Category Archives: Gardens

Big Garden Birdwatch – our first six years of data

Big garden bird watch

This morning I spent an hour gazing out of our bedroom window with a coffee, a notebook, and a pair of binoculars.  Not sure what the neighbours opposite us thought I was doing but I was happy – this weekend is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch!  I’ve taken part in it every year since Karin and I moved into our present house in February 2012, and I thought it was time to show the results to date.

As you can see in the graph above, for the first couple of years there were relatively few birds (only 6 species in 2013, 8 in 2014).  Then in 2015 it jumped to 15 species, including some that I’ve not recorded in the garden since such as Lesser redpoll.  Two reasons for this sudden increase I think.  First of all, January 2015 was particualrly cold which meant that more birds were moving into urban areas looking for food and a little more warmth.  But secondly, and the reason why higher bird diversity has been maintained since then, is that we’ve been developing the garden and planting more shrubs, small trees, etc.

So since 2012 we’ve gone from this:

2012-02-22 10.19.23

To this:

The garden 20180127_114638.png

This planting and development of the garden has been good for other wildlife including bees, butterflies and other pollinators, as I’ve recounted a number of times.  So here’s a close up from last summer just to remind us that, on this grey, drizzly January day, spring is not so far away:


Of course you don’t need to have a garden to take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch – the RSPB also accepts data from surveys of public parks and green space.  In fact tomorrow morning I’m leading a group of residents around our local park, The Racecourse, to do just such a survey.

Right, must go and upload this years data to the RSPB’s site.



Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Gardens, RSPB

Split the kipper: snowfall thoughts of breakfast, fish and childhood games

Kipper 2018-01-21 10.39.16.png

Karin and I had kippers for breakfast this morning, a satisfying and warming treat on this cold Sunday as we watched the snow fall into the garden, softening the edges and hedges:

Snow in the garden 2018-01-21 11.20.48.png

I do like a nice kipper!  Smoking fish to make it last longer has been repeatedly discovered and transmitted as an idea across cultures, and represents a fascinating intersection where wild biodiversity meets human ingenuity.  The north east of England, where I grew up, has a great and ancient tradition of smoking herrings to preserve a portion of the catch, a practice that may have originated with the Vikings who colonised that part of the country over one thousand years ago.

Of all of the North Sea’s edible biodiversity I feel most comfortable eating herring; although there were issues with over-fishing in the 1960s and 70s, current stocks look to be being managed sustainably.  The most up to date information I’ve found is in a Norwegian government report from which I took this graph:


Kippers have had subtle, but interesting, influences on culture, spawning phrases, songs and games. To be “done up like a kipper”* is to be taken advantage of by someone or bamboozled, whilst a “kipper tie” is a fashion hangover from the 60s and 70s, named for its broad proportions.  Of course Supertramp sang about having kippers for breakfast, particularly in Texas “cos everyone’s a millionaire”.  That strikes me as an odd line as herrings (in whatever form) have always been considered a cheap dish. Though I suppose importing them from Craster to Dallas could be quite expensive.

Back to the north east and my childhood, where we played a game called “Split the Kipper”. This involved standing opposite a friend on a grassy field and taking it in turns to throw a knife near to your opponent’s foot.  If it stuck into the ground then your opponent had to slide their foot to that point.  This continued until one of you had your legs so far apart that you fell over – the kipper had been split!  Not the safest game for kids but I never knew anyone to get injured playing it. Like all the best games the point was not just to win but to win beautifully: inching your adversary’s legs apart with accurate knife throws gradually ramped up the tension of the game.  I wonder where the game originated? Is it too fanciful to imagine that it was brought over by the Vikings?

The snow is still falling – wonder what’s for lunch….?


*Whatever you do, don’t search the Urban Dictionary for the definition of the word “kippered”….


Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Gardens

Something for Blue Monday – the only known blue flowered asclepiad

Tweedia caerulea - OBG 2014-11-06 11.33.14

Today is Blue Monday – reckoned to be the most depressing day of the year, though I’m in a very good mood: just back from a great 9am seminar with my final year students taking the Biodiversity & Conservation module.  They presented some really interesting, diverse and thought provoking papers as part of their assessment for this module; it’s a great group to teach.

