Monthly Archives: November 2014

Pollinator seminar at Westminster – the official version – and that 1,500 figure

20141028_180501

Last month I wrote a personal account of the National Pollinator Strategy Seminar held at Westminster.  This week the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology released their official summary of the event plus PDFs of the slides of some of the participants.  They can be downloaded from this website.  It was an interesting seminar and it’s well worth taking time to study these documents; they are very accessible for the non-specialist.

One thing that’s unclear to me from this account is with regard to the statement that:  “there are approximately 1,500 insect species that pollinate food crops and wild plants, including bees, hoverflies, wasps, flies, butterflies, beetles and moths”.  The National Pollinator Strategy also cites that figure, though says “at least 1,500” species.

Where does the 1,500 figure come from?  Does anyone know the original citation?  I genuinely can’t recall if I’ve ever seen it published.

A quick back of the envelope, conservative calculation suggests to me that 1,500 species is too low:

Aculeates (bees plus wasps minus ants) =  500
Butterflies =     59
Macro-moths (assumed 50% flower visitors) =  400
Hoverflies =  250
Other flies (assumed 10% flower visitors) =  700
Beetles (assumed 5% flower visitors) =  200
Total species = 2109

 

Links are included to the sources of the original diversity figures.  I’ve rounded some of the figures down and the % flowers visitors figures for moths, flies and beetles is pure guestimate based on my field experience.  But they are not likely to be way out, and if anything could be an under-estimate for flies and beetles; moths could be too high, though most species do feed as adults.  Aculeate Hymenoptera (bees and wasps) could also be an over-estimate, but then that figure doesn’t include the non-aculeate “wasps” that frequently visit flowers, for example many ichneumonids and sawflies.

Does it matter?  I think so: as scientists it’s important that we provide the most accurate data that we can to governments and other bodies that may use it for policy, strategy and advocacy.

As always I’d be pleased to receive your comments.

2 Comments

Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Pollination

Urban pollinators for urban agriculture (and horticulture!)

P1010430

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about urban pollinators, that is to say bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and other animals, living and foraging in towns and cities.  As I recounted in my recent post about the National Pollinator Strategy seminar at Westminster, Jane Memmott presented some of the first data from the Urban Pollinators Initiative which is looking very interesting.  At the same time, Muzafar Hussain has submitted the first manuscript from his PhD study of urban solitary bees in Northampton, and will hopefully be defending his thesis early next year.  More recently I was asked to examine the PhD thesis of  Rob Fowler at the University of Birmingham, whose focus has been on pollinators across an urban-rural gradient.  Rob did very well and I look forward to seeing his work published.

Interesting though all this work is, it’s largely being done outside the context of crop pollination per se, focusing mainly on the identity and abundance of these urban pollinators.  It’s timely, therefore that a study has just been published by Thebo et al. in the journal Environmental Research Letters entitled  “Global assessment of urban and peri-urban agriculture: irrigated and rainfed croplands” which gives the first comprehensive figures on the extent of agriculture in and around the world’s large towns and cities.  The paper is open-access so you can read its findings for yourself, but the main message is that urban agriculture is more extensive and important than previously assumed, and there are significant implications for food security and water resources.

The research has (justifiably) received quite a lot of publicity in the media, for example on the BBC News website, and is a great contribution to a still limited field of study.  One aspect jumped out at me though; when discussing the limitations of their methods the authors state that: “the scale and methods used……are not structured to capture very small, spatially dispersed areas of urban croplands”.  In other words, urban gardens and allotments are not included in this assessment.  In the UK at least this is a significant limitation as we know that urban fruit and vegetable growing is widespread, though as far as I’m aware there’s no published figures on the volume and value of this local horticulture of food crops.

Which brings us back to urban pollinators: a significant fraction of these crops (large-scale and local garden) requires pollination by insects.  As I reported back in July, in our own urban garden this includes at least 15 crops (strawberries, apples, greengages, cherries, blackcurrants, squashes, courgettes, blackberries, fennel, runner beans, french beans, passion fruit, tomatoes, raspberries, and radish pods).  An integrated study of urban agriculture/horticulture in the context of pollinator diversity and abundance would be a great piece of research and is long overdue.

