Written by Thary Gazi Goh Photos by Shang Ming & Syuhada Sapno
In this final article in our series on pollinators we look at pollinators with a backbone.
Birds that feed on nectar typically have long narrow beaks. Sometimes they supplement their diet with insects as well, often other pollinators.
Typically, sunbirds and spiderhunters make up most bird pollinators in Malaysia. These small, energetic birds can often be seen in gardens where there are the types of flowers that they can feed on.
Examples: Olive-backed sunbird, Brown-throated sunbird, Little spiderhunter, Scarlet-backed flowerpecker.
Flower structure: Birds are often attracted to large and yellow, orange or reddish flowers. Usually, these flowers open during the day, are odourless and tube-shaped with a large reservoir of dilute nectar at the bottom.
Plants that they pollinate: African Tulip, Crepe ginger, Hibiscus.
Flying at night, fruit bats are a constant presence in urban areas but barely noticed. Fruit bats have long, doglike faces, and they rely primarily on their sight to navigate in the dark, unlike insect-feeding bats that use echolocation.
Fruit bats primarily feed on fruit, but can also pollinate trees that are specialised in bat pollination. Often, these bats fly over long distances from their roosts to feed on flower and fruits, and they are incredibly efficient pollinators for important crops such as durians. The bats lick the dilute nectar of these flowers up with their long tongues, and the pollen gets caught on their fur as they do so.
Examples: Horsfield’s fruit bat, Malayan flying fox
Flower structure: Often, these flowers bloom at night, are large in size, have a lot of dilute nectar, and have large amounts of pollen.
We are often hit with pangs of guilt when we dispose leftovers or other perishables that have been left sitting at the back of the refrigerator forgotten, overlooked or uneaten.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association (FAO), an estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of food (worth $750 billion annually!) is wasted globally each year. In Malaysia alone, up to 16,688 tonnes of food waste is generated on a daily basis, an amount sufficient to feed 2.2 million mouths three meals a day.
The amount of food wasted globally would help feed twice the number of malnourished people across the globe, ending world hunger.
However, wasting food not only comes with a financial and ethical cost, it too has impacts on the environment. Food wasted is equivalent to wasting all the energy and water invested into producing and processing, transporting, and packaging it, all the way until it reaches our plates. And if discarded food waste ends up in landfills to rot, a potent greenhouse gas 25 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide known as methane would be released. Undeniably, reducing food waste can reduce our carbon footprint, reversing global warming.
So what can we do about it?
A potential solution to minimise food waste ending up in landfills is composting. Composting is a method used to decompose organic solid wastes into simpler compounds with the help of microorganisms in the presence of air. The rotted organic material also known as compost, could be used to improve the quality of garden soil or even as a fertilizer for plants, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.
To begin, you require three simple ingredients – greens, browns and water.
Greens refer to materials that are nitrogen-rich, crucial for microbial growth. Some examples include fruit and vegetable peelings, coffee grounds or filters, tea bags, and grass clippings.
Browns represent carbon-rich materials which provide aeration such as dry leaves, shredded paper or cardboard, egg boxes and egg shells.
Water keeps the compost pile moist, important for compost development.
When selecting your food scraps, avoid meat and dairy products which include fish bones, milk, yogurt, as well as oils and butter. These foods would cause bad odours to waft out of your compost, consequently attracting pests such as rodents and flies. Pet wastes (e.g. dog or cat faeces) and diseased plants should also be left out of the compost pile or bin to prevent the transfer of harmful pathogens back to plants or to humans. If you would like to compost these materials, you might want to look into the bokashi method.
Once you have collected and stored a good amount of kitchen and garden scraps, it is time to make the compost mix. Into your compost pile or bin, start layering your browns and greens.
As green materials are typically wet and brown materials tend to be dry, you should always start the bottom layer with dry browns followed by a layer of wet greens, then just repeat the layering process until you run out of food scraps.
Step 5: Repeat step 1-4. It is all about layering!The ratio should approximately be two or three portions of browns to one portion of greens (3:1).
Add a splash water to the browns to keep the compost mix nice and moist. Do not add too much water until the pile gets wet and soggy. If your compost is too wet, the sludgy mixture would not breakdown and will produce a foul odour. However, if it is too dry, microorganisms cannot decompose the materials effectively. Ideally, your compost needs to be moist for effective composting to occur.
Once you are done, just sit back, relax and let the magic happen. In our Malaysian climate, the decomposition process usually takes anywhere between 4-6 months, depending on the temperature within your compost pile. The higher the temperature, the quicker your ‘black gold’ is produced. It is advisable to turn or rotate your compost pile using a spade or stick, preferably once a week to ensure everything is well aerated.
