What Bugs Can Tell Us About the Value of Vacant Urban Land

Back in October 2017, we discussed some potential benefits of spontaneous urban vegetation (commonly referred to as weeds) and the abandoned or undeveloped urban spaces they inhabit. There is much to learn about the role these plant communities play in the ecology of cities and their contribution to vital ecosystem services. In a review published in the December 2013 issue of Environmental Entomology, researchers from Ohio State University discuss how studying arthropod communities on vacant lands can help “advance our ecological understanding of the functional role” these habitats may have in our cities.

Arthropods were selected as the subject of study because their “populations respond quickly to changes in the urban environment, making them key indicators of how land use change influences biodiversity.” Urban-dwelling arthropods “are diverse and occupy multiple trophic levels” and are “easy to sample.” Additionally, many of the services that vacant, unmanaged land offers are “arthropod-mediated,” including “pollination, decomposition, nutrient cycling, and biological pest control.”

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Vacant land was selected as the study site because “understanding [its] ecological value is important to the advancement of urban ecology and ecosystem management,” and even though such areas are often overlooked in conservation planning, studies have shown that they “have the potential to be valuable reservoirs of biodiversity.” In order to determine just how valuable vacant land might be, more research is needed comparing these spaces to other parts of the city. In addition, vacant lots are generally ephemeral and in due time may be developed. Whether this means that a building or parking lot takes their place or that they are converted into a park, garden, or urban farm, it is important to understand what these land use changes mean for urban biodiversity and ecological functions.

Urbanization is often measured by comparing the amount of built area to the remaining green space. Where there is a high degree of urbanization, there is a low degree of green space comparatively. As urbanization increases, so does habitat fragmentation, pollution, and the urban heat island. In the meantime, biodiversity suffers. The authors cite a number of studies demonstrating that increased urbanization negatively impacted beneficial insect populations. For example, a study in the United Kingdom found that bumblebee diversity in gardens “decreased with increasing urbanization of the surrounding landscapes.” Similar results were found in a study we wrote about.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Together with remnant natural areas, parks, private and public gardens, greenways, and commercial landscapes, vacant lots are part of a mosaic of urban green space. Each of these areas “experience different levels of disturbance and harbor varying plant species,” which, in turn, “influence arthropods and the services they can supply within and between patches.” Because vacant lots can remain undisturbed and virtually unmanaged for long periods of time, they help provide a contrast to the homogeneous, highly managed green spaces that are common in cities. By their very nature, they “have the potential to aid conservation and enhance green space quality and connectivity within city centers.”

It’s one thing to recognize the value of vacant lots; it’s another thing to change the negative perception of them. Aesthetics are important, and to many people vacant lots are an eyesore and a sign of neglect. Some management may be necessary in order to retain their important ecological value and assuage the feelings of the public. The authors present a number of ways that vacant lots can be and have been managed in order to achieve this goal. They also consider how certain management strategies (mowing, removing and/or introducing plant species) can impact arthropod populations for better or worse. Yet, where vacant lots are left alone and allowed to advance in the stages of ecological succession, changes in arthropod diversity and ecosystem function also occur. For this reason, “the regional species pool of a city requires a mosaic of all successional stages of vacant land patches.”

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Finally, the authors discuss the conversion of vacant land to urban agriculture. Even this land use change can have dramatic effects on the arthropod community. For example, undisturbed or unmanaged areas are a habitat requirement for cavity and soil nesting bees, and regular disturbance associated with farming may interfere with this. Also where pesticides are used or plant diversity is minimized, the arthropod community will be affected.

Thus, “the study of vacant land ecology necessitates a transdisciplinary approach” in order to determine how changes in vacant, urban land “will affect diverse ecosystem functions and services.” A variety of management strategies are required, and land managers must “determine the most appropriate strategies for improving the sustainability of cities from a connected landscape perspective.” It is clear that vacant lots have a role to play. The extent of their role and our approaches to managing them requires careful investigation.

One thing is certain – for biodiversity’s sake – don’t pave over vacant lots to put up parking lots.


Bumblebees and Urbanization

Urban areas bear little resemblance to the natural areas that once stood in their place. Concrete and asphalt stretch out for miles, buildings of all types tower above trees and shrubs, and turfgrass appears to dominate whatever open space there is. Understandably, it may be hard to imagine places like this being havens for biodiversity. In many ways they are not, but for certain forms of life they can be.

