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Jacky Sherman

The Consultant's Consultant

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The Meadow And Your Business

What do they have in common?


Posted by Jacky Sherman on 10/06/2021 @ 8:00AM

I first heard of the concept of Biomimetics (biomimicry) many years ago and buried it in the back of my brain where it has remained until one of those rambling thought processes let my mind wander and bring it to the fore ...

Flowers exist because plants want to breed and insects want to feed. They found out they could help each other!

Flowers exist because plants want to breed and insects want to feed. They found out they could help each other!

copyright: venkata suresh /

In this case, mixing my thoughts in my role as chair of the Green Business Network with my day job helping small companies with their business development. Add in a coincidence with a chance referral, and out of the depths of my brain popped Biomimetics.

"Biomimetics as a term was first coined
by Otto Herbert Schmitt!"

It is the process of examining the way nature has dealt with a similar problem when looking for a man-made solution. The rationale being that nature has, through natural selection, been through a millennia-long trial and error processes where the best-fit-to-date solution emerges. So, why not use that for our man-made problem?

The usual simple example that is given is that, "In 1948, while walking in the woods, Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral noticed how Cockleburrs stuck to his dog's coat. The result? Velcro!"

My ramblings in the recesses of my brain all started with me continuing my education into the green agenda and a conversation with Jeff Ollerton, one of the world's leading pollination ecologists. He has recently left academia and set up as an independent consultant.

Needless to say, he gave a plug for his new book and, of course, I bought it. Almost immediately it opened my eyes to some of the facts and myths about how plants and animals (in this instance insects and the like) develop strategies to get what they each want from the process of pollination.

"In essence, flowers exist because plants want to breed and insects want to feed. They found out they could help each other!"

Whilst these partnerships have always been a dynamic process, they had stability as both plants and their pollinators have evolved physical body forms and behaviours that ensured both survived and thrived despite the normal ups and downs caused by the planet and its other occupants. According to Ollerton (page 89), they do this by and large by hedging their bets (no pun intended) along a specialisation-generalisation continuum.

Most of us have watched wildlife documentaries that take us through a scenario on extreme specialisation where the plant and insect have evolved structures and behaviours that make them completely dependent upon each other. The Joshua Tree, a form of Yucca, is the usual one given. The Yucca is completely reliant on the female Yucca moth for fertilisation and in return, the moths have exclusive access for their larvae to eat some of the yucca seeds.

Along this continuum, there are plants such as orchids or the wild carrot who have evolved shapes to attract specific insects, but all can, and are, pollinated by other insects often when their own partner plants are unavailable.

"At the other end are the tarts of the plant world who will accept any insect that comes along!"

The interesting point is that the specialised plants are found in areas of high stability where their pollinators are highly predictable, able to visit the plants at more or less the same time year in year out. Alternatively, the pollinators are so abundant that fluctuations in their numbers can have little impact on the plants. However, most plants and insects keep their options open and can switch to different partners or move on to new territory.

So, in the wild area, an equilibrium was achieved, Until now. These normal stresses are stretched through climate change compounded by intensive farming and other land usages that, increasingly, has left them nowhere to go. A bit depressing, but also pointed to the resilience of the natural world if you give it a chance.

Then I had a referral from a new contact of mine to Paul Hetherington of Buglife, a Not-for-profit organisation specifically set up to reverse this trend and from him, I learnt about B-lines. As long as the distances between feeding stations are not too great then insects will travel to eat.

The B- lines are designed as a man-made strategy to criss-cross the country with corridors of wild meadow and indigenous shrubs and trees. This ensures that plenty of diverse food is available throughout the growing season for the wildlife to move on once they've devoured the food. Do visit the Buglife website and look at their fascinating map and plans to develop this network across the whole of Great Britain.

Having these two experts at my disposal, and readily admitting my own ignorance of the subject, I picked their brains as to why honey was on the list of "can't have any more" from my Vegan friends, and now it's on my own list of can't have.

Now, I knew there were serious concerns about the bee population worldwide, what I didn't know was what was causing this. Well, actually it turns out there are plenty of bees, just not the right sort. And some of the very people who were wanting to save the bees were exacerbating the problem.

There are over 250 types of wild bee worldwide, each fitting nicely into its own ecological niche (all those millennia of fine-tuning). Along with all the other species on the planet they are under pressure from loss of habitat and rising temperatures. Add in the farmed honey bee cosseted and protected by man, unleashed on an already stressed environment they easily devour all the pollen and nectar available and the local wild insects, already stressed, go into decline.

"Let's move on from the biology lesson to what we can
take from this into our world!"

I came across Michael Helms and Marc Weissburg from the Center for Biologically Inspired Design at Georgia Tec. on-line. They are researching how existing biologically designed methods can be applied in industrial settings to increase design innovation and better manage uncertainty. Here's the link for those of you who want to go deeper.

What struck me was this lovely little sound bite they made to illustrate their point in their talk: "Human systems, like cities, are not like ecologies they are ecologies." Ecologies are made up of actors (plants, insects and other animals) who consume, produce and are consumed in a self-sustaining cyclical manner.

So, from my very basic knowledge of the ecology of flowering pollinators and their world, what can we apply to your strategy in your world ... your ecology?

  • If your market is very secure and stable, then focus on specialising with some strategic partners across your supply chain in a circular economy.

  • If your market is profuse and you really don't have that big an impact, then find your specialised niche and work it. Why would you need to go elsewhere? Just have an eye on how secure that market really is. Are there some honey bees waiting around the corner? Who would have thought that major retail stores would be so vulnerable to online shopping (we'd had catalogue shopping for decades before online shopping arrived).

  • If your market isn't that secure, and recent events would suggest that few are, then be flexible. You may have a speciality, but be prepared to be nimble and change your model to meet the circumstances. How many of us had used the concept "Pivot your business" before COVID-19? Yet, it was those who could take up that challenge who have survived and maybe even thrived.

  • If your market has heavy competition or is volatile and vulnerable to newcomers on the scene then maybe having a broad range of services and multiple outlets and suppliers will mean you can take a fall in one area whilst compensating in others. If we haven't suffered ourselves, we most certainly will come across people whose business collapsed because they relied too heavily on one customer (see specialisation above).

  • And lastly, have you got your B-lines? Business works largely on networks and making sure you have access to new markets, customers, suppliers and support will stand you in good stead whatever the world or other players throw at you.

I'd like to finish with a word of caution. It's all a bit more complicated than this. Jeff Ollerton consistently states in his book that we actually know very little about the strategies behind the form and actions of the players in the pollination game.

"I would say the same applies to business!"

Whilst the detail may be missing, the one thing I believe will hold true is that your success will come and be more secure if you maintain your B-Lines and look after the other players in your ecology.

Until next time ...



Would you like to know more?

If anything I've written in this blog post resonates with you and you'd like to discover more, it may be a great idea to give me a call on 07970 638857. Let's have an initial chat over a coffee and see how I can help you.

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