The Importance of Surveying Pollinators Across Various Environmental Conditions

This is a guest post by Emma Goodwin, a UNE honours student I’m co-supervising with Romina Rader and Francisco Encinas-Viso at CSIRO. Emma spent a few weeks over summer in Kosciuszko National Park, catching pollinators and collecting data on alpine plant-pollinator networks, and is currently writing up her exciting results! This blog is co-posted over at the Rader Lab website.

Recent plant-pollinator network studies have been concerned with the impacts that climate change may have on pollination across various ecosystems, particularly in alpine regions. Many of these studies are investigating ‘phenological mismatch’ as a significant issue that may result from climate change.

‘Phenological mismatch’ or ‘phenological asynchrony’ is used to refer to when the emergence of pollinators and flowering time of plants becomes out of sync over time. If these two processes become out of sync then it reduces the potential for flowering plants to be pollinated. Continue reading

New story: Farmer wants a hive

I haven’t written for The Conversation (TC) for a while, and this article was a new experience for me: a commission via Twitter! A TC editor saw a live tweet from a talk I gave at a conference in April (where I mentioned that Australian almond growers rent honey bee hives to pollinate blossoms), and contacted me to write a story elaborating on the theme.

Read the story here, covering the basic ins and outs of hive rental, as well as the important role of wild pollinators in crop pollination, which we still know very little about. Continue reading

Crop pollination depends on wild AND managed pollinators

I just published this letter with Toby Smith and Romina Rader, in response to an opinion piece in Science back in January. The original paper argues that high densities of honey bees can harm wild pollinators (this can happen in some contexts).

It also suggests that a first step toward a conservation strategy for wild pollinators is that crop pollination by managed honey bees “should not be considered an ecosystem service” because those services “are delivered by an agricultural animal and not the local ecosystems”.

This highlights a common misinterpretation of what ecosystem services is all about. Services are delivered by interactions between species (including Homo sapiens) and their environments at multiple scales, not individual organisms or natural ecosystems. Continue reading

Robo bees are back, but will they last?

The robot bee story is back in the news. I covered some of the new research and associated media hype last year. The latest: a patent has been filed for building ‘pollinator drones’ and the media (both newsy and social) are in despair, as the end is clearly nigh.

But don’t worry. Here are a few challenges the pollinator drones will need to overcome before they can take over agriculture: Continue reading

Starting a citizen science project on a shoestring budget: the Australian Wild Pollinator Count

Some years ago, I had a bright idea. I’d just finished my PhD researching communities of wild pollinators and other beneficial insects in Australian orchards. During that time I’d discovered that lots of people (scientists and non-scientists) thought that European honey bees were the main, if not only, pollinator in Australia.

Most people I spoke to about my work were amazed to learn that we had 1800+ species of Australian native bees, let alone the thousands of other insect species that also pollinate flowers.

I approached my friend Karen Retra, a local bee enthusiast, with a simple plan. Why not try and raise awareness of the forgotten pollinators by getting people outside in their backyard to look for insects? With the myriad of free online tools available, I thought it would be pretty easy to run a regular insect count that anyone could get involved in, just like the UK’s famous Big Butterfly Count or the Aussie Bird Count.

So we started the Wild Pollinator Count, an Australian citizen science project focused on pollinator insects. It runs in the second full week of April and November every year. The idea of this was so that regular contributors have the opportunity to notice differences in their local pollinator communities as the seasons change. Contribution is easy: find a flowering plant during the count week, watch some flowers for 10 minutes and record what you see, enter the data via our submission form. Continue reading

My first podcast!

Thank you to James O’Hanlon for inviting me on to his awesome science podcast In Situ Science. It was my first podcast, but it was just like a good radio interview where you’re given the time to have a conversation, not produce soundbites.

We chat about the Wild Pollinator Count, the challenges of running citizen science projects (data quality, science vs. engagement etc.), how ecosystem services might be one of the most unifying but misunderstood concepts in research, media portrayal of science, James Bond, science community blogging and more!

You can listen to the podcast here (and if you’re new to the site, be sure to subscribe and check out the previous episodes!):

Ep. 41 Pollinators, Bond films, and ecosystem services with Manu Saunders

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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