An essay published earlier this year in Conservation Biology highlights the ways in which cities “can become a refuge for insect pollinators.” In fact, urban areas may be more inviting than their rural surroundings, which are often dominated by industrial agriculture where pesticides are regularly used, the ground is routinely disturbed, and monocultures reign supreme. Even though suitable habitat can be patchy and unpredictable in the built environment, cities may have more to offer than we once thought.

Yet, studies about bee abundance and diversity in urban areas show mixed results, largely because all bee species are not created equal (they have varying habitat requirements and life histories) and because urban areas differ wildly in the quality and quantity of habitat they provide both spatially and temporally. For this reason, it is important for studies to focus on groups of bees with similar traits and to observe them across various states of urbanization. This is precisely what researchers at University of Michigan set out to do when they sampled bumblebee populations in various cities in southeastern Michigan. Their results were published earlier this year by Royal Society Open Science.

common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

The researchers selected 30 sites located in Dexter, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Dearborn, and Detroit. Most of the sites were gardens or farms in urban centers. They collected bumblebees from May to September using pan traps and nets. The species and sex of each individual bumblebee was identified and recorded for each site. The percentage of impervious surface that surrounded each site was used as a measurement of urban development. Other measurements included the abundance of flowers and average daily temperatures for each location.

Bumblebees were selected as a study organism because the genus, Bombus, “represents a distinct, well-studied set of traits that make it feasible to incorporate natural history into analysis.” Bumblebees live in colonies – eusocial structures that include “a single reproductive queen, variable numbers of non-reproductive female workers, and male reproductive drones.” They are generalist foragers, visiting a wide variety of flowering species for pollen and nectar, and they nest in holes in the ground, inside tree stumps, or at the bases of large clumps of grass. The authors believe that their nesting behavior makes them “a good candidate for testing the effects of urban land development,” and the fact that members of the colony have “distinct roles, [behaviors], and movement patterns” allows researchers to make inferences regarding “the effects of urbanization on specific components of bumblebee dynamics.”

Across all locations, 520 individual bumblebees were collected. Nearly three quarters of them were common eastern bumblebees (Bombus impatiens). Among the remaining nine species collected, brown-belted bumblebees (Bombus griseocollis) and two-spotted bumblebees (Bombus bimaculatus) were the most abundant.

brown-belted bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Because bumblebees are strong fliers with an extensive foraging range, impervious surface calculations for each site had to cover an area large enough to reflect this. Results indicated that as the percentage of impervious surfaces increased, bumblebee abundance and diversity declined. When male and female bumblebee data was analyzed separately, the decline was only seen in females; males were unaffected.

Female workers do most of their foraging close to home, whereas males venture further out. The researchers found it “reasonable to hypothesize that worker abundance is proportional to bumblebee colony density.” Thus, the decline in female bumblebees observed in this study suggests that as urban development increases (i.e. percent coverage of impervious surface), available nesting sites decline and the number of viable bumblebee colonies shrinks. Because male bumblebees responded differently to this trend, future studies should consider the responses of both sexes in order to get a more complete picture of the effects that urbanization has on this genus.

Interestingly, results obtained from the study locations in Detroit did not conform to the results found elsewhere. Bumblebee abundance and diversity was not decreasing with urbanization. Unlike other cities in the study, “Detroit has experienced decades of economic hardship and declining human populations.” It has a high proportion of impervious surfaces, but it also has an abundance of vacant lots and abandoned yards. These areas are left unmaintained and are less likely to be mowed regularly or treated with pesticides. Reducing disturbance can create more suitable habitat for bumblebees, resulting in healthy populations regardless of the level of urbanization. Thus, future studies should examine the state of insect pollinators in all types of cities – shrinking and non-shrinking – and should consider not just the amount of available habitat but also its suitability.

two-spotted bumblebee (Bombus bimaculatus) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Invasive Species vs. The Global Economy

As humans have spread across the globe, other species have followed. The domestication of animals and the advent of agriculture helped speed up this process, but species have been traveling around with humans long before that. Presently, our ability to move species from one corner of the globe to another is unprecedented. As more countries join the global economy, the risk of outsider species establishing themselves in uncharted territory increases. Species introductions via globalization are not likely to decrease, and so the question must be asked: Are we, as a global community, equipped to address this?

