Blog - insects

In praise of insects.

In praise of insects.

by The blog at woodlands.co.uk, 19 May, 2024, 0 comments

Last week's woodlands’ blog talked about the fall in insect numbers across the UK.  This is not just a UK problem, it is far more widespread.  Insects,  bees and bumblebees as pollinators aside,  are important in ecosystems;  there are armies of other insects that are providing ‘services’ for us. When a tree dies in a woodland, bacteria and fungi are important agents in the decay of the tree and the recycling of elements, but they are assisted by beetles. If the dead tree was a veteran, during its lifetime it will have provided  a variety of micro-habitats.  Holes and crevices would have been used by bats,  birds,  insects etc.  Now, the the decaying wood will be support different organisms, from microbes to larger fungi, such as bracket fungi that can erupt from surface of the dead tree.   As the wood decays,  the material may become a ‘home’ for saproxylic beetles. For example, Stag beetle larvae feed on decaying wood (building up fat reserves, which the adults later rely on. it adds humus and fertility to the soil as its nutrients are released. Though bees and bumblebees (members of the order Hymenoptera) are important as pollinators (of many fruit and crop plants, so are the hoverflies key to  the pollination of many wild flowers.  Hoverflies belong to a different group of insects - the Diptera. There are several thousand hoverfly species spread across the world. They are found on every continent with the exception of Antarctica.  Work by Dr. Wotton and his team at Exeter University suggests they are situations where hoverflies may be more effective pollinators than bees and bumblebees, and the role of hoverflies in crop pollination may have been under-estimated.  Hoverflies can carry pollen over considerable distances, and may  visit isolated plants.  The common drone fly (Eristalis tenax) has been known to travel some 100km and carry the pollen of eight plant species.  Hoverflies (or Syrphidae) are also known to migrate over considerable distances.  The female marmalade hoverfly can migrate from Scandinavia to Spain and North Africa, migrating in the autumn to lay their eggs.  In the following Spring, succeeding generations migrate north again.  Some American hoverflies are known to migrate from Canada to the southern states. Insects are not just important in terms of facilitating decay or aiding pollination, some are involved in seed dispersal.  Scientists at Kobe University studied the dispersal of seeds from the fruit of the silver dragon plant.  Using  time lapse photography techniques, they watched to see which animals feed on the plant’s fruit at night. Whilst crickets (order : Orthoptera) ate much of the fruit, earwigs (order : Dermaptera) and woodlice (not insects, but terrestrial crustaceans) also consumed significant amounts of the tiny seeds of the fruit.  Further work demonstrated that many of the seeds survived the passage through the gut of these animals.  So apart from being seed predators, small invertebrates may also help their dispersal, depositing them away from the parent plant. Woodlice are interesting land based crustaceans that generally feed on dead and decaying plant material, helping in the recycling of nutrients. Further examples of the importance of insects in nature can be seen in fig production.  The fig wasp 'gives its life' in the process of pollinating the fig, in return the fig provides a safe ‘nursery’ for the young on the wasp, seed the woodland blog on the fig.  There are many types of fig and each has its own wasp, to ensure successful pollination.  Full details of the life cycle of fig wasps can be followed here.  The association between the wasps and figs is an example of mutualism. This co-dependence probably had its origin some seventy million years ago, and the wasps and figs have co-evolved since then. .
The splatometer :' bugs matter'

The splatometer :’ bugs matter’

by The blog at woodlands.co.uk, 23 May, 2022, 0 comments

The woodlands blog has previously reported on the worrying decline in insect numbers, but there has been yet another report detailing significant falls in the populations of (flying) insects.  This survey was run by Buglife and the Kent Wildlife Trust  (KWT) using a smart phone app - “Bugs Matter”. The survey suggest that between 2004 and 2021 the number of flying insects (in Kent) has fallen by some 70%.  This finding is not dissimilar to that carried out in rural Denmark which found an 80% decline in insect numbers between 1997 and 2017. Insects are vital to the functioning of ecosystems.  They help maintain: A healthy environment Contribute to the recycling of organic matter Act as pollinating agents Help control pests Without insects the ‘web of life’ begins to fall apart.  The loss of insects and other forms of wildlife can be helped by: Creating larger areas of natural habitats (many have been lost to roads, agriculture, urban expansion) Creating wildlife corridors to link up similiar habitats / ecosystems throughout the landscape Creating wild flower ‘meadows’ by road sides, verges etc Reducing the use of pesticides and other chemicals which have significant effects on wildlife The Buglife survey makes use of a simple technique to estimate insect abundance - the ‘splatometer’.  This involves counting the number of ‘squashed’ insects on car registration plates.  The Danish survey used a similar method but looked at insects found on car windscreens.   This summer Buglife is hoping that people will again contribute to another survey using the splatometer technique.  The survey will run from June 1st to August 31st.   To contribute to the survey you will need :- The “Bugs matter” app (free) and a smart phone. To create an account to send in your results Clean the car number plate before the start of any journey in your vehicle At the end of your journey, count the number of squashed insects on the number plate (using the splatometer grid - which will be sent to you) and take a photo. This enables Buglife to calculate the ‘splat rate’, that is the number of insects recorded per mile.  NB.  Journeys on wet days are not recorded as rain might wash off any insects from the number plate.   The more journeys and counts that you can carry out the better, and zero counts of squashed insects are just as important as those with an actual number of squashed insects. Note : The app includes a tutorial and some safety advice. It is available for android or apple phones.
In praise of sunflowers.

