BEES Transition Programme 2019

Once again, the School of BEES ran its popular TY programme earlier in the year to give second-level students an opportunity to explore life at BEES. The following are just some of the comments from this year’s participants.

Ava Lawton, Presentation Secondary School Mitchelstown.

This week I attended the Bees TY 2019 Programme in UCC. It was a week full of unexpected surprises and was far from what I was expecting.  The experience of being on campus and participating in lectures was insightful and beneficial but what made my week was the uniqueness of this course. In Transition Year I have been to many college courses but this week will always stand out when I look back on transition year. The point that sums up my week here was on the very first day when we got a tour of BEES private museum.

From start to finish of this tour I was both fascinated and in complete awe. We were surrounded by massive presses filled with stuffed animals which we were able to open and discover what lay within. Any animal or insect you can imagine was in this room. Some of the original specimens collected by Charles Darwin during his voyage aboard the Beagle were even on display. I got to see a kitten with two heads, an elephants tooth, quadruplet armadillos and so much more. It was like entering the movie A Night At The Museum!

Our guide explained what many of the specimen were and it was a wonderful opportunity to ask questions. I learned so much in this one room, for example how animals are preserved than I have in nearly all my year so far in TY! This tour was an amazing start to the week and perfectly set up the rest of the programme. I really appreciated how the programme was designed. It was aimed directly at Transition Years and all the information was conveyed effectively. Everyone was so friendly and I just wish I could come back again!


I found my week in BEES highly enjoyable and informative about the areas of Zoology, Geology, Ecology, Environmental Science and Biology.  What really surprised me about the week was how much I loved the practicals in all the different subject areas of BEES. I normally find the practical side of science dull in comparison to the theory but the experiments we got to do during the week were so innovative and exciting that I was really engaged and interested throughout. My favourite practicals  included “Finding the DNA in strawberries” and “Identifying animal hairs under a microscope”.

My favourite part of the week in general were the lectures and practicals centred around animals. I specifically loved learning about bird ringing and I found it so fascinating to see the different breeds of birds up close and to note the differences in their colour, size and feathers.  I also really enjoyed the Zoology and Ecology lecture we had on wild cats.

Another amazing feature of the week was having the opportunity to have a guided tour of the UCC campus and to see the Eureka Centre and the Boole Library in depth. It was really interesting to learn about the history of UCC and I loved seeing how eco-friendly the campus was. Thank you so much to everyone involved in organising this week for us especially Dr Tom Quirke it was amazing !

Jake Coffey- Bandon Grammar School

This week in the school of bees was great. I thought that the lectures were all very interesting and the professors were passionate about what they did. Some of my favourite lectures were the Marine biology lecture, the ERI tour and the bird practical and lecture. My favourite part overall though was the DNA practical. Prof. Wingler explained very well about plant genes and how humans have mutated them to be better crops. Then when we did the practical- extracting DNA from strawberries, it was cool to see what she was talking about in real life. It was much more simple than is was expecting as well. The experiment only used common household items like washing-up liquid and salt. The experiment involved mashing up the strawberry in a plastic bag and then straining out the juice. We added the juice to a specific amount of the washing up liquid, salt and water solution and stirred for about five minutes. Then two teaspoons of isopropyl alcohol were added carefully to the top. After about five minutes white strands were forming in the layer of alcohol. We were able to pick these up with the forceps and take a look. Right there was strawberry DNA. I thought it was really cool to be able extract something myself, that is too small to see normally and be able to look at it. I really recommend this program to any Transition Years who are interested in science. There is something for everyone!

Busy BEES at Work in UCC

By Hannah Fenton

Loreto Secondary School, Fermoy

A group of 29 lucky students from all around Ireland had the unbeelievable opportunity to spend a week studying at the School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences in University College Cork. I was fortunate enough to count myself among these students and I spent an incredible week at the university learning all about the BEES degree itself and all the different doors it could open for me. I would love to become a Marine Biologist when I grow up and this week I got to learn how to get where I want to be! UCC offers an excellent degree in Zoology and then if I’m still determined to become a Marine Biologist, UCC even has a Masters course in Marine Biology. After our tour of UCC and its campus, where we got to learn all about the rich history of the college and all the amazing resources available to students like the Boole Library, I couldn’t think of a more perfect place for me to study and grow as a person and aspiring scientist! Definitely the highlight of the week for me was getting the opportunity to talk to Dr. Mark Jessop. Dr. Jessop told us about his travels to the Artic, Antarctic and he even spent 2.5 years in Bird Island, South Georgia! He told us all about his daily life on the island, studying the seals and wildlife on the island. And I have to say it sounds absolutely fascinating, especially as that is what I would love to do that when I’m older!

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Algarve Fieldtrip 2019

Introduction (by Keith Dineen)

The School of BEES gives 3rd-year students an exciting opportunity to study the engrossing ecology of the Algarve. Alvor was to be our temporary home for our week-long trip, located in the southern region of the Algarve, which is in stark contrast to the environmental conditions experienced in Ireland. High temperatures and low annual precipitation are to be expected in this Mediterranean climate, and the astonishing biodiversity deserves to be witnessed up close.