A review published in Nature Communications in August 2016 warns that “most countries have limited capacity to act against invasions.” The authors come to this conclusion after analyzing available data about invasive species across the globe and developing a “global, spatial forecast for emerging invasions throughout the twenty-first century.” National responses to invasive species were assessed based on reports to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

As part of the 2011-2020 CBD Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, nations or states that are parties of the CBD agreed to work towards a series of goals called Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Target 9 addresses invasive species: “By 2020, invasive alien species and pathways are identified and prioritized, priority species are controlled or eradicated and measures are in place to manage pathways to prevent their introduction and establishment.” The authors of the review found that, while most countries have made progress on identifying and prioritizing some of the most prominent and threatening invasive species, “current management practices only target a handful” and “prevention of introduction and establishment lags far behind progress towards the reactive CBD goals.”

Biological invasions are expected to remain high across the globe; however, regions with a high Human Development Index (HDI) face different threats compared to regions with a low HDI. Due to increasing levels of international trade, high-HDI regions will continue to be threatened by introductions via pet and plant imports. Climate change and the coinciding biome shifts and changes in fire frequency are expected to aid in the establishment and perpetuation of invasive species in these regions.

Low-HDI regions have historically been less threatened by invasive species compared to high-HDI regions. As these regions join the global economy, they risk experiencing a much higher level of species introductions. Many of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots are found in low-HDI regions, making these hotspots more vulnerable to invasions as the potential for introductions increases. The authors found that the threat of introductions is at its highest in regions where “high levels of passenger air travel overlap with agriculture conversion.” Low-HDI regions are more limited in their capacity to respond to invasions compared to high-HDI regions and are more vulnerable to food shortages when invasive species disrupt agriculture.

“High risk in low-HDI countries could arise from coincidence between intensifying agriculture sectors and high levels of passenger air travel that is likely to transport arthropod pests. … Low-HDI countries could prioritize screening of passenger baggage for live plants, fruits or vegetables, which could host crop pests and pathogens.” – Early, et al. (2016) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

The authors state: “The intensities and global patterns of introduction and disturbance are changing more rapidly today than at any time during human history.” Introductions are not projected to slow in high-HDI regions, and low-HDI regions will be increasingly threatened as species already well established in high-HDI regions expand their reach. This is grim news, but it also presents an opportunity. Through cooperation and data sharing, our understanding of invasive species can greatly increase, and regions with greater access to resources can share such things with less fortunate regions. This is the hope of the authors as well: “We urge increased exchange of information and skills between regions with a wealth of invasive alien species experts and low-HDI countries that have less expertise.”

For more information about this review, go here. For more information about global trade in the modern era, check out the new podcast Containers.


Biodiversity Dips When Japanese Rice Paddies Go Fallow

Large-scale farms that generally grow a single crop at a time and are managed conventionally are, by design, lacking in biodiversity. Abandoning such farms and allowing nature to take its course should, not surprisingly, result in a dramatic uptick in biodiversity. Plant colonization of abandoned farmland (also referred to as old field succession) is well studied and is regularly used as an example of secondary succession in ecology textbooks. The scenario seems obvious: cease agriculture operations, relinquish the land back to nature, and given enough time it will be transformed into a thriving natural community replete with diverse forms of plants and animals. This is an oversimplification, of course, and results will vary with each abandoned piece of land depending on the circumstances, but it generally seems to be the story. So what about when it isn’t?

Rice farming in Japan began at least 2400 years ago. Rice had been domesticated in China long before that, and when it eventually arrived in Japan it shaped the culture dramatically. For hundreds of years rice was farmed in small, terraced paddies in the mountains of Japan. Dennis Normile writes about these traditional, rice paddies in a recent issue of Science. He describes how they were found in villages “nestled in a forested valley” accompanied by vegetable plots, orchards, and pasture. Today, farms like these are “endangered,” and as they have become increasingly abandoned, plants, insects, and other wildlife that have historically thrived there are suffering.

