Dr Lorna Cole is an Agricultural Ecologist with Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) a specialist educational and advisory service which was born of a merger between the Scottish Agricultural College and 3 partner institutions. Today, ArgyllYouth asks Dr Cole about her work and how it relates to the wider environmental issues that confront us.
There has been a dramatic decline in bees worldwide, impacting plant fertilisation and, ultimately, our food crops
Image by Wix
What links a research centre in Kenya and a Scottish Agricultural college? After all, both places are not only physically distant but also unmatched in terms of geography, climate and species. Yet despite the obvious disparities there is one common issue that unites not only these two institutions and countries but virtually every land mass in the world.
Like them or loathe them, insects are not there simply to annoy us (as with the Scottish midge) nor are they there just to wonder at and delight (like the amazing migration of the Monarch butterfly) although they may well do all these things.
The simple fact is that we need insects to produce our food. Without the myriad swarms and their ability to pollinate (fertilise) plants, this will impact not just the variety of foods we consume but could also global food security. Rebecca Riley, senior lawyer at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) an environmental charity, summarises one of the issues:
“Bees are a really critical part of our food system,” she says in one of her blog posts.
“One out of every three bites of food we eat, every day, every week, is dependent on bees for pollination. That's a whole different range of foods, from fruits to nuts to vegetables. Things like almonds are heavily dependent on bees for pollination, tomatoes, pumpkins, blueberries.”
And the problem? Bees are in decline worldwide. Some studies estimate a loss of up to 59% of managed bee colonies within the United States within the 58 years to 2007 and up to 25% of European bees in just twenty years. These worrying figures do not include other pollinator species in decline like moths and butterflies which also pollinate our crops.
A 2019 article in a national newspaper suggested a 2.5% loss of insect biomass per year – a staggering figure which, the article noted, could lead to a complete loss of all insects within 100 years. The ramifications for humans as a species are clear. Our need to understand what is going on with our planet has never been more urgent, and this is where specialists like Dr. Lorna Cole of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) come in, where she works as an Agricultural Ecologist, involved in both teaching and research.
But what exactly is an Agricultural Ecologist?
“It is someone who studies agricultural ecosystems,” Dr Cole told me via remote interview.
“They look at all the interactions between the species present in farmland and this, of course, also includes humans. So we investigate how different agricultural practices influence the species present, both pest species and beneficial species."
"There are two main aspects of my job. First, I lecture in our Wildlife and Conservation Management course. I love working with the students and watching them become more confident as they progress through their studies. The second aspect of my job is conducting research that explores the impact of farming on wildlife.”
And it is not only farming that has an impact. Since last December, for example, Farmers in Kenya and adjoining African countries have been suffering from swarms of Desert locusts. Just one swarm of these insects has the potential to devour the equivalent food intake of 2,500 people in a day; bad news for subsistence farmers whose livelihoods can be stripped bare within a matter of hours. But as with many things involving human influence, the upsurge in such swarms may be increasingly associated with another human-induced issue: climate change, according to a recent National Geographic article.
“Whether that will lead to more plagues of locusts is an open question, but it’s a worrying possibility,” writes the article author Madeleine Stone, perhaps encapsulating the very real need for more specialists like Dr Cole.
“I may be biased,” continues Dr Cole when I ask her about the importance of her job, “but I really believe now, more than ever, we need ecologists."
"Humans have altered our world with serious implications to its biodiversity. Ecosystems are incredibly complicated, and we need to understand them better. We can only properly protect an ecosystem by understanding the many different interactions that occur in it.”
This holistic approach is one taken up by other researchers worldwide, like Dr Dino J. Martins who heads the aforesaid research centre in Kenya.
The Mpala Research Centre, founded in 1994, is dedicated to uncovering the intricate web connecting people and their environment whilst at the same time conserving biodiversity, although Dr Martins’ first love was, and still is, insects.
Describing the most exciting part of his work, Dr Martins says it is “Spending the day outside, running around chasing after bugs,” a view echoed by Dr Cole.
“As a child I was always interested in bugs, looking under stones for beetles and in rock pools for hermit crabs,” she tells me.
“I just found them fascinating and because I never knew what I would find it was exciting! I guess I never grew out my buggy phase. I still love going out in the field and exploring for insects.”
It is perhaps as well to look for them whilst we still can. Insect numbers worldwide are declining at a shocking pace and their role as pollinators, not only for wider environmental species but also for crops upon which humans depend, is beginning to receive more attention. But are we in time to reverse the damage, I asked Dr Cole?
“I don’t think we have a choice,” she replies candidly.
“Insects are critical to our survival and we must reverse their declines. We are reliant on insects for the many different ecosystem services they provide us with: pollination, nutrient cycling and natural pest control. If we just look at nutrient cycling, a multitude of invertebrates including earthworms, springtails and dung beetles are busy in the soil, breaking down organic waste, returning nutrients to our soil. These nutrients enable plants … crops … our food, to grow.”
