Insects in decline: why we need more studies like this

Ecological Armageddon is a bit dramatic. But the message from this paper published in PLOS One is important. The study shows an 82% decline in mid-summer flying insect biomass since 1989 over multiple sites in Germany. Mid-summer is usually peak insect activity, so this is weird.

But every ecological study has a context. This context is described in the Methods section – the most important but least-read section of a scientific paper. For this study, most of the media stories glossed over or overextended the context. Continue reading

Applied vs. Pure: it’s all ecology at the end of the day

I’m what other ecologists would call an ‘applied ecologist’. I collect most of my data outdoors in the field, rather than in labs or microcosms. I work predominantly in human-modified landscapes (agroecosystems). My overall research theme (ecosystem services) is considered more relevant to management than theory. And most of my papers have been published in applied and interdisciplinary journals. And, like most applied ecologists, my ability to understand and contribute to theoretical, or ‘pure’, ecology has been questioned by other ecologists.

There are plenty of logical flaws in this argument, so why does it persist? Continue reading

Insect pollinators visit wind-pollinated plants too

My new paper has just been published in Insect Conservation & Diversity.

This has been the most enjoyable paper I’ve worked on, and I’m so excited it’s now online! It’s a systematic review of observations published in peer-reviewed literature of bee and syrphid fly species collecting pollen from wind-pollinated plants. I also cite some blog posts (see my previous post on this relationship) and discuss the importance of natural history.

The paper’s had a long development process (I presented some preliminary results at the Ecological Society of Australia conference last year) and a thorough peer review (3 revisions, 9 lots of comments and I think at least 6 individual reviewers) – thank you to Insect Conservation & Diversity and my wonderful reviewers for being so patient and helpful!

My review covered 1364 plant genera in 50 families. I looked at bee and syrphid fly species, because these are the most common pollinators in most environments globally. So this is not an ‘end of the road’ list; it’s a means to highlight how little we know about the ecology and life history of most insect pollinator species. Pollination systems of so many plant species are still undescribed, and life histories of so many insect pollinator species are still unknown…lots more basic natural history research is needed! Continue reading

A failed experiment: earwigs as pests and predators in fruit orchards

Field ecology experiments are fickle. Even with best laid plans in place, they can fail…Nature doesn’t follow sampling protocols.

When this happens, should you publish the results? Most people would say no, and I would generally agree. Failed experiments are different to negative results. The latter are important additions to the scientific literature, but the former have very limited use. The results of failed experiments will have limited value, depending on why the experiment failed and how many data points were left intact. But they can have some use as ‘what not to do’ baselines for other researchers. Continue reading

Bees and breaking buds

Long-time readers of my blog know that I think natural history notes are one of the most important parts of the scientific literature! Sadly, very few journals will publish them.

Luckily the Ecological Society of America does appreciate the value of natural history observations. I first submitted this note to Frontiers in Ecology and Environment for their  Natural History Notes series. Unfortunately, the Frontiers series was about to close and they weren’t taking any submissions. But the editor suggested I submit my note to Ecology, where they were just about to start a new series called The Scientific Naturalist. So here it is.

Unfortunately it’s not open access and doesn’t have an abstract. So I’ve written a shorter note about my short note below; please email me if you’d like a copy of the original. Continue reading

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