But if you are suffering from the blues this morning, here is a photograph to cheer you up.  As far as I am aware Tweedia caerulea (also known as Oxypetalum coeruleum)  is the only known blue flowered asclepiad (that’s to say, a member of the family Apocynaceae subfamily Asclepiadoideae – what used to be the family Asclepiadaceae*).

No one is sure why blue is such a rare colour within the asclepiads (and indeed the Apocynaceae as a whole) and it may be connected to the pollination system of this plant.  However we don’t know what pollinates Tweedia caerulea in the wild so it’s hard to test that idea; other species within this group are variously pollinated by wasps, bees, flies, moths, etc.  Truly blue flowers (as opposed to some shade of purple or violet) are relatively uncommon generally amongst the flowering plants and the source of much interest and excitement in those groups where they do occur, for example the Himalayan Poppies (Meconopsis).

Tweedia caerulea is easy to grow from seed but not so easy to get through the winter in the UK, so in the past I’ve grown it as an annual in the garden.  Apart from the colour, one of the other reasons I like this plant is that it’s named after the 19th century plant collector John Tweedie whose life I’ve been researching over the past 20 years or so – see this paper for example.



*The asclepiads are my favourite group of plants, and one that I’ve published quite a bit of research on, so I was a bit miffed when the taxonomic rank of the family was relegated to subfamily.  But it makes evolutionary sense and now gives me a much larger family of plants on which to research, so every cloud etc. etc.


Filed under Apocynaceae, Biodiversity, Gardens, John Tweedie, Pollination

A bad botanical pun

fucksia not fewsha 20171012_080602_001_preview

Not all of the poetry that I write – such as these pieces – is serious and high-minded, some of it is whimsical, funny, or just plain dumb.  Today I taught a morning class on flower structure and pollination, so in its honour here’s an example of the latter:


A Bad Botanical Pun

“Don’t become a gardener – there’s no fuchsia in it!”

Not a great pun, but I’ve heard worse.

However, it may be pedantic, but I have to point out

That the genus Fuchsia was named in honour of Leonard Fuchs

(A sixteenth century Bavarian botanist, as you ask).

His name is pronounced as a definite, Germanic “fucks”,

Not a prim, Victorian “fewsh”.

So, don’t become a botanist – it’ll Fuchsia!


Students in the pollination practical 20171012_111355_preview


Filed under Biodiversity, Gardens, Poetry, Pollination, University of Northampton

The Buzz Club: citizen scientists protecting pollinators

Buzz Club 1.png

This is a guest post by Charlie Dance who is Development Officer at The Buzz Club.

It’s hard to over-stress the importance of pollinators. Not only do they play an indispensable role in global food security, they’re also essential in maintaining the diversity of plant species in natural habitats, thus supporting nature as a whole. The UK is home to thousands of different pollinators including bees, wasps and hoverflies. However, while many of these species seem to be declining or disappearing, we know surprisingly little about the majority of them. Why are some disappearing, and how quickly is it happening? What can we do to help? How can we turn our gardens into pollinator havens? It was to help answer questions like these that the Buzz Club was founded in 2015.

Run by volunteers at the University of Sussex, The Buzz Club is a citizen-science charity using the power of the public to provide important data on pollinators. We run a variety of nationwide surveys and experiments suitable for all ages and ideal for wildlife and gardening enthusiasts. Furthermore, we provide information about how to make our urban landscapes more pollinator friendly.

For more information and for a list of current projects, please visit our website:

As a membership-based organisation, we rely on the small donation of £2 per month from members, all of which goes directly towards running the charity. Not only do new members receive a complementary welcome pack containing a specially designed seed mix, bee identification chart, pollinator-friendly gardening guide, magnifying lens and stickers (see photo below), they also get to learn more about pollinators whilst helping to generate useful data that can be used in our projects.

We believe that with your help we can find out how best to conserve bees and other pollinators. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that we look after insects, giving them and us a future.