A recent research article in the Journal of Applied Ecology authored by Dr Cole and other colleagues was critical of current EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) measures to support pollinators on farmland. But can we really expect policy-makers to get a handle on the problem, I asked her?
“This was a great project that enabled me to work with ecologists from all over Europe,” Dr Cole replies.
“Approximately 40% of Europe is farmland. The Common Agricultural Policy therefore has huge potential to promote pollinators throughout Europe. The CAP is currently undergoing a reform, and we realised that policymakers lacked information on what changes were needed to help ensure farmland provides for pollinators. We therefore undertook this study to look at what habitats were present on farmland and what resources these habitats provided for pollinators. We were then able to come up with some simple changes that farmers could make that would help protect pollinators. We need to feed our growing world population, but we need to do it sustainably.”
"We spent a lot of time doing this research so I really hope that policymakers will take notice of it. We recognise that information present in scientific journals can be long and sometimes impenetrable. We have therefore written a policy briefing that summarises the work and we hope this will provide the people who make the decisions on the ground with easy access to the information they need.”
And this information is vital, not only to farmers but also to those perhaps more directly affected by pollinator declines, such as commercial bee keepers. The impact on the US harvest of honey alone attracted a $50 million boost from the Obama administration in 2014. Yet despite financial help and the US creating a federal strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators, studies suggest that it may not be enough. This prompted me to ask Dr Cole if there was a critical level (a decline of insects) at which pollinators will no longer be able to do their job effectively, and how far away are we from reaching that point?
“We don’t really know how many pollinators we need to adequately pollinate crops,” she replies, “and this will of course differ between crops, countries and even under different weather conditions. Different pollinators visit different crop flowers. For example, the deep flowers of beans are only accessible to bumblebees with long tongues. Solitary bees, on the other hand, are thought to be very important at pollinating apples. We therefore need a variety of different pollinators to pollinate the multitude of crops we grow.”
"We also don’t really know how pollinator declines are influencing crop production. Are farmers experiencing yield losses in insect pollinated crops because there are not enough pollinators? We simply don’t know the answer. A questionnaire study led by Tom Breeze at Reading University found that nearly 50% of farmers across Europe felt that they were facing a loss of yield due to a lack of pollinators. So the people on the ground seem to think that this could be a problem. We desperately need more scientific research to determine if we are experiencing a pollination deficit, and for what crops, and indeed how this may vary across Europe, across the world.”
So what can we as non-specialists do to help insects generally and pollinators in particular? Fortunately Dr Cole has lots of ideas.
“There are loads of things that people can do to help insects. If you have a garden think about planting a range of flowers so they will provide a continual supply of pollen and nectar for a variety of pollinators. It also important to provide nesting sites and shelter and this can be achieved by leaving some areas of your garden more wild, with wood piles and leaf litter."
"If you don’t like mess, you could build a bug hotel, which will provide these vital areas to shelter and nest, but in a tidy way. You can also take part in projects that help scientists monitor insects. For example, you can help collect data for the Pollinator Monitoring Scheme or Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. Or even just submitting records of wildlife you see via Apps such as iRecord. All these information sources can help scientists understand more about the current state of insect populations and monitor how these are changing.”
Of course, bees are not the only insects to unwittingly fertilise our food. A 2015 study by Romina Rader and other researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that non-bee pollinators accounted for up to 39% of visits to crop flowers. These included wasps, flies, butterflies and even birds and bats, but with biodiversity under continual threat, how important are these other species in pollinating our food crops?
“This very much depends on the crop,” says Dr Cole.
“Flies, such as hoverflies, are important visitors to crops such as oilseed rape, strawberries and apples. Chocolate, as a very important example, is mainly pollinated by a tiny midge. Beans, on the other hand, rely on long-tongued bees such as the garden bumblebee. Bees with shorter tongues, like the honeybee, will nectar rob, biting a small hole in the base of the plant, stealing the nectar without pollinating the plants.”
Indeed the diversity of species that provide pollination services, and their decline, has lead some researches to look at innovative means of achieving the same thing by using modern technology such as a 2017 paper by Svetlana Chechetka and others, entitled ‘Materially Engineered Artificial Pollinators’.
The study considered the use of artificial pollinators, effectively small drones, to pollinate crops. But exactly how feasible would this be and can we really rely on technology to replace insects? Dr Cole has her doubts.
“I think that the cost associated in creating these robot pollinators would make them only a viable solution for high value crops in glasshouses,” she tells me.
“I would hate to think that people would see robotic pollinators as an alternative to wild pollinators. A robot bee can never replace the delights of watching a fuzzy bumblebee foraging.”
This is not to say that human managed landscapes cannot benefit wildlife. Some of Dr Cole’s recent work involved looking at ‘Riparian Buffer Strips’ – but what are these and how important are they for pollinators and other wildlife?
“Riparian buffer strips are strips of land adjacent to watercourses that are managed in such a way that the reduce pollutants entering the water,” she explains.
