To tweet or not to tweet, that is the question…

twitter birds


This August I celebrated one year of being on Twitter. On the auspicious occasion of my Twitter-versary I decided it might be useful to reflect on the year. Did I get what I wanted to get out of the experience? Did I get other things I didn’t expect? Or did I just find myself an amazing way to waste a lot of time? Should I continue my affair with the Twitter-verse? (SPOILER ALERT – I’m obsessed with Twitter so of course the answer is an emphatic yes!)

What did I want to get out of the Twitter experience?

For some reason TCD doesn’t have much of an international reputation in Ecology and Evolution, despite a strong record in publishing papers in the area. In fact, when I started working here in January 2012 a lot of people were surprised that TCD had science departments! Clearly this needed to be fixed if we were going to attract high quality students and postdocs to our groups. A couple of my friends had been raving about Twitter for a while so I decided to give it a go. I also convinced Andrew Jackson to start actively using his account and over the course of the year we’ve got most of the ecology and evolution postgrads and staff on Twitter as well. The overall aim was a mixture of selfish self-promotion, and slightly more altruistic promotion of the School of Natural Sciences and our research.

Did I get what I wanted from Twitter?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and surprisingly I don’t think I did (carry on reading below for some unexpected benefits which totally outweigh this “failure”). This is mainly because I had really unrealistic expectations of what Twitter was going to do. I had visions of hordes of potential students and postdocs contacting me. However, the reality is that, at present, I have not had anyone contact me via Twitter looking for PhD or postdoc funding opportunities. When we advertised a Chair in our department I don’t think anyone who applied saw the advert on Twitter. However, I do think some of these things will happen in time. It’s important to remember that building a Twitter following requires effort and takes a long time. It’s also really hit and miss – sometimes a tweet will get loads of retweets and replies but a similar tweet will be left to float into a black hole of nothingness. And sometimes no-one comments but everyone reads your tweet and remembers it. So it’s pretty impossible to gauge your impact.

In the interests of honesty, there are also a few other downsides to Twitter that I’ve outlined below.

Downsides I: The echo-chamber effect

This has been mentioned by lots of people, but essentially you follow people with similar opinions to yours, and vice versa. So you only see tweets from people with these similar opinions leading you to believe everyone agrees with you. I have a simple way to remind myself that this isn’t the case. Every now and then I’ll look at what’s trending in Dublin/Ireland/globally. Five minutes reading tweets about Harry Stiles from One Direction (“He’s a cupcake not a man-whore!”) are more than enough to remind me that not everyone in the world thinks about things like I do.

Downsides II: Negative tendencies

I’m not sure if this is a trait common to all scientists, or if it’s that Twitter breeds gloom, but there is a lot of negativity about academia on Twitter. Mostly this revolves around the difficulties of getting a permanent academic position, the problems of being a woman or a minority, issues with scarcity of funding, or general gripes about writing up your PhD thesis. All of these problems are real and frustrating, and it’s great to vent about them from time to time. However, if you’re already miserable then reading a whole load of negative comments can sometimes make you feel even worse. I think this is generally balanced by the other more positive aspects of Twitter but I do sometimes unfollow the most gloomy people! This leads me on to the unexpected benefits of Twitter.

Unexpected benefits I – Support

As I mentioned above, people often use Twitter to vent about the bad aspects of academia. The great thing is that when you do this there’s always a couple of people there to make you feel better, and like you’re not alone. Generally these people don’t know you personally, so it’s just a nice altruistic outpouring of support. On the flip side, when things go well people are also ready to congratulate you and encourage you. This is a wonderful and totally unexpected benefit of using Twitter! I’ve also had the great pleasure of meeting many of my Twitter friends in person recently. These are often people completely outside my area of research but they totally delightful human beings to hang out with (even if it’s extremely odd to talk to them rather than keeping it to 140 character messages).

Unexpected benefits II – Radically improved conference experiences

I enjoy conferences, but using Twitter has catapulted them into a whole new level of usefulness and enjoyment. Even just passively reading Twitter feeds during conferences I’m not attending is fascinating, and a great way to keep up with fields I’m interested in when I can’t attend the conference. When I’m at a conference, I find live tweeting really helpful for keeping myself alert and engaged in the talks, it’s an excellent way to keep notes and it allows you to interact with people who aren’t at the conference or to discuss talks with people at the conference even as the talk is being given. I also really enjoy meeting other Twitter-ers (is that a word?!) in person. This is particularly useful at conferences where I don’t know many people.

