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

Methods papers from PhDs: pan traps for pollinators

My most-cited paper so far (although not really the most-cited when you take years of publication into account) is an entomological field methods paper. It was also an unplanned paper. It came out of my PhD data, but wasn’t one of my research questions.

Methods papers are great contributions to the literature, and I highly recommend PhD students consider writing one, especially if they are working on understudied systems, or find some interesting patterns during data collection. Methods papers have much broader application to diverse fields and sub-disciplines than the PhD results themselves might. 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

Bees and breaking buds

Long-time readers of my blog know that I think natural history notes are one of the most important parts of the scientific literature! Sadly, very few journals will publish them.

Luckily the Ecological Society of America does appreciate the value of natural history observations. I first submitted this note to Frontiers in Ecology and Environment for their  Natural History Notes series. Unfortunately, the Frontiers series was about to close and they weren’t taking any submissions. But the editor suggested I submit my note to Ecology, where they were just about to start a new series called The Scientific Naturalist. So here it is.

Unfortunately it’s not open access and doesn’t have an abstract. So I’ve written a shorter note about my short note below; please email me if you’d like a copy of the original. Continue reading