“They protect the watercourse from fertilisers, slurry, and pesticides. They are often quite diverse habitats and can help support pollinators, bats and can provide rich foraging habitats for farmland birds. They also improve the ecological status of the water and thus are beneficial for terrestrial biodiversity.”
Given the importance of insects, not only to us as a species but also to the general health of ecosystems, how can we encourage more people to become involved in helping them, particularly young people, I asked her?
“There are lots of activities that young people can get involved with. There are monitoring and recording schemes for a wide variety of species. Organisations such as Buglife, Scottish Wildlife Trust and Butterfly Conservation hold a huge diversity of events. You can go along and learn a variety of things from species identification to habitat restoration. They are always looking for volunteers to help them undertake conservation work and it is a great way to meet like-minded people. You can pay a small annual subscription fee to become a member or alternatively they often post opportunities on social media – so follow them on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.”
So is Dr Cole optimistic about the future for wildlife in Scotland? What more could be done to preserve our ecosystems?
“I think that Scotland has a glorious diversity of landscapes. We are lucky that we still have wonderful habitats that support unique and rare species. We need to properly protect and enhance this natural wealth – our natural capital. It can be tricky to put a monetary figure on our natural wealth,”she explains.
“What value do you put on seeing a mountain ringlet butterfly fluttering across a heather moorland? However, the value of pollinators, of insects, of biodiversity is becoming increasingly recognised by land managers and policymakers.”
And that, perhaps, will be the insects’ saving grace, and ultimately our own.
Does Dr Cole have any final thoughts for us?
“To adapt a quote of my mum’s, ‘If you look after the pennies (the small things – the insects) then the pounds (the ecosystems we depend on) will look after themselves.’”
©Nick MacIneskar 2020
A Buff-Tailed Bumblebee on Vetch. It is insects such as these upon which much of the world's agriculture relies, but some species are disappearing fast, outpaced by changes in land use, pesticides and disease.
Image courtesy Alice Cole/ Duncan Robertson
"We are reliant on insects for the many different ecosystem services they provide us with," Says Dr Cole of Scotland's Rural College
Image courtesy Alice Cole/ Duncan Robertson
The net effect, on what is normally a small, solitary insect, is to transform them into gregarious super-organisms - increasing their size, changing their colour and making them breed, and eat, voraciously. When enough of them congregate, they swarm - with devastating results...
Image courtesy Shutterstock
Dr Dino J. Martins heads the Mpala Research Centre in the Laikipia Plateau region of Kenya, a vast area described as a 'living laboratory' where researchers have unrivalled access to an ecosystem for controlled experiments that address 'real-world problems'.
Dr Martins has also produced books and videos on various subjects, including bugs.
Image credit: Mpala Research Centre
Bee colonies are declining all over the world. Recent studies suggest a reduction of 16% during the winter of 2017/18 alone and up to 25% in England. Loss of flowering plants, neonicotionoids in some pesticides, the varroa mite and natural disaster all play a part in disrupting beehives.
Some 13 species of bee have been lost in the UK withing the last century or so. With many others under threat of extinction the UK agri-business is gearing up to combat the continuing decline of our essential pollinators.
Mpala Research centre, Kenya
Ecologist and researcher Dr Cole holds an apple, yet this humble fruit, just one of the many edible plants that farmers depend upon to sustain their livelihoods, is under threat. Dubbed the 'Insect Apocalypse', the disappearance of insects is now a measurable phenomenon.
A dramatic decline in insect pollinators is already having an impact on some farming communities across the globe - reducing their harvest of such crops, impacting not only the agricultural sector but also potentially the variety and availability of fresh produce. In the longer term it may also have devastating effects on staple food crops.
Image courtesy Alice Cole/Duncan Robertson
Although the technical feasibility of using miniature drones to pollinate fields is being developed, many scientists, including Dr Cole, believe it has limited applications.
Others are more enthusiastic.
But perhaps we are missing the point here. Whilst technology has its' uses there may come a point where we can no longer 'science'our way out of our environmental problems...
Image by Wix
We rely on agriculture to feed us and whilst we can't always stop some of the negative side-effects of modern farming, we can mitigate for the worst environmental issues posed.
One such scheme is the 'Riparian Buffer Strip' which helps to reduce pollutants entering waterways and allows species such as this Peacock butterfly to flourish.
Longer-term, changes to farming practices that benefit wildlife may become the norm.
Putting up barriers
Image courtesy Alice Cole/ Duncan Robertson
Grasshoppers gone bad...
We take it for granted, yet chocolate, derived from the Cocoa plant, is reliant on insects to pollinate it and hence produce the fruit that will eventually become one of our guilty pleasures.
According to a major chocolate manufacturer, it takes a whole year's crop from one tree to make 454 grams of chocolate - food for thought!
This short video introduces drones as artificial pollinators
Video Credit: National Geographic
Image by Wix
A short video features Dr Cole explaining how to increase pollinators on arable farms
Video Credit: Soil Association
A video by the Scottish Wildlife Trust on building a home for bees.
Video Credit: Scottish Wildlife Trust
Now you see it...
Image by Wix