New paper: using network analysis to understand ecosystem function in agricultural landscapes

Saunders ME, Rader R (2019) Network modularity influences plant reproduction in a mosaic tropical agroecosystem. Proc. R. Soc. B 286: 20190296. (all data and code available on github)

I’m so excited about our new paper! We use network analysis in a cool new way to understand how pollinator community structure influences ecosystem function in a heterogeneous landscape. Understanding links between structure and function is a core goal of ecological research, but there are still plenty of things we don’t know about these relationships. Continue reading

Evidence-based Half Earth

The argument that half our planet should be set aside for Nature has been in the news lately. A few years’ ago, E.O. Wilson wrote Half-Earth, his plan to save the biosphere by dedicating half the planet’s surface to nature. Other scientists have published supporting arguments, for example here and here.

The idea is commendable and inspiring. Modern human civilisation is having huge, sometimes irreversible, effects on natural processes and ecosystem function. In return, the outcomes of these effects are having terrible impacts on human wellbeing, e.g. climate change, loss of natural vegetation, plastic and agrichemical pollution etc.

To sustain life, we (all of us) really need to change the way we use our local and global environments.

So is the ‘half earth’ proposal realistic and effective for achieving this goal? Continue reading

What is sustainable agriculture anyway?

Sustainable agriculture is an ambiguous term. Because ‘sustainable’ simply means ‘maintained at the current level’, sustainable agriculture can be whatever you want it to be. It’s used more than it probably should be in scientific and political documents, because it’s a broad encompassing term that most people have heard. But it needs to be interpreted within the context it’s referring to, not on its own. Sometimes that context isn’t clear.

Modern agriculture is a leading driver of our current environmental problems, already pushing us beyond the safe limits of most planetary boundaries. But not all agriculture is equal. Very few studies, or their associated news  stories, clarify the subtle social and ecological differences between individual farms and landscapes.

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

Pest and beneficial insects in apple orchards

My latest paper is out. It’s a leftover from my last postdoc at Charles Sturt Uni where I was working on ecosystem services in SE Australian apple orchards with Gary Luck and PhD student Rebecca Peisley – see her blog posts on her work here.

Our main research question for the project was to calculate the net outcome, in terms of yield, of all the positive and negative effects of animal interactions across a growing season. You can read our previous paper on those results here.

In this new paper we looked at another interaction, the influence of landscape vegetation and orchard ground cover on different invertebrate groups. I really enjoyed this project as it was an opportunity to explore an idea I had been thinking about for a while. I first got interested in orchard ground cover during my PhD, comparing wild pollinators in almond orchards with and without living ground cover. 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

Humanities vs Science. 3. Art History

Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.

Studying art is a bit more scientific than simply loitering at gallery openings. The discipline of Art History is the study of how visual art styles and movements have evolved over time. It teaches how to read and interpret art; but it also provides valuable insight into how humanity, society and their values have developed across the ages…insights that are very relevant to science. Here are a few ways that scientists could benefit from studying Art History:

Natural history

In the modern age of Twitter, Instagram and camera-phones, we sometimes forget the natural history we can learn through art of the non-digital kind. Yes, Darwin’s sketches taught us a lot about ecology and biogeography. But he wasn’t the only artist to leave us with a stunning legacy of natural history resources. Continue reading