Unexpected benefits III – Resources

I already wrote a blog about the ways you can use Twitter to save time so I won’t repeat it here, but basically I’ve found links on Twitter to everything from newly published and relevant papers, statistical tests I need for my research, information on hot topics in academia, conferences, funding opportunities, resources for students etc. My students have also used it to get advice on their PhDs and side projects.

Unexpected benefits IV – Funny animals to ease the troubled mind.

Finally, if you’re ever down, avoid the gloom-mongers and look for people posting GIFs, videos or pictures of funny animals. There are few levels of gloom that cannot be alleviated by a video of animals using trampolines or my personal favourite, animals fitting into tiny spaces.

So in conclusion I think the benefits FAR outweigh the negatives of Twitter. If you haven’t tried it yet, have a go! If you have and I follow you, thank you, you’ve made my life a more interesting, engaging and hilarious animal-filled place.



Natalie Cooper:ncooper[at]


Image source



A Raptor-ous Reception

Thanks to the DU ZooSoc, TCD staff and students were treated to an exhibition from Dublin Falconry last week. Set against the busy backdrop of joggers and Pav-frequenters, six beautiful birds of prey were the stars of their own lunch time show. Here’s a few pictures from the event, just a flavour of the stunning animals which we were privileged to see, touch (and hear!) up close. And for the full effect, have a look at Keith McMahon’s beautiful video.

Whooo's a pretty boy then? Barn Owl
Whooo’s a pretty boy then?
Barn Owl
Beautiful Scandinavian barn owl
Beautiful Scandinavian barn owl


Mmm, tasty finger Scandinavian morph of a barn owl
Mmm, tasty finger
Protective sleeve put to good work
Protective sleeve put to good work
Ready to take off... Peregrine falcon
Ready to take off…
Peregrine falcon
"I feel like chicken tonight..."  Peregrine falcon
“I feel like chicken tonight…”


Juvenile Common buzzard -  "If he looks like he's coming towards you then duck!"
Juvenile Common buzzard – “If he looks like he’s coming towards you then duck!”


What paint brushes? Bengal eagle owl
What paint brushes?
Bengal eagle owl

Author: Sive Finlay, sfinlay[at], @SiveFinlay

Photo credits: Thomas Guillerme, guillert[at], @TGuillerme


Night in the Research Museum


On Friday the 27th of September, as part of the Discover Research Night we opened the doors of the department to the public. We decided that since we have a museum full of some really cool stuff, we could use it to demonstrate some of the research in the department.

Cool stuff
Cool stuff

Since the research night had a mix of students, families and the generally curious we introduced each tour with some of the j-awesome teeth (I make no apologies for puns) to demonstrate the basics of ecology and evolution. So, with the help of Baleen, shark jaws, elephant molars and the jaw-dropping narwhal tusk we whetted the audience’s appetite to see just what evolution can do to modify a few teeth in order to match a particular ecology (okay I apologise for some of the puns).


We then used some of the more mobile museum specimens (although the pilot whale skull we brought up from the basement would argue against that) to set up a game of “guess that longevity” to help explain some up and coming NERD club research.

Upwardly mobile pilot whale
Upwardly mobile pilot whale
Guessing the age is bovining me crazy!
Guessing the age is bovining me crazy!

This worked really well and I think people became really engaged with the idea that there is so much variation in how long animals live, especially the sturgeon that can live over 150 years. It’s then an easy sell to explain the basis of our new paper which shows that species with lower external mortality (those that can avoid danger such as by flying) live longer than expected for their size (stay posted for more info on that soon!).

I'm really just a fuzzy bird when it comes to my age
I’m really just a fuzzy bird when it comes to my age

We finished up the tour by displaying some of our individual research such as some upcoming T.rex modelling (with added Jurassic Park music), a possible new bird species (and some spot the difference) and some obligatory lasers (one guy even came to ask if he could use the scanner for his golf clubs!?). It was also a great excuse to roll out those conference posters that are often treated like an Irish convertible that only gets a spin out once a summer!