 

9 Comments

Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Personal biodiversity, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Biodiversity conservation pays its way – Nature Improvement Areas are boosting wildlife, communities and economy

P1100101

This is the text from a national press release that’s been sent out today by the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area:

Wildlife, communities and local economies are reaping the benefits of England’s new Nature Improvement Areas, according to a report published last week (14th November).  The Nene Valley is one of these twelve Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) set up by the government in 2012, which have helped farmers to access EU grants, made valuable contributions towards university research and boosted the £210 billion rural economy.

They’ve also attracted outside investment – more than £730,000 from business partners and £7.8 million from NGOs and not-for-profit organisations.  Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss said:

“A healthy environment and a healthy economy go hand in hand. These Nature Improvement Areas show how protecting our precious wildlife and outstanding landscapes can help grow our £30 billion rural tourism industry and create more jobs for hardworking people as part of our long term economic plan.”

Almost 19,000 hectares of threatened habitat – equivalent to 23,000 football pitches- have been created or restored since the NIAs were set up with £7.5 million of government funding.  Volunteers have spent 24,300 days – or 66 years in total – surveying wildlife and improving habitats, and more than 11,000 people have taken part in educational visits.

These wild habitats are now bigger, better connected, and more widespread, enabling wildlife such as butterflies and water voles to thrive.

The Nene Valley NIA covers an area of 41,000 hectares running through the heart of Northamptonshire and skirting Huntingdonshire to the eastern fringes of Peterborough. It includes the River Nene and its tributaries, gravel pits, reservoirs and much of the floodplain. Heather Procter, Nene Valley Project Manager said:

“In the Nene Valley we must find a careful balance between the pressures for development, tourism and recreation and the valuable wildlife that the valley is increasingly known for.  Through the NIA we have so far ensured that 1,500ha of farmland is managed in a more environmentally-friendly way, created over 100ha of wildflower meadow, and engaged communities in the future of their local environment. As we work towards the end of this round of Government support for NIAs in March 2015, we urge the Minister to build on the good work already achieved through NIAs, and provide leadership and support for existing and new NIA projects into the future.”

NIAs were first announced in the Natural Environment White Paper, the first government White Paper on the environment for 20 years, with the aim of creating 12 initial areas to reconnect nature on a significant scale through local partnerships.

The NIA partnerships have improved access to the countryside, creating new public footpaths and connecting a network of paths which will span 540km by 2015.

The NIA partnerships are on track to restore, create, enhance and maintain a further 5,500 hectares by 2015, joining up people and communities with their landscapes.

But the vision doesn’t end there. In the Nene Valley there are plans to continue to protect and enhance the landscape for the benefit of wildlife, people and the economy for years to come. Local people can help us to form our plans for 2015-20 by adding their thoughts to the interactive map on the Nene Valley NIA website http://www.nenevalleynia.org/my-nene-valley.

ENDS

Notes for Editors

The report is: Monitoring and Evaluation of Nature Improvement Areas Year 2 (2013-14) Progress Report (Defra Research Project WC1061) and can be downloaded from WC1061.

The 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) are:

Birmingham and Black Country
Dearne Valley
Humberhead Levels
Marlborough Downs
Meres and Mosses of the Marches
Morecambe Bay Limestone and Wetlands
Nene Valley
Northern Devon
South Downs Way Ahead
The Dark Peak

The Greater Thames Marshes
Wild Purbeck

  1. The Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) Programme, with funding of £7.5 million, was established, as announced by Defra in the Natural Environment White Paper (2011). This project has been supported by Defra, DCLG, Environment Agency, Forestry Commission and Natural England.
  1. Defra launched a competition to fund an initial 12 NIAs in July 2011, judged by a panel led by Professor Sir John Lawton. Seventy-six applications were received. The Nene Valley is one of the 12 successful partnerships that started work in April 2012.
  1. NIAs are large, discrete areas that will deliver a step change in nature conservation, where a local partnership has a shared vision for their natural environment. The partnership will plan and deliver significant improvements for wildlife and people through the sustainable use of natural resources, restoring and creating wildlife habitats, connecting local sites and joining up local action. http://www.naturalengland.org.uk
  1. It is not the intention for NIAs to stifle sustainable development. It is a matter for local authorities to decide what weight they wish to give to NIAs in their local plans.
  1. The Nene Valley NIA is a partnership project of more than 20 organisations in Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough and covers over 41,000 hectares including countryside, urban fringe and town centres:  www.nenevalleynia.org

