A Day in the Dargle: Life beyond the INCASE laptop

About the author: Catherine Farrell is lead ecologist on the INCASE project, which is led by Jane Stout at Trinity College Dublin. This project is testing natural capital accounting in four river catchments across Ireland, and this blog first appeared on the INCASE website. Find out more about natural capital accounting with our handy explainer video.

The world changed for all of us in Ireland last March, and while we take the good with the bad, and while we have all adapted ‘as well as can be expected’ to life in Zoom, sometimes you just have to grab your mask (and your cape) and get out into the real world. After a summer of trawling through data to develop Ireland’s first set of natural capital accounts, and with nature donning her fabulous autumnal glory, it was time to get out and meet the Dargle in all its earthy / watery form.

The River Dargle rises in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. For Water Framework Directive purposes, the Dargle sub-catchment has been drawn to include four very different rivers that drain south County Dublin and north County Wicklow. These rivers are the Kill Of the Grange, Shanganagh, Dargle and Kilmacanogue rivers (the latter rising in the Great Sugar Loaf), each with equally varied tributaries and character.

And so, with whispers of a stricter lockdown coming into force I grabbed my wellies and hit for the east coast while I still could. The M50 was eerily car free as I turned off at Junction 15 in the early morning rain. One of the pluses of this awful, restrictive pandemic has to be the reduction in traffic and consequential waste of commuters’ time. I hadn’t much time to think about that however, as motorway gave way to the narrow roads and, dare I say, boreens that I encountered not five minutes from the suburban centre of Sandyford.

Those boreens at the foothills of the Dublin Mountains were the entry point to a catchment landscape that revealed itself to me to be wonderfully diverse, contradictory and teeming with life. It’s hard to relay all my thoughts and ideas as I travelled through this area. Instead, I’ve captured them in headlines – my top ten learnings from a day in the Dargle:

1. Urban meets rural, in the space of five minutes.

When we were mapping the Dargle from the comfort of our homes, my colleague Lisa Coleman and I had focused on gathering the data in neat packages and bundles; the full array of natural capital – freshwater, woodlands, forests, grasslands, geo-forms – considering the goods and services that these assets provide us; building tables and accounts for the extent and condition of this natural capital, and thinking: simples, we have it sorted. Follow the guidelines and we’ll be grand!

I thought I knew the place, but I hadn’t a clue.

The first thing that struck me was how close the urban world is, how connected the northern Dargle catchment is to the powerhouse that is Dublin. These are the sub-basins of Kill Of the Grange, the Carrickmines Stream and Shanganagh River. These watercourses are born in the heathlands and forested foothills of Three Rock Mountain, flowing quickly through to the urban fabric of South County Dublin into the Irish Sea. In this urban context, property prices range from leafy suburbs to dense urban housing, and then even leafier manors as housing estates give way to the exclusive coastal views of Killiney and Dalkey (no, I didn’t see Bono, but I hear he was looking for me…).

Sugar Loafs in the morning light from Carrickollogan

2. Hedgerows, beautiful hedgerows.

I continued through Stepaside and Kilternan – villages so rural in character you could be forgiven for thinking you were down in deepest Kerry, or mystical Sligo. The boreens were challenging and my view restricted by wonderful, luxuriant, commendable hedgerows. We used satellite data to tell us where the tree cover in the catchment might be and came up with a figure of over 7,000 ha, or just shy of 40% of the catchment covered in trees. I had wondered could this be true, and my visit told me, yes it is. About half of this (~3,245 ha) is commercial plantation – dominated by wall to wall pines. Not very interesting nature-wise, but good for timber. And, while the total area of woodland habitat considered to be of EU Habitats Directive standard (native woodlands) is a mere 70ha or so, there are trees along every field boundary, and every valley, and anywhere they are allowed to grow. About 3,500 ha of them. That’s good isn’t it? It certainly makes for a wonderful autumnal display. Go now, if you can.

3. Anyone for golf?

Beyond the hedgerows there were some farms for sure, but what is really striking is the number of golf courses. On the coast, on the hills, in the valleys – small ones, big ones, lavish ones (no bog ones!). All amenity grassland of course, and well-manicured and managed. I could see some of them from the top of Carrickgollogan Hill – a Coillte Nature site in between Dun Laoghaire, Carrickmines and Old Conna Golf courses that has been zoned for welcome conversion to broadleaf species (it is presently a mixed stand of poor / good growing conifers). An old lead mine to the north at Ballycorus tells of distant times when shovels were more abundant than golf clubs.

