Category Archives: Gardens

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

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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…):

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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:

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

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Some interesting urban greenery including swales for flood defence:

 

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Wall plants surviving the graffiti:

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Halle’s most famous resident, Handel:

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

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The fabulous double-double-spired cathedral:

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

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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:

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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:

 

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

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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….”?

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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.

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

British cuckoo bees – an aide-mémoire

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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

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Spiral Sunday #28 – hearts and vine

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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.

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Celebrating Conrad Gesner Day 2017 (and Spiral Sunday #27)!

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Happy Conrad Gesner Day!  Who is he, you may ask?  And why does he have a day?  Conrad Gesner (sometimes spelled Konrad Gessner) was a Swiss naturalist and polymath, born on this day (26th March) in 1516; he lived much of his life in Zurich, where he died on 13 December 1565.  Gesner was an extremely important figure in Renaissance science and scholarship, and when I visited Zurich in 2008 to give a seminar at the university, a tour of the old town revealed a number of references to the great man, including the memorial stone above.

Gesner’s Historia animalium (“History of Animals”)  is considered one of the founding texts of modern zoology, and for that reason he is memorialised in the name Gesneria Hübner, 1825; this is a genus of moths in the family Crambidae.

However Gesner was also a botanist and wrote a couple of books on the subject, though his Historia plantarum was not published until two centuries after his death.  To celebrate Gesner’s botanical achievements Linnaeus erected the genus Gesneria L. for a group of flowering plants.  Sounds odd to have the same name for two very different types of organism, but this cross-kingdom duplication of genera is allowable under the various codes of taxonomic nomenclature.

Gesneria in turn is the type genus for the family Gesneriaceae.  It’s quite a big family (about 3,450 species in 152 genera) and is ecologically important in the tropics and subtropics, where species may be pollinated by insects and birds, and are often epiphytic on trees.  It’s not a particularly economically important family, though a number of genera are widely grown as ornamentals, and there are specialist gesneriad growers and collectors.  The more familiar plants include those mainstays of Mothering Sunday (which by coincidence is also today) African Violets (Saintpaulia), Cape Primroses (Streptocarpus) and gloxinias (Gloxinia):

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As I was looking through my photographs from the trip to Zurich in 2008 I spotted the following image of some wrought ironwork from the old city which may well be contemporary with Gesner.  This seems a fitting way to celebrate both the great man and this week’s Spiral Sunday:

Spirals in Zurich March 2008 119.png Happy Birthday Dr Gesner!

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Spiral Sunday #26 – a bumper crop from Birmingham Botanical Garden

Today Karin and I took a drive up to Birmingham to visit my daughter Ellen, who is studying applied performance and community theatre at Birmingham School of Acting.  After picking her up we went for lunch at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.  Now, I’m a bit of a botanic gardens collector; I love visiting them, and keep a life list of those I’ve visited and a wish list of those I’d like to visit.  So I was sure I had been to the Botanical Gardens as a PhD student during a British Ecological Society conference at the University of Birmingham.  But when we arrived there I had no recollection of the glasshouses or the layout, it was not familiar at all.  Odd how the memory plays tricks, one way or another.

I can recommend a visit, though – the Gardens looked stunning even this early in the season; lots of plants in flower and even a buzzard circling low overhead.  It being Spiral Sunday, of course, I was seeing spirals everywhere; in the unfurling fronds of a tree fern (Blechnum gibbum):

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On a cast iron garden seat:

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In the flowers of a variety of camellia:

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In the leaves and flower cones of Banksia grandis:

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And in the design of a sun hat in the Gardens shop:

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The Danish for garden is “haven”: five reasons why I love Gardeners’ World

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The latest series of the BBC’s flagship horticulture programme Gardeners’ World started on Friday, heralding its 50th year of broadcast – quite an achievement.  I’ve long been a fan, and a few years ago jumped at the chance to take part in one Science in the Garden special episode with Carol Klein (which I’ve posted about previously).  Since Friday I’ve given some thought as to what I get from the programme and have come up with a list of the main reasons why I love watching it:

1.  At its heart, Gardeners’ World is about the main subject of this blog and of my career: biodiversity.  Specifically the programme is centred on the biological richness of wild plants and the diversity of the horticultural varieties that we have created from them, for food and for ornament.  Spinning off from this is the acknowledgement that, although much of it is not native to Britain, this plant biodiversity (and the way in which we manage it in our gardens) can have important positive benefits for the wildlife of our country, including birds, amphibians and reptiles, and insects such as bees and butterflies.  This is particularly the case in urban settings and I’ve noticed a welcome trend in recent years for Gardeners’ World to include more features about city horticulture.