So how do you know when your compost is ready?
Finished compost tends to be dark and rich in colour, smells earthy (sometimes with a hint sweet or sour smell), and fluffy to the touch with a good moisture content just like a sponge. That is when you know it is good to go. If your compost smells like a dumpster or just bad in general, it might be too wet and have yet to decompose. Fret not, add more browns to soak up excess water or readjust the portions of browns to greens.
Composting is pretty experimental, so keep trying and don’t give up!
Written by Thary Gazi Goh Photos by Thary Gazi Goh
These are pollinators that crawl around flowers. Sometimes they crawl into flowers as protection, sometimes they are looking to feed on pollen, sometimes they randomly pick up pollen while doing something else.
Sometimes crawling insects can pick up pollen as they move about in search of other food. Ladybugs are known to be minor pollinators, and other crawling insects can do so as well. However, they aren’t very good pollinators since they don’t move as far as bees or butterflies.
Examples: Ladybugs, true bugs, beetles
Flower Structure: Plants that can be accidentally pollinated usually produce a lot of sticky pollen.
Some beetles feed on pollen grains and the plants that are pollinated by beetles develop specialised relationships with the beetles that feed on their flowers. Often, these plants produce large amounts of sticky pollen in tight spaces that force beetles to crawl through to get to. These flowers also either have no petals or very tough petals that can withstand the biting damage of beetles.
A good example of beetle pollination is the oil palm, which is mostly pollinated by a small beetle, the Oil Palm Weevil (Eleidobius kamaroonicus) that has been introduced from Africa.
Aside from beetles, small animals like thrips also feed on flower pollen. These can be pests of crops as they feed on flowers and sometimes spread plant diseases.
Many primitive trees from the Magnolia family are pollinated by beetles.
Examples: Oil Palm Weevil, Sap beetles, Fungus beetles, Thrips,
Flower Structure: White, green or yellow flowers with tight pollen compartments or open bowl- shaped flowers. Usually have thick petals or sometimes none at all. Some aroids are known to attract beetles by heating up.
Plants that they pollinate: Aroids, Magnolias, some palms.
Flower brooders are insects that breed inside of flowers, using the flower as both a source of food and shelter. Some flower brooders breed in fallen flowers and survive on fungus that grows inside. Some live in living flowers and damage them from the inside. The movement of these animals from flower to flower spreads pollen.
Sap beetles and thrips can be found living inside flowers, feeding on pollen or the flower itself. These weak fliers can move between flowers to spread pollen.
Examples: Sap beetles, Rove Beetles, Thrips
Flower structure: Usually part of the flower forms a protective chamber that can only be accessed by crawling insects.
Plants that they pollinate: Bean flowers (but they cause damage as well)
Written by Thary Gazi Goh Photos by Thary Gazi Goh
In this part of our series on pollinators, we look at the Lepidopterans, or in simple words butterflies and moths.
Flowers that butterflies and moths visit are usually also usable by other types of insects.
Butterflies are primarily day-flying and attracted to brightly coloured flowers. While they are quite well studied for insects, we don’t fully understand the ecology of many butterfly species. There are 1,051 species of butterflies recorded in Malaysia, so it is unlikely we will be able to understand all of them in a human lifetime.
There are a wide variety of butterfly species in Malaysia, ranging from tiny garden butterflies to very large Birdwings. Many larger species tend to prefer shady areas or forests, while a variety of small and medium sized butterflies are common in urban areas.
Golden birdwings are some of the largest butterflies in the world.
Examples: Lime butterflies, Birdwings, A variety of common garden species Species guide
Flower Structure: Flowers that grow in bunches with long nectar tubes are very attractive to butterflies. These flowers are usually reds or yellows.
Plants that they pollinate: Ixora, Saraca
Moths are very important pollinators, but since they fly in the darkness they are rarely noticed or appreciated. Local moth species range from tiny micro moths (many of which don’t even have names) to the world’s largest moths like Atlas moths and Lunar moths. In Malaysia, moths are more diverse than butterflies, with an estimated number of species of more than 5000. This pattern is similar for the rest of the world.
Moths primarily navigate using moonlight and stars, while find food and mate using their excellent sense of smell (which is located on their often elaborate antennas). This is why they are endangered by human lighting and light pollution. Flowers that attract moths are often pleasant-smelling.
Hawk moths have very long tongues called proboscis. Plant pollen usually has to stick to this structure instead of the moth body, since hawk moths don’t land on flowers but hover above them. Some larger hawk moths are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds.