4. A seaside town.

After a head-clearing view on Carrickgollogan, it was time to rendez vous with my catchment chauffeur (also known as Professor Jane Stout, absolute legend) for the rest of the trip. Between the golf courses and Bray, I passed slivers of native woodland – I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there because we had viewed them on the maps so often. Tiny fragments of Old Oak and Alluvial woodlands (Knocksink Woods SAC) along with pockets of remnant fen (Ballyman Glen SAC) hanging on for dear life. Only for designation would they even exist?

What’s the future for these remnants? Is there a plan to expand them and revitalise them? Jane and I talked this out for the rest of the trip as we got to grips with all the nature conservation areas in the Dargle. Big questions: if most, or all, of the habitats of conservation interest in the catchment that are already designated (conserved), are actually in BAD conservation status and declining – shouldn’t Ireland (we) be doing something about that? How do natural capital accounts help to tell that story?

5. Spruced up heaths.

In thoughtful mode (and maintaining a safe distance), we continued our way past the Great Sugar Loaf, a splendid quarzitic geological form, through the picturesque tourist village of Enniskerry (gateway to the garden of Ireland) and up into the mountains.

I’ve spent a lot of my time on bogs, but I am (to my shame) less acquainted with heathlands. And yet they are extensive in the Dargle. And we know from our work on INCASE that these heathlands were once more extensive, and that most of the conifer plantations along the slopes of the Dargle, Glencree and Glencullen valleys were planted on heathlands. Those areas that remain unplanted are farmed to varying levels of intensity .

Questions posed by the SUAS EIP (we could see the Powerscourt Paddock plot in the distance) include what level of grazing is good for heathlands, can the heathlands in their current state sustain any grazing? What about burning? And my own question – how the hell do we deal with all that bracken? Bracken, once established, shoves everything else to the side and there is room for little else. A complete biodiversity quencher. Sadly, it seems to be more than common in this precious landscape.

Crowds of conifers to the left, heathlands to the right, here I am…

6. Bogs in the Liffey mist.

There’s comfort in what you know, and I was glad to climb further up into the Wicklow Uplands and get a breath-taking, albeit misty view, of Liffey Head Bog. Here we were, not half an hour from coastal golf courses and urban spread, in the welcome open bogscape of the Wicklow Mountains National Park. Stunning. The wellies were jumping with excitement, so we brought them out on the bog, to explore a view of Upper Lough Bray. I was on a quest to verify satellite imagery and I found that some of the data that was showing as patchy scrub was a mosaic of bracken and scrub. More bracken, eh?

The lough itself, and the walk, and the waterfall flowing down its western wall were food for the pandemic-afflicted soul. But the state of the mountain blanket bog was another dampener. Drained, bare peat, old turf banks. More questions. The lonely stonechat on the shores of the lough may have been trying to tell us something, I’m pretty sure it was along the lines of ‘get off my patch’!

A geological wonder: Upper Lough Bray

7. Bracken abounds.

Back in the car, it was a short drive to the head of the Glencree valley to take a view east down the wooded glen – here we were greeted by a mix of conifer and broadleaves, more of the former, though the autumn colours of broadleaves made for a rewarding stop.

But to the west behind us, the landscape was dominated again by bracken, where there should be heath. As we drove over the Military Road and into the Glencullen valley, we viewed a conifer plantation merged with overgrazed and burned peatland and bracken-infested heath. Not a healthy scorecard at all. Something is out of balance.

Bracken, bracken everywhere…but where’s the heathland?

8. Hidden valleys.

Having a local chauffeur is highly recommended, and on the way back to base we drove through the most wonderful ravine, locally known as The Scalp. This steep sided glacial valley is reminiscent of something from Lord of the Rings – great big boulders with pockets of native trees poking out awkwardly between. Another element of surprise and geological diversity in this rich landscape of the Dargle that had barely featured in our desktop data review. You can’t beat the real thing!