In the context of trying to engage the public with research I found it to be in complete contrast to my previous experiences as although we managed to get nearly 200 people into the department we really got the chance to explain face to face why what we do is interesting and cool (an easy task when holding a stuffed platypus) but then also explain some of the possible applications that might not be obvious (such as medical or ecological). It also allowed us to talk about the things that are interesting to the public themselves instead of continually telling them what they should be interested in.

All and all the night went great and I think everyone, including some of the specimens enjoyed the night!

Creepy cat does not like taxidermists
Creepy cat does not like taxidermists

Author and Photo Credits:

Kevin Healy: healyke[at], @healyke

The Placental mammal saga; special summer double episode


As I wrote in a previous post last winter, O’Leary et al. added their oar into the Placental Mammal origins debate. For anyone who missed that episode, they argued, with the backing of masses of morphological data, that placental mammal orders appeared right after the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs (also known as the explosive model). This was in opposition to two other views based on DNA data which argue that placentals appeared way before (long-fuse model) or slightly before (short-fuse model) the Mexican dinosaurs had to deal with some meteorite… Again, have a look at this previous post criticizing O’Leary et al.’s paper and how they “forgot” to use (ignored?) state-of-the-art phylogenetic inference methods.

While I was away feeding mosquitoes in Finland – and wondering whether the lack of fishes for dinner was due to my poor fishing skills or the absence of fishes in the river – Science published two new episodes of the placental saga. Of the two, Springer et al. took the decision to properly criticize the methods of O’Leary et al.’s work. Amongst their detailed methods review, they particularly underlined the inaccuracy of O’Leary et al.’s explosive model; such a hypothesis would imply that the early placental mammals had a rate of molecular change similar to that of retroviruses. For over ten years it has been widely accepted that molecular rates (i.e. the number of DNA changes that are transmitted to descendants) vary among lineages through time. Knowing that, one can estimate these rates (or call it speed if you’re more comfortable with that) of evolution by calibrating phylogenetic trees with fossils. So, in this case, the amount of evolution needed to evolve from the late Cretaceous (~65 myr) non-placental mammals to the first placental mammals (~58 myr) has to be as high as evolutionary rates more characteristic of retroviruses to realistically explain this evolution.

Herein lies the eternal debate between palaeontologists and molecular biologists. The former base their estimations on the morphological changes they can see in the fossil record (even though some, as O’Leary et al. also include molecular data) while the latter calculate their evolutionary rate estimations on the molecular changes that they infer from living species’ DNA. Fundamentally, each method is valid but they are describing slightly different things ; palaeontologists infer the rates of changes between morphospecies (i.e. species that are separated based on their morphology) while molecular biologists study the rates of changes between surviving genetic pools (i.e. the populations leading to living species). My guess is that the true evolutionary history (i.e. the morphological and molecular changes of all the populations –fossils and living– through time) is to be found somewhere between these two approaches.

And that’s what I think O’Leary et al. demonstrated in their response to Springer et al.’s comments. Through a kind of a dodgy answer in reply to the technical points that Springer et al. underlined as the “retrovirusesomorph” rates, O’Leary’s team reran the analysis and found that yes, maybe the explosive model is not very realistic regarding the molecular data but neither is the long-fuse model regarding the palaeontological data. So which one should we choose? Hmmm, why not just go for the middle way with the short-fuse model? OK let’s do that – without calling it a short-fuse model though (they called it an “explosive model” in figure 2-B but to my mind at least, it’s getting closer to the short-fuse one).

So all that for what? Nobody can either deny O’Leary et al.’s amazing work nor claim that the long-fuse model is realistic; the consensual short-fuse model remains pretty well supported among both moderate palaeontologists and molecular biologists. However, I still cherish this paper because it shows how I think good science should always work; find the two extreme scenarios and then study the median one…


Thomas Guillerme: guillert[at]


Photo credit

Wikimedia commons

Sulawesi Bird Expedition 2013


Ah the summer, how I miss it! In mid-June I departed (on the horrendously long journey) to the beautifully sunny, tropical islands off the south-eastern coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia. No, I wasn’t on holidays; I am fortunate enough to call this part of the world my study site. During the six week visit, I aimed to gain further behavioural and ecological data on a number of bird species as part of my current PhD project – for more specifics on that see here. I am even more fortunate to be able to carry out this research with the financial and logistical support of Operation Wallacea, an internationally renowned conservation charity that works with researchers from all over the globe, from a variety of different disciplines. As part of this support, I work with students and volunteers in the field, helping them to design effective dissertation projects and field methods. This year I was joined by five students (as opposed to two last year) from a variety of universities in Ireland and the UK.

