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.

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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.

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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

Neonicotinoids linked to wild bee and butterfly declines in UK and US

Two long-term studies were published today showing comprehensive evidence that neonicotinoid use could have long-term effects on populations of non-target insects, especially wild pollinators. The studies look at wild bees in the UK and butterflies in California.

I wrote a piece for The Conversation on why I think these studies are important and how these results relate to Australia.

Read more: Neonicotinoids linked to wild bee and butterfly declines in Europe and US

Also see Jeff Ollerton’s great post on the UK bee study: Bees and pesticides – a major new study just published

© Manu Saunders 2016

Beyond the Birds and the Bees

The latest edition of Wildlife Australia magazine is out, including an article I wrote on unusual plant-pollinator relationships from Australian ecosystems. I had so much fun writing this piece about Australia’s unique flora and fauna. From nectar-loving lizards to hairy katydids, there are lots of interesting ecological stories out there to discover!

You can download a pdf of the article here. If you enjoyed this story and want to read more like it, I recommend subscribing to Wildlife Australia, one of the best nature magazines still printing.

© Manu Saunders 2016

Box–Gum woodland pollinators: the case of the mysterious urn heath

Have you heard of urn heath (Melichrus urceolatus)? I hadn’t, until July last year. It grows along most of Australia’s east coast, but only in Box–Gum Grassy Woodland ecosystems (update: also in other ecosystems! see Greg Steenbeeke’s comment below). For most of the year, it’s an unassuming, prickly little shrub, usually less than 1 metre in height. Then in late winter, it bursts into a mass of tiny creamy-white urn-shaped blooms. Each individual flower is only a couple of mm in size. But a shrub in full bloom will stop you in your tracks.

Albury urn heath

This is what happened last July, as I took my regular afternoon walk through a local urban nature reserve. The reserve (Eastern Hill in Albury, NSW) is a tiny fragment of the Box-Gum Grassy Woodlands that were once common across the region. Continue reading

Deck the halls: an Aussie Pollinator Christmas

If asked to name a plant that symbolises Christmas, most people would probably think of holly, ivy, mistletoe, or the traditional decorated pine tree. But spare a thought for us Aussies – none of these plants are native to our shores (the traditional Christmas mistletoe is a European species). In fact, some of them, like holly, are actually weeds here.

Historical records tell us that the early settlers loved to decorate their new houses at Christmas with Aussie flowers and foliage. But a short foray into the shops today reveals that our modern Australian Christmas motifs have returned to the European natural history of deer, rabbits, holly and northern hemisphere pines.

But Australia has plenty of genuine Christmas flora that we can substitute for the traditional botany…there are no rules! Continue reading

The Good, the Bad and…the Ecology

There are very few (if any) true ‘wilderness’ areas left, those completely untouched by human influence. This isn’t a tragedy – it’s an opportunity to grow, learn and discover more about the amazing planet we live on. Many ‘natural’ ecosystems have become social-ecological systems, where humans and nature can co-exist, not out-compete each other.

Agricultural systems are a perfect example. It’s hard to keep wild animals out of agroecosystems. They affect crop yields directly and indirectly across the growing season through positive (e.g. insects pollinating flowers) or negative (e.g. birds damaging fruit) interactions with crop plants. Because humans tend to label and categorise things (labels are easier to manage, justify or remove) we generally label these animals as either ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – aphids are annoying pests, bees are little angels. That’s all there is to it.

In reality, no organism is completely ‘bad’ or ‘good’ to the extreme; the effect it has on other organisms around it, including us, varies with context. All the individual plant-animal interactions happening in a single crop system are influenced by seasons, landscapes, management practices, and the social, cultural and economic values of the local farming community. Continue reading

Bees: the triple threat of the insect world

Have you ever felt underappreciated? As if people assume you can only contribute one skill to the world, and not much else…?

Imagine how bees feel. Not only do 99.9% of bee species live in the shadow of the European honey bee, most of the time they only get credit for pollinating flowers. And a few make honey. That’s all they do, right?

Actually, no. Bees do a lot of other things in their ecosystems. They have a very active life outside their relationship with flowers.

The stingless bees (Tribe: Meliponini) are some of the most intriguing. There are about 500 species of stingless bee around the world, mostly in tropical and subtropical regions. Like honey bees, they also make honey; albeit in gourmet, rather than commercial, quantities. (Their honey also has a very different flavour to the honey you buy in the supermarket.)

Stingless bee honey pots. (Photo: Tobias Smith)
Stingless bee honey pots. (Photo: Tobias Smith)

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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….