Since the 1960’s, a combination of factors has resulted in the decline of traditional rice farming in Japan. For one, large scale farming has led to the consolidation of paddies, which are farmed more intensively. Diets in Japan have also shifted, resulting in a preference for bread and pasta over rice. Additionally, Japan’s population is shrinking, and residents of rural areas are migrating to cities. Traditional rice farmers are aging, and younger generations are showing little interest in pursuing this career.

Red rice paddy in Japan - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Red rice paddy in Japan – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Demographic and dietary concerns aside, why in this case is the abandonment of agriculture imperiling species? The answer appears to be in both the way that the rice paddies have been historically managed and the length of time that they have been managed that way. Agriculture, by its very nature, creates novel ecosystems, and if the practice continues long enough, surrounding flora and fauna could theoretically coevolve along with the practice. When the practice is discontinued, species that have come to rely on it become threatened.

Traditional rice paddies are, as Normile describes, “rimmed by banks so that they can be flooded and drained.” Farmers “encouraged wild grassland plants to grow on the banks because the roots stabilize the soil.” The banks are mowed at least twice a year, which helps keep woody shrubs and trees from establishing on the banks. In some areas, rice farming began where primitive people of Japan were burning frequently to encourage grassland habitat. Maintaining grassland species around rice paddies perpetuated the grassland habitat engineered by primitive cultures.

As rice paddies are abandoned and the surrounding grasslands are no longer maintained, invasive species like kudzu and a North American species of goldenrod have been moving in and dominating the landscape resulting in the decline of native plants and insects. Normile reports that the abandoned grasslands are not expected to return to native forests either since “surrounding forests…are a shadow of their old selves.”

Additionally, like most other parts of the world, Japan has lost much of its natural wetland habitat to development. Rice paddies provide habitat for wetland bird species. On paddies that have been abandoned or consolidated, researchers are finding fewer wetland bird species compared to paddies that are managed traditionally.

The gray-faced buzzard (Butastur indicus) is listed as vulnerable in Japan. It nests in forests and preys on insects, frogs, and other animals found in grasslands and rice paddies. It's decline has been linked to the abandonment and development of traditionally farmed rice paddies. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The gray-faced buzzard (Butastur indicus) is listed as vulnerable in Japan. It nests in forests and preys on insects, frogs, and other animals found in grasslands and rice paddies. Its decline has been linked to the abandonment and development of traditionally farmed rice paddies. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

All of this adds fodder to an ongoing debate: “whether allowing farmland to revert to nature is a boon to biodiversity or actually harms it.” Where agriculture is a relatively new practice or where conventional practices dominate, abandoning agriculture would be expected to preserve and promote biodiversity. However, where certain agricultural practices have persisted for millenia, abandoning agriculture or converting  to modern day practices could result in endangerment and even extinction of some species. In the latter case, “rewilding” would require thoughtful consideration.

The thing that fascinates me the most about this report is just how intertwined humans are in the ecology of this planet. In many ways humans have done great harm to our environment and to the myriad other species that share it. We are a force to be reckoned with. Yet, the popular view that we are separate, above, apart, or even dominant over nature is an absurd one. For someone who cares deeply about the environment, this view has too often been accompanied by a sort of self-flagellation, cursing myself and my species for what we have done and continue to do to our home planet. Stories like this, however, offer an alternative perspective.

Humans are components of the natural world. We evolved just like every other living thing here, and so our actions as well as the actions of other species have helped shape the way the world looks. If our species had met its demise early in its evolutionary trajectory, the world would look very different. But we persisted, and as it turns out, despite the destruction we have caused and the species we have eliminated, we have simultaneously played a role in the evolution and persistence of many other species as well. We must learn to tread lightly – for the sake of our own species as well as others – but we should also quit considering ourselves “other than” nature, and we should stop beating ourselves up for our collective “mistakes.” It seems that when we come to recognize how connected we are to nature we will have greater motivation to protect it.

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Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

Since Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy was first published in 2007, it has quickly become somewhat of a “classic” to proponents of native plant gardening. As such a proponent, I figured I ought to put in my two cents. Full disclosure: this is less of a review and more of an outright endorsement. I’m fawning, really, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.