Join the Buzz Club here:



From Jeff:  if citizen science is your thing, don’t forget that the Ivy Pollinators project will run again this year:


Buzz Club 2.png

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Hoverflies, Moths, Pollination, Urban biodiversity, Wasps

Another new garden pollinator record – Lunar Hornet Moth

Lunar Hornet Moth cropped

Following on from last week’s post about the Ashy Mining Bee, here’s yet another new record for our garden that I spotted yesterday – the Lunar Hornet Moth (Sesia bembeciformis), one of the Clearwing Moths (family Sesiidae).  It’s a fabulous example of Batesian Mimicry in which a harmless species (the moth) has evolved to resemble a more dangerous or toxic species, in this case large wasps or hornets.  I certainly had to look twice when I saw it!  

These moths do sometimes visit flowers such as umbellifers though the shot below is posed: the moth flew out of my hands as I was moving it and landed on this cultivated geranium.  The larvae feed on sallow and willow (Salix spp.) which we don’t have in the garden, but there’s lots in and around this part of the town.

Looking at the NBN Atlas account for the species I think that this may be a first record for Northampton town itself, though it is recorded out in the county.

Lunar Hornet Moth on GeraniumP1040014


Filed under Biodiversity, Gardens, Moths, Urban biodiversity

A new pollinator for our garden: the Ashy Mining Bee

Today I’ve been cracking on with the refurbishment of the old summer house at the back of the garden that previous owners have let fall into rotten disrepair, whilst Karin attends a conference in London.  The renovation has been a slow job, due to lack of time, but a lot of fun, and a good excuse to play with power tools.  In between sawing and drilling, however, I’ve been keeping an eye out for bees and other flower visitors and was delighted to spot a new species for the garden – the Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria).  It’s a beautiful and distinctive insect that I know from other sites in Northampton, but had not recorded here previously.  The record has been submitted to the BWARS recording scheme for this species.

Do look out for this bee, it’s difficult to confuse it with anything else (which is rare in Andrena….)  Here’s a few photographs of a female collecting pollen from a cultivated rose, that I took with my phone:

Ashy Mining Bee 2017-06-17 10.55.45Ashy Mining Bee 2017-06-17 10.55.53

Ashy Mining Bee 2017-06-17 10.56.10



Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Gardens, Urban biodiversity

Saved by a bee: a true story, with reflections and photos from PopBio2017


The blog has been a bit quiet of late, due to a lot of traveling on my part, starting with field work in Tenerife, then a weekend away with friends on the Isle of Wight, followed by the topic of this post: PopBio2017 – the 30th Conference of the Plant Population Biology Section of the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland in Halle, Germany.  And I’d like to begin with a story….

The organisers of PopBio2017 had invited me to be one of five keynote speakers at the conference and I was due to deliver a talk on “The macroecology of wind and animal pollination” first thing (09:00) on Thursday morning.  So the night before I duly set my phone’s alarm for 07:00, thinking I’d have enough time to get ready, have breakfast, then take the tram to the venue (a 15 minute ride/walk).

It was a very hot night and I left the windows open, but my mind was restless with thoughts of how to deliver the talk most effectively.  So I kept waking up during the night, and actually slept through the alarm.  The next thing I know it is 07:45 and I am being woken up by an urgent buzzing noise….from a bee!

I swear this is true: a bee had flown in through the window, buzzed for a few seconds right in front of my face, and woke me up in time to deliver my talk on pollinators!  It then turned around and flew straight back out of the window.

It actually wasn’t until I’d jumped out of bed and into the shower that I’d woken up sufficiently to appreciate what had happened…and wondered if anyone would actually believe me!  Anyway, I got to the venue with 15 minutes to spare, the talk seemed to go well, and it’s a story I think I’ll enjoy telling for some time to come.

The conference was really fabulous, with some very impressive science on show.  It was a good mix of postdocs, PhD students, and established researchers talking on a diverse range of plant ecology topics, not just “plant population biology” (whatever that really is – there was some discussion on that score).   The organisers had arranged the programme so that the keynotes in each session were followed by shorter talks broadly related to that topic, so I was followed by a series of presentations on pollination biology.  And very good they were too.