Bags packed, planes caught, our very eager and excited group landed in Faro, all hopeful of a magnificent and once in a life time trip ahead. Our first morning in Alvor, after settling in, was spent down by the pool for our trip briefing with our very own lecturers, Emer Rogan, Fidelma Butler, Javier delBarco-Trillo, John Quinn and Ruth Ramsey, and the technician Luke Harman, all enlightening us with what we could expect and most importantly what they expected from us regarding CA and our trusty field notebooks – our bible. We also had a fascinating talk from guest lecturer Matthijs Schouten and Moniek Nooren.

Day 1: Fiddler crap behaviour by Evan Hickey

Our first taste of the Algarve came with the fiddler crab. This was a great way to kick off the trip, to see these crabs in action, as their distinct behaviour has been mentioned on several occasions during the course. Once we had spotted these creatures along the wooden walkway, floundering through the mudflats became a much more rewarding task. Observing their animated courtship displays could sway even the most vocal opponent to things that creep and crawl. Any sudden movements could cause a mass of individuals to hide in their burrows, so sitting patiently was rewarded with a unique experience. Indeed, if you put in a little effort when observing fiddler crabs, you get so much in return.

Day 2: Saltmarsh relevees and Rocky shore diversity by Keith Dineen

Our second day of field work saw us travel to Aljezur, where we were to study the vegetation of three different zones down by an estuary: saltmarsh, embryonic dunes, and stable dunes. We took a quadrat at each zone and recorded the different species of plants, height and soil type for our relevee analysis. It soon became apparent that there were fewer species closer to the water, as one or two species are dominant due to salinity adaptations.

After we had our relevees done it was time for a 20 minute walk up to where we would be doing our rocky shore analysis but first it was time for a lunch break at a lovely café overlooking the sea, where coffee, ice cream and one or two pints of super bock were enjoyed before it was time to get back to the job at hand. The rocky shore provided students with excellent opportunities for candid photos of the landscape and each other! We spent just under two hours at the rocky shore foraging for all sorts of rare finds and recording them down, to be analysed later that evening by the pool.

Day 3: Salgados by Keith Dineen

Our third day saw us head to an interesting area of a mix of abandoned farmland, lagoon, dunes and beach on the southern coast of the Algarve. First part of the day was a briefing from Matthijs on the importance of sand dunes and the impact of human development on them. After this we split up into two groups to do either Bird watching with John, Emer and Luke or to do some Habitat mapping with Fidelma, Matthijs, Moniek and Ruth. After lunch we swapped groups.

The habitat mapping involved walking through the different zones and looking at which species were dominant in the zone and recording a new zone when the dominant vegetation changed. We also recorded the level of human disturbance, soil type and vegetation height.

During bird watching, we were marvelled with the wide diversity of bird species before our eyes, with greater flamingos a plenty along with coots, pochard and black winged stilts to name just a few.

Day 4: Monchique by Killian O’Sullivan and Adam Geaney

A few tired heads were seen on the 30-minute bus to Monchique mountain range, but everyone was refreshed at our first stop; the garrigue zone at the base of the mountain. Matthijs spoke about mountain zonation, soils and vegetation. We listened for bird calls in the area, and John Quinn told us more on what we were hearing. We heard multiple calls including calls of the nightingale. We were then back onto the bus for a short trip to the town of Monchique. A lovely view was had from the bus stop looking out on the coast, and the different vegetation at the different zones was easily seen. Matthijs spoke about the cork oak that surrounded us in the area. John (surprise surprise) spoke about birds, notably the eco engineers in the area: the green woodpecker and the lesser spotted woodpecker. We searched for and investigated the flora and fauna around us. For example, Barry Cronin was seen studying a venomous centipede.

We then went back onto the bus for a third stop, heading up towards the mountain’s peak. We stopped into an eucalyptus plantation. Here Matthijs enlightened us about the many problems associated with the non-native Australian eucalyptus. He also informed us on the scrubs in the surrounding area, the matos. We then searched for scorpions but were unsuccessful, although we observed many other species. One final climb on the bus brought us to the peak of the mountain, 902 meters above sea level. On the search for snakes at a pond, we were welcomed by green frogs. We searched for snakes for roughly 30 minutes, but our search was fruitless. That concluded a day which was thoroughly enjoyable, in which we gained useful knowledge for the future.           

Days 5 and 6: Research Projects by Keith Dineen, Kate O’Regan, Rosalind Graves, Evan Hickey, Christina McKiernan, and Lydia Elliot 

Sunday saw our group of 41 split into different groups to work on separate projects which we had chosen the night before. There was a wide variety of projects on offer for us students to chose from: Terrapin behaviour with Ruth Ramsey, invertebrate biodiversity also with Ruth, beetle behaviour with Fidelma Butler, fiddler crab behaviour with Emer Rogan, plant-insect interaction with Matthijs Schouten and Moniek, and avian behaviour with John Quinn.

Terrapin behaviour. Four of us were lucky enough to get to do a behavioural study on a freshwater turtle species in the Algarve (Mauremys sp.) Despite their slow reputation, the turtle population we studied showed a variety of behaviour and activity. Our study of them involved sitting down by the pond and watching the turtles and noting their behaviour, trying to feed them, and running around the man-made pond waving at them to test how they respond and recover from human disturbance. We often felt like we were the ones being studied, half expecting one of the turtles to take out a notebook and record our behaviour.