Media Contact

For more information, interview requests and photographs of the Nene Valley and its wildlife please contact Heather Procter, Nene Valley Project Manager, heather.procter@wildlifebcn.org or 01604 774032.

2 Comments

Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

The National Pollinator Strategy – some reflections

Moth in hand 2014-08-25 19.47.20

After many months of consultation and workshops, the National Pollinator Strategy for England has finally been released by Defra, and can be downloaded from this website.  It reflects an important, wider change in societal attitudes to nature, and specifically the ecosystem services it provides, though the strategy itself is by no means perfect.  I rather wish that it had been a UK-wide strategy, as biodiversity does not respect political boundaries, but such is a the nature of our partly-devolved political system. Wales already has an Action Plan for Pollinators and I hope that the rest of the UK follows, though a strategy for Northern Ireland would surely have to include the Republic of Ireland?

In the following sections I’ve quoted liberally from the summary section of the National Pollinator Strategy, and added a few comments and reflections of my own in italics.  As always, your views and comments would be very welcome.

The 10 year National Pollinator Strategy aims to deliver across five key areas:

1. Supporting pollinators on farmland

  • Working with farmers to support pollinators through the Common Agricultural Policy and with voluntary initiatives to provide food, shelter and nesting sites.
  • Minimising the risks for pollinators associated with the use of pesticides through best practice, including Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Comment: at the moment many farmers are already pro-actively encouraging pollinators and other wildlife, but most are not.  Will “voluntary initiatives“, including encouraging Integrated Pest Management, be sufficient?  About 70% of the country is farmed and any wildlife conservation strategy has got to include agricultural stakeholders.  But the influence of large agro-chemical businesses should not be under-estimated.  I’ve seen figures suggesting that fields of oil seed rape in this country receive applications of up to 20 different chemicals (biocides and fertilisers) each year.  That represents a significant profit for these companies, who will not want to change the status quo.  Data showing a slow down in the rate of decline of  plants and pollinators in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium may be evidence that CAP agri-environmental schemes have had a positive impact, but I’d like to see more data addressing that question (and not just for pollinators – farmland birds are doing worse than any other category of birds in the UK).

2. Supporting pollinators across towns, cities and the countryside

  • Working with large-scale landowners, and their advisers, contractors and facility managers, to promote simple changes to land management to provide food, shelter and nest sites.
  • Ensuring good practice to help pollinators through initiatives with a wide range of organisations and professional networks including managers of public and amenity spaces, utility and transport companies, brownfield site managers, local authorities, developers and planners
  • Encouraging the public to take action in their gardens, allotments, window boxes and balconies to make them pollinator-friendly or through other opportunities such as community gardening and volunteering on nature reserves.

Comment:  “simple changes to land management” can do a lot for supporting local biodiversity, even in the most unlikely, urban settings, which is the underlying philosophy behind our award-winning Biodiversity Index tool.  Quite a number of local authorities are getting the message that it’s A Good Thing to reduce the frequency of cutting amenity grasslands, both for pollinators and for budgets.  But local authorities are also taking foolish decisions with regard to developing sites that should be protected, and brownfield areas are being specifically targeted for building urban housing, despite the fact that we have long known that they are some of our best sites for pollinators.  How do we reconcile these different priorities?  Brownfield sites by their nature are transitory, early successional habitats, so perhaps local authorities should be encouraged (made?) to have a rolling stock of a minimum proportion of undeveloped brownfield sites as part of their portfolio of land holdings?  Or how about a requirement that all developed areas of brownfield land are replaced by an equivalent area of brown roofs?