In praise of sunflowers.

by The blog at woodlands.co.uk, 1 August, 2021, 0 comments

The vibrancy and gaudiness of sunflowers is one of the delights of summer.  The common name "sunflower" generally refers to Helianthus annuus, whose round flower heads look like the sun.  Sunflowers are cultivated as food crops for humans, cattle, and poultry, and also for the garden. They typically grow during the summer and into early autumn, with the peak growth season being mid-summer. A field of sunflowers is a welcome relief from the acres of oilseed rape. The flower of a sunflower is not a flower but hundreds of small flowers (florets) massed together the better to attract pollinators.  The structure so formed is known as a capitulum.  The inner florets are arranged in spirals that conform to fibonacci sequences.  The pattern of these florets has been described mathematically by Helmut Vogel and it allows for the most efficient ‘packing’ of the florets in the ‘flower’ head. Before the flowers open,  the plants tilt during to face the sun, gaining more light for photosynthesis. This movement is known as heliotropism  and continues for a while when the flower head opens. This may help to attract pollinators.  Frequent visitors to sunflowers are bumblebees.  Sadly, like honey bees, bumblebees face a number of problems which include parasites.  However, recent research in the United States suggests sunflowers can help certain species of bumblebee.  If sunflower pollen is included in the diet of the common eastern bumblebee then it helps reduce infection by a parasitic protozoan Crithidia bombi.  This is a parasite that lives in the gut of bumblebees. When they pass out of the gut in cysts, they can be ‘picked up’ by the next passing bumblebee (or another insect, as the parasite is not too fussy). Once established in a bee, the parasite can affect the ovaries.  If a  queen is infected then the reproductive success of the colony is affected. Giacomini et al. have found that good nutrition is vital for bumblebee health and that sunflower pollen can be a huge benefit when it is included in the diet. They noted that the majority of the bees that consumed sunflower pollen had no detectable infection a week later. The pollen* significantly reduced infection by the parasite. So sunflowers are a visual feast for us, and an edible one for bumblebees and bees.  They also provide us with seeds.  The seeds are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, notably linoleic acid. The seeds also contain phytosterols which may contribute toward lowering the level of blood cholesterol.  The seeds may be pressed releasing sunflower oil, and the remaining ‘cake’ can be used as a protein rich animal feed.  The Ukraine and Russia are the top producers of sunflower seed. A somewhat different use of sunflowers is phytoremediation; using plants to remove toxic organic or inorganic compounds from soil.  After the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear reactors in 1986, an exclusion zone with a radius of 30 km centred on the nuclear power plant was created. This was later expanded to include other heavily irradiated areas.  Even now, no one lives in the exclusion zone, but scientists and others may ask for permits to allow them to enter for short periods.  Fields of sunflowers were planted to ‘harvest‘ the radioactive metals (notably caesium-137 and strontium-90) from the soil. The sunflowers accumulated these elements in their tissues.  When the sunflowers had completed their growth, they were harvested and burnt, leaving only the radioactive ash behind. This material could then be vitrified (incorporated into glass) and stored underground in a shielded container. In Brazil, a study looked at the ability of different sunflower cultivars to remove nickel, copper and lead from contaminated soil.  Though phytoremediation with sunflowers proved to be an efficient and low-cost method for the treatment of contaminated soils, the cultivars varied in their ability to take up particular metals. “Cleaning up’ with sunflowers was tried after a tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan.  However, it was not very successful.   As different cultivars vary in their capacity to hyperaccumulate, so it is important to match the cultivar to the situation. Planting sunflowers in this case did little to improve the situation. This could be in part due to the sunflowers but also be associated with the soil type and the time that the caesium has had to bind to the soil particles. Understanding the mechanisms and detail of hyper accumulation is critical if sunflowers are to be used for phytoremediation in the future. Pollen is rich in secondary plant metabolites e.g. flavonoids, terpenoids, alkaloids, amines, and chlorogenic acids [caption id="attachment_35695" align="aligncenter" width="650"] field of sunflowers[/caption]  

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