Marine invertebrate diversity. With a very early start in the morning, our group of nine dragged ourselves to the local harbour area of Alvor. After a brief discussion with Ruth and Javier about the multitude of topics we could focus on relating to marine biofouling in the area, we were left alone to conjure a half-decent project. Between our groggy selves, we decided to focus on a simple investigation as to whether invertebrate diversity varies from natural substrates (such as rocks) to artificial structures (like that of slipways and pillars). With the lecturer’s help we devised a protocol, and we set off in threes to identify and count organisms found on surfaces across the beach, from the infra- to mid-littoral zones. With the incoming tide soon ending this search, we were forced to wait until the early afternoon to complete our data collection. In the end, with a wide variety of results gathered, we pooled every species found and their abundance into an Excel datasheet to be analysed later on.

Beetle behaviour. Several students had chosen to observe beetles at Alvor beach and answer questions about their behaviour and assemblages. Two species were commonly found at our study site. One of these beetles, Erodius tibialis, has a subtle golden band between its head and thorax. During our observations we also found Odonotoscelis fuliginosa, a rare beetle with three distinct markings on its back. We also placed pitfall traps at the site to see if the assemblage changed at different times of the day. My personal highlight was uncovering the traps the following day to find another beetle species, Scarites sp., a predatory beetle that is well concealed during the midday and the largest species we saw at the beach. Their behaviour was very different from the other beetle species found, as they were aggressive towards any beetle species that was within their surroundings, including conspecifics. The beetle behaviour project has shown me that there is a lot more going on under the surface once you start paying attention!

Fiddler crab project. For the fiddler crab project, we went back down to the Alvor saltmarsh near to our apartments. This time we had some new work to do however, as we investigated correlations between burrow size, mudball size, mudball distance from the burrow, and how these correlations might differ in relation to gender.

Plant-insect interaction. Eight of us left the apartments at 10am. After strolling over to the site we would be working on, we constructed an experimental design. Firstly we divided the site into 3 areas (Woodland, scrubland, and grassland), then working in small groups we took notes on each habitat and the vegetation which is found there. On the second day we returned to each habitat to find as many invertebrates species as possible using sweep nets, bashing, ground searches, and soil searches. The invertebrates were then identified by Matthijs and Moniek. We used these data to compare the relationship between species type and vegetation structure. This project was thoroughly enjoyable and didactic, although I would recommend bringing insect repellent.

Avian Behaviour. This project involved 7 of us students, John and our driver supreme Luke Harman, leaving our apartment at 7 am and driving to the town of Castro Verde some hour an half away from our apartment. The morning sky was filled with fog, not great weather for birding, so naturally we decided to go for coffee, which John Quinn so kindly bought for us all. After this it was still not clear of fog, so… we went to a different coffee shop to chill out some more. After this it began to brighten up and we drove onwards for another 10 mins to a protected farmland landscape where we started to get excited at the slightest flutter in the distance. As we drove on slowly down the road it seemed our luck with the birds increased: corn buntings, partridges, black kites a plenty. Eventually we drove down a small road towards the visitor centre where it seemed we became surrounded with little bustards and great bustards all around us. We were treated to hearing the mating calls of the little bustards, which even John admitted he had never heard before. After this we spent over 2 hours walking around the tracks along the meadows in 30 ℃ heat spotting all sorts of wonderfully amazing birds: Kestrels, more bustards, hoopoe, bee eaters, little owl, vultures, black kite, golden eagle, imperial eagle, and two pairs of rollers. After this we happened to get lost a few times along the way to the national park, getting stuck behind a marching band and going up hills where mini vans like ours didn’t belong and even making a slight detour to visit the castle in Mértola. We decided to start our journey back to Alvor stopping off in a few places along the way, slowing down every now and then so not to run over the partridges on the road, spotting all sorts of birds including a short-toe eagle. We eventually arrived back at the apartment 12 hours after we left all delighted with a great day of bird watching completed.

Day 2 of bird watching saw us having to start our project work. We headed back down to Salgados to study flamingo behaviour, where we took focal samples on their feeding behaviour to determine whether density of individuals was impacting their feeding lengths. Of course, not completely giving up on our birdwatching roots, we also spotted: grey heron, spoonbills, black winged stilts, coot, glossy ibis, among many other species. Birds aplenty!

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Six weeks at Pukaha National Wildlife Centre

by Calum Sweeney

After my degree in Applied Plant Biology at UCC I decided to travel to New Zealand on a working holiday Visa. After exploring the north island for a few weeks in September, I secured a voluntary position at Pukaha National Wildlife Centre for six weeks. Pukaha is a 1000-hectare wildlife reserve consisting of ancient podocarp forests teaming with native birds, many of which are endangered. Most of the conservation work happens in 70 hectares of the reserve. The abundance of birds is no accident though, the populations of birds in the reserve survive and grow thanks to past and ongoing conservation work done by the rangers here. Breeding programmes are used to increase the populations of bird species from the reserve and other native species such as the critically endangered shore plover (Thinornis novaeseelandiae) of which there are approximately 180 left. The breeding of wild populations of Kaka (Nestor meridionalis) is promoted by the use of predator proof nesting boxes throughout the reserve. Following the experts on a recent survey of the nesting boxes we found three active kaka nests and it’s only the start of the breeding season!