9. Crops, but not much.

For good measure we passed some croplands just to verify they were there for our mapping. And a few farmyards with bagged bales of silage and cattle feeders getting readied for the long winter. Farming is a feature of this catchment, but less so than in INCASE’s other focus catchments in Ireland – the Bride in east Cork, the Caragh in west Kerry and the Figile in north-east Offaly. But farming has left its impression on this landscape. Whether or not there’s greater revenue from owning a golf course or building a housing estate for the ever-expanding seams of Dublin instead one can only surmise…

Glencullen Valley: Farming and forestry collide, with more bracken

10. The Dargle floodplain, or is it?

On the way back from this too-brief tour of the Dargle catchment, we travelled back to Bray along the banks of the river that gives the sub-catchment its name. The Dargle has been known in the past to burst its banks and the people of Bray were flooded out of it in recent years in a bad way. That event has led to an extensive hard engineering solution to flooding that leaves me with even more questions. Where’s the floodplain? Or is that it covered in houses?

It was time to go home, back to the Midlands, away from the beautiful sea (which I didn’t even get to – next time!) and this beautiful, diverse and intriguing landscape of the east coast, south of our capital city Dublin. Joining the stream of traffic within minutes of the wooded glens of Glencree and Glencullen, and the dramatic Sugar Loaf, I was left with more questions than ever:

  • What is the role of our natural capital accounting in the Dargle catchment? Should we focus on one policy issue like urban planning and water quality? Or sustainable farming practices in the uplands?
  • How do we link the extent of the wide variety of natural capital with the services it provides – those that are obvious (food, timber), and those less obvious (climate, biodiversity, water quality)? This is the focus for the next phase of INCASE so watch this space!
  • When pretty much all the habitats that we met are facing increasing pressures from the needs of more people (and sheep!) in the catchment, how do we resolve the fact that those precious habitats – fragments of once more extensive and vibrant ecosystems – are already in BAD (and worsening) condition? Time to restore and invest in bringing our natural capital back to good health – but we need a resourced plan for that to happen.

One thing is for sure, there’s plenty of work for the INCASE team to do.

Short-term postdoc wanted!

Post-doctoral research assistant wanted for Farm-Ecos project (Farming and Natural Resources: Measures for Ecological Sustainability)

Farm-Ecos is a Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine funded, interdisciplinary project, which aims to identify and outline the evidence base for novel, cost-effective measures to protect and enhance farmland biodiversity. The project started in June 2017 and is a collaboration between Teagasc, NUIG, GMIT, TCD and DCU. The project has conducted on-farm assessments of habitat quantity and quality and of indicator species diversity across a range of farming intensities in Sligo and Wexford.

We are seeking a short-term (8 month) post-doctoral research assistant (PDRA) to join this team, based in the research group of Jane Stout in the School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin, but working closely with the whole Farm-Ecos team. The PDRA will:

  • Use plant and insect data collected on farms in Wexford and Sligo to test and refine score cards for assessing biodiversity on farmland
  • Incorporate best-practice and knowledge from other projects (e.g. EIP projects on results-based payments) and finalise score cards and rapid assessment cards into tools for future use
  • Develop a framework for policy recommendations from Farm-Ecos
  • Write policy notes, scientific papers, blogs and media posts to disseminate Farm-Ecos outputs.

Key skills


  • PhD in ecology, agro-ecology, entomology, farmland ecosystem services or similar
  • Proven ability to work in a team and to communicate effectively with other team members – the position will involve collaborative data sharing, analysis and writing
  • Good quantitative and statistical skills
  • Excellent written communication skills to prepare clear and precise documents and reports


  • Knowledge and interest in farmland pollinators, natural enemies, and/or ecosystem services
  • Understanding of agri-environmental policies, CAP, farmland biodiversity assessment
  • Languages skills – must be fluent in English

Salary: This appointment will be made at point 1 of the PDRA scale from the Irish Universities Association Researcher Salary Scales i.e. €38,632 per annum (gross) for 8 months, from 1st October 2020.

To apply: please send letter of application, outlining suitability for the post, and a CV including the names and contact details of two referees, to Jane Stout before 28th September 2020. Interviews will be conducted 29th September (via Zoom).

For further information contact Jane Stout (

Download pdf of this advert below

Science by bicycle

Science is a long process…this newly published research article, in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems, and the Environment, is the culmination of nearly two years of writing a grant proposal with my advisors (Profs Jane Stout and Yvonne Buckley), two years of hard field work, and then two years of writing, revising, and resubmitting the manuscript. Nonetheless, after all that, I must say I am proud of this particular piece of science. The manuscript itself is long, with many detailed statistical tests, and involves several independent datasets that I collected over my two years in Dublin.

