Invertebrates benefit agriculture in lots of different ways

Production benefits from invertebrates (other than pollination and natural pest control) are often overlooked in agroecosystems.  There has been much more focus on the impact of insect pests. But invertebrates provide lots of other benefits in production systems. Developing sustainable farming systems is an imperative for our future – sustainable systems are those that produce food and fibre, while also enhancing human well-being and supporting ecosystem function through ecologically-sound management.  Understanding how farms can be managed to enhance production via the benefits invertebrates provide is a key to sustainable agriculture. 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

Raptors provide an important ecosystem service by scavenging carcasses in agricultural landscapes

This post is from my PhD student Rebecca Peisley, who I co-supervised with Gary Luck. Rebecca submitted her thesis earlier this year. Find the paper here: The role of avian scavengers in the breakdown of carcasses in pastoral landscapes.  Also read Rebecca’s previous post on her other PhD work in apple orchards here.

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Animal carcasses such as deceased livestock, road-kill or culled animals are a fact of life in agricultural landscapes, and can encourage increased and unwanted visits from wild dogs and foxes and also contribute to the spread of disease. Scavenging birds in these landscapes can remove carcasses, and therefore provide an important ecosystem service for farmers.

Perhaps the most well-known examples of carcass removal services in agricultural landscapes, which are worth millions of dollars each year, are those provided by vultures in Europe, Asia and Africa. The removal of carcasses by vultures near human settlements can reduce the number and visitation rates of rabid dogs that would otherwise be attracted to the carcasses, and in so doing, reduce the spread of rabies to the human population.

Unfortunately, vulture populations have suffered severe declines in recent years, and do not occur worldwide. However, other bird groups such as raptors and corvids are also common scavengers and a diverse assemblage of these occur in Australia. Like vultures, the scavenging behaviour of raptors and corvids has the potential to reduce the prevalence of unwanted pests such as red foxes and wild dogs in the landscape, and also reduce the spread of diseases such as blowfly strike. However, the benefits of carcass removal in agroecosystems in Australia are not widely recognised and have not yet been quantified. 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

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

Sustainable Agriculture: Best of 2016 & the wooden spoon

All good things come to an end. 2016 was a year just like any other; some dreadful things happened and some wonderful things happened, depending on who you talk to.

For people interested in sustainable agriculture, it was a pretty exciting year. But in keeping with the annual theme of misinformation, there were also plenty of fails. Here are some of the highlights for me: 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