But, increasing the numbers of birds doesn’t help if they all get eaten by the invasive rats, stoats, ferrets and possums. So, in addition to breeding, the reserve itself has been fortified as a kind of inland biosecure island, preventing predator incursions. This is achieved by trapping programmes all through the reserve and an aerial application of the pesticide sodium fluoroacetate commonly known as “1080”. Seven hundred self-reloading, bolt action scent traps called A12s and A24s have been installed in the reserve alongside traditional bait traps. The use of 1080 is strongly opposed by some but sanctioned by government who have deemed it necessary to preserve long suffering native bird populations. The use of 1080 allows the Department of Conservation (DOC) to suppress pest species numbers across vast areas rapidly. Bait pellets containing 1080 are coloured green and flavoured with cinnamon to lure pest species but deter birds. Unfortunately, there are some small number of birds which die from the toxin but the benefits to the over all populations far outweighs any losses. Following past climatic patterns, the upcoming year is forecast to be a beech masting year which will cause a population explosion in pest species. An event which presses the need for a tool like 1080.

There are Tuatara, eels and geckos on display around the visitors centre. Visitors can come and see all of the birds and wildlife but the primary focus of the reserve is conservation. During my six weeks here, I will spend three weeks with the team which looks after birds found in the bush or “bush birds” and three weeks in “south end”. Bush birds consists of aviaries viewable by the public and houses the newly crowned bird of the year Kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandia), the critically endangered Orange Fronted Parakeet (Cyanoramphus auriceps), Stitchbirds (Notiomystis cincta) as well as Kaka and others which are all encouraged to breed while also act as species ambassadors, raising awareness. The idea is to allow people to see endangered or out of reach birds close up.

Its Spring here now, which means cold mornings with the chance of balmy afternoons if your lucky and another Antarctic southerly doesn’t have you eating your morning porridge in thermals! By eight o’clock all the staff are in the service block. Here we prepare the diets for all captive birds and some of the wild birds. I chop up fruit into 3mm cubes known as “smoothie” and prepare nectar and honey liquid feeds using a powder called Womboroo and honey contributed by local beekeepers which contains bits so must be strained. Next, we each go off on feed rounds to different aviaries. Once there the old food tray must be removed and kept for weighing (to monitor eating habits), new food dependant on the species is set up in the feeder. Fruit chunks are stabbed onto branches (stab fruit) near the front of the aviaries as an addition to the diets and to encourage foraging. The types of fruit used are rotated and have specific days when they are given. Next, I check the mouse traps, brush up old food from under the feeder and scan the ground for fallen stab fruit. If it were a Monday I would also wash down the feeder. While doing all this I keep a look out for the birds, taking a mental note of their behaviour and appearance.

Morning tea at 10:30 is where the eight or so rangers and volunteers discuss the goings on of the park over sandwiches and tea. Meetings can also be held at this time such as two days ago we discussed the upcoming re-branding/ open day and what our jobs will be for the day. I will be posted at the kiwi house and the free flight aviary during the open day where I should talk to visitors about the birds and keep noise levels to kiwi-tolerable levels! We were told to direct questions about 1080 to the ‘sausage sizzle’ barbeque event run by the DOC outside the visitors centre. The re-branding is partly being done to incorporate the lesser known but equally scintillating birds such as Kōkako (Callaeas cinarea) into the branding of Pukaha, moving away from using Manukura (meaning ‘of chiefly status’), the white kiwi (not albino) who’s long been an icon for the centre.

In the afternoons I collect browse from the bush following the trap lines set out by rangers. I saw down Lemonwood (Pittosporum eugenioides), Coprosmas spp., Black matipo (Pittosporum tenuifolium), Five finger (Pseudopanax arboreus) and other branches trying not to trip over supple jack vines while I’m doing it. I bring these to the aviaries to enrich the environment for the birds. I also collect leaf litter for the same reason. The forest is rich in epiphytes such as the nest epiphyte kowharawhara (Astelia solandri) which I’m told is the silent killer. It becomes water logged and dislodged during extreme rain events crushing people without warning. Next, I go into the hot insect room and feed the crickets and locusts usually congratulating myself for not having any escapees. We breed them for Tuatara and kiwi feed. By 4:30 we’ve set out equipment for the following day, written up essential jobs on the whiteboards and cleaned down all surfaces in the service block. The evenings are usually spent chilling with the other three volunteers/ intern in the Vollie house.

While my experience here isn’t directly related to my degree discipline it is proving very useful conservation experience and I count myself lucky to be here. I am learning about local invasive species, local plants, the care and breeding of endangered birds including many new skills from the team here at Pukaha.

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The Algarve fieldtrip: An Ambition Reborn

Image: Sara Fissolo

by Pádraig Desmond

Towards the end of the 3rd year, one could be forgiven for forgetting why they first set out on a journey of biological sciences. As a mature student, I didn’t take the decision to apply to the School of BEES lightly and it involved a lot of consideration. The decisive factor in my own personal pursuit was the idea of being outdoors and actively accumulating data for studies I was personally interested in. Over the past three years, I have completed five intensive sets of examinations and completed countless continuous assessment reports under strenuous and challenging circumstances. Playing up to my enthusiastic ambitions, these reports were heavily field based with abundant environmental and biotic data collection, but despite being broad and fascinating, they somewhat lacked the thrill I expected of being in the field.