Herbicide-exposed plot at RTE, featuring the bike that carried me more than 15,000 km during this study, the watering cans I used to carry ~3,000 liters of water per week, and the fancy fences RTE built for me.

Our experiment was designed to determine whether small concentrations of fertiliser and herbicide had any effects on the growth of ruderal plants and the insects that visit their flowers. We chose the species in the study (Cirsium vulgare, Hypochaeris radicata, Filipendula ulmaria, Epilobium hirsutum, Origanum vulgare, Plantago lanceolata, and Phacelia tanacetifolia) based on their prevalence in Irish agricultural systems. I hand-collected individuals of the plants from a conservation area near Kilkenny (thanks Hannah!) in the springs of 2017 and 2018.

The Riverfield, a conservation area near Kilkenny, managed by Hannah Hamilton, where I collected the plants for the research project.

Our data show that even exposure to tiny amounts of fertiliser and herbicide change the growth of these plants, and the visitation of their pollinating insects. Mostly, these results conform to hypotheses: plants exposed to tiny amounts of fertiliser grow taller and have longer leaves, while plants exposed to herbicide are shorter and have shorter leaves. Interestingly, there is no difference in the size of the floral display, which means that plants exposed to a little fertiliser have fewer flowers per individual (but at a much taller height), while herbicide exposed plants have more flowers per individual (but at a much shorter height). Plants exposed to herbicide also had a lower visitation rate per unit floral area, meaning that the flowers were on average less preferred by flower-visiting insects.

I obsessively collected so much data for this study, including a completely independent greenhouse experiment, that I plan to publish several more papers from it, so stay tuned!

One of the challenges of this dataset was the sheer number of zeroes. For collection data in the study, more than 50% of my five-minute observations yielded zero visitors. That’s a lot of time starting at flowers with no insects (85.75 hours to be exact), and a great deal many more samples where only one insect visited. This led me to describe the study to anyone who would listen as “Zen and the art of pollinator watching.”

Gorgeous Eristalis hoverfly on cat’s ears (Hypochaeris radicata).

What the manuscript doesn’t include is the process of learning to live in a new country (Ireland), figuring out the name of the store where I could buy their entire stock of watering cans (Woodie’s), begging people to let me put these weird garden plots on their land, navigating the windy streets of Dublin on my bicycle (without getting killed or shouted at, preferably), or surviving the particularly muddy times where I could never seem to get clean and dry.

I did the math at the end of the 2018 field season and learned that I had been cycling an average of 160 miles per week to visit all of my plots repeatedly, and hand-carrying an average of 3000 liters of water to water and treat my plots in two 10 liter watering cans per site. Across the 2 years of the study, I actually cycled more than 15,000 km (9,320 mi), the vast majority of which was in urban Dublin, round and round to my sites.

Would I recommend field work by bicycle to young scientists? Not exactly! Cycling limits the weight and volume of equipment you can carry, and it is more time consuming than simply driving. But science by bicycle seemed to be the most feasible option for me in Dublin (which is, after all, very cyclable), given time and financial constraints, and I think it worked for the purposes of this study.

Covered in mud to my armpits in spring ‘18.

Bredagh and my favourite collaborator, Pushkin at UCD Rosemount. (photos courtesy of my ancient flip phone)

As detailed by the lengthy acknowledgements in the manuscript, this work would not have been possible without the help of many people. In particular, I want to thank all of the sites that allowed my to have my plots on their land and tolerated me showing up repeatedly to sample and water them: Raidió Teilifís Éireann, Riverview Nature School, Gas Networks Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and the Lamb Clarke Irish Historical Apple Collection at Rosemount Environmental Research Station, the Marino Institute, and the Airfield Estate. Also thanks to all the people who facilitated my work at these sites: Dr. W. Deasy, B. Moran, Dr. K. McAdoo, T. Bannon, C. van der Kamp, R. Hession, C. Bennett, E. Kavanagh, C. Fogarty, S. Austin, M. Burke, R. Judge, S. Waldren, E. Bird, and M. McCann. Thanks also to my coauthors and everyone in the Stout lab and all the technical assistance at TCD: S. Palumbo, A. Flaherty, J. Stone, S. McNamee, B. Malone, O. Fenton, D. OHuallachain, J. Finn, J. Zimmerman, J. Parnell, and S. Hodge. I can’t thank those who helped me with identifications enough: U. Fitzpatrick, T. Murray, M. Speight, M. Smith, B. Nelson, and S, Falk. Finally, thanks to Hannah Hamilton for feeding me enough to keep me alive, helping me to find valuable research sites, and generally being such a great friend.

