it was a fake post at the time, but I didn’t agree with it so didn’t share it or comment on it. I didn’t want to be the Grinch that disagreed with the popular personality. And perhaps the pollinator message would reach a new audience, despite the fake news…

But what price new audiences? Continue reading