From the first day it was back to the usual diet (mostly consisting of rice) and routine: up at 4.30am for breakfast and out surveying by 6am. These surveys consisted of walking 1km transects through scrub, farmland and/or forest edge collecting data on my target species’ diets, competitors (via agonistic interactions), social habitats, courtship and breeding, as well as their foraging and flocking behaviours. In the evening we would establish new transects and then get stuck into data entry at night. This routine makes for days that are long and tiring but hugely rewarding. Watching birds so closely allows you to gain intimate insight into their lives and observe some fantastic interactions, such as family groups of Lemon-bellied White-eyes preening each other and pairs reinforcing bonds with gifts of food. You also see how tirelessly and (sometimes) viciously males will fight off other males in order to retain their mates and, therefore, mating privileges, as we saw in the beautifully adorned Olive-backed Sunbird. Spending so much time in the field, you come across a great variety of other wildlife including troops of macaques, the strange bear cuscus, giant monitor lizards, pythons, huge fruit bats and hairy and multicoloured caterpillars that you never touch, to pick out but a few.

An adult Lemon-bellied White-eye returning with food for its chicks
An adult Lemon-bellied White-eye returning with food for its chicks
A beautiful fruit bat relaxing in a banana tree
A beautiful fruit bat relaxing in a banana tree

I’m delighted to say that data collection went exceedingly well for the students and myself – that is, when the weather was on our side (we had a week of non-stop rain while Ireland and the UK were experiencing a heat-wave; typical!). We surveyed five islands in total and got some superb behavioural data on each of our five target species. While managing a large group like this was difficult and tiring at times, it was a great experience and the students were a great bunch really. In the company of the assistants and students on the project, as well as the many other members of staff, students and volunteers from other projects, with their combined wealth of experience and knowledge, it was fantastic to share ideas, brainstorm and discuss current/potential future projects.

The biggest highlight for me was catching up with the elusive ‘Wangi-wangi’ White-eye, a bird we know very little about. It was touch and go for a while, and I was getting quite worried to be honest, but eventually we got excellent data on their flocking and feeding behaviour and who they compete with, directly and indirectly. Between us, the group racked up a number of new bird records for the islands and saw some spectacular species such as the Great-billed Kingfisher, Rainbow Bee-eater, Yellow-eyed Imperial Pigeon, Great-billed Parrot, Yellow-billed Malkoha and Red-knobbed Hornbill. Phwoar!

The stunning Yellow-billed Malkoha, a Sulawesi endemic
The stunning Yellow-billed Malkoha, a Sulawesi endemic 

Sadly, this summer was the last of my field trips to Indonesia as part of my PhD project. I enjoyed it immensely and, for certain, I will be back. I am grateful to Operation Wallacea for allowing me to be involved in such a programme and I hope that they will continue to expand into more areas of this highly unique and understudied part of the world that is full of discoveries yet to be made.

Author and Photo credits:

Seán Kelly: kellys17[at], @seankelly999

Big is better!


Reflections on geeking it up at Intecol 2013 by Jane Stout

Having not been to a 2000+ delegate, multi-session, international conference for several years, I was a bit nervous in the run up to INTECOL2013 “Into the next 100 years: advancing ecology and making it count” – would it be possible to see all the talks, read all the posters and meet all the people I planned to? (Answer: no). Would I remember everyone and would anyone remember me from past meetings? (Answer: some yes, some no – thank goodness for name tags). Could I follow in the footsteps of Katie Taylor, the last girl from Bray to take the stage at the London ExCeL Arena, and take the Olympic gold? (Answer: no; note to self: must try harder). But I needn’t have worried – INTECOL 2013 was excellent: it was well organised, the quality of the science was top-notch, the sun shone, and the whole thing was very inspiring and humbling.