And I have to say thanks to Ireland for being my home for two years. I absolutely loved learning as much as I could about you in my short time there. Stay beautiful!

Funding for this study was provided by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Independent Fellowship [grant number FOMN-705287] to LR, JS, and YB.

About the author: Dr Laura Russo was a Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the Plant-Animal Interactions group at Trinity College Dublin from early 2017 to early 2019. She is now an Assistant Professor in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee.

Is it either sugar or pollinators? Why can’t we have both?

In this post, PhD student, Elena Zioga reflects on the decision by the French government to allow neonicotinoid use, in the same week as she published her first paper on pesticide residues in nectar and pollen…

I decided to take few weeks off work, but my research cannot let me go as things are happening. My review paper on pesticide residues in plant pollen and nectar is now published online and I am very happy to share it with the rest of the world (read more here).

However, my joy is highly contained by the sad news that came out on Thursday, 6 August, when the French Agricultural Ministry announced their decision on lifting the ban on neonicotinoid insecticides used as seed treatment for the sugar beet cultivation.

The neonicotinoid compounds clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam were being used in the EU as sugar beet seed coatings in order to control the aphid (Myzus persicae) population on the crop and prevent the Beet Yellows Virus transmission (1). According to the estimates by professionals, taken up by the ministerial press release, this disease can cause yield reductions of up to 30% to 50% (2). Thus, the French government acceded to the requests of the sugar beet growers who believe that there is no other viable alternative to neonicotinoids against the aphids. Hence, in addition to the promise of compensation and the launch of a research effort of 5 million euros, the French government announced a “legislative amendment” allowing “for the 2021 campaign and if necessary the two following campaigns at most” exemptions allowing the use of seeds coated with neonicotinoid insecticides, assuring that these exemptions will only concern sugar beet (2).

elena sugar beet article
Pesticide-treated seeds (from ©Tim Scrivener).

In France, the 2016 biodiversity law banned the neonicotinoid insecticides as of September 2018 (3). On December 2018, the EU banned the use of these compounds on flowering and outdoors growing crops (4). “These bans are essential to fight against the massive decline of bee colonies and wild pollinators“, said the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, in an August 2018 statement (5). Back then, that decision was supported by voluminous data on the negative impacts of these compounds on pollinators. What has changed two years later? How is it possible to neglect all the past research and go back to zero? How is it possible, from being a leader in the fight against the pollinator killing neonicotinoids in Europe, that France has apparently become a stooge for the agrochemical and industrial agriculture lobbies? In my opinion, this is an unacceptable setback showing that governments, in an effort to keep their voters happy, might sometimes take decisions that are detrimental for the environment.

I am simply wondering why that same French government who decided to ban the neonicotinoid use two years ago is taking the exact opposite decision now, and with a potential three year plan of application! In their defense, they argued that since sugar beet is harvested before flowering in the field, it would not attract pollinators and the use of neonicotinoids in seed coating on this crop would therefore have no adverse consequence on the bees. It was also argued that usually the sugar beet crop is followed by straw cereals, which are not attractive to pollinating insects. In addition, there were reassurances that there will not be any flowering crops planted the following seasons. Are these sufficient arguments to support this setback?

From my point of view, NO, and here is why:

The exposure of bees and other pollinators to neonicotinoids is mainly through wild flowers. A 2015 study clearly showed that the pollen of wild plants growing in the margins of the seed treated crops was highly contaminated with neonicotinoids, and the honey bees were bringing this pollen back to their hives (6). Moreover, neonicotinoid compounds and their metabolites can be very persistent in the soil (with typical half-lives estimated to be of the order 15-300 days) exhibiting a potential for accumulation in soil following repeated applications (7). Neonicotinoids can be found long after their use has ceased both in the cultivated soils and in plants growing there in subsequent years, thus exposing pollinators to a significant risk (8). A 2020 study evaluating the consequences of the 2013 EU moratorium restricting the use of three neonicotinoid insecticides (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) by monitoring winter oilseed rape crops for five years following the European moratorium (from 2014 to 2018), concluded: “the three neonicotinoids concerned could be detected in the samples taken. In particular, imidacloprid was detected each year, in total in 43% of the samples analyzed, without a decreasing trend over the years but with a strong inter-annual variation” (9).

