Pest and beneficial insects in apple orchards

My latest paper is out. It’s a leftover from my last postdoc at Charles Sturt Uni where I was working on ecosystem services in SE Australian apple orchards with Gary Luck and PhD student Rebecca Peisley – see her blog posts on her work here.

Our main research question for the project was to calculate the net outcome, in terms of yield, of all the positive and negative effects of animal interactions across a growing season. You can read our previous paper on those results here.

In this new paper we looked at another interaction, the influence of landscape vegetation and orchard ground cover on different invertebrate groups. I really enjoyed this project as it was an opportunity to explore an idea I had been thinking about for a while. I first got interested in orchard ground cover during my PhD, comparing wild pollinators in almond orchards with and without living ground cover. Continue reading

Ecosystem services vs. disservices: it’s really not that simple

A key argument against the ecosystem services concept is that it doesn’t account for most of the ecological complexity around us. This is a valid criticism. The ecosystem services concept is based on an idealised economic stock–flow model, which is pretty simplistic and unrealistic when you apply it to a real social-ecological system (i.e. any system based on human and nature interactions).

Identifying a particular ecological process as a ‘service’ because it benefits humans in one time and place overlooks the principles of basic ecology: outcomes of interactions between species and environments change across space and time.

Recently, some scientists have argued that quantifying ecosystem disservices is the best way to account for this complexity. Disservices are essentially the opposite of services, outcomes of natural processes that affect humans negatively, like disease spread, or pest damage to crops.

But this could be just another wild goose chase. Continue reading

The dangers of separating science and environment

Does the natural world have any relevance to modern science? Of course it does; but sometimes it seems like that’s not the case. This is a myth perpetuated directly and indirectly through media, policy decisions, academic disciplines, even some science engagement initiatives: that the natural world is somehow separate from science.

Read the rest of my piece published today in Ensia magazine.

© Manu Saunders 2015

Arthropod April: Insects are animals too

When people say ‘wildlife’, they usually mean ‘animals’ (and sometimes birds). Occasionally, they might lend a fleeting thought to botanical beauties. But rarely are arthropods thought of. Aside from the charismatic honey bees and butterflies, the tiny, squidgy, creepy, crawly arthropods are easily overlooked. They can’t be cuddled and squealed over, and the most commonly-encountered ones are often scary or annoying. Google image search ‘I love wildlife’ and you mostly get big cats, bears, meerkats and baby things.

Technically, arthropods are animals too, just another Phylum in the Kingdom of Animalia, parallel with the chordates (animals, reptiles, and birds). So there is absolutely no reason not to include them in talk of ‘wildlife’. Yes, cheetahs, pygmy possums and meerkats are darned cute – I get giddy over them too! But arthropods are just as endearing. And they are also a vital link in the ecosystems that the cheetahs and meerkats frolic in every day.

Unfortunately, most of the attention that arthropods get is unfavourable or in shock. Spiders are terrifying, mosquitoes and flies are annoying, cockroaches are gross, praying mantises are just off the charts with wackiness. If we are not staring in horror and awe, we’re reaching for the spray can. Remember Danny Kaye’s soothing fairytale ode to the Inchworm? Today, inchworms are mistakenly blacklisted as pests, doomed to death before they can finish measuring the marigolds. Continue reading

Artisan insects and scicomm

One of the positives of our modern dependence on technology and the Internet is their ability to allow us to connect and engage with more people. This is a common argument for open access publishing: because we now have the technology to make scientific articles freely available to all, we should embrace it and make it happen.

Does making information freely accessible online automatically make the material more accessible? Not necessarily. Scientific articles are not a ‘mainstream’ medium. They use language that only peer-group scientists and specialist science communicators can understand. Just making an article free to view doesn’t make it more accessible or useful to a general audience.

Take the Law, for example. Australia’s Commonwealth and State government legislation are online for everyone to access for free, whenever they want. But, seriously, when was the last time you sat down with a cup of tea to read the Albury-Wodonga Development Act 1973?

For science to have impact beyond its peer audience, it usually needs to be translated through a common language. So publishing open access is not a replacement for science communication, it is complementary to it.

I recently acquired the wonderful ‘Insect Artizans and their Work’ (1919) by Edward Step. Step was a naturalist who contributed a number of beautiful books to the natural history literature. His works were considered popular at the time, although his account of a mouse-eating grasshopper from the Congo in ‘Marvels of Insect Life’ may have subsequently blacklisted him with the scientific community. Continue reading

Ecosystem services: our past, present and future

‘Tis the season for countdowns and annual nominations! Nature and Ecology rarely rate a mention in such frivolities, although some sites have listed insightful round-ups of the top environmental stories of 2013. Most scientific countdowns for 2013, or predictions for 2014, are dominated by gadgetry and technological fancy. So, I hereby doubly-nominate ecosystem services as the “most influential” ecological concept of 2013, and the “most likely to inspire positive change” in 2014! Continue reading