2.  Gardeners’ World has long championed a more environmentally friendly approach to horticulture, bringing in ideas about using peat-free compost, minimal use of biocides, recycling and upcycling, composting, and growing your own food, long before any of this became fashionable.  Indeed there’s a strong argument to be made that earlier presenters such as the late Geoff Hamilton were responsible for such fashions gaining mainstream exposure, influencing the habits of millions of people in Britain.  That kind of influence should not be under-estimated.

3. Gardeners’ World reminds me of my dad, who died in 1996.  I can recall him watching it back in the 1970s when Percy Thrower was the presenter and my dad had an allotment a short walk from our small terraced cottage house, with its tiny concrete backyard.  Some of my earliest memories of plants and nature relate to that allotment: a huge rambling rose along the fence; a greenhouse made from old window panes, filled with the rich scent of tomatoes; a toad that dad put in that greenhouse to eat the slugs; rainwater tanks hosting little communities of wriggling insect larvae.  After the allotment plots were cleared by the local council and sold for development my dad erected a greenhouse in the backyard, and grew shrubs and bedding in large pots.  In the early 1980s this was joined by a second small greenhouse for my cactus and succulent collection, many of which I still have.  Some of the best stories in Gardeners’ World are as much about people and their relationships with one another and with their gardens, as they are about plants and gardening per se (see also number 5, below).

4.  Despite having watched the programme for many years I still get new things from it.  Each season I gain inspiration for new plants and new ways of working with the garden that Karin and I are developing here in Northampton, which I’ve talked about quite a few time; see for example:  Renovating a front garden…, my post about Scientists and gardens, and the series I did on pollinators in the garden for Pollinator Awareness Week.  Gardeners never stop learning.

5. Being from the north of England I’m intrigued by the linguistic links between that part of our country and Scandinavia, particularly shared words such as “bairn”, and place-name elements such as “holm”.  Karin is Danish and these connections of language are something we often discuss.  Recently she pointed out that the Danish word for garden is “haven”.  Although it’s not pronounced in the English manner that word is probably the best single way of describing how I feel about our garden; it’s a haven from from the outside world, a place of rest and security, contemplation and physical activity, emotionally supporting us, and providing resources and space for the wildlife that uses it.  Although we don’t do much work in the garden during the winter, each year the start of a new season of Gardeners’ World reminds me of the pleasures to come in our own haven.

Of course there are sometimes things that irritate me about the programme: it can be a bit too cosily middle class at times, occasionally the advice offered can be simplistic or inaccurate, and some of the “scientific” trials of plant varieties lack rigour and replication.  Nonetheless, it’s a programme I have grown up with and one that I love to watch.  Happy Anniversary Gardeners’ World, here’s to 50 more years!

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Some upcoming public lectures

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Giving public lectures to special interest groups in and around Northamptonshire is always a pleasure as the audiences are usually very receptive.  Just been through my diary and realised that I’m giving five such lectures over the next few months, on pollinators, conservation,  ecosystem services, and so on:

8th March – “Bees for dinner?  The importance of pollinators in a changing world” – Long Buckby Women’s Institute – open to all and not just women!

22nd March – “A city without trees is like a bird without feathers” – Litchborough Gardening Club [title is slightly wrong on that link…]

5th April 2 – “Darwin’s Unrequited Isle: a personal natural history of Tenerife” – Friends of Linford Lakes (Milton Keynes)

27th June – “Pollinator diversity” – Chalfonts Beekeepers (Buckinghamshire)

12th July – “Plants & pollinators – more than just honey bees” – Cancer Research UK ladies lunch club fundraiser at Wellingborough Golf Club

Some of these will certainly be open to guests if you’re not a member and want to come along and hear what I have to say.

Happy to discuss giving a talk to other groups, please do get in touch, though I’m probably not available until after the summer as I’m also giving a keynote lecture at the PopBio conference in Germany in May and a couple of short talks at the International Botanical Congress in China in July.

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When did plastic plants become acceptable?

Plants are important.  Really, really important.  They play important roles in society and in the nature that supports our societies: plants feed us; they are a source of many pharmaceuticals; they produce oxygen and store up carbon dioxide; they can remove pollutants from city atmospheres; and they are the foundation for much of the world’s ecological functioning.  In addition they inspire poets, artists, musicians, and have huge cultural significance, as well as bringing beauty and biodiversity to even the most urban of environments. Plants positively add to our quality of life, and make us happy, whether we are aware of it or not.

