New funding for Dr Tonya Lander’s research on pollinators

The Prince of Wales Charitable Foundation funds research to track pollinators and improve agricultural management

Christ Church’s Stipendiary Lecturer in Biology, Dr Tonya Lander, has received funding to undertake research on pollinators in agricultural connections. 

Approximately one third of world food production comes from crops wholly or partially dependent on animal (mainly insect) pollination. Many animal-pollinated crops also provide essential macro- and micronutrients which contribute to a healthy human diet and are not found in staple grain crops. However, declines of wild and domestic pollinators have been reported from every continent except Antarctica (and this only because there aren’t any pollinators in Antarctica!). The declines are attributed to habitat loss, land-use change, agricultural grazing, pesticide and herbicide use, diseases and parasites, introduction of non-native species, environmental pollution, and climate change. Most of these drivers of pollinator decline are at work in parallel in agricultural landscapes. Agricultural production is essential for human survival, can contribute to valuable cultural landscapes, and plays a central role in the global economy. However, from the pollinator’s perspective, intensively managed farms often present large areas of non-rewarding wind-pollinated crops, monocultures of rewarding crops that are limited both in floral richness, and hence nutritional value for the insects, and temporal availability, such that rewards are available for only a few weeks out of the growing season. There is clearly an urgent need to improve agricultural land management to maintain and improve crop production, while also protecting and enhancing pollinator populations.

Diagram showing radar signal traveling from hand-held transmitter to a tag on the insect, and from the tag to the receiver on the UAV The Prince of Wales Charitable Foundation is currently funding a project in Dr Lander’s lab to develop a new method of tracking individual pollinators as they travel in real time through agricultural landscapes. These data will provide detail on pollinator behaviour at a spatial scale and level of detail never before possible. The approach builds on twenty years of experience with harmonic radar tracking of insects, and moves the technology forward by (1) reducing the size of the radar transmitter and receiver so that the transmitter can be handheld and the receiver carried on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV / drone), (2) reducing the insect tag size and allowing horizontal orientation of the antenna, making the technology suitable for ground-nesting insects and (3) carrying the receiver on a UAV to reduce signal strength loss over distance and interference from vegetation. Outputs from this project will include: a tracking system which could be applied not only to pollinating insects, but also insect pests such as locusts, and invasive species such as the Asian hornet. Data collected using the tracking system will provide the foundation for a predictive model of pollinator movement in agricultural landscapes. The model will be used to predict movement and dispersal patterns and genetic connectivity of pollinator and plant populations, predict the impacts of environmental change on those movement and dispersal patterns, and provide guidance for farm management, including determining the minimum and optimum quantity, floral composition, patch size and spatial arrangement of semi-natural vegetation for pollinators to support both crop and wild plant pollination.

The image above shows how the radar signal travels from the hand-held transmitter on the ground to the tag on the insect, and from the tag to the receiver on the UAV (drone). The UAV reports its own location (above the insect) to the ground station.