The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.” Ninety three pages into the book, Tallamy elaborates further: “By favoring native plants over aliens in the suburban landscape, gardeners can do much to sustain the biodiversity that has been one of this country’s richest assets.” And one of every country’s richest assets, as far as I’m concerned. “But isn’t that why we have nature preserves?” one might ask. “We can no longer rely on natural areas alone to provide food and shelter for biodiversity,” Tallamy asserts in the Q & A portion of his book. Humans have altered every landscape – urban, suburban, rural, and beyond – leaving species of all kinds threatened everywhere. This means that efforts to protect biodiversity must occur everywhere. This is where the You comes in. Each one of us can play a part, no matter how small. In closing, Tallamy claims, “We can each make a difference almost immediately by planting a native nearby.”

A plant is considered native to an area if it shares a historical evolutionary relationship with the other organisms in that area. This evolutionary relationship is important because the interactions among organisms that developed over thousands, even millions, of years are what define a natural community. Thus, as Tallamy argues, “a plant can only function as a true ‘native’ while it is interacting with the community that historically helped shape it.” A garden designed to benefit wildlife and preserve biodiversity is most effective when it includes a high percentage of native plants because other species native to the area are already adapted to using them.

Plants (and algae) are at the base of every food chain – the first trophic level – because they produce their own food using the sun’s energy. Organisms that are primarily herbivores are at the second trophic level, organisms that primarily consume herbivores are at the third trophic level, and so on. As plants have evolved they have developed numerous defenses to keep from being eaten. Herbivores that evolved along with those plants have evolved the ability to overcome those defenses. This is important because if herbivores can’t eat the plants then they can’t survive, and if they don’t survive then there will be little food for organisms at higher trophic levels.

The most important herbivores are insects simply because they are so abundant and diverse and, thus, are a major food source for species at higher trophic levels. The problem is that, as Tallamy learned, “most insect herbivores can only eat plants with which they share an evolutionary history.” Insects are specialized as to which plants they can eat because they have adapted ways to overcome the defenses that said plants have developed to keep things from eating them. Healthy, abundant, and diverse insect populations support biodiversity at higher trophic levels, but such insect populations won’t exist without a diverse community of native plants with which the insects share an evolutionary history.

That is essentially the thesis of Tallamy’s book. In a chapter entitled “Why Can’t Insects Eat Alien Plants?” Tallamy expounds on the specialized relationships between plants and insects that have developed over millennia. Plants introduced from other areas have not formed such relationships and are thus used to a much lesser degree than their native counterparts. Research concerning this topic was scarce at the time this book was published, but among other studies, Tallamy cites preliminary data from a study he carried out on his property. The study compared the insect herbivore biomass and diversity found on four common native plants vs. five common invasive plants. The native plants produced 4 times more herbivore biomass and supported 3.2 times as many herbivore species compared to the invasive plants. He also determined that the insects using the alien plants were generalists, and when he eliminated specialists from the study he still found that natives supported twice as much generalist biomass.

Apart from native plants and insects, Tallamy frames much of his argument around birds. Birds have been greatly impacted by humans. Their populations are shrinking at an alarming rate, and many species are threatened with extinction. Tallamy asserts, “We know most about the effects of habitat loss from studies of birds.” We have destroyed their homes and taken away their food and “filled their world with dangerous obstacles.” Efforts to improve habitat for birds will simultaneously improve habitat for other organisms. Most bird species rely on insects during reproduction in order to feed themselves and their young. Reducing insect populations by filling our landscapes largely with alien plant species threatens the survival of many bird species.

In the chapters “What Should I Plant?” and “What Does Bird Food Look Like?,” Tallamy first profiles 20 groups of native trees and shrubs that excel at supporting populations of native arthropods and then describes a whole host of arthropods and arthropod predators that birds love to eat. Tallamy’s fascinating descriptions of the insects, their life cycles, and their behaviors alone make this book worth reading. Other chapters that are well worth a look are “Who Cares about Biodiversity?” in which Tallamy explains why biodiversity is so essential for life on Earth, and “The Cost of Using Alien Ornamentals” in which Tallamy outlines a number of ways that our obsession with exotic plants has caused problems for us and for natural areas.