Substances applied in soils and as seed treatments may be considered low risk for honey bees (Apis mellifera), which do not collect soil material. However, for other wild bee species (e.g. bumble bees and solitary bees) this may be a rather important route of exposure (10). The majority of wild bee species spend a significant time of their life span in the soil as they may built their nest underground, or even use soil material in order to construct their nests (11, 12). A 2019 study, found that “chronic exposure to nesting substrates contaminated with neonicotinoids may represent an important route of exposure that could have considerable physiological and ecological consequences for bees and plant-pollinator interactions” (13), while a study of 2020 claimed that “native bee richness in non-target field margins may be negatively affected by the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments in agroecosystems” (14).

These data clearly show that a possible exemption for the use of neonicotinoids on sugar beet seeds would have serious consequences for the pollinator communities on and around the seed treated fields, by contaminating the environment around these fields with neonicotinoids and thus posing a hazard to pollinators. Going back to planting neonicotinoid-treated sugar beet seeds should not be considered as a temporary solution for limiting the spread of the Beet Yellows Virus, but as contributing to permanent and constant ecological destruction. There were several reasons that triggered the neonicotinoid ban two years ago, the same reasons that are still in effect nowadays. The only change is the addition of more scientific evidence supporting the damaging effects of neonicotinoids to pollinators.

I consider that the French government must therefore not grant an exemption for the use of neonicotinoids and should instead invest more in research towards finding another solution to preventing the spread of the Beet Yellows Virus. This is the only way to keep both the high yields in sugar production and the pollinators safe!


(1) Neonicotinoids in sugar beet cultivation in Central and Northern Europe: Efficacy and environmental impact of neonicotinoid seed treatments and alternative measures. Hauer et al. J. Crop Prot. 2018, 93, 132-142.





(6) Neonicotinoid Residues in Wildflowers, a Potential Route of Chronic Exposure for Bees. Botías et al. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2015, 49, 21, 12731-12740.

(7) Quantification of Imidacloprid Uptake in Maize Crops. Bonmatin et al. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2005, 53, 5336-5341.

(8) Neonicotinoids, bee disorders and the sustainability of pollinator Services. Van der Sluijs et al. Curr. Opin. Env. Sust. 2013, 5, 293-305.

(9) Neonicotinoid-induced mortality risk for bees foraging on oilseed rape nectar persists despite EU moratorium. Wintermantel et al. Sci. Total Environ. 2020, 704, 135400.

(10) Pesticide Exposure Assessment Paradigm for Stingless Bees. Cham et al. Environ. Entomol. 2019, 48, 36-48.

(11) Workshop on Pesticide Exposure Assessment Paradigm for Non-Apis Bees: Foundation and Summaries. Boyle et al. Environ. Entomol. 2019, 48, 4-11.

(12) Pesticide Exposure Assessment Paradigm for Solitary Bees. Sgolastra et al. Environ. Entomol. 2019, 48, 22-35.

(13) Chronic contact with realistic soil concentrations of imidacloprid affects the mass, immature development speed, and adult longevity of solitary bees. Anderson and Harmon-Threatt. Sci. Rep. 2019, 9, 3724.

(14) Reduced species richness of native bees in field margins associated with neonicotinoid concentrations in non-target soils. Main et al. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 2020, 287, 106693.


About the Author: Elena Zioga is a PhD student on the PROTECTS project

Conducting and publishing my first systematic literature review – A unique experience

PROTECTS project PhD student Elena Zioga reflects on her experiences publishing her first paper…

To begin with, YAY, excitement all over the place!!!

Frankly, when I started my research quest back in September 2018, I was not thinking that it would end up being a paper for publication. It started as a literature review, in order to set up the basis for my PhD research on characterizing pesticide residues in floral resources for bees. Upon discussions with the rest of the members of the project in which I am involved (PROTECTS), we decided that there was a need for establishing the existing knowledge in terms of the pesticide residues ever found in pollen and nectar collected from plants. We wanted to know which compounds have been evaluated until now, and what their exact concentrations in pollen and nectar were. This knowledge would be very helpful for the risk assessment studies for pollinators. Soon, we discovered that instead of finding an answer to that specific question, we could also identify major knowledge gaps in the area; gaps that had to be highlighted.

