Artificial pollinators are cool, but not the solution

Agreed, bees and other insect pollinators are under threat globally from multiple human pressures. If pollinators disappear completely from an ecosystem, their loss will affect the structure of those ecosystems and the natural foods and fibres we use from the ecosystem. So, finding solutions to the problem of pollinator decline are imperative.

This is why the robo bees story sounds like such a seductive idea. Imagine creating tiny drones with hairs on them that can be programmed to do a bee’s job? Wow! We are off the hook. Continue reading

Postdoc In Transit

I am currently in academic limbo.

My contract position as a postdoc at Charles Sturt University ended in December, after 3 years as a postdoc researcher and 3.5 years as a PhD student before that. At the beginning of March, I’ll be starting an exciting 3-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of New England in Armidale, working with Romina Rader, Darren Ryder and Oscar Cacho.

I’ve found the transition period between postdocs challenging for a few practical reasons. It’s not as simple as clocking off at one job, handing your pass in and turning up to the new place. And while there is lots of good advice online about starting a postdoc for the first time (e.g Margaret Kosmala’s Advice for New Postdocs and Natalie Matosin’s Postdoc-ing for Dummies), I couldn’t find many tips on navigating the no man’s land between two postdocs at different institutions. But do read Amy Parachnowitsch’s great post on being ‘an unemployed academic’!

These are some of my experiences as an early career field ecologist in transit. Continue reading

Unlikely plant-pollinator relationships

When we think about planting for pollinators, the first plants we reach for are often ones with obvious flowers, usually bright and showy, perhaps with an attractive scent, and lots of pollen and nectar. Most of these will be insect-pollinated plants, which is why they are so attractive to pollinator insects – they have co-evolved with pollinators to reap the reproductive benefits of insect visitation.

But pollinators also use plenty of other plants that we wouldn’t think of as being ‘pollinator plants’, particularly plants that are pollinated by wind, like conifers and grasses. Some grasses are pollinated by bees. And some bees feed on fungi. These interactions have been observed by scientists and naturalists for centuries, but are often forgotten when we talk about pollinator conservation.

This is one of the key challenges with the ecosystem services concept. Trying to justify conservation of pollinator insects because they provide us with benefits, i.e. fruits and seeds from plants they pollinate, is not always useful. Partly because this approach overlooks the fact that pollinators also need lots of other resources to survive, some of which we may not benefit from. And separating ‘insect-pollinated crops’ (e.g. almonds, stonefruit, berries) from ‘wind-pollinated crops’ (e.g. wheat, rice, corn) when we talk about managing farms for pollinator conservation, ignores the fact that some pollinators will regularly visit wind-pollinated crops to collect pollen for food.

I’m currently writing a review of records of pollinator species visiting plant species that we traditionally assume to be wind-pollinated, after noticing some of these interactions at field sites and in my own garden (stay tuned!). I didn’t find any records of some of these plant-pollinator interactions in my literature review, so I’m recording them here. One-off ecological observations are rarely accepted by academic journals, because they are not considered scientific studies. But, in conjunction with other knowledge, they can provide important information for future research hypotheses.

Continue reading

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