Pupa of ladybird beetle on white oak leaf (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Pupa of a ladybird beetle on a white oak leaf. “The value of oaks for supporting both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife cannot be overstated.” – Doug Tallamy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Convincing people to switch to using native plants isn’t always easy, especially if your argument involves providing habitat for larger and more diverse populations of insects. For those who are not fans of insects, Tallamy explains that “a mere 1%” of the 4 million insect species on Earth “interact with humans in negative ways.” The majority are not pests. It is also important to understand that even humans “need healthy insect populations to ensure our own survival.” Tallamy also offers some suggestions on how to design and manage an appealing garden using native plants. A more recent book Tallamy co-authored with fellow native plant gardening advocate Rick Darke called The Living Landscape expands on this theme, although neither book claims to be a how to guide.


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Exploring Pollination Biology in Southwestern China

This is the sixth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Insect Pollination and Self-Incompatibility in Edible and/or Medicinal Crops in Southwestern China, a Global Hotspot of Diversity by Zong-Xin Ren, Hong Wang, Peter Bernhardt, and De-Zhu Li

We rely on pollinators to pollinate at least 75% of our food crops, which is why any talk of pollinator decline tends to make us nervous. It is also why research involving pollinators and pollination is so important. Despite all we know, there is still so much to learn. The authors of this study, recognizing that “there are large gaps in the study of the pollination of economically important and traditionally grown species in China,” set out to help close these gaps. Their research not only has the potential to benefit agricultural communities in China, but also adds to our growing understanding of pollination biology – a science that has become increasingly important in an age of human population growth and shifting climates.

The incredibly diverse Chinese flora includes at least 31,000 plant species. Three hundred of the 1500 species of worldwide cultivated crop plants “originated and/or were domesticated and/or underwent differentiation in China.” Southwestern China has a particularly large amount of botanical diversity and is considered a biodiversity hotspot. In this study concerning agricultural pollination, researchers chose to focus on Yunnan, a province in southwestern China. They chose this region due to its high level of current and historical agriculture and because it is “one of the last refuges of the eastern Asian honeybee, Apis cerana, in China.” They narrowed their research down to 11 species that are important for their culinary and/or medicinal use, some of them having widespread use and others having more local, cultural use. Depending on the species, conclusions were drawn either from available literature, from field studies, or both.

Eastern Asian Honeybee (Apis cerana) on Citrus limonia flowers (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Eastern Asian Honeybee (Apis cerana) on Citrus limonia flowers (photo credit: www.eol.org)

A review of the literature revealed information about each plant’s breeding system, the pollinators involved, ethnobotanical details, and other things. No information was available on the breeding system or pollinators of Panax notoginseng, “one of the most highly valued Chinese medicinal herbs.” Five species were found to be self-compatible (Angelica sinensis, Amomum tsao-ko, Brassica napus, B. campestris, and Gastrodia elata) and four were found to be self-incompatible (Camellia oleifera, Dendrobium catenatum, Fagopyrum esculentum, and Paris plyphylla var. yunnanensis). Codonopsis subglobosa was somewhere in the middle. The authors were intrigued by the persistent self-incompatibility in these domesticated plants (some more recently domesticated than others), noting that “both traditional and modern agricultural practices in China could not always overcome ancestral self-incompatibility mechanisms.” A running theme seemed to be that, if able to produce fruit or seed when hand-pollinated or without the aid of pollinators, the plants consistently performed better when insect pollinated. One of the most interesting findings was that Gastrodia elata, Dendrobium catenatum, and Paris plyphylla var. yunnanensis “persist in cultivation only through hand-pollination.”

Camellia oleifera, tea-oil plant, is pollinated by two native solitary bee species. It is avoided by native and introduced honeybees because its nectar contains substances that are toxic to worker bees, including caffeine, raffinose, stachyose, and galactose. Fagopyrum esculentum, common buchwheat, is native to southern China and was likely first domesticated there. It is pollinated by a variety of insects; however, its main pollinator in worldwide cultivation is the European honeybee, Apis mellifera. In China, evidence suggests that when pollinated by native pollinators, buckwheat produces higher yields and larger fruits. Codonopsis subglobosa is an undomesticated but cultivated perennial vine endemic to southwestern China, the roots of which are used as a substitute for ginseng. It can self-pollinate without a vector, but cross-pollination by wasps yields more seeds. Pollination by “hunting wasps” is rare, and C. subglobosa is not the only plant in the area pollinated by them. If the “evolution of hunting wasp pollination systems has evolved repeatedly in unrelated species native to southwestern China,” this region may be a “center for the convergent evolution of hunting wasp pollination.”