There was a need for not only recording what was already known in the field, but also identifying the major gaps by summarizing results from a diverse inter-disciplinary research combining the research areas of bee biology, ecotoxicology, botany and chemistry. Setting up a basis not only for my PhD thesis, but also for future residue studies requested for a Reliable, Quantifiable and Reproducible systematic literature review. Hence, with my supervisor Jane Stout (Trinity College Dublin) and co-supervisor Blanaid White (Dublin City University), we started working towards that. One of the most important steps of this process was the beginning of the literature search and making sure that our question was clear and specific, in a way that our search terms over the various databases were well identified and established. Lesson learnt – During this stage, EVERYTHING need to be recorded, or everything will be forgotten. Try to keep notes of how, when and why you did things, as you will soon need this information regardless using it or not.

Since I had a 50 year period of interest, and given the technological advance during all these years I had come across studies with various methods of chemical analysis. As there were not many studies on the topic, I was trying to include as many as possible, but in the meantime I had to critically evaluate whether the studies contained the information we needed and in a form that could be further processed in our analysis. Lesson learnt – Critical thinking, Strike 1.

Once the studies relevant to our research question were identified, we were ready to proceed with the extraction of the data of interest. This is the stage where Excel was our best friend. As such, it supported us and was there for us, but also did not hesitate to ‘slap’ right in the face when wrong decisions were made. Lesson learnt – Excel is wise, take full advantage of its opportunities, Critical thinking, Strike 2. Make sure you name your columns in a strategical way and then fill the rows with all the essential information provided by the studies of interest. Keep in mind you research question, as this is the best guide during his stage.

When the data are collected in an excel layout they can be easily quantified. This is where I got to explore them and tried to see how and if they could be further analyzed in order to get more information out of them. Given the limited amount, the nature and the knowledge gaps of the residue studies, we could not perform a meta-analysis. However, the data indicated that we could go a bit beyond of just reporting the major gaps and the median values of the compounds found in pollen and nectar. That was when Dr Ruth Kelly, who was a Postdoc in our lab at the time, came to the rescue, joined our paper and offered her valuable information and skills on stats. It turned out that even though we were restricted to few compounds (neonicotinoid insecticides), we could identify a positive relationship between their residues found in pollen and nectar of plants. This is very important as it means that for those compounds, we could use the concentrations found in pollen to predict those in nectar. Taking into account how difficult nectar collection is and that it is slightly easier to collect pollen, this would facilitate future residue studies. Also, this could imply that this relationship may apply to more compounds belonging to other chemical groups (e.g. herbicides, fungicides and other non neonicotinoid insecticides), pointing out new roads for research. Lesson learnt – Listen to your data!

Once we got the results from the data analysis, all I needed to do was to think of the best way to present them to the rest of the scientific community. I tried to create a story that would make sense to other people, keep them interested while reading the article and potentially positively influence the future research of some of them. All was going great until we reached to a point where I was asked to reduce the size of my discussion part as I had written too much… For example, a discussion of 10 pages is a discussion good for a thesis, but can be tiring for a paper – very true. Managing to reduce that to six pages was a great challenge for me. Lesson learnt – Critical thinking, Strike 3.

While writing this paper, there were times I reached what seemed to be a dead end or this crucial spot were decisions had to be made. This is when my supervisors and/or co-authors of the paper came as my saviors and gave the solutions to all my problems. Lesson learnt – It is OKAY to not being able to answer to some questions. Remember we are here to learn. Discuss about your thoughts and worries with people that are more experienced, and are willing to help you.

To me, a paper is always a team effort. The better the teamwork, the better the outcome. From the contribution of the co-authors, to the discussions with the people of your research project, from the discussions with the rest of your lab members to the comments of the reviewers, every single person adds a small or a larger stone to it. A big ‘THANK YOU’ to my co-authors, to all the PROTECTS’ group that is so supportive and especially to Dara Stanley (University College Dublin) who triggered us in starting this paper, to the rest of the plant-insect interactions lab members for the fruitful discussions, and to all those who contributed in making this paper ready to be published!

Lesson learnt – Good things can happen through good collaborations!

In case you are interested in reading the full paper entitled ‘Plant protection product residues in plant pollen and nectar: a review of current knowledge’, here is the link:

Elena graphical abstract
Graphical abstract summarizing the paper

You may follow the general updates on our research through our project’s twitter account @ProtectsProject and my personal account @ZioElena.

For an excellent guide on how to conduct a systematic quantitative literature review visit the following link: