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

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

Insect Armageddon reprise

I was recently interviewed for a great new podcast on ABC called Science Friction by Natasha Mitchell. The episode is about insect declines, including the Insect Armageddon story I blogged about last year. Natasha also talks to two well-known Australian entomologists, Ary Hoffmann and Ken Walker, as well as Caspar Hallmann one of the authors of the German insect decline study. It’s really nicely produced and explores more than just the decline issue, showcasing how wonderfully unique insects are and why we need to spend more time getting to know them!

You can listen to the Insect Armageddon story here, or subscribe to Science Friction through your favourite apps.


Workshopping invasive insects

Last week I was delighted to attend a workshop at Monash University focused on using EICAT methods to assess environmental impacts of invasive insect species. Thank you to Melodie McGeoch and her team (Dave, Chris & Rebecca), and Andrew and Carol from the Invasive Species Council, for inviting me in the first place, and for organising an excellent, productive week. We were also very lucky to have Sabrina Kumschick and Helen Roy there to share their expertise in developing and using EICAT.

It was a ‘proper’ workshop, i.e. a small group of researchers working on a project together with planned outcomes, rather than a training or upskilling ‘workshop’ (why aren’t they just called courses?!). As an early career researcher, it was so rewarding to be there. Research workshops have similar benefits to conferences, in that you have the opportunity to discuss new ideas and network outside your normal collaborative groups. But I find workshops much more fulfilling than conferences, because you have more time to develop those ideas, learn new perspectives, and really get to know people you may not otherwise cross paths with. Continue reading

A scientist by any other name: more disciplinary diversity in science communication please

What do you say when someone outside your work circle asks what you do?

I’ve tried a few different responses, depending how much time I have to explain details. I sometimes think I should say ‘I’m a scientist’…it’s more recognisable, and maybe more ‘legitimate’ to doubters (ecology is a misunderstood discipline), and it makes the point that ecology is a bona fide science. But it’s also ambiguous.

What if the person I’m talking to thinks ‘science’ is just the physical or medical sciences? It gets a bit awkward when I hear back something along the lines of ‘Oh medical research is so important, I’m so glad you’re doing something to help’. When I say I’m an ecologist, it’s equally disheartening how many blank or confused looks I get. Continue reading

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