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What is biodiversity and why does it matter?

Learn why understanding and protecting biodiversity is important. Watch Dr. Callum Macgregor explain more.
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Nature in all of its glory - from the largest plants, animals and fungi to the very tiniest bacteria - is often described using the term “biodiversity”. More specifically, biodiversity describes the number of species that make up an ecological community, the balance between their dynamic, ever-changing population sizes, and the ways in which different species interact with each other. The diversity of an ecological community is something that we can measure and describe. But how can we, as ecologists, go about convincing policy-makers in government, land-owners, and the general public that biodiversity is something to be protected, valued and cherished? A key area where humans interact with the biodiversity around us is on farms, so let’s consider those as an example.
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We know that many important crops grown or consumed in the UK, such as apples and strawberries, depend on insects for pollination and will produce a smaller yield without them. In fact, insect pollinators contribute £690 million to the UK economy every year! A substantial part of this pollination is provided by the most famous pollinator of all, the honey bee. But there are only enough honey bee hives in Britain to pollinate one third of our crops, meaning most of that pollination must come from elsewhere. So what are the wild pollinators making up the shortfall? Certainly, there are lots of other species of bees that contribute to pollination.
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Find a flowerbed in a park or garden near you on a sunny day and you will probably be able to see some of them for yourself. These include bumblebees and many species of solitary bees. You might also spot hoverflies, bee-flies, butterflies, or even beetles visiting the flowers . We are even beginning to understand that moths might play an important role in pollination, hidden under cover of darkness. But what is that role? How important is it to different species of crops? And is it enough to have just one type of pollinator, or should we concentrate on protecting their biodiversity?
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A recent study of one of our most important crops, oil-seed rape, suggests that the highest yields are achieved not simply by having the highest number of pollinators, but by having lots of different types of pollinators. Different sizes, shapes, mouthparts and behaviours can all contribute to ensuring the best outcome for the plants - and the farmers. Measuring the biodiversity of different ecosystems, understanding how biodiversity changes when the environment does, and developing ideas for how to protect biodiversity and maximise its benefits, are all important parts of the job for an ecologist like me.
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But at the end of a hard day, there is little more incredible and more motivating than the jumble of colours, shapes, sizes and behaviours, to be found simply by stepping out of the front door.

Understanding how to generate important evidence concerning the role of biodiversity with Dr. Callum Macgregor.

In this video we think about what is meant by the term “biodiversity”. We discuss why biodiversity is important and worth protecting. As a case study, we consider the role that biodiversity plays on farms, improving crop yields by providing the service of pollination.

Here are some questions to consider while you’re watching the video. We’d be happy to hear your views after you’ve watched the video.

  • Can you think of another example of a crop that requires pollination by insects? Why are some crops able to produce a yield without insect pollinators?
  • Why might plants receive better pollination by encouraging pollinators of different sizes, shapes, mouthparts and behaviours?
  • “Ecosystem services” are the benefits that humans can gain from a healthy, functioning natural environment, such as pollination of crops. Can you think of another example of an ecosystem service?
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