First off, there were some excellent plenaries. Georgina Mace’s talk on “Looking forwards not backwards: Biodiversity conservation in the 21st century” was particularly lucid and inspiring, even though one of the things that I remember best was when she did look backwards, at what she termed the four “ages of conservation”: 1. Nature for itself (all about protected areas, species, populations), 2. Nature despite people (all about the terrible things humans have done to nature – threats and drivers – I think this was more or less when I started my BSc), 3. Nature for people (ecosystem function, ecosystem services) and 4. People and nature (about changes and dynamics, involving more socioeconomics etc.). She highlighted that conservation focus has moved fast but the science has not necessarily kept up. And that extremes not averages may matter more in the future.

Bill Sutherland’s plenary on “How do we improve decision making?” was also really good – he talked about how (not) to make decisions and stressed that good scientific evidence was not only fundamental, but needed to be effectively communicated in order to be taken into account.  He also highlighted some research into so-called “experts” which was fascinating (see Bergman et al. 2011). The panel discussion following Bill’s talk was really good, especially as it was effectively and humorously chaired by Professor Sue Hartley (Director – York Environmental Sustainability Institute). Having Bob May describe his position as the first Chief Scientist to the UK government was really interesting – and made me realise how great it would be if we had a similar position here in Ireland.

David Tilman managed to pull a plenary talk out of the bag at <48hrs notice, which was not only impressive in itself, but also an excellent talk. He described some of the findings from the Cedar Creek biodiversity plots which show the importance of biodiversity (“I knew biodiversity was going to be important, what I hadn’t realised was just how important”) and talked about how it wasn’t necessary to trade biodiversity off against food production – we just all need to eat less meat. He suggested that we all to invite friends round and cook vegetarian food (try this veg curry!).

Aside from the plenaries, there were heaps of really interesting talks. There were so many good titles that there wasn’t a hope of seeing everything that I wanted to. The thing that amazed me was how many pollination related talks there were. The last time I went to a conference like this there was maybe half a dozen pollinator talks. At this meeting there were at least 44 oral presentations with something to do with pollination or bees in the title. Hardly surprising given all the media hype associated with bee decline, but great to see how this field has grown in the past 10 years.

I was fortunate enough to speak in the symposium “Threats to an ecosystem service: evaluating multifactorial pressures on insect pollinators”, which included a really excellent introduction by Claire Kremen, who described, among other things, almond pollination in the US – millions of honeybee colonies are shipped into California from all over the country to pollinate almonds because there are no wild bees left in the orchards. One of the things she’s working on is introducing native wild plants in hedgerows into the landscape – made me realise how lucky we are here in Ireland with our complex landscapes full of hedgerows. Many of the other speakers in this session were talking about work they have done as a result of the Pollinator Initiative funding in the UK. There’s some excellent work going on there. The symposium was followed by a social event which apparently was sort of like speed dating but with “experts” moving around the room speaking to different people (who were mostly equally, if not more, expert themselves). Not sure whether it really worked, but there was a glass of wine in it for everyone (and no dating involved thankfully).

I saw some really nice presentations by current PhD students – some of my favourites were Alistair Campbell from Lancaster talking about enhancing beneficial insect communities and their services in cider apple orchards by planting flower strips; Gita Benadi from Wurzburg talking about her work on phenological synchrony between plants and pollinators and implications of shifts in either taxa with climate change; and Katherine Orford from Bristol talking about her work on how grassland management affects pollinator community diversity, function and biomass. Keep an eye out for their papers…

I didn’t manage to get to the BES birthday party, which was apparently great fun, but there were some great social interactions (shame about the beer – this part of London is so new there aren’t any decent pubs). We did take the cable car from the Excel Arena to the O2 Arena aka Millennium Dome and then a boat up the River Thames which was cool. And the sun shone! Happy geeky nerdy sunny ecology days…


Jane Stout: stoutj[at]


Image source: 

When Perseverance Pays Off


The history of science is, as the name suggests, the study of the historical side of science: the people, the process and the development of the knowledge and techniques that have made science the dominating force it is today. In popular culture the history of science is often told through individuals: the mavericks and geniuses so singular that only they could see the right path to take. The problem with this approach is that it does a mis-service to the hundreds and thousands of people who have worked so tirelessly to make the incremental advances in knowledge that accumulate until the snowball has built into an avalanche and the paradigm is ready to be shifted by whoever is lucky enough to see the pivot first (to hideously mix my metaphors).