Until day one of the Practical Field Ecology field trip to the Algarve. After a relaxed initial morning of presentations on iconic species, my peers within both Ecology & Environmental Biology and Zoology set off on an afternoon of real field work in the breathtakingly beautiful Algarve. There was a contagious air of excitement filtering through the group as we ventured through the sand dunes, a new environment for all eyes to capture, full of novel plant and animal species to the Irish cohort’s mental repertoire. Our first task, to sit on the shores on Alvor Estuary in silence and anticipation of the emergence of our first study, the conspicuous but shy Fiddler Crab, stirred a satisfaction from deep within. This was a new species within a new environment that rewarded our imaginations after a small cost of patience. To me, this was field work in its true raw form.

Image: Sara Fissolo

Over the following few days, the group continued to explore, with the same eagerness and awe, the range of habitats the region had to offer, under the vastly experienced guidance of the extremely helpful and willing BEES staff. Mountains, saltmarshes, mudflats, rocky shores and skies were all scoured and scrutinized by students and staff alike, all in the hope of discovering something fantastic and wonderful. And with success. Often, excited gasps or yelps indicated a discovery, followed by a mass movement of 55 eager minds to stand over a tiny lizard, anemone or plant and indeed to the sky where birds soared above.

Image: Sara Fissolo

The six full days I spent in the Algarve as part of this module exposed me to the reality of my chosen path and with it, all it entails. We were exposed to adverse conditions from biblical rain and wind to scorching heat. Days were long and evenings were spent writing; but as a group of like-minded people, the overall mood remained eager and happy to do more. For me personally, this experience will remain deep in my archives as it ingrained the decision of my chosen path. This revitalised desire and ambition will no doubt drive me harder into my final year and help me achieve the personal goals I have set. Furthermore, the skills I have learned and practiced will undoubtedly be of use in any future career I find myself in. This module is of upmost importance to students in the school of BEES and I sincerely hope it remains for those who follow.

Image: Sara Fissolo

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Applied Plant Biology London Fieldcourse 2018 – Part 3

Tozer Seeds & Chelsea Physic Garden

by Elizabeth Vanveen (3rd Year Applied Plant Biology)

This day differed from previous ones throughout this field trip as it involved visiting two different companies. The first half of the day was dedicated to visiting Tozer Seeds, the largest independent family business selling vegetable seeds in the UK. This event commenced with a presentation that explained the company’s goals and ideals. Although Tozer began as a local company, it is now multinational with offices present around the globe such as that of Santa Maria in California, and Murcia in Spain. Plant breeding is at the heart of this company which has also been central to human civilisation for over 10,000 years (Lev-Yadun et al., 2000). By utilising the plant breeding skills adopted and used by humans throughout history, Tozer Seeds strives to develop innovative products with excellent flavour and good field performance. The seeds produced are sold directly to packet seed companies or grocery growers.

Tozer produces seeds from both obligate self-pollinating plants and cross pollinating plants. The top seller of this company is parsnip seeds. Parsnips are an example of a plant can exhibit cytoplasmic male sterility; a maternally inherited condition in which a plant is unable to produce functional pollen (Schnablea and Wiseb, 1998). This is particularly useful for hybridisation as the flowers cannot self-pollinate and eliminates the need for mechanical emasculation. Therefore male-sterile plants can be crossed with wild-type male-fertile plants to produce heterozygous hybrids with increased hybrid vigor. Due to the cytoplasm of a zygote usually being inherited by female gametes (male-sterile plant), the progeny will remain sterile. This acts as a form of security for Tozer as the seeds must be rebought. Similarly Tozer also produces F1 hybrid seeds. Selective breeding is also utilised to create new plant varieties, however this is a time consuming process that can take anywhere from 15 – 20 years to reach a desired outcome.

Following this presentation a tour was carried out through the premises beginning with the seed germination room. One particular project being carried out was testing for mildew tolerance in seedlings. Those seeds that appeared to be resistant will go on to be grown in field conditions, and homozygous / uniform individuals will be selected. The process is then repeated until resistance is and homozygosity is achieved. The seed washing station was also observed. Seed washing is necessary for those seeds that are prone to pathogens, however this comes with challenges as moisture typically reduces seed longevity (Vertucci and Roos, 1990). Therefore thorough drying of seeds follows the washing stage. The tour continued through to the glasshouses. Where a number of different plants were being growing at different stages of development. Amongst the most abundant plants on site were celery, peppers and basil. Of the plants growing here only those exhibiting homozygosity will be pollinated. The pollination stage is carried out by hand and plants are then tagged identifying the family, plant number and age. The final stage in this tour was to the seed storage area where a range of machines are utilised to clean and grade the seeds by weight and size. After this point the seeds are packaged, labelled and dispatched.

Although Tozer Seeds is involved in work that is similar to that of Syngenta, both companies contrast greatly. For example, Tozer utilised biological control in their glasshouses while Syngenta has recently moved away from these methods of crop protection, and focusses on agrochemicals. The ethos of both companies also differs with Tozer being of a smaller scale, with more simplified apparatus’ and being family rooted. Despite both companies being multinational, Tozer is strongly rooted in the UK.

