Wonderful world of ecology and evolution under the microscope

Posted on: 24 November 2016

Why are African bees important for the beauty industry? How do pesticides affect insect behaviour, and what impact does that have on cider? And what happens when a new animal species turns up in Ireland? These are just some of the questions being tackled by leading researchers who will discuss their work at the first Ecology & Evolution Ireland Conference.

Professor in Botany at Trinity, Jane Stout, will discuss how shea trees are pollinated and how dependent shea butter production is on pollinators and their habitat. Shea butter, made from the fruits of the shea tree, is highly valued by global cosmetics, pharmaceutical and food industries, as well as by local communities across the semi-arid sub-Saharan region.

Shea nuts being extracted in Africa. Image credit: Erik Hersman.

Shea is the second-biggest agricultural export from Ghana, and is important in global confectionery and cosmetics industries. Shea fruit production declines by half in the absence of pollinators such as honeybees and stingless bees.

Professor Stout said: “Shea harvesting, processing and sales provides work for women in Africa and is an important source of income for family and especially for education. Sustainable shea production therefore contributes to society and empowers women too.”

“Better understanding how this important beauty crop is pollinated will enable the habitat of shea trees to be managed to ensure sustainable shea production into the future. This is a beauty project that’s good for the environment and local livelihoods!”

Trinity graduate, Dr Dara Stanley (NUI Galway), will also present her work, which involved fitting individual bumblebees with tiny computer chips. This high-tech approach to gathering data allowed her to follow their activity patterns, so as to assess how pesticide exposure affected their behaviour.

While pesticides may be an important tool for controlling crop pests, bumblebees can also be exposed and pesticides, even if they don’t kill, can affect bees’ learning ability, navigation and delivery of pollination services. An important finding for orchard owners was that bees’ ability to pollinate apple crops was affected by the levels of pesticide they came into contact with on farmland.

The wonderful world of Irish ecology research – what does the future hold?

To coincide with the first Ecology & Evolution Ireland Conference a digital issue of the British Ecological Society journals collected together decades of research on Irish ecosystems, and performed by researchers based in Ireland. This collection extends from uncovering secrets of the deep past to predicting future challenges. The editorial was written by Trinity's Professor of Zoology, Yvonne Buckley.

Future research in Ireland will focus on the impacts and management of ongoing global environmental challenges, and on the issues affecting local ecosystems. Ireland’s economic future rests heavily on its natural capital. Oceans, rivers, lakes, pastures, bogs and forests directly and indirectly support the dominant industries of agri-food and tourism. Natural capital also provides services to the manufacturing, pharmaceutical, finance and information technology industries. As elsewhere, these ecosystems are rapidly changing due to intensified land use and climate change.

Professor Buckley said: "The Ecology & Evolution Ireland Conference shows the strength of research in Ireland. It is essential that research on microbes, animals and plants that make up our natural capital are supported if we are to make breakthroughs of global socioeconomic importance." 

The conference is funded by the British Ecological Society, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Marine Institute.

Media Contact:

Thomas Deane, Media Relations Officer | deaneth@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 4685