Introduction to ecosystems
Introduction to ecosystems

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Introduction to ecosystems

5.1 Managing or meddling

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Managing or meddling

DR MICHAEL GILLMAN
Ecosystems capture energy and recycle nutrients. They're delicately balanced and complex, living systems that are easily affected by external influences. They can be affected by human activity. But they can also be managed and operated as a kind of service provider.

[PHONE RINGS]

ACTOR
Hello, Busy Bees, pollination section. Oh, yes, totally. Yeah, we cover all types of flower.
DR MICHAEL GILLMAN
It's estimated that as much as one third of human food supply depends on pollinators.
ACTOR
Definitely, definitely. We do an awful lot of work with lavender already, actually.
DR MICHAEL GILLMAN
The insects that do the pollinating could be natural, but they can also be artificially introduced into an ecosystem to help increase productivity. It's not really run by the Busy Bee Corporation, but it is big business. In the US alone in 2000, it was estimated to be worth $14.6 billion US dollars. But there are costs - maintaining the hives, transporting the bees. There's also the problem that the artificial honeybee may not be effective on all crops. We may have to look at the wild bees. One approach is to try and manage wild bees to make them more efficient pollinators. But another idea is to use the wild bees to influence the behaviour of the honeybees. We already know that meddling with an ecosystem can have side effects. But sometimes, these effects can work out for the best.
DR VINCENT GAUCI
Now you get all sorts of interactions between different species. And sometimes, you get unintended consequences of that. So it's not necessarily a negative. You can get positive interactions. Now, for example, with wild bees interacting with honeybees, it's actually been found that the net effect of that is actually even more pollination - overall a good thing in terms of what the system can provide us.
DR MICHAEL GILLMAN
Pollination is just one example of how we can manage ecosystems for our benefit. But as our man at the Busy Bee Corporation will tell you, it's not the only service that ecosystems can provide.
ACTOR
Indeed, we don't just do flowers. We also could do your woodlands, too. Oh, yes, that's why they call us the bees' knees. Heh. Yeah, mm.
DR MICHAEL GILLMAN
In some areas, the careful management of woodland could make a significant contribution to a local economy without destroying the system that's providing the wood. Coppicing is a good example. Yes, the trees are cut back, and yes, coppiced woods are man made, but there's a balance between harvest and maintenance. So their basic ecosystem remains intact.
DR VINCENT GAUCI
Ecosystems can be managed and make them sustainable and economically viable entities. There's active management of the wood to harvest, on an annual basis, part of the woody growth. This sustainable harvesting of the forest is actually to its overall benefit. And it's this sort of management of an ecosystem that actually can be a nice model for managing other types of ecosystem.
DR MICHAEL GILLMAN
So ecosystems can be manipulated to our economic advantage. But the key is careful management, because we don't always know what the ecological consequences of our actions will be. Ecosystems are complex, and so is our relationship with them. They provide us with food, water, and help protect our built environment. Yet, our activities have destroyed and altered many, allowing just a few to flourish. A better understanding of how ecosystems function will allow us to manage and sustain them for the future.
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Having a better understanding of how ecosystems function, and the energy flows through them, means that future damage and disruption can be limited.

Here are some questions raised by this video and the previous one. Make brief notes on possible answers in preparation for the discussion at the end of this week.

  • Can you think of examples where ecosystems have been negatively affected by human activity, and where they have been managed and operated to benefit humans without damage to the system?
  • How does damage to one ecosystem have an impact on another? Why are small changes so significant?
  • Do you agree with the following assessment: ‘Some elements [of ecosystems] are crucial but there are some additional extras the system could survive without.’
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