The second half of this day was spent at Chelsea Physic Garden, a three and a half acre garden growing approximately 5,000 different plant species. The garden was initially established by the apothecaries as a place to study medicinally important plants and learn to accurate identify different species. At present however, the garden holds an arrangement of useful plants including those that are edible, poisonous and medicinal. The different plants are subdivided into different areas throughout the garden.

The conservatory holds a number of cacti and succulents which are typically watered only once every two weeks. Alongside these plants which have evolved to deal with drought, there are also an arrangement of plants that have evolved to live on nutrient poor soils. These are carnivorous plants which meet much of their nitrogen requirements through the capture of insects by either passive traps (pitcher plant) or active traps (sundews).

One other particularly interesting area within the garden was a bed containing an arrangement of poisonous plants. Unpalatability is an evolutionary strategy against herbivory which remains a problem particularly for children. In 2012, the US poison control centres reported that over 30,000 potential exposures of children under the age of five to toxic plants were reported (Mowry et al., 2012). Therefore accurate identification of poisonous plants is particularly important to avoid poisoning, particularly because many poisonous and edible plant have similar physiology. The plants within this area included the mandrake and the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).

A number of plants that are poisonous are also of medicinal value which can be clearly observed in Chelsea Physic Garden as T. baccata is found in both the poisonous and medicinal gardens due to its anti-cancer qualities (Rowinsky and Donehower, 1995). Other useful medicinal plants exhibited in the garden include the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) and star anise (Pimpinella anisum). The tour also included a guide through an evolutionary glasshouse containing a range of bryophytes and ferns, a tropical glasshouse containing many important plants including Cinchona (source of antimalarial quinine), and dicotyledonous order beds containing plants arranged by family. The final area visited during the tour was the garden of useful plants which displayed plants such as bamboo and sunflower.

Chelsea Physic Garden typically gives good insight to plants that are or have been of interest to human civilisation in an approachable manner by subdividing the garden. This garden may have some similarities to Kew Gardens in terms of horticulture, however Kew would be of greater interest to an individual who cares for ecology and conservation. Chelsea Physic Garden would be best suited to an individual with an interest in taxonomy and medicine.

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Applied Plant Biology London Fieldcourse 2018 – Part 2

PS3020 is a BEES plant biology field course based in London. Over a packed four days, students visit a range of internationally-renowned institutions as well as several research centres managed by industry.

Day 2 – Wakehurst Gardens & The Millennium Seed Bank

by Christopher M. Doyle (3rd Year Applied Plant Biology)

Applied Plant Biology students at staff at the Millenium Seed Bank and UK Native Seed Hub at Wakehurst Place with Kew’s Ted Chapman

Similar to the previous day, today’s tour was divided into several parts. The morning consisted of a talk on Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), and a tour of how the seed bank operates. In the afternoon students were given a talk on how Kew grows, distributes and displays seeds followed by a guided tour of the management, establishment and zonation of the Gardens.

Plants are some of the most important organisms on our planet, with the majority of living things being dependent on them as either a food source or habitat. As a species, we rely on plants for food, medicines and recreational use (i.e. smoking tobacco, brewing alcohol or gardening). The MSB on the grounds of Wakehurst aims to preserve a vast catalogue of seeds form plants all over the world should they become endangered or extinct. There exists another seed vault in Svalbard, however, that vault is unmanned and stores only crop species, the MSB is a research and education facility and contains mainly non-crop species.

Inside the Millennium Seed Bank

The preservation process involves drying the seeds to around 5% relative humidity and storing them at -20o C in underground freezers. This method allows most seeds to remain dormant for hundreds to potentially thousands of years. Certain species can not be stored this way and new techniques, including cryogenic freezing of embryos are being explored. With extinction rates at 1000 times the background rate, Kew aims to have secured 25% of the world’s bankable species by 2020.

Applied Plant Biology students accessing the vault at the Millennium Seed Bank.

Not only does the MSB store seeds, they have multiple laboratories and horticultural areas for germinating and growing seeds. When storing seeds, it is important to know that the samples are model specimens, uncontaminated and undamaged. The use of inspection methods, such as x-ray imagery, are often employed. Long-term storage may have certain effects on seeds and it is important to know how to germinate and grow each species, and many seed are tested out in the MSB gardens, not just for research purposes but also commercial distribution (Kew provides wild-type seeds for garden centres, botanical gardens and scientific facilities all over the world) and aesthetic display.

The botanical gardens on display to the public at Wakehurst are owned by the National Trust but used and managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. First created in the early 20th century, they currently contain hundreds of plant species, from many different parts of the world. In the tour, it was explained how the gardens are arranged both for aesthetic and scientific value. Various beds have been set up to specific colour-schemes or seasonal themes and as entire areas dedicated to groups of plants from particular geographic regions, all growing together as they might occur naturally. There is a need for the gardens to have an appeal to the public, as they are no longer entirely government funded and must rely on external patronage in order to maintain previous levels of service and upkeep.

A tour of Kew’s Wakehurst Place collection with Francis Annette of Kew.

From just one day, it can be easily seen that a great amount of effort goes into the running of both the MSB and the Gardens. The achievements in both species conservation and horticultural excellence are the result of years of hard work and diligence from members of staff and volunteers that ensure Wakehurst not only grows, but flourishes.

