Flower Visitors vs. Pollinators: no evidence that honey bees are the most important pollinator worldwide

Pollination is a complex process. It’s not as easy as an insect simply visiting a flower.

This is important to remember when talking about which species are the ‘best’ or ‘most important’ pollinators. Simply observing an animal visiting a flower is not, on its own, evidence that the animal is pollinating the flower.

Many insects (and other animals) visit flowers, to feed on pollen, nectar or other flower parts. Many of these interactions result in pollination…although some visitors are better pollinators than others. Some of these visitors commit floral larceny – they are robbers or thieves (there’s a difference!) of either pollen or nectar, and they leave without pollinating. Some might even damage flower parts so much that they indirectly affect the flower’s capacity to be pollinated by other visitors.

To know for sure that an insect is pollinating a particular flower, we first need to know what kind of reproductive system that flower has. Is it male, female or bisexual (containing both male and female parts)? Can it self-pollinate, or does it need to be outcrossed to another flower or plant of the same species? Once we know this, we then need to watch the behaviour of the insect that visits that flower. Does the insect visit one flower and fly away, or many flowers in a row? Does it move between plants? Does it actually touch the reproductive parts of the flower when it visits each flower? Continue reading

Science needs Nature: so why keep them apart?

A few years ago, I wrote an article for Ensia about how popular media tend to separate science and nature stories as if they’re unrelated categories. Most major online news websites have separate pages for ‘Science’ stories (predominantly technology, space and medical research) and ‘Environment’ stories (mostly pieces on nature, wilderness, environmental activism, or cute wildlife, sometimes with a few pieces on climate change thrown in for good measure). Continue reading

‘Tis the season for Christmas blogs: but what about the archives?

The cultural traditions of Christmas, like every aspect of our lives, are embedded in stories of science…botany, ecology, chemistry, entomology etc. If you blog about science and nature, Christmas-themed posts can easily become an annual habit.

Unfortunately, because of our distracted relationship with the internet, many timeless Christmas posts are read once and discarded, just like the wrapping paper and festive napkins at the end of the big day.

So here are a few Christmas posts from the archives that you may have overlooked, or might just enjoy reading again! Continue reading

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