Common Buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

Common Buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Beekeeping has been a major part of agriculture in China for centuries. However, the introduction of the European honeybee has caused a significant decline in both wild and managed populations of native honeybees, despite native honeybees being “better adapted to more diffuse nectar resources” than the introduced honeybee. The decline in keeping and managing native honeybees is complicated and involves much more than just the introduction of the European honeybee. Along with the debate about what is best for agriculture in China, is the concern about what introducing non-native pollinators could mean for native flora and fauna. The authors conclude that there is “urgent need for new pollination management policies in China.”

This article ends with suggestions about how to improve and expand pollination biology research in China in order to fill gaps in knowledge, improve agricultural production, and protect and conserve native biodiversity. China is an ideal candidate for such research for several reasons: it has areas like southwestern China that are very species rich, it has a long history of agriculture, and it has numerous unique crops that are specific to Chinese culture. China also has a large and growing population, so improvements that can lead to more sustainable agricultural production will be greatly beneficial in the long run.


Palm Oil Production and Its Threat to Biodiversity

Improvements in cultivated varieties of oil palms could have devastating ecological effects. This is according to an article published in a recent issue of Science. Doom doesn’t have to be the story though, if – as the authors suggest – governments and conservation organizations take proper action to safeguard vulnerable land.

Palm oil is a versatile vegetable oil derived from the fruits of oil palms. It has myriad culinary uses and is also used in the manufacturing of cosmetics and the production of biofuel. Oil palms have high yields, easily outyielding other major oil crops like soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower. Oil palms are grown in the tropics in developing countries where land and labor are inexpensive. As human population grows, demand for palm oil increases. To meet the demand, tropical forests are converted into agricultural land. The majority of palm oil production occurs in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. However, palm oil production is expected to increase in African and Latin American countries as new varieties better suited for these particular environments become available.

oil world graph

Genome sequencing of oil palm may allow plant breeders to develop varieties that are disease resistant, drought tolerant, and able to grow in salinized soils. Already making its debut, though, is a new variety of oil palm that is boasting yields from 4 tons to as much as 10 tons per hectare. Higher yielding varieties could be the solution to preventing more tropical forests from being converted into oil palm plantations. Or could they lead to more growth? Intrigued by the development of improved varieties of oil palms and other tropical crops, the authors of this study developed computer models in order to determine what this might mean for the future.

African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) is the species of oil palm most commonly grown for palm oil production.

African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) is the species of oil palm most commonly grown in palm oil production (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The results of simulations suggested two possible outcomes: one potentially positive and the other largely negative. On the positive side, “an assumed 56% increase in oil palm yield per tree in Malaysia and Indonesia” could result in ” around 400,000 hectares of agricultural land…taken out of production in Brazil, India, and Canada.” This is because less land will be needed to meet the demand, and the increased availability and resulting lower price of palm oil will outcompete other oil crops (like rapeseed, which is one of Canada’s main agricultural crops). However, the author’s seem to assume that agricultural land taken out of production will be restored back into natural lands. I find this argument hard to accept. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if farmers are no longer making a profit from a particular crop, they will choose to either grow something more profitable or sell their land to developers. A concerted effort would have to be made to capture this land and ensure that it remain uncultivated and undeveloped. Also, as the author’s point out, restoring land in Canada is very different from restoring or protecting tropical land. Loss of biodiversity is a much greater risk in areas where the level of biodiversity per hectare is high.

On the negative side, higher yields can encourage increased production. Tropical forest conversion may accelerate if farmers see an opportunity for growth. Additionally, improved varieties may increase palm oil production in African and Latin American countries, resulting again in more land conversion and deforestation. This effect may also become the story, not just for oil palms, but for cacao, eucalyptus, coffee, and other tropical crops as varietal improvements are achieved.

Oil Palm Friuits (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Oil Palm Friuits (photo credit: www.eol.org)

In light of this predicted consequence, the authors of this study recommend that governments, working together with conservation organizations and industry associations, regulate the conversion of agricultural lands and ensure that certain areas are specifically set aside for conservation. This means that “models of the drivers of environmental change” must be developed that “incorporate feedbacks at a range of scales” so that measures can be put into place to address “the unintended negative consequences of technical advances.”

More information on sustainable palm oil production can be found here.