On 7 years of Ecology Blogging

I have been blogging here at Ecology is Not a Dirty Word for 7 years this month! Thank you to everyone who has read and shared my posts over the years!

I remember registering this site, keeping it private and then sitting on it until I decided if it was a good idea. Eventually I gave up deciding and wrote my first post…and I’m glad I did.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about ecology blogging over the years:

What is an Ecology blog? Ecology blogs weren’t really a ‘thing’ when I started, so I had no baseline to work off. And not much has changed, according to a Google trends search for “ecology blogs” vs. “science blogs”. The red line is ‘ecology blogs’ (i.e. no data):

If you ask bloggers and readers, everyone has different opinions on what an ecology blog is. Some ecology blogs are academics writing about doing ecology for their peers; some explain ecological science or application to a general audience; some do both. I prefer audience diversity so I aim for both. But I get far more engagement from non-academic audiences, which I love (see my top posts below). I think it really helps to start blogging with a particular audience in mind, but it’s also okay if that changes over time. Continue reading

Cost-benefit trade-offs of bird activity in apple orchards

This is a guest post from my PhD student Rebecca Peisley, who I am co-supervising with Prof Gary Luck. Rebecca will submit her thesis early next year. She has been working on a really cool project looking at the costs and benefits of bird activity in apple orchards, vineyards and cattle grazing systems across south-eastern Australia; this blog is about her work in apple orchards.

Birds are commonly found in agroecosystems around the world and their foraging activities within crops can result in positive or negative outcomes for producers. For example, birds can help increase saleable yields by preying on insect pests that damage fruit, or removing leftover fruit after harvest, which helps prevent disease and assists in nutrient cycling. However, birds can also contribute to production losses by eating and damaging fruit before harvest, or preying on beneficial insect pollinators.

We cannot then assume that birds are simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’: the same species can in fact be ‘both’. But in our literature review, we showed that most studies of birds in agroecosystems have just considered either costs or benefits separately, which limits our understanding of how birds influence crop yields over spatial and temporal contexts.

In order then to gauge an overall outcome of bird activity, we look at both their beneficial and detrimental activities together in the same crop system and consider the trade-offs that exist between them. For example, the beneficial activity of insectivorous birds preying on pest insects in an apple orchard and reducing insect damage to fruit is traded off against the detrimental activity of the same birds preying on beneficial pollinators resulting in reduced fruit-set. Continue reading

Do field ecologists need field stations to do research?

One of the most limiting factors I have found so far as a field ecologist is getting access to land to collect data. Most of my research is on how insect communities influence ecosystem function. Although I collect a lot of my data on farms, I also work in natural systems.

Finding enough private properties is usually easy enough, depending on the study design. For our recent study of ecosystem services in apple orchards, for which we needed a certain number of specific types of orchard, it took me nearly 4 months of emails and phone calls to find enough suitable orchard growers who were happy for us to visit regularly.

Finding new field sites in natural areas can be a bit harder. In Australia, it can take up to 6 months to get a new research permit for a protected area. Sometimes, the permit is declined, or your application gets lost.

Getting permission is one thing, logistics are another. Balancing the ideal number of site replicates needed to answer the research question, with the funds you are allowed to spend on travel to get there, is one of the hardest tricks in the modern field ecologist’s book. Committing to regular long trips and nights away from home is even harder when you have a family life you want to be part of. Continue reading

Your garden is an ecosystem!

Birds, bees and bugs: your garden is an ecosystem, and it needs looking after.

This piece is part of a great series on The Conversation about the science behind gardening. My article focuses on gardens as wildlife-friendly habitat, particularly for pollinators. Also check out the other articles in the series!

Read the rest of my article here.












© Manu Saunders 2016

Ecosystem services vs. disservices: it’s really not that simple

A key argument against the ecosystem services concept is that it doesn’t account for most of the ecological complexity around us. This is a valid criticism. The ecosystem services concept is based on an idealised economic stock–flow model, which is pretty simplistic and unrealistic when you apply it to a real social-ecological system (i.e. any system based on human and nature interactions).

Identifying a particular ecological process as a ‘service’ because it benefits humans in one time and place overlooks the principles of basic ecology: outcomes of interactions between species and environments change across space and time.

Recently, some scientists have argued that quantifying ecosystem disservices is the best way to account for this complexity. Disservices are essentially the opposite of services, outcomes of natural processes that affect humans negatively, like disease spread, or pest damage to crops.

But this could be just another wild goose chase. Continue reading

Species that are ‘known unknowns’ to science

Last spring, I found a new bee in a tiny urban reserve near my house in Albury. I identified it to genus Megachile, but that was as far as I got. I had never seen anything like it. After some research, and help from local bee enthusiast Karen Retra, we identified it as Megachile semiluctuosa.


I submitted my sighting to the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), which is the main online, publicly-available database of Australian biodiversity records. My sighting was the first record of M. luctuosa for the Albury region – the nearest recorded sighting was about 200 km north of here.

Yes, I got a bit excited. But this is more likely an indication that few people are out looking for bees, rather than evidence of range expansion. ALA has records of this species from across most Australian states, but nearly 70% of them are from central New South Wales, mostly from a research project conducted by CSIRO researchers. Continue reading

Neonicotinoids linked to wild bee and butterfly declines in UK and US

Two long-term studies were published today showing comprehensive evidence that neonicotinoid use could have long-term effects on populations of non-target insects, especially wild pollinators. The studies look at wild bees in the UK and butterflies in California.

I wrote a piece for The Conversation on why I think these studies are important and how these results relate to Australia.

Read more: Neonicotinoids linked to wild bee and butterfly declines in Europe and US

Also see Jeff Ollerton’s great post on the UK bee study: Bees and pesticides – a major new study just published

© Manu Saunders 2016