Reliably predicting pollinator abundance: Challenges of calibrating process-based ecological models

Emma Gardner, Tom D Breeze, Yann Clough, Henrik G. Smith, Katherine C. R. Baldock, Alistair Campbell, Mike Garratt, Mark A. K. Gillespie, William E Kunin, Megan McKerchar, Jane Memmott, Simon G. Potts, Deepa Senapathi, Graham N Stone, Felix Wäckers, Duncan B Westbury, Andrew Wilby, Tom H. Oliver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

1. Pollination is a key ecosystem service for global agriculture but evidence of pollinator population declines is growing. Reliable spatial modelling of pollinator abundance is essential if we are to identify areas at risk of pollination service deficit and effectively target resources to support pollinator populations. Many models exist which predict pollinator abundance but few have been calibrated against observational data from multiple habitats to ensure their predictions are accurate.

2. We selected the most advanced process-based pollinator abundance model available and cal-ibrated it for bumblebees and solitary bees using survey data collected at 239 sites across Great Britain. We compared three versions of the model: one parameterised using estimates based on ex-pert opinion, one where the parameters are calibrated using a purely data-driven approach and one where we allow the expert opinion estimates to inform the calibration process. 
3. All three model versions showed significant agreement with the survey data, demonstrating this model’s potential to reliably map pollinator abundance. However, there were significant differences between the nesting/floral attractiveness scores obtained by the two calibration methods and from the original expert opinion scores.
4. Our results highlight a key universal challenge of calibrating spatially-explicit, process-based ecological models. Notably, the desire to reliably represent complex ecological processes in finely mapped landscapes necessarily generates a large number of parameters, which are challenging to cal-ibrate with ecological and geographical data that is often noisy, biased, asynchronous and sometimes inaccurate. Purely data-driven calibration can therefore result in unrealistic parameter values, de-spite appearing to improve model-data agreement over initial expert opinion estimates. We therefore advocate a combined approach where data-driven calibration and expert opinion are integrated into an iterative Delphi-like process, which simultaneously combines model calibration and credibility as-sessment. This may provide the best opportunity to obtain realistic parameter estimates and reliable model predictions for ecological systems with expert knowledge gaps and patchy ecological data.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMethods in ecology and evolution
Publication statusPublished - 7 Sept 2020

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • calibration
  • credibility assessment
  • delphi panel
  • ecosystem services
  • pollinators
  • process-based models
  • validation


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