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Applied Plant Biology London Fieldcourse 2018

PS3020 is a BEES plant biology field course based in London. Over a packed four days, students visit a range of internationally-renowned institutions as well as several research centres managed by industry.

Day 1 – Kew Gardens

by Lorna Murphy (3rd Year Applied Plant Biology)

To start the visit to Kew, Melanie-Jayne Howes spoke about the connection between plant chemicals and Alzheimer’s disease. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, only medication to ease symptoms, and two of the current drugs on the market are plant derived – galantamine and rivastigmine. Galantamine is an alkaloid isolated from plants of the Amaryllidaceae family, primarily snowdrops and rivastigmine is derived from neostigmine, originally isolated from the Menispermaceae plant family, which proved to have unreasonable side effects (Raghavendra, 2002).

Dr Pepijn Kooij of Kew Fungarium with Applied Plant Biology students and staff.

Both drugs act as acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors, an enzyme which breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh) in the brain. The action of AChE in the brain can result in neuronal degeneration and a build up of amyloid proteins which clump and block neurons, all resulting in the symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease. The inhibition of AChE by drugs such as rivastigmine help to ease these symptoms (Ren et al., 2004). A very interesting aspect was hearing about recent research, in which plants such as Aloe purpurea are emerging as potential neuroprotectants thanks to the presence of the phytochemicals aloin and vitexin (Lobine et al., 2017).

Howes also spoke about the importance of safety, efficacy and conservation with regard to medicinal plants. Samples of Ginseng were shown to highlight this point, with one being collected from markets in China and the other by a botanist in the field to show the variation in not only quality but also how different species can be grouped under one name. Howes emphasised that this is an important aspect of working with medicinal plants as improper identification or labelling of medicinal plants can result in severe side effects or even death.

Dr Melanie Jayne Howes of Kew speaking to Apllied Plant Biology students and staff regarding her work on plant-derived drugs for Alzheimer’s disease.

Hauke Koch, a researcher at Kew, spoke about the interactions between plant chemicals and pollinators. He spoke about his own research identifying 85 species of bees in Kew Gardens (of 275 in the UK), and his work on the microbiome of bees (Koch & Schmid-Hempel, 2011; 2012). In the lecture we also heard about how the mass-deaths of bumblebees in urban environments from consuming Linden tree pollen could potentially be an indicator of bees starving due to a lack of other sources of nectar, leaving only the Linden trees as a source of food. Koch also worked on conditioning of bees, finding that theophylline and caffeine may alter bee behaviour.

The Fungarium at Kew was founded in 1879 and holds around 1.25 million specimens from the UK and around the world. It serves as an important point of research for mycologists such as Pepjin Kooij, who spoke to us about the collection. The uses of fungi in food, dyes and medicine (e.g Claviceps purperea in the treatment of migraines) were discussed while viewing the samples. Samples included those collected by Charles Darwin, and some samples collected before Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature system had been implemented. Kooij also gave a great insight into how he carries out his own research and what it’s like to be a researcher at Kew.

At the Kew Herbariumwith Dr Richard Allen of Kew.

At the Herbarium, Richard Allen spoke about some of the seven million plant specimens that have been collected at the Kew Herbarium since 1852, however specimens date back as far as 1696 from Samuel Brown’s India collection. The Herbarium is also home to Nathaniel Wallich’s collection of around 20,000 specimens. As in the Fungarium, a specimen collected by Charles Darwin was on display – Adiantum henslovianum from the Galapagos. The Herbarium also contains extinct plants, for example a pressed Solanum schumannium from Tanzania which was discovered in 2000, however the area where this thought to be shade tolerant aubergine was endemic to has since been cleared for agricultural use.

Bananas – wild and cultivated at Kew’s tropical palmhouse (Photo: Chris Doyle)

Other points of interest at Kew included the palm house and the Princess of Wales conservatory. The palm house is kept at levels of humidity, temperature etc. that create a rainforest type environment for various tropical plants to grow, with stairs to the higher level to get an aerial view of the whole glasshouse. The Princess of Wales conservatory allows visitors to experience ten different climate zones, including dry and wet tropics and an exhibit featuring carnivorous plants.

Overall, Kew Gardens makes for an enjoyable visit with information that is very applicable to the Applied Plant Biology course. A behind the scenes look at the work of the scientists at Kew and the ongoing projects was a great insight into botanical gardens and the work they do.

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CoCoHaCa Cruise Blog – Latest update


Monday’s 4am shift got off on the right note as myself and Siobhan decided to upgrade our midnight snack to midnight steak (sandwich) thanks to the delectable leftovers from Sundays’ dinner.

It has been really interesting being on the Granuaile, as an Irish Lights vessel she carries on the legacy of all the beautiful lighthouses around the Irish coast. Today Sarah from the crew let me have a look at the Portolan, a handwritten, draw and photographed book put together showing all the lighthouses around Ireland and all the knowledge about them and how to navigate to them. And I couldn’t make this up if I tried, it was compiled by Captain Hook (Captain Colin Myles-Hook).

With slightly shorter ROV survey lines we got a good few covered today. Lots of coral and Bogna and I were really excited to see a meter long shark (possibly bigger), an enormous monkfish and some really amazing sponges.