Yet there are times when the ‘maverick’ status is not unwarranted. Often the term is used pejoratively to describe someone who will not let go of an idea long-since disproved. But on occasion there are people for whom the inability to give up pays off; and it’s one such person I wish to discuss here today.

The set-up: Otago, South Island, New Zealand, early 1910s. A boy stands in the local museum looking at an old black and white photo of a bird. This bird is unlike any he’s seen. It looks like a pukeko (a large moorhen-like bird) but it is maybe twice the size and three-times the bulk. It has a sharp yet heavy bill that takes up the entire front of the face; a stocky neck and strong bare legs. The legs and bill are the same colour but differ from the dark body. The feathers show signs of different colours on the back and wings though the black and white makes it difficult to be certain. The boy stares, enraptured, and looks at the label: Notornis (Maori: Takahe; Porphyrio hochstetteri): Extinct.

The boy was Geoffrey Orbell, and despite being told (probably repeatedly) that the takahē was extinct and had been since the 1890s, he continued to believe that they were still out there, hiding. Fiordland, the area where takahē were last seen alive, was still relatively unexplored and the mountains and valleys could easily hide a small population, or so Doc (as he was nicknamed due to his medical degree) believed. With a small group of friends he spent his free time tramping through the Murchison Mountains in search of the elusive (and supposedly extinct) bird.

I don’t know how long he searched, how many miles he tramped, how many friends he bored and how many false hopes he had dashed. But I do know that in 1948 he did what no one thought possible: he found a population of living takahē (the name now commonly used).

The discovery caused an immediate reaction and for a while Dr Orbell and his friends were international stars. Scientists hiked to the valley where the takahē had been found and, unusually for the time, recognised the importance of the discovery. Efforts to protect the birds were rapidly put in place. In a news report from 1950 (well worth watching for voice-over and musical accompaniment if nothing else) the population was estimated at 10 breeding pairs, yet this may have been an underestimate as the population was said to reach a low in 1982 of 118 birds.

Until the 1980s the takahē were largely left in peace but a steep decline in population numbers forced the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) to step in. A captive breeding programme combined with translocation to predator-free reserves increased the population to 263 at the beginning of this year. This may not seem impressive for 30 years of active conservation but takahē, in common with many of New Zealand’s endangered birds, are classic K-selected species meaning they live a long time, are slow to reach maturity and have few offspring over the course of their lives.

Predatory rodents that prey on eggs and chicks and inbreeding depression are the main factors that hinder more rapid population growth. Luckily New Zealand has recovery strategies for many of their endangered species which involve the use of predator-free islands and mainland reserves. While little can be done to improve the genetic diversity, strenuous efforts are made to maintain it through closely monitored breeding programmes.

Takahē may not be completely safe from extinction, without active conservation they would almost certainly be extinct. If it were not for Dr Orbell and his passion and determination in the face of almost certain defeat it is highly likely that the takahē would have died out, high up in the mountains and with no one to mourn their loss.

Dr Geoffrey Orbell was an ear, nose, throat and eye doctor whose search for the takahē was just one part of his long and fascinating life. He died in 2007 at the age of 98 and was born on October 7th 1908. Happy Birthday Geoffrey!


Sarah Hearne; hearnes[at], @SarahVHearne

Photo Source:


What I did this summer: Tortured some bees


Among the multiple pressures currently driving decline in bee populations, little attention has been given to naturally occurring toxins in plant nectar.  We carried out research this summer on invasive Rhododendron ponticum, a plant that contains neurotoxins in its floral nectar.  We found this toxin to be lethal to honeybees, but apparently benign to the plant’s main pollinators, bumblebees.  Differential responses by bee species to toxins and other pressures means we need to consider bee decline on a species by species basis.

It is well documented that bee populations worldwide are in trouble, and we’ve written about this on the blog before.  From peer reviewed scientific literature to the August 2013 issue of Time magazine, everyone is talking about declines in bee populations.  Bees are important pollinators and contribute to the pollination of 75% of our crop species, which translates to 35% overall global crop production.  The downfall of wild and domestic pollinators could pose serious risks for food security and ecosystem function.