3. Enhancing the response to pest and disease risks

  • Working to address pest and disease risks to honey bees whilst further improving beekeepers’ husbandry and management practices to strengthen the resilience of bee colonies.
  • Keeping under active review any evidence of pest and disease risks associated with commercially produced pollinators used for high-value crop production.

Comment:  interestingly there’s no mention of disease risks to non-managed pollinators, yet we know that honey bee diseases can be passed to bumblebees, for instance.

 Actions to support these priority areas:

4. Raising awareness of what pollinators need to survive and thrive

  • Developing and disseminating further advice to a wide range of land owners, managers and gardeners as part of Bees’ Needs.
  • Improving the sharing of knowledge and evidence between scientists, conservation practitioners and non-government organisations (NGOs) to ensure that actions taken to support pollinators are based on up-to-date evidence.

Comment: yes, dissemination of sound, evidence-based knowledge has got to be a priority.

5. Improving evidence on the status of pollinators and the service they provide

  • Developing a sustainable long-term monitoring programme so we better understand their status, the causes of any declines and where our actions will have most effect.
  • Improving our understanding of the value and benefits pollinators provide, and how resilient natural and agricultural systems are to changes in their populations.

Comment: monitoring of pollinators is a real sticking point in the strategy, as there’s still no consensus on what should be monitored, how, where, and how frequently.  This was the subject of a workshop at the Natural History Museum in London that I attended about a year ago, and there’s still much that is undecided.  I know that a partnership led by CEH Wallingford is working on this at the moment, and hopefully a scheme will be in place by next year.  Let’s see what they come up with.

In taking action across these five areas, the National Pollinator Strategy wants to achieve the following outcomes:

  • More, bigger, better, joined-up, diverse and high-quality flower-rich habitats (including nesting places and shelter) supporting our pollinators across the country.
  • Healthy bees and other pollinators which are more resilient to climate change and severe weather events.
  • No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species.
  • Enhanced awareness across a wide range of businesses, other organisations and the public of the essential needs of pollinators.
  • Evidence of actions taken to support pollinators.

Comment:  “More, bigger, better, joined up…” has been the buzz phrase in British conservation since at least the Lawton Report.  One of the outcomes of that report was the setting up of twelve flagship Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs), one of which is the Nene Valley NIA, a project on which my research group has been working.  The Strategy mentions the NIAs several times and states that “extending the monitoring and evaluation framework for Nature Improvement Areas to include pollinators” is one of its interim aims.  But as I recently mentioned, funding for the NIAs finishes at the end of March 2015 and Defra has indicated that there will be no additional government money.  How will this aim be met?  I’d be very interested to know as the Nene Valley NIA is one of the few which specifically focused on pollinators as part of our remit.  It would be a terrible shame to lose the expertise and momentum that we’ve built up when funding stops next year.  As regards “No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species“, the talk I gave at SCAPE 2014 was on that very topic and a paper outlining our results is currently in press.  I hope to be able to share those findings with the broad readership of this blog very shortly.

14 Comments

Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity Index, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Hedgerows, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Nene Valley NIA, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

A giant falls: the Tolkien tree is no more

 

March 2009 - Oxford Botanic Garden 012

Perhaps more than any other aspect of biodiversity, big trees hold a special place in our emotions.  Sure, whales do too, but it’s hard to hug a whale.  Trees on the other hand can be approachable behemoths, instilling awe into the observer and grandeur into a locality.  So I was hugely saddened to discover today that the vast Black Pine (Pinus nigra) at Oxford Botanic Garden had been badly damaged a few months ago and has been felled.  I’ve known this tree since 1987, and have introduced generations of undergraduates to it during our annual trip to the Garden.  Each time I tell the story that it was one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s favourite trees and probably inspired his creation of the ents in Lord of the Rings.

The damage to the tree and its subsequent felling has been caught on camera, though I should warn you that for anyone who knew and loved the tree it’s an emotionally charged video.  The tree has been propagated and its offspring will live on, but it will be another 200 years before one of them becomes quite so majestic.

March 2009 - Oxford Botanic Garden 011

P1120016

8 Comments

Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Gardens, Personal biodiversity