Institute of Science in Society 09/17/2014 by Rosemary Mason MB ChB FRCA
A personal witness to the devastating demise of wild pollinators and other species as glyphosate herbicides increase in the environment
In March 2006, UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) announced the closure of its wildlife research centres , a decision opposed by 99% of 1 327 stakeholders. Monks Wood centre, which hosted BBC’s Spring Watch, pioneered work on DDT and pesticides in the 1960s, and more recently revealed how climate change is affecting wildlife, with spring arriving three weeks earlier. The research centres were also involved in assessing the impacts of GM (genetically modified) crops on wildlife, with findings contradicting industry claims that no harm would be caused.
In response to that and to the unexplained disappearance of birds and invertebrates (such as bumblebees, honeybees and other pollinators), we set aside one acre of the field next to our house in South Wales to make a chemical-free nature reserve.
To begin with we had considerable success. We photographed many insects that were clearly benefitting from wild flowers, often insignificant ones, which supplied nectar and pollen resources but which had been eliminated from many conventional arable fields. The reserve also provided larval food plants for several species of moths, butterflies and bush crickets.
In 2009, I had major surgery followed by radiotherapy. The work on the reserve diverted me from dark thoughts, and insomnia allowed me to make nocturnal visits around the reserve and adjacent fields to see speckled bush crickets in their most active periods. With a bat detector set at 40 kHz, a torch and recording device, I followed the ‘singing’ adult bush crickets and recorded the progress of their courtships. In fact ‘stridulation’ is a sound produced by the males rubbing a tooth-bearing left wing across a scraper on the right wing. Courtship and mating takes place at the highest point. It was amazing how many I heard and saw. The same frequency picked up the staccato discharge of pipistrelle bats performing their erratic aerobatics as they hunted insects along the hedge above my head. I would hear tawny owls calling to each other, such a haunting sound, and follow the voice with my ears, as the owl moved on silent wings between groups of trees.
After observations made during the summer of 2009, we published a photo-journal: Speckled Bush Crickets. Observations in a small nature reserve  (see Box 1). On 10 February 2010, Dr David Robinson, who is studying the behaviour and acoustics of Leptophyes punctatissima (Speckled Bush Crickets) at the Open University, said: “I think that it is probably the first time anybody has produced a book about a single species.” He gave a copy to Dr Judith Marshall, who is the British expert on grasshoppers and crickets at the Natural History Museum.
At the end of 2010, we published another photo-journal, The Year of the Bumblebee. Observations in a small nature reserve  (see Box 1). The United Nations had declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity, to celebrate the diversity of life on earth. It also marked the year by which 200 countries had promised to halt biodiversity loss. In 2010 we set ourselves the task of identifying the six common types of bumblebees, their emergence, behaviour and the species of flower from which they took pollen and nectar.
Extracts from photo-journals [2, 3] & other observations
Mating strategy in the female spider Araneus quadratus
“At fence post 22 on 16thAugust 2010, I was lucky enough to witness and photograph the courtship and mating of Araneus quadratus, an orb web spider, in our 1-metre high hedge.” Spiders reconstruct their webs during the night. “An early morning photograph illuminated by a torch, showing the previous night’s work. The prey catching web of an orb web spider is amazingly intricate. It was much more complex than her courtship web, which looked as if it had been thrown together in a hurry! There are strong frame threads and radial threads, after which the spider lays down a temporary auxiliary spiral which she takes down as she constructs the sticky prey- catching spiral. This ends before the central hub, leaving a free zone.”
The first pollen of the year for the Bombus Terrestris March 5th 2010
“She descended like a helicopter, feet first into a large, purple crocus flower and disappeared completely. Apart from a faint tremor of the petals you would have been unaware she was there if you hadn’t actually seen her go in. Some 5-10 s later she emerged head first over the threshold, liberally powdered with pollen and crawled out like a drunk, narcotised by the first decent meal of the year.”
Moulting in a Speckled Bush Cricket nymph, August 8th 2009
“She sat with her right hind leg extended and braced against the leaf below with the left leg flexed and acting as a counterbalance. The forelegs grasped the shroud and the two mid legs were used as stabilisers. The external mouthparts, mandibles and palps were clearly visible and this time I could see the mouthparts moving. She had chosen a perfect day on which to perform her ecdysis. She and her other self were poised like ballet dancers caught in the spotlight of the sun, casting surreal shadows on the scabious leaf below. At the end of 16 minutes all that remained was a pair of tibia, still hooked by their tarsi to a trefoil leaf above. Presumably she must have mentally calculated that the nutritional gain from climbing up and unhooking them was hardly worth the effort.”
The Ladybird Ball
For two weeks in April 2010 we studied 7-spot ladybirds. They are remarkable predators and natural pest removers! They steadily graze their way through aphids and mildew spores. We made counts three times a day; morning, afternoon and evening. During those periods they migrated from positions in the field during the day and usually gathered on shrubs in the western hedge in the early evening sunshine; field maple, hawthorn, blackthorn, hornbeam and hazel. Here they fed, rested and mated. Although they meet by accident, the factors that govern their behaviour (they are attracted by light and move against the force of gravity) meant that they climb upwards and are drawn to the same places. In those 2 weeks we counted 348 ladybirds.
Three plant species that supported the insects
|August 5th 2009: Male speckled bush cricket nymph on devil’s bit scabious leaf; ‘proof of grazing’.||July 7th 2010: ‘The Teasels grew and grew, like Jack’s beanstalk, and had to be staked up against the July gales!’ Teasels were the favourite flower of the new bumblebee queens. They were used for both feeding and roosting.||August 18th 2010: Bombus terrestris, buff-tailed bumblebee, has a short tongue which cannot reach the inside of the bell-shaped flowers of the Comfrey. She solves the problem of a short tongue by ‘stealing’ it. The short tongue penetrates the base of the flower.|