Why repetition is good for science

‘Avoid repetition’. Most scientists had this command drummed into their heads early in their career. Science writing should be devoid of repetitive words and sentences. I had to include a preface in my PhD thesis to warn examiners of impending repetition…because my thesis chapters were published/submitted studies from the same system and with somewhat similar sampling methods.

Sure, thoughtless repetition of words and sentences does not make enjoyable reading in any discipline. But repetition of ideas and concepts is essential to storytelling and building memories. So when it comes to science communication, repetition is key. Continue reading

Insect Pollinators or Pollinator Insects?

Recently, a reviewer of one of my manuscripts requested that I change the term “pollinator insects” to “insect pollinators” throughout the manuscript, because the latter was the usual term found in the literature.

I’ve nearly always used “pollinator insects” in my publications, partly from habit because one of my PhD supervisors once told me that was correct usage, and partly because “insect pollinators” sounded ambiguous to me – was I talking about insects that pollinate things, or about other organisms that pollinate insects? But this was the first time I had been specifically requested to change my phrasing to conform to apparently common usage.

The reviewer is right. Search any journal database or linguistic corpora, and you will get many more hits for “insect pollinators” than you will for “pollinator insects”. Usage of “insect pollinators” also goes back further than the alternative (Scopus results: 1933 for “IP” and 1991 for “PI”). Even the reliable source Google Trends doesn’t register any interest at all for “pollinator insects”!

Yet grammatically, both terms are correct and choosing one would depend on how you were using it. 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

Natural history mystery: Party lights for nocturnal bees

It’s true, nocturnal bees exist. Bees are generally considered a day-active creature, but there are many species around the world that have evolved to love the night…perhaps because their favourite flowers open at night, or maybe they just prefer to feed in peace and quiet!

Because bee species, like most insects, are very sensitive to cold temperatures, most of these nocturnal bee species are found in tropical and sub-tropical areas. One species is known from Australia and it’s found in north and central Queensland. It’s likely that others exist, but they either haven’t been found or night activity hasn’t been observed yet. Continue reading

What the ‘venomous bees’ story tells us about science communication

Last week, most of the mainstream Australian news media reported on a University of Melbourne press release about a new study from researchers in the Department of Pharmacology. The study analysed data from Australian public hospital admissions and death records from venomous bites and stings over the period 2001-2013.

All the media stories sent the same message, launching off the popular international myth that Australia has the most venomous creatures on Earth. Finally, this study had evidence to prove that Australia’s bees and wasps were more deadly than our snakes or spiders!

Native spider-hunting wasp (Pompilidae) dragging a paralysed spider across our dirty floor.
Native Australian spider-hunting wasp (Pompilidae) dragging a paralysed spider across our dirty floor.

Technically, the media stories were accurate, and the data in the study did show such a trend (in simplified terms). But this is another great example of how using the generic term for a whole taxonomic group, e.g. ‘bees’, can be seriously misleading. Continue reading

Unlikely plant-pollinator relationships

When we think about planting for pollinators, the first plants we reach for are often ones with obvious flowers, usually bright and showy, perhaps with an attractive scent, and lots of pollen and nectar. Most of these will be insect-pollinated plants, which is why they are so attractive to pollinator insects – they have co-evolved with pollinators to reap the reproductive benefits of insect visitation.

But pollinators also use plenty of other plants that we wouldn’t think of as being ‘pollinator plants’, particularly plants that are pollinated by wind, like conifers and grasses. Some grasses are pollinated by bees. And some bees feed on fungi. These interactions have been observed by scientists and naturalists for centuries, but are often forgotten when we talk about pollinator conservation.

This is one of the key challenges with the ecosystem services concept. Trying to justify conservation of pollinator insects because they provide us with benefits, i.e. fruits and seeds from plants they pollinate, is not always useful. Partly because this approach overlooks the fact that pollinators also need lots of other resources to survive, some of which we may not benefit from. And separating ‘insect-pollinated crops’ (e.g. almonds, stonefruit, berries) from ‘wind-pollinated crops’ (e.g. wheat, rice, corn) when we talk about managing farms for pollinator conservation, ignores the fact that some pollinators will regularly visit wind-pollinated crops to collect pollen for food.

I’m currently writing a review of records of pollinator species visiting plant species that we traditionally assume to be wind-pollinated, after noticing some of these interactions at field sites and in my own garden (stay tuned!). I didn’t find any records of some of these plant-pollinator interactions in my literature review, so I’m recording them here. One-off ecological observations are rarely accepted by academic journals, because they are not considered scientific studies. But, in conjunction with other knowledge, they can provide important information for future research hypotheses.

Continue reading

Species that are ‘known unknowns’ to science

Last spring, I found a new bee in a tiny urban reserve near my house in Albury. I identified it to genus Megachile, but that was as far as I got. I had never seen anything like it. After some research, and help from local bee enthusiast Karen Retra, we identified it as Megachile semiluctuosa.

DSC00974

I submitted my sighting to the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), which is the main online, publicly-available database of Australian biodiversity records. My sighting was the first record of M. luctuosa for the Albury region – the nearest recorded sighting was about 200 km north of here.

Yes, I got a bit excited. But this is more likely an indication that few people are out looking for bees, rather than evidence of range expansion. ALA has records of this species from across most Australian states, but nearly 70% of them are from central New South Wales, mostly from a research project conducted by CSIRO researchers. Continue reading