Tree falls can create gaps and disturbance in rain forests.
Written by Thary Gazi Goh Photos by Thary Gazi Goh & Langur Project Penang
The natural world is chaotic. Accidental events can happen that can affect a whole ecosystem, for example a fire started by lightning or a disease that kills off a species. In the worst cases, random events can cause the collapse of entire ecosystems.
The effects of random events on ecosystems become stronger the smaller the area is. This means that small isolated forest patches will take more damage from accidents than larger areas.
So why have our forests not been completely wiped out by random events? Two factors come into play: Movement between different ecosytems and heterogeneity.
Movement of biodiversity between separate patches helps to recover damaged ecosystems. When all the vegetation was removed from Krakatoa after a massive volcanic eruption, the surrounding islands contributed to the recovery of the ecosystem there.
Heterogeneity means more diversity of species. More heterogenous ecosystems are also more resilient. If a plant disease like fusarium wilt hits a monoculture banana plantation all the plants will be wiped out, if it hits a diverse rainforest there will be minimal damage.
This happens because there are more varied plants and they are far apart enough so disease doesn’t spread like a wildfire. In fact literal wildfires tend to spread less effectively in heterogenous forests because different plant species have different reactions to fire and some patches can act as natural fire breaks.
Canopy bridge provides a safer way for animals to cross a busy and dangerous road Photos credit to Langur Project Penang
In terms of understanding how to apply this to our cities, it is really important to not just preserve forest patches, but to allow for some form of connection. This can be through bee lanes (margins planted with flowers to allow for pollinator movement), viaducts (tunnels that allow the movement of ground animals) or canopy bridges (rope bridges that allow movement of arboreal animals).
This is not just a matter of building structures, barriers can be removed through collective action like closing roads on certain days of the month or turning off non-essential lights during a migration or mating season.
In Kuala Lumpur most of our forest patches are abandoned rubber plantations, we can increase their resilience by planting a greater variety of tree species and slowly transitioning away from a monoculture plantation to diverse secondary forests.
Soil, being the foundation of life, is of great importance to human and nature
Written by Ethlyn Koh Photos by Goh Shang Ming
Every day as you lay your feet on the ground and walk the earth, have you ever wondered what lies beneath? Soil. This material exists on the outermost part of Earth’s crust, forming the surface of land and sometimes regarded as “skin of the earth”.
The uses of soil are endless.
Soil is an important natural body as it supports agriculture. Most of the food we consume can be traced back to soil because it is the original source of nutrients needed to grow and produce food. Soil also plays a crucial role in the water cycle. Not only does soil store and filter water, providing a clean supply of water, it too improves our resilience to floods and droughts, especially in the face of climate change. On top of that, soil is a habitat for a wide variety of organisms. It houses microscopic organisms to soil fauna of larger sizes – for example, earthworms, springtails, burrowing rodents, etc. Soil is undeniably an extremely valuable and vital ecosystem that delivers ecosystem services, enabling life on Earth, fundamental to our survival.
So what exactly is soil?
The Soil Science Society of America defines soil as the unconsolidated mineral or organic material present on the immediate surface of earth, serving as a natural medium for the growth of land plants. Others describe soil as layers of generally loose mineral and/or organic material that are affected by physical, chemical and biological processes at or near the planetary surface and usually hold liquids, gases, and biota (living things) and support plants.
Composing of a mixture of minerals, water, air, organic matter, and decaying remains of living things that once lived, the components of soil fall into two distinct categories: biotic and abiotic factors. The biotic factors encompass both the living and dead – for instance plants, insects and even soil microorganisms such as archaea, fungi, algae and more. The abiotic factors on the other hand represent non-living things which include minerals, water and air. Commonly found soil minerals such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are amongst the essential nutrients needed for healthy plant growth followed by calcium, magnesium and sulphur. The combination of these factors ultimately determine the properties of soil – its texture, structure, porosity, chemistry and colour. But that’s a topic for another day.
Undoubtedly, soil builds and supports the foundation of a community, a nation, and basically any form of life. The giving nature of soil provides us and other forms of life with an abundance of resources.
Soil can also be described as a repository of memory, holding records of the past of our planet, our evolutionary history of how far we have come. It may also store secrets and possibilities that have yet to be discovered to a sustainable future.
Essentially, all life depends upon the soil… There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.
Dr Charles E. Kellogg
So while you keep your feet on the ground, stay grounded and stop treating soil like dirt.
Soil organisms constitute more than 25% of discovered biodiversity on earth. However, much of them remain unexplored and receive little attention compared to aboveground organisms.