The morning dawned with a beautiful sunrise. Today was a massive success for the cruise, after finishing off the last of our video survey lives (and witnessing and absolutely spectacular sunset) we moved on to rock drilling.

With potential sites for the drilling identified in previous surveys of the area and also a few from our own video survey lines, the ROV team had a map and plan and a new drill to test. Yesterday was the first time a rock drill has been used on the Holland 1 ROV and the first time any ROV has drilled in Irish waters for science. This drill created for the Holland 1 is also unique as it allows us to drill rock exposures (vertical rock faces) instead of drilling down through the whole bank with a huge drill rig. It’s compact, powerful and gets right to the base of things. There have been some granites drilled on top of the bank a few years ago, but the two cores recovered on this survey are the first ever drilled from the base of the bank.

With cores taken from two different sites, our geology team are eager to get the samples back to Cork and begin deducing what kind of rock they’ve got their hands on. So far there’s been a lot of speculation (perhaps even a few bets) but no one is 100%.

We had hoped for one more chance at coring but the weather had other ideas and so as the winds reached gusts of up to 50km (gale force 9) and 3.5m swell we packed up our things and set course for home.



As the gale descended on us we quite literally battened down the hatches, with all our belongings in our cabins making a solid attempt at escaping right out the door. Last night there was great camaraderie in the dining room/living area as we attempted to rustle up snacks while not getting thrown across the room. The opposite to being scared, the mood onboard was positively jolly. Sleep was funny with all the motion, but we got some great videos of the waves at around 5am this morning.  After a bit of sleep, we’ve spent our rolling transit day (it will take a full 24h to be back in site of land) backing up our data, checking through our videos and just generally getting ready for the end of the cruise.

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CoCoHaCa Cruise Blog – Update


Finn Ni Fhaolain

With all our coring completed successfully earlier in the week it was high def video time. With 6 scientists on board we work in shifts of two and hang out in the ROV Shack with the ROV guys (singing “ROV Shack” to the tune of “Love Shack”), logging CTDs, taking video, snapping stills and logging the different species, substrates and sediments that we see. Since we’re generating so many hours of video footage it’s really important to note different interesting features and their time stamp and lat and long locations so it’s easier in the future for other scientists to work with. Last night we had a brief pause in work as a gale force 8 wind caught us in a 3 meter swell. But the bridge crew kindly angled the ship away from the worst of it.

The down time was spent drinking tea, eating chocolate and swapping sea going stories and hearing about the worst weather everyone has been out in. I’m currently writing, sitting on the floor of the conference room as we brought all the electronics down off the table in case they went flying when the ship would roll. There was a lot of laughing, so no time for cabin fever to set in. Being far too easily amused I thought it was great to see water flowing sideways out of the taps when the ship would roll. An absolute highlight of the trip so far was getting to see a pod of pilot whales off the stern just before sunset last night (we had been watching waves splash across the deck). The biologists among us we delighted to see our “first bit of blubber” on the trip.


Today we were mostly seeing non-reef areas on our video log but saw some interesting species like rabbit fish and some sharks. While it isn’t quite as exciting to watch areas of sand, it is important to record which areas have life coral, dead coral and just sand. By knowing where the coral is, isn’t and where it used to be (eroded coral framework with no live coral) it can help to build up an understanding of what environmental factors – e.g. slope, direction, current flow, sedimentation level, temperature etc – affect the “start up” and “shut down” of cold water coral mounds.


Absolutely fantastic day today, a real Sunday buzz going on. Very interesting coral mounds with massive cliff faces covered in live corals hosting a plethora of other species – octopuses, glass sponges, sharks, rabbit fish, sea pens, crinoids, tube worms.

After lunch we saw perhaps 4 pods and nearly 50 pilot whales including calves! Even the toughest among us were reduced to hollering “look at the baby whales” in delight on seeing the tiny tail flukes and little heads spyhopping. They stayed with the ship for quite some time and everyone came out for a gander.

To top off a great day Decco & Billy whipped up some amazing steaks (probably one of the best I’ve ever had) with all the trimmings and then the secret stash of chocolate was cracked out for the evening shift in the ROV shack. Needless to say moral is high!

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CoCoHaCa Cruise Blog Day 2


Finn Ni Fhaolain

After waking up for the 4am shift it was so exciting to see the first video recordings from the ROV. There was successful coring through the night and everyone was pleased to see that the brand new vibrocorer on the ROV worked well. The scientists have been trying to core this site for 3 years so this is new vibrocorer is a great success. The video allowed use to see all of the coring efforts as well as the coral habitats – some coral rubble, reef and cliff face. It was really exciting to see the different species on the reef – several different species of corals, crabs, urchins and even a deep sea shark!

Now its on to more coring, more video and a bit of CTD. On a foodie note we were all raving today about the amazing Thai green curry that the guys whipped up in the kitchen. As a dessert fiend I also went a bit mad for the rice pudding. Stomachs are full and spirits are high going into the evening shift.

Across the evening we cored the summits of two different mounds with successful cores from both areas. There was also a great array of wildlife with the different watches observing corals, urchins, crabs, tube worms, cushion starfish, lantern fish, ling, eels (potentially juvenile congers) and sharks. With the coring completed we are sailing off into the sunrise to our next location to start our video transects in earnest.

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