Here’s some photos from the week:

A slightly blurry audience waiting for my talk to begin (not as blurry as me after the dash to the venue however…):


I was fascinated by the coypu that are common in the River Salle which flows through the city of Halle.  They are classed as an invasive species, but are very, very cute:


Indeed so cute I couldn’t resist taking a selfie…


Some interesting urban greenery including swales for flood defence:







Wall plants surviving the graffiti:


Halle’s most famous resident, Handel:


There’s a Harry Potter feel to some parts of the town:


The fabulous double-double-spired cathedral:


There had to be a spiral or two, of course:


On the Saturday after the talks had finished we took an excursion to the fascinating “Porphyry Hills” dry grasslands – unique western extensions of plant communities and species normally found in the east, including many plants of the steppe:


These rocky outcrops have become exposed as agricultural ploughing caused the surrounding soil level to drop:


Some of the grassland areas have very thin soils with resultant high plant diversity:



Lots in flower, though not as many pollinators as I would have liked:




On the last evening a couple of us had a private tour of the university’s botanic garden, and well worth a visit it is too:

It was a thirsty conference – “To beer or not to beer….”?


Finally thanks to the organisers of PopBio2017 for the invitation to speak, and to all of the conference attendees who made it such a special meeting.


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Gardens, Macroecology, Pollination, spirals, Urban biodiversity

British cuckoo bees – an aide-mémoire

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 09.47.39

The British bee season is well underway with lots of reports on social media of queen bumblebees (and even workers in the south), and male and female solitary bees (especially early emerging mining bees – Andrena).  In my own garden I’ve already spotted a couple of bumblebee species, plus the Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) and the Grey-patched Mining-bee (Andrena nitida), amongst others.  Running alongside the emergence of these nest-building bees is a whole suite of “cuckoo” or “cleptoparasitic” bees that, as the name suggests, lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, consuming the pollen that has been collected and, usually, the eggs and larvae of the host bee.

The specificity of the interactions between the cuckoos and their hosts varies a lot.  Some are very host specific, such as the bumblebee sub-genus Psythirus that only parasitises other Bombus species.  Others are much broader in their host use, such as the genus Nomada that parasitises five other British bee genera.

Personally I struggle to recall which cuckoo bees interact with which host bees, especially for those with a broader use of hosts, so I thought I would construct an aide-mémoire in the form of an interaction graph using the R package “bipartite”.  I took the information on which cuckoo bees parasitise which hosts from Steven Falk’s recent (and very good) book Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland.  If anyone spots any errors, please let me know!

The bipartite graph is structured such that the hosts (to the left, in black) are ranked from most to least parasitised (in terms of number of cuckoo genera that interact with them).  The cuckoo bees (in grey on the right) go in the reverse order, from most specialised to least specialised.  Note that this set of interactions only applies to Great Britain and Ireland; breadth of host-parasite interactions is wider on the Continent and elsewhere in the world.

Here’s a link to a better quality PDF of the plot that you’re free to use for your own use: Cleptoplot

Here’s the data matrix (Clepto) and here’s the R script if you want to play with it:

> library(bipartite)

#Turns the CSV data file into a data frame and assigns the first column to be the row names

> Clepto2<-data.frame(Clepto, row.names=1)

#Basic plot of the web

> plotweb(Clepto2)

#To turn the plot 90 degrees and centre the image, change spacing and text size, colours, etc.

> plotweb(Clepto2, method=”normal”, text.rot = 90, labsize =1.5, ybig = 0.7, low.y = 0.7, high.y = 0.98, plot.axes = FALSE, y.width.low = 0.05, y.width.high = 0.05, col.high = “lightgrey”, bor.col.interaction=”black”, bor.col.high=”black”, low.spacing=0.03, high.spacing=0.08)

#Note: save the figure as a PDF, much better quality than PNG

#With thanks to Kat Harrold who provided some of the script


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Gardens

Spiral Sunday #28 – hearts and vine


The sun was illuminating the coloured glass of a window ornament and I noticed two things: (i) the lovely juxtaposition between the metal spirals of the ornament and the spiral tendrils of Cyphostemma simulans, a member of the vine family (Vitaceae) that I grew from seed many years ago; and (ii) the fact that our front windows really need washing….  No time for that this weekend, though, been too busy working in the garden with Karin!  That’s Spiral Sunday, enjoy the weather while you can.


Filed under Biodiversity and culture, Gardens, spirals