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

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.

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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

Foundation stones: connecting cultural heritage and wildlife conservation

Stone walls are central to the rich cultural heritage of human history. Some of the oldest stone walls in the world still stand in ancient Mediterranean lands, and also provide the foundations for Incan architecture (think Macchu Picchu) and the castles and ramparts of feudal Japan. In the UK, Ireland and Europe, stone walls are key elements of pastoral landscapes from a thousand postcards, and numerous regional specialities maintain their own unique cultural and ecological foundations. This colonial heritage is also preserved in the new world, particularly North America’s New England region and Australia’s southern states.

Stone walling is more than simply stacking rocks. A harmonious balance of art and science are needed to keep the wall standing. Each stone is fitted into the negative space around its neighbouring stones, like a jigsaw, so that the final wall holds itself against the pull of gravity. Continue reading

Plastic Bees

There has been a flurry of excitement in the media over a recently-published observational study describing the “behavioural flexibility and adaptation” of solitary bees to our “plastic-rich environments”. In a nutshell, during the course of a larger field study looking at wild bees in urban landscapes, researchers in Toronto discovered that some urban Megachile bee species in the city had lined their nest cells with plastic materials. Continue reading