Most people agree that the decline of bees can’t be attributed to one specific cause.  Instead, multiple pressures such as habitat loss (including loss of forage plants, as well as nesting, mating and overwintering sites for wild bees), and exposure to new diseases and parasites are probably all contributing.  One of the suspected drivers of bee decline that has received a lot of media coverage lately is exposure to synthetic pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, which end up contaminating the nectar and pollen of bee-pollinated crops.  Surprisingly though, pesticides aren’t the only potentially harmful chemicals bees are exposed to in their food.  They also have to cope with natural plant toxins in nectar and pollen.  Plants often produce toxic secondary compounds, such as alkaloids, terpenes, and phenolics, to defend against herbivorous insects, like aphids and caterpillars.  We humans tend to use many of these chemicals for our own purposes- for example, nicotine (found in nicotiana plants) and caffeine (in citrus and coffee plants).  But plant nectar is generally thought to function as a reward for pollinating insects like honeybees.  Why then do we find these deterrent chemicals in floral nectar?  And how are they impacting honeybees and wild bees?  This is a large part of my PhD project, see this old blog post for more detail.

Researchers in the lab of Dr. Jane Stout at Trinity College Dublin are studying drivers of bee decline, and a current project focusses on a plant that contains toxins in its nectar, Rhododendron ponticumRhododendron is an ecologically damaging invasive plant in Ireland and Great Britain, famous for the problems it has caused in forest ecosystems in places such as Killarney National Park.  This plant grows in moist, acidic soil, and often takes over the understory and edges of forests, shading out other floral resources.  The work done at Trinity (in collaboration with Dr. Phil Stevenson at Greenwich University and Dr. Geraldine Wright at Newcastle University) has found that Rhododendron contains a class of toxic chemicals known as grayanotoxins (GTX) in its nectar and pollen.  These chemicals are neurotoxins, which block the sodium channels of insects and cause neurological symptoms, like paralysis.  To certain insects, this toxin can be lethal.

I am doing a PhD with Dr. Stout and one of my studies is investigating how GTX from Rhododendron nectar affects Irish bees.  Together with undergraduate Zoology students Tara English and Sharon Matthews, I’ve performed assays using honeybees, bumblebees, and solitary bees.  We fed the bees sugar solutions that are designed to mimic floral nectar, but bees in one treatment are fed solutions containing the toxin and their survival and behavior is compared to control groups, fed solutions containing no chemicals.  Surprisingly, the consequences of ingesting GTX from Rhododendron were very different depending on which species of bee was being tested.

Bumblebees can be seen feeding on Rhododendron every May and June in Ireland, and so, as you would expect, they have no apparent negative reaction to consumption of GTX: there was no impact on survival or behavior.  Solitary bees are more rarely found feeding on Rhododendron.  In the lab, no differences in survival were detected in one species of Andrena, but these bees showed behavioral changes.  Bees flipped on their backs and twitched for hours after eating solutions containing GTX.  They eventually recovered, but one can imagine that this behavioral response could make them easy targets for predators like birds, and prevent them from foraging and provisioning their nests in their usual way.

Lastly, and most dramatically, were the effects on honeybees.  Honeybees showed an almost immediate neurological response to consuming solutions containing nectar-relevant concentrations of GTX: within fifteen to twenty minutes, the bees began twitching and lost antennal function.  Some unrolled their proboscis and couldn’t role the tongue-like structure back in, while others regurgitated the liquid as soon as possible.  Regardless of their symptoms, within three to six hours, bees fed the GTX solution were dead.

Even though the effect of GTX on honeybee survival is dramatic, compared to the other pressures on the industry, Rhododendron is probably not a huge problem for honeybees.  Field surveys by the TCD researchers show that honeybees are not found foraging on Rhododendron in Ireland, even when hives are kept in the middle of a forest invaded by the plant.  Honeybees have a remarkable ability to communicate which are the best plants to collect nectar and pollen from, and it’s likely that they quickly learn to avoid this toxic plant.  Still, Rhododendron is likely preventing the growth of other plants that might provide forage resources for honeybees, to some extent changing the landscape in an unfavorable way for this species.  But our work, in combination with previous work from the Stout laboratory, shows honeybees do not represent the entire ecological story.  A study carried out in 2006 and 2007 by Anke Dietzsch showed that the number of bumblebee colonies of two species was higher in areas invaded by Rhododendron when compared to uninvaded control sites in both years.  Rhododendron provides a huge amount of nectar and pollen early in spring that this group of bees can take full advantage of.  So is Rhododendron good for bees or bad for bees?  Turns out it depends what bee species you’re talking about.

