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

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

Nature, food and people: there’s no magic bean for sustainable agriculture

If you believe your Twitter feed, every Jack and his beanstalk has the quick-fix solution we need to beat the sustainable food challenge. ‘If you want to eat meat, switch to pigs, birds & fish to generate fewer emissions’. That’s convenient, because ‘lettuce is three times worse than bacon for the environment’.

These solutions all sound pretty sexy. But reducing the environmental impact of food production is not as simple as choosing one crop or livestock type over another.

Food production is a social-ecological system. That means it’s a system based on a mutual relationship between nature and humans. The ecosystem (i.e. the farm) influences human lives and actions, via ecosystem services. And humans influence the ecosystem’s structure and function, through direct management and indirect drivers like regulations, subsidies, financial markets and consumer demand. Continue reading

Shakespeare knew his insects

Robert Patterson (1802-1872) was a remarkable naturalist you’ve probably never heard of. At the age of 19, he co-founded the Belfast Natural History Society. He also wrote a number of zoology texts and designed a series of zoological diagrams for use in schools. In 1857, he posted a ‘real Irish Rabbit’ across the Irish Sea to Charles Darwin, at Darwin’s request.

Patterson was also a bit of a Shakespearean. In 1838, he published a little book called ‘Letters on the Natural History of the Insects Mentioned in Shakspeare’s Plays.’

‘Shakspeare’ is not a typo, it is spelled this way throughout the book; Patterson was clearly in the Victorian-era camp that thought the Bard’s name should be spelled as he signed it.


The book consists of 12 papers that were read out on ‘Public Nights’ held at the Belfast Society’s museum during the 1830s. These public events were common at learned societies of the time. For one night, the doors were opened to non-members to listen to the experts talk science (or literature, or whatever the society scholars were into). Clearly ‘science communication’ was just part of the job in those days. Continue reading

Goodies v baddies? Why labelling wild animals as ‘pests’ or ‘friends’ is holding farming back

It’s hard to keep wild animals out of farms. Birds, mammals and insects all affect crop yields, in positive ways (such as flies pollinating flowers) and negative ones (such as when birds damage fruit).

Agricultural research and management programs often deal with these interactions by focusing on simplistic “good” and “bad” labels: aphids are annoying pests, for example, whereas bees are little angels.

Read the rest of our piece at The Conversation.

And see the papers behind the article here:

Saunders ME, Peisley RK, Rader R, Luck GW (2016) Pollinators, pests, and predators: Recognizing ecological trade-offs in agroecosystems. AMBIO 45:4-14.

Peisley RK, Saunders ME, Luck GW (2015) A systematic review of the benefits and costs of bird and insect activity in agroecosystems. Springer Science Reviews 3:113-125.

Can too much Innovation be a bad thing?

Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. – Jill Lepore

Innovation is one of the most overused buzzwords in the business world. Now it’s started turning up in discussions about research and policy, in government science goals and research funding priorities.

But there are two main caveats to the pro-Innovation argument that are often glossed over. The first is the word’s corporate connotations.

Once upon a time, innovation didn’t have a great reputation. It was a punishable crime to the worst degree. It was (ironically) reinvented in the 1930s, grounded in economic theory – it became seen as a source of positive economic change at a time when things weren’t going so well for some national economies. New products would get money flowing again, so the theory went. And a buzzword was born. Benoît Godin has done some excellent research on the evolution of the term and its place in society.

If you’re an ‘innovator’, you’re now a star. You can start trends and make lots of money. And because economic growth is the goal of most countries, innovation is now promoted, not punished. Continue reading

A Halloween natural history

Before Halloween became a consumption holiday, it had a somewhat ambiguous cultural history. No one is really quite sure where it came from. It appears to be a case of a myriad traditions, rituals and festivals being narrowed over time into one, and then linked back to an apparent history through its calendar date.

Whatever festival you think it stems from, the general theme is death, but not necessarily in the macabre and horrific sense it has become associated with. It’s also about regeneration and the life that comes after a death, whether it be honouring the legacy of saints (eve before All Saint’s Day, the Christian holy day) or celebrating the end of summer fertility and preparing for the bleak winter (the ancient Celtic harvest festival Samhain). Continue reading

The Good, the Bad and…the Ecology

There are very few (if any) true ‘wilderness’ areas left, those completely untouched by human influence. This isn’t a tragedy – it’s an opportunity to grow, learn and discover more about the amazing planet we live on. Many ‘natural’ ecosystems have become social-ecological systems, where humans and nature can co-exist, not out-compete each other.

Agricultural systems are a perfect example. It’s hard to keep wild animals out of agroecosystems. They affect crop yields directly and indirectly across the growing season through positive (e.g. insects pollinating flowers) or negative (e.g. birds damaging fruit) interactions with crop plants. Because humans tend to label and categorise things (labels are easier to manage, justify or remove) we generally label these animals as either ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – aphids are annoying pests, bees are little angels. That’s all there is to it.

In reality, no organism is completely ‘bad’ or ‘good’ to the extreme; the effect it has on other organisms around it, including us, varies with context. All the individual plant-animal interactions happening in a single crop system are influenced by seasons, landscapes, management practices, and the social, cultural and economic values of the local farming community. Continue reading

Yeasts, Neuroscience and the challenges of Interdisciplinary Research

Interdisciplinary research is critical to solving most of our current environmental crises and human problems. It is particularly relevant to ecology (e.g. landscape ecology, environmental humanities, and the ecosystem services (ES) concept). This volume of the journal Ecosystems from 1999 has some great articles on the issue.

One of the biggest challenges involved in interdisciplinary research is the influence of disciplinary silos on science research and communication.

…the public is interested in the big picture painted by science, and that picture is rarely painted by a single discipline. We find, therefore, that communicating interdisciplinary results to the public is generally easier than communicating disciplinary results.
– Daily & Ehrlich (1999)

To non-scientists, interdisciplinary research makes sense, because Life is interdisciplinary. But communicating interdisciplinary results within those disciplines can be a lot harder. Every scientific discipline has its own approach to concepts, methodology, analysis and research generally. That’s what maintains knowledge diversity within ‘science’. But it can cause misunderstanding between disciplines, when we forget that other kinds of scientists may do science slightly differently to what is the ‘norm’ in our own field. Continue reading

Killer wasps and climate change

We recently got into the Fortitude series screened on the ABC in Australia. (Spoiler alert, if you continue reading). The show started off really well, successfully holding our attention after the incomparable Broadchurch (no mean feat!). Fortitude also had the promise of being truly brilliant. Halfway through, Nordic Noir descended into the standard gratuitous gore that sends a show from well-crafted, thrilling narrative into sensational schlock. Plus some character dead-ends and ambiguous plot-lines loosened the knots holding up a tight story. But it is still definitely worth hanging out for the next series (i.e. not downloading early off iTunes or whatever you cheat with).

From the first episode, I had a theory that the series was based on a pro-environment message. A tiny community (about 800 people) in Arctic Norway, an unconventional setting for standard TV dramas, is plagued by secrets, lies and grisly murders. The community is a mining town, as well as an arctic research station, and the governor is planning to build an ice hotel to boost tourism. Oh, the juxtaposition of ethical quandaries! Continue reading