I spent the last few days at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting.This was my first time attending, but I had heard about it for years. It’s a fantastic opportunity to meet new people, catch up with old friends and generally find out what’s happening in the world of ecology. It is also notorious for its social events. In previous years my husband would normally return exhausted and slightly hung over after BES meetings, and I offered little pity. Now I know how it feels. It was an incredibly interesting, productive and enjoyable meeting, but also completely exhausting with sessions starting at 9 am and evening social events continuing into the small hours of the morning with little break in between. After a good night’s sleep, I’m feeling somewhat refreshed, so I think this is a good time to reflect on what I actually took away from the meeting.
First, I think the most important thing for me was the opportunity to network and meet new people from other institutions. I’ve been a bit isolated in my work this year as I was the only person remaining in my lab after my supervisor left for Australia. The BES meeting gave me a chance to meet lots of researchers studying similar systems or using similar techniques. I think there may even be some collaborations in the works now, thanks to midnight discussions in a local pub! Getting involved in the new Plants, Soils and Ecosystems special interest group gave me even more of a chance to meet researchers in similar fields and feel part of the community. I definitely recommend any ecologists join one of these groups if you can!
On the science side of things, I attended 2 lectures, 2 workshops and around 40 research talks covering everything from predicting evolution, creative public engagement, soil microbes, bee bread, and much, much more. I also saw quite a few posters (despite the crush in the exhibition hall) and had loads of informal discussions about different research project. I’ve summarised a few of the talks and workshops below if anyone is interested in what they may have missed.
The meeting started with the Tansley lecture by Prof Steve Ellner. It was a great talk about predator-prey interactions, rapid evolution and difficulty of prediction given the complexity of natural systems (or even highly simplified laboratory systems). It’s not an area I know much about, but I found it really engaging. I’m sure the lecture will be summarised elsewhere, but the take-home messages were that we can predict some evolution in highly simplified systems, but the devil is in the detail and this becomes much, much more difficult as more species are considered. We need more theory in order to understand which details matter, in which situations and at what time scales; and this needs to be tested with targeted experiments both in microcosms and, eventually, in the field.
I attended a workshop on creative public engagement which highlighted just how inventive ecologists can be. The idea is that the BES is going to take ecology activities to music festivals this year as part of the centenary celebrations (they’ve applied to Glasto, Greenman and several others – check out the BES Roadshow blog for more details). This workshop was a brainstorming session to get people thinking of activities that could work in a festival environment. Ideas that came up included a giant 3D food web model built throughout the festival, dung beetle gladiator games, species eye-spy, mud ecology, and dressing up as glow-stick jellyfish in an ocean tent. Whoever said scientists are boring? If you have any ideas, there’s even a competition that could earn you a chance to join the festival team.
The bulk of the meeting was spent in research talks. I went to two sessions on aboveground-belowground interactions, one on climate change ecology, two on community ecology, and popped my head into a few talks in other sessions. A few of these stick out for me either because they were particularly relevant, considered something I hadn’t thought of before or were just really well presented.
The first talk I saw was by Franciska de Vries on the effects of plant traits on soil microbial communities and soil carbon. Her study looked at grasslands across the UK and found that certain plant communities promote fungi over bacteria in the soil, leading to greater carbon sequestration and less nitrogen leaching from the soils. This is really relevant to my research interest – looking at the links between plants and soil communities and the interactions affect carbon cycling. This was complimented by a later talk by Catherine Baxendale looking more specifically at which plant traits influence microbial abundance, activity and fungi to bacteria ratios.
Nick Ostle discussed his research looking at how wind turbines on peatlands actually change the microclimate in the area enough to affect carbon fluxes from the soil and other aspects of the local carbon cycle. This could mean we have to re-think how we calculate the climate change impact of on-shore wind farms.
Mike Morecroft discussed a project to create a biodiversity ‘report card’ to present to policy makers which summarises the current scientific consensus. This is based on reviews of review papers which summarise the primary literature, so there are multiple layers of peer review and a rating for how strong the evidence for the statement it. This seems to be an effective way of bringing together lots of diverse findings and communicating the main themes that emerge.
Don A’Bear presented his work looking at the interactions between decomposer fungi and soil invertebrates in a changing climate. Warming increases fungal growth, and therefore decomposition rates. Warming also promotes the invertebrates that eat fungi, which mediates the climate effects. The complexity of the interactions make it difficult to predict what will happen as the climate warms, but this is a step to improving our understanding, and it gave me some ideas for new techniques to use when looking at fungal communities!
Heather Rumble discuss her work looking at the biodiversity value of green roofs. While there are flagship green roofs with deep soil and diverse communities, most ‘green roofs’ have only shallow, nutrient poor substrates. This leads to very poor soil communities that lack trophic levels and are more similar to a desert than a lush grassland. While these may help to reduce problems associated with water runoff, there are of very limited (if any) use in promoting urban biodiversity. As a switch to the deep-soil model is unlikely to go down well with industry, Heather suggests that adding microhabitats, such as rocks as refuges and at least some areas with deeper soil may make the roofs more biodiversity-friendly.
Ian Thornhill looked at the factors that influence invertebrate communities in ponds. Even urban ponds can support healthy communities with a little local support. Factors such as eutrophication and the surrounding vegetation are the most important factors. Having good management in the 100m around the pond can make a big difference, and having clusters of ponds nearby also helps.
Andy Purvis discussed the PREDICTS project which aims to model how biodiversity responds to human impacts, and put out a call for more data. Using the 350,000 data points the project has received so far, they have been able to model the effects of land conversion on species numbers. This is a very cool project and they’ll be able to do a lot more with more data! If you know anyone with data from ANY terrestrial species from more than one site, please email the team at enquiries(at)predicts.org.uk.
Philip Donkersley talked about variation in the composition of bee bread. I had no idea what bee bread was, but I can now tell you that it’s a combination of pollen, glandular secretion and a small amount of honey that bees use at the primary protein source for the colony, so is important for colony health. Philip collected samples from apiaries around northwest England and showed that the nutritional quality of the bread varied based on time of year and surrounding habitats, with arable land and littoral rock associated with lower protein content and grasslands and woodlands associated with higher protein content.
The final talk in the sessions I attended was one of the last of the conference. It was by Vojtech Novotny, a legend of an entomologist who has worked in Papau New Guinea for decades. We know that there are more insects in primary forests compared to secondary, and this is no surprise as primary and secondary forests differ in the number, size and species of trees, habitat and resource provision, and much more. However, Vojtech has looked into exactly which characteristic cause the differences. Working with a local community in PNG who needed to clear land for shifting agriculture, they cleared a 1 ha plot of primary forest and one of secondary forest, then compared at 0.1 ha subset of the secondary forest with a comparable selection from the primary forest (e.g., looked at the same number of trees from the primary forest as there were in the 0.1 ha subset of the secondary forest). By looking at the differences between these and repeating the process lots of times with different subsets, they could calculate how much of the difference between primary and secondary forest insect communities was explained by tree numbers. Then they added additional characteristics (e.g., tree size, tree species) allowing them to calculate how much of the difference between the communities was caused by each of those factors. What’s so cool about this is that the method should work in lots of systems. For this example, he only looked at miners, but it would work for examining any group or to compare different systems, such as comparing tropical to temperate forests. It was a really interesting talk to end the meeting!
I think it’s safe to say that my first BES conference was a success, and I look forward to many more in the future. I learned loads about a wide range of topics, gained new perspective on my own work, networked with people from all over the UK and further afield, potentially found some new collaborators, and socialised with new and old friends. I had a good time with like-minded people and feel inspired to get on with my own research now.