OK, there’s a bit of personal bias going on here: I’ve always loved studying and growing plants, they are a huge part of my life.  But the basic facts of what I laid out in that opening paragraph are correct: plants matter.  So I find it troubling that there seems to be a recent trend in using artificial (mainly plastic) plants indoors and in outside “gardens”.  When did this happen?  When did plastic plants become acceptable?

It first struck me that there had been a recent shift in how we view plastic plants back in the summer when I visited the newly refurbished main restaurant at the university’s Park Campus.  The refurb was very nicely done and there’s a big display about how much of the university’s waste we are recycling, and there’s lots of greenery about the place – except that most of it is plastic.

Then in November we visited my son Patrick in Lancaster.  We stayed a night in a nice hotel in the city centre, in a room that led out into a private courtyard – full of plastic plants.  There was a plastic lawn, a plastic palm, even plastic ivy.  Ivy!  One of the easiest plants in the world to grow – why would you need to make it out of plastic?!  It makes itself perfectly well which you can see if you peep over the wall at the back of the courtyard:

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Then the following week I was in London at the Wellcome Trust to take part in a project review panel.  The Wellcome’s building near Euston Station is wonderful, really striking on the inside, full of light and life.  I was initially please to see an avenue of fig trees in large containers arrayed along the centre of the main concourse:

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But when I looked closely I realised that although the trunks and branches were real, these were not living plants: the leaves are artificial, made from wire and synthetic material.  So someone has gone to the trouble of growing real fig trees only to dismember them and festoon them with faux foliage.  Please, no one tell Mike Shanahan!

I’m really surprised at the Wellcome Trust, an organisation I have a lot of respect for;  we know that real plants have a positive effect on psychology and health, though I very much doubt that the same can be said for artificial ones.  In their defence the Wellcome Trust building does have some real plants scattered about the place, but they missed a huge opportunity in not using real figs here.  Even that cathedral to capitalism that is the Milton Keynes shopping centre uses real plants in most of its displays, including some lovely tree ferns:

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And splendid palms:

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Finally, insult was added to injury as we entered the New Year.  As I mentioned in my Spiral Sunday post a couple of weeks ago, we bought a wreath as a Christmas decoration and I took it apart to compost and recycle at the start of the year.  What I hadn’t noticed when we bought it was that half of the holly berries were plastic:

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This was hugely ironic given our recent study of how insects boost the value of holly by pollinating the female flowers that produce the berries!

All of this is more than just snobbery on my part.  Yes, you can argue that plastic plants are a bit naff and can never take the place of the “real” thing.  But my main concern here is an environmental one: plastic plants require resources (usually oil-based polymers and energy) to make.  And I doubt very much whether they are recycled very often.  Yes, real plants also cost resources to grow (though that can be minimised depending on how they are grown).  But they also provide a range of benefits and, at the end of their life, they can be composted.  Not something I can do with my plastic holly berries.  Not only that, but I suspect that most (all?) of the plastic plants that are sold are manufactured in the Far East.  Using British- or Europe-grown real plants would cut down on the carbon-miles required and support more local horticultural industries.

Early in 2017 Andrew Lucas at Swansea University, on Twitter, described what he thought was the most depressing tweet of 2017 so far:  “Transform your garden today: buy Artificial Grass from ExpressGrass. Cut to your size for easy DIY installation”.

Agreed, hugely depressing, but we can do something about it: stop buying fake plants.  Perhaps we need a Campaign for Real Plants?  Its theme tune could be Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees:

Her green plastic watering can
For her fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself…..

……It wears me out

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Spiral Sunday #15 – Happy New Year!

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A Spiral Sunday for New Year’s Day!  This shot was taken at last year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show where I was helping the British Ecological Society win a Silver Medal.  This is the water feature in Nick Bailey’s Beauty of Mathematics, one of my favourites from that year, and a garden in which Fibonacci spirals abounded, both in the plants and the hard landscaping.

Looking forward to RHS Chelsea 2017, the BES will be producing another display, and this time hunting for a Gold Medal.  I’ll let you know how it progresses.  Happy New Year to all of my readers!

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Spiral Sunday #7 – The Fernery at Oxford Botanic Garden

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Oxford Botanic Garden is a very special place and one that holds an important position in my personal journey as a scientist and teacher (see, for instance, these old posts: The Walls of the Garden and A giant falls: the Tolkien tree is no more).

Some years ago the Garden refurbished its Fernery (a glasshouse devoted to humidity-loving ferns and their relatives) and as part of the design installed a stone floor centered on an old outlet both aesthetically and topographically – the floor level slopes inwards from all sides to allow water to flow into the drain.  It’s a nice confluence of design and practicality using, of course, a spiral.

That’s the seventh in my Spiral Sunday series; more next week.

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