Though less visible, these organisms are responsible for various ecosystem functions such as:
supporting agro-ecosystems etc.
The ecological processes in soil are mainly driven by interactions between soil microorganisms and plants, especially their underground roots. The soil microbes (microscopic organism), mainly bacteria and fungi, break down dead organic matter e.g. fallen leaves and release minerals and carbon compounds into the soil. These nutrients will be reused by plants for development. Some microbes establish mutualistic relationships with plants. For example, the mycorrhizal fungi transport water and minerals to the plant, while they receive carbon in return.
The soil microbes also suppress plant diseases by competing with disease-causing organisms, colonising or consuming them.
Soil microorganisms are important in maintaining soil structure and retaining water.
The sugar-rich secretion of bacteria or threadlike filaments of fungi bind soil particles into small aggregates which are physically and chemically stable.
The microbes are eaten by larger soil organisms i.e. the protozoa and nematodes. These small animals are then eaten by their predators such as insects, centipedes, spiders and scorpions. This underground food web is connected to aboveground food web as soil-dwelling animals become the food source of animals that live on the ground such as birds, snakes and frogs.
Aside from organisms in the grazing food chain, there are animals thatfeed on dead plant materials. Unlike decomposer, these animals need to orally ingest the organic matter and digest it inside their bodies. Some examples of these detritus-feeders are woodlices, beetles and termites.
A pleasing fungus beetle feeds on fungus and decomposing matter.
Cave cricket lives in leaf litter.
Apart from that, the earthworms which feed on leaf litter and soil are known as ecosystem engineers as they produce nutrient-rich castings and create pores in soil. The castings are important for soil aggregate formation and plant growth, while the pores in soil facilitate water movement, increase water infiltration and alleviate flooding.
Like aquatic and terrestrial organisms, soil organisms are threatened by a series of environmental issues. The major threat that they face is habitat loss, which results from land conversion, pollution, climate change and invasive species. Agricultural activities such as “tillage” alter composition of bacterial communities and reduce diversity of soil fungi and larger animals. Construction of roads, buildings and street pavement damage the soil structure and destroy soil organism’s habitat.
Habitat degradation occurs when the soil is polluted. Pollutants such as heavy metal and excess nutrients change the soil environment chemically, usually in an abrupt and profuse manner. This makes the soil condition unfavourable for many existing soil microorganisms. As a result, only a few pollution-tolerant species survive and dominate the community. The overall microbial diversity and activity decrease.
The alteration of environmental parameters as a result of climate change also affects soil organisms. Increased concentration of atmospheric CO2 triggers responses of soil fungal communities. Such responses are reflected in the amount of living plants in the area. Quantity and frequency of rainfall and changes of temperature also impact underground animals such as insects. However, the impacts vary by taxon (unit used by scientists to classify organisms) and ecosystem as some are more resistant to environmental changes while some are more vulnerable.
The intrusion of invasive species such as exotic plants brings changes to the soil environment as well as underground microbial communities.
Their roots release a new combination of chemicals e.g. sugars and enzymes into the soil. The type and amount of chemicals are different from the ones released by original plant communities. This affects the activity and population size of microbial community at the rhizosphere i.e. portion of soil surrounding roots of living plant as its biological and chemical properties are influenced by the roots. The invasive plants also impact the soil organisms by interfering with nutrient cycling e.g. the legume plants, or changing the amount of litter and root inputs.
Conservation measures to support soil biodiversity include managing natural areas, restoring degraded ecosystems, adopting sustainable farming practices and adapting urban areas for both nature and people. Identifying undisturbed land and protecting it are important to sustain soil biodiversity as the habitat quality of soil organisms is maintained. Other than that, both artificial and natural revegetation of disturbed land help soil microbes and fauna to re-establish.
Sustainable farming practices are also important in conserving soil biodiversity. Reduced tillage, crop rotation, planting of cover crop and retention of litter are some useful measures to improve soil quality as well as support soil biodiversity. Allocating spaces for greenery and wildlife in urban planning, establishing green roofs and rain gardens, reduced soil compaction and using mulch as groundcover are some of the ways that encourage soil biodiversity in urban areas.
Alizabeth M. Bach, K. S. (2020). Soil Biodiversity Integrates Solutions for a Sustainable Future. Sustainability, 2662.
Resources produced by plants for animals come in many forms. Some animals require the presence of water for reproduction like frogs. Others like butterflies require shade to prevent overheating. Some require very specific structures like rotting wood, or crevices to complete their life cycle.
