Robin Blake on insect pollinators, spiders and plants

05 March 2012

5 Mar 2012

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in science?  
I've been interested in science and nature ever since childhood. I remember constantly turning over rocks and stones to see what life lay under them or wanting to find out how things worked. My parents were always keen that my brother and I should pursue careers that were both interesting and rewarding. They viewed science as the perfect choice. That advice worked as we are both scientists, albeit in different fields.

What is your research topic?  
I've just completed a PhD at the University of Reading investigating methods of enhancing biodiversity in grass buffer strips. These are non-cropped areas found around the edges of farmers' fields used to provide habitat for many flora and fauna. They are popular in the UK with over 29,000 ha currently established under Agri-Environment Schemes (AES).

These were set up to mitigate the negative impact that intensive farming has had on UK biodiversity, and work by paying farmers to manage their land in environmentally-sensitive ways. However, whilst these grass strips are good for ground-nesting birds and some insects such as beetles, they tend to lack wild flowers and so don't attract pollinating insects such as bumblebees.

I investigated techniques to establish wild flowers in existing strips to benefit pollinators and other components of biodiversity, such as spiders, which are important for pest control. This was achieved using two methods: scarification with wild flower seeds and application of a graminicide, a herbicide that kills grasses. The scarification was conducted with a power harrow, breaking up the existing sward and creating a crude seed bed into which a wild flower seed mixture was sown.

The graminicide fluazifop-P-butyl was then applied at different rates and timings to investigate if application could suppress the existing grasses, rather than eliminate them completely, and allow the wild flowers to flourish. The responses to these treatments on the abundance and species richness of insect pollinators, spiders and plants was measured over four years.

What's innovative about your research project?  
Plenty of previous work has investigated scarification methods, sowing wild flower seeds and applying graminicide. However, this has been in the creation of new buffer strips. My research focussed on utilising these techniques to enhance existing buffer strips. It was demonstrated that enhancing an existing strip could be more cost-effective than ploughing and starting again, especially if the aim is to include wild flowers, potentially saving farmers' money as well as maximising biodiversity.

What have been your proudest achievements so far?  
I presented a paper at the Butterfly Conservation International Symposium in 2010, and met Sir David Attenborough. Not only was this the first paper I'd published, it was also amazing to meet someone who has been at the forefront of nature broadcasting for 60 years. I found the experience very inspiring.

What is the next milestone in your career?
I recently joined the Weed Control Biology group at Syngenta where I'm responsible for managing research into new herbicides for rice and soybean crops.

You can connect with Robin or SCI members who are in a similar field, please log into the SCI Members' Directory.

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