The species-specific response to the toxin in Rhododendron nectar is surprising, and emphasizes that not all bees are the same.  It’s easy to group these insects into one category, but the impacts of chemicals and other pressures could be very different for each species.  It also emphasizes that honeybees are facing many challenges in our changing landscape.  Some of these challenges, like habitat change from invasive species and exposure to chemicals, can interact to make the picture even more complicated.  Pollinators, including honeybees, need all the help we can provide.

Work on the toxic nectar of Rhododendron ponticum is funded by Science Foundation Ireland, with additional support from the U.S. National Science Foundation, Irish Research Council’s EMBARK Postgraduate Scholarship Scheme, and the Wellcome Trust.


Erin Jo Tiedeken: tiedekee[at]


Photo source:



Radio Ga Ga Science: a student’s point of view

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I was planning to write a blog about our new paper recently published in Animal Behaviour  however something relatively unexpected seemed to scupper those plans, the media!

For those who haven’t come across an article talking about the best way to swat a fly or heard me rambling away on radio, our paper has been covered from Roscommon to North Korea so I won’t delve into it further here, especially with some nice summaries and our article available through open access.

What I wanted to write about was the perspective of a PhD student caught in the whirlwind of the big bad media world and how I felt about the whole experience as both a student and scientist.

First off I still have not fully grasped what happened, to sit on the Dart and read about your own research in the metro is very surreal and its extremely flattering to think that someone thought that what I was working on would be interesting for someone else to read about!

Despite it being a fantastic thing to be acknowledged in the media, it did also make me feel very anxious as something I had been working on for nearly two years was completely out in the open multiplying every hour as it became part of the international news recycling system. I also now know what it feels like to be the squirrel on water-skis fluffy news piece at the end of the news, there to lighten up the fact that the news is the even more depressing then watching “The Road”.

This lack of control is probably something any scientist is not comfortable with, with every comment section full of ludicrous assumptions and misunderstanding about the research none of which I could, or even should, try to set right or defend. In fact after so many “I knew that when I was five” comments it becomes more fun just to see whether the Independent or the Daily mail fared worse below the line (the guardian was worse again but  seems to have closed the comment section).

While I think this experience has been nothing but beneficial through advertising our science, in terms of the more general aspect of science communication with the public I found it a little tricky to decide how useful it was. This is due to what I found to be the fine balancing act of lowest common denominator reporting and getting the intricacies of you research across. For example, while I think the metaphor of swatting a fly is a good way of explaining our research in a real world scenario, we did not expect it would spawn a full article on the best methods to swat a fly, or that we would be referred by Ray D’Arcy as “Fly Experts”, despite the fact that flies were not in our dataset or that none of us have ever studied anything on flies!

It also raises the question of the value of engaging with the media from a scientist’s point of view. In one respect I think it is important to engage with the public as at the end of the day research is largely funded through the State and it’s important to remind the public not only that research is worth it but that “blue skies”  (awful term) research cab also be relevant. I think in some respects I am happy we achieved this with sites specifically aimed at 10-12 year olds with a specific educational aim and also through some good interviews on radio that I think got a generally positive response.

However with this there are also a lot of “the best way to swat a fly” pieces which aren’t getting anything across and at times may even start to trivialise the research and hence devalue its worth in the public’s eye (clear from comments hoping that no money was spent on this research).

Overall I think almost any science that enters the media will produce a mixed bag of results. But after the level of enthusiasm from people and the genuine line of questions such as seen in this reddit forum (Unlike the Irish reddit forum), I think it’s nearly always worth it to let your research out there as it will undoubtedly be genuinely appreciated by at least some people.

Author and Photo Credit:

Kevin Healy: @healyke, healyke[at]