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

Ecology on Holiday

There is no better way to appreciate ecological change across landscapes than by taking a road trip.

My partner and I just had one of the best holidays of our life: two weeks driving from our home in Albury in southern New South Wales, to the Sunshine Coast in south-east Queensland, where I grew up. We have done this trip a few times, but have always used the drive (about 1500 kilometres, one way) as a means to an end, i.e. getting to the coast to see friends and family. This trip, we took our time, sacrificing a few extra days at the beach for more time to explore en route. And it definitely paid off!

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The road trip.

Australia is one of the lucky few countries that include most of the major terrestrial biome types. An interstate road trip is one of the best ways to see them! Ecologically, our trip was well-timed; the end of August signals the start of spring and wildflower explosions all over the country. The wattles were already in full swing around Albury, lifting our damp, grey spirits from a very long winter. Continue reading

Single-crop farming is leaving wildlife with nowhere to turn

Rolling plains of wheat, endless fields of flowering canola, row upon row of fruit trees: these agricultural landscapes are the stuff of stunning photographs.

Filling these paddocks with just one crop, known as monoculture, is a relatively easy, common and efficient way to produce food and fibre.

But international research shows that these monocultures can be bad for the environment and production through effects on soil quality, erosion, plants and animals, and ultimately declining crop yields. Research I have published this week in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability shows a possible link between monoculture landscapes and fewer wild pollinators.

Is there a better way to grow our food?

Published today at The Conversation. Read the rest of the story here….

Pollinator winter

Have you ever wondered where pollinators go in winter? Most of us think of pollinators in spring and summer, when crops and wildflowers are in bloom and bees, wasps and butterflies are everywhere. Media coverage of pollinators peaks in spring months, and most studies of pollinator activity in crops and natural ecosystems are carried out during flowering in spring or summer, for obvious reasons. Continue reading

Foundation stones: connecting cultural heritage and wildlife conservation

Stone walls are central to the rich cultural heritage of human history. Some of the oldest stone walls in the world still stand in ancient Mediterranean lands, and also provide the foundations for Incan architecture (think Macchu Picchu) and the castles and ramparts of feudal Japan. In the UK, Ireland and Europe, stone walls are key elements of pastoral landscapes from a thousand postcards, and numerous regional specialities maintain their own unique cultural and ecological foundations. This colonial heritage is also preserved in the new world, particularly North America’s New England region and Australia’s southern states.

Stone walling is more than simply stacking rocks. A harmonious balance of art and science are needed to keep the wall standing. Each stone is fitted into the negative space around its neighbouring stones, like a jigsaw, so that the final wall holds itself against the pull of gravity. Continue reading

Why did the pollinator cross the road?

The concept of the ‘edge effect’ has inspired long and varied discussion in the ecological literature. In essence, an edge effect is a change in animal or plant communities seen at a boundary between two types of habitat.

These changes are most obvious in plant communities, for example where a swamp segues into a savannah. So, historically, research into edge effects and ecotones (the zone surrounding the edge where two plant communities meet, and energy fluxes and dynamics change) was mostly focused on plants.

It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that people started considering how edges affected animals. Vegetation ecologists had already discovered that the zone surrounding habitat edges usually had more plant species than either of the two patches that met at the edge.

Then in 1930 Aldo Leopold noticed that game animals, like deer, were often found more frequently at forest edges than in the interior. These animals loitered at edges, where they could feed on all the extra plants and see danger coming more easily. And so the misconception arose that edges = more animals. Continue reading