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

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

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

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

Sustainable Agriculture: Best of 2016 & the wooden spoon

All good things come to an end. 2016 was a year just like any other; some dreadful things happened and some wonderful things happened, depending on who you talk to.

For people interested in sustainable agriculture, it was a pretty exciting year. But in keeping with the annual theme of misinformation, there were also plenty of fails. Here are some of the highlights for me: Continue reading