When it comes to planting, plants produce resources for animals in several ways:
Many plants produce food in the form of leaves for folivores (leaf eaters), seeds for grainivores (seed predators), fruits for frugivores (fruit eaters) or wood for xylophages (wood eaters). These in turn become food for other animals in the food chain. In tropical rain forests, figs and palms have more frequent fruiting cycles and are a staple of many frugivores diets. Dipterocarps and oaks, which make up the majority of trees in our lowland forest, fruit less frequently but produce large quantities of seeds every 2-12 years in a phenomenon known as “mast seeding”. Fallen leaves, logs and branches also provide food for invertebrate decomposers.
Many plants have chemical defences that make them poisonous to some animals (like tobacco and caffeine). However some animals have been able to overcome these and have adapted to solely feeding on a small variety of plants, these animals usually require the host plant to complete part of their life cycle. For example the tree Saraca thaipingensis is the host plant for the butterfly Drupadia ravindra. Planting larger varieties of plants usually leads to an increase in insect life due to a higher availability of host plants.
The majority of animals are not able to maintain their body temperature and must depend on their environment to heat up or cool down. Plants change the thermal environment by releasing water vapour into the air and reducing the amount of sunlight and heat below them.
4.Nesting space/nesting materials/shelter
Plants with complicated structures are often good places to hide for many smaller animals. Larger animals such as monkeys also use trees to rest at night to avoid predators. Plants with large root systems or branching growth are especially good for animal nests. Some frogs have adapted to laying their eggs in epiphytes or bamboo.
Many animals use plants as a space for attracting the opposite sex. Birds often require trees to make mating displays. Some flies also use leaves for performance space, while beetles often need rotting wood as a place to attract mates. In some cases the loss of certain plant species leads to the loss of animals that use them for mating, like mangrove fireflies and berembang trees (Sonneratia caseolaris).
As humans we view ourselves as nothing special. This thinking causes all sorts of problems for the wildlife around us, because humans are in fact quite extraordinary creatures, and when we design our spaces for extraordinary creatures we exclude the average animal.
If I was to describe the average animal species, it would be cold-blooded, it has a narrow diet, it is very small in size, likely it can fly and it would be negatively affected by artificial light.
Humans are fantastic at sweating and warming ourselves up. We have one of the best heat regulation systems in the natural world, and it is so good that we rarely think about it.
We can heat ourselves up when we are cold and sweat off any excess temperature. Many animals have to depend on their environment to be able to do so.
But this leads us to build cities that are designed for amounts of heat that humans can handle, but many other animals cannot. We also carelessly use materials like concrete and glass that reflect a lot of heat, creating areas that are bearably hot for humans but lethal to some animals.
We eat a lot of things. Our diets are very wide, and we take food from many different levels of the food chain. Compare that to the limitations that most animals face: predators usually have a small set of prey that they can hunt or some herbivores are limited to only single host plant.
When designing habitat, we should consider that many animals have a limited set of items that they can feed on. Many butterflies need host plants to survive, and without these plants you can’t have enough caterpillars to sustain a population of insect feeding birds.
Many birds are limited by the design of their beak, if there isn’t the right types of fruit or seed available they might not be able to survive in an environment.
We are very much in the upper limits of animal size. We usually compare ourselves to megafauna we see on National Geographic, but considering that the smallest animals are smaller than specks of dust and most animals are actually less than a few centimeters in length, we’re really big. And this is a problem when we think about habitats, we assume that animals need as much space as us. In many cases they can do with less.
Frogs can live in a system that consists of a few ponds or streams, millipedes can spend their entire lives in a single log and populations of butterflies can survive in small parks or patches of forest.
The modern human lives in a 2-dimensional world, we rarely need to move upwards or downwards unless we are changing the level that we are on. Therefore we rarely think about 3-dimensional space, especially space that can be reached through flight.
Most species of animals can fly. Most insects are able to fly at least at one point of their lives, birds are capable of flight, mammalian bats can fly, even reptiles and amphibians have evolved the ability to glide.
This means that they can move in ways that humans can’t. Roads with heavy traffic may be an obstacle to humans, but not a bird. The ledges of buildings and the rooftops of our cities are all fair game for animal habitat.
We can create light and it doesn’t have a seriously negative effect on us. This is not the case for many animals with strict activity periods.
Artificial light can extend the activity of birds, causing them to use up more energy or become more stressed. It can be downright lethal to many insects since it affects their navigation and causes them to fly about lights until the die of exhaustion or get eaten by predators.
Humans are a special class of our own. And when we consider the needs of animals we need to consider that animals are very different from us, so we need to design with their need in mind as well. When we do that, there is a surprising amount of space for us and our animal neighbours.