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.
I just published this letter with Toby Smith and Romina Rader, in response to an opinion piece in Science back in January. The original paper argues that high densities of honey bees can harm wild pollinators (this can happen in some contexts).
It also suggests that a first step toward a conservation strategy for wild pollinators is that crop pollination by managed honey bees “should not be considered an ecosystem service” because those services “are delivered by an agricultural animal and not the local ecosystems”.
This highlights a common misinterpretation of what ecosystem services is all about. Services are delivered by interactions between species (including Homo sapiens) and their environments at multiple scales, not individual organisms or natural ecosystems. Continue reading
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
Pollination is a complex process. It’s not as easy as an insect simply visiting a flower.
This is important to remember when talking about which species are the ‘best’ or ‘most important’ pollinators. Simply observing an animal visiting a flower is not, on its own, evidence that the animal is pollinating the flower.
Many insects (and other animals) visit flowers, to feed on pollen, nectar or other flower parts. Many of these interactions result in pollination…although some visitors are better pollinators than others. Some of these visitors commit floral larceny – they are robbers or thieves (there’s a difference!) of either pollen or nectar, and they leave without pollinating. Some might even damage flower parts so much that they indirectly affect the flower’s capacity to be pollinated by other visitors.
To know for sure that an insect is pollinating a particular flower, we first need to know what kind of reproductive system that flower has. Is it male, female or bisexual (containing both male and female parts)? Can it self-pollinate, or does it need to be outcrossed to another flower or plant of the same species? Once we know this, we then need to watch the behaviour of the insect that visits that flower. Does the insect visit one flower and fly away, or many flowers in a row? Does it move between plants? Does it actually touch the reproductive parts of the flower when it visits each flower? Continue reading
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.
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
The British Ecological Society has just published a ‘virtual’ journal issue on pollinator ecology, with all articles free to download for any reader, regardless of whether you have subscription access to the society. The articles are drawn from all five of the BES journals and cover all sorts of topical issues to do with honey bee health and biology, pesticide impacts and how management processes impact pollinators in agricultural landscapes.
And if this virtual issue isn’t enough for you, the Journal of Pollination Ecology is another permanently ‘open access’ peer-reviewed journal that publishes articles covering lots of different aspects of the wonderful world of pollination.
So click on the links to read the latest research on what modern life as a pollinator involves!
Thank you to Rachel Bates, a freelance field ecologist from the UK, for asking me to write a guest post for her website Ecology Escapades. Rachel is keen to showcase the different kinds of work that ecologists do, and my post talked about doing field ecology research as well as the ecological significance of my study area in Victoria’s beautiful Murray Mallee region….
One of the most rewarding things about being an ecologist is the time you get to spend with Nature. As a research ecologist, those times don’t happen as often as you would like – we now spend more time at a computer, reading theory and background, analysing data, writing papers and applying for grants to do more research. However, doing field work gives you the chance to experience magnificent ecosystems, landscapes and wildlife that you might not have seen as a tourist. Those experiences, however fleeting, make the data analysis and administrative headaches all the more bearable!
My recent field work, collecting data for my PhD thesis, was in Victoria’s Murray Mallee (rhymes with ‘Sally’). The mallee is an ecologist’s paradise – full of ecological and geological wonders, and brimming with historical lessons that can guide our future. It is a Mediterranean biome, similar to the French garrigue or South African fynbos, and is one of Australia’s most enigmatically beautiful ecosystems. It’s kind of an ecological transition zone from the coastal plains and ranges of southern Australia, just before you get to the real desert in the heart of the continent. Continue reading