Category Archives: Pollination

Pollination ecologists in gardens: protocol and links to other initiatives – UPDATE NUMBER 2

Andrena bicolor

UPDATE: Following conversations with a couple of the participants of the garden surveys, we’ve changed the protocol slightly to make Survey type A more quantitative and to take into account when we get large numbers of individuals all visiting the same plant at the same time – it’s crazy to have a single line for each individual.  Details are in the new spreadsheet which you can down load from here: Ollerton garden surveys 2020

The additions should be self explanatory.  If you are not able to go back to retro-fit the additional data, that’s fine, just use the new spreadsheet format for future surveys: all data are going to be useful!

In the present format the data will be useful for modelling using GLMMs etc., in order to test predictions about which plants, and in which contexts, support the most pollinators.  The data format will need tweaking slightly to make it analysable in bipartite, but that should be fairly straightforward.

If you are taking part in the surveys it would be really useful if you could email me your latitude and longitude as I’d like to start creating a map of where the surveys are happening.

Any questions, send me an email or ask in the comments.


Following up from my last post about ecologists using their gardens to collect standardised data, I’ve had a huge response from pollination ecologists all over the world wanting to get involved.  So to streamline the process I thought that I would put the protocol and updates on my blog.  Just to reiterate, this is really is designed for those who already have some experience of surveying pollinators and flowers.  I didn’t intend this to be a citizen science project, there are plenty of those around at the moment for inexperienced people who want to contribute, for example:

The Pollinator Monitoring Scheme’s  FIT (Flower-Insect Timed) counts:

Kit Prendergast’s “bee hotels” survey:

If anyone wants me to publicise others, let me have the link in the comments below or send me an email.

OK, for those ecologists wanting to survey pollinators and the flowers they are visiting (or not visiting) in their gardens, here’s the protocol:

  1.  There are two types of survey – please do both if possible, it would be good to compare the results from the two approaches; otherwise choose the easiest one for you.
  2. Type A surveys involve regular walks at a steady pace around the garden, recording what insects and other flower visitors are active on particular flowers (and noting the ones they are not visiting).  Make your walks a standard time, proportional to the size of the garden. For example, in our 10m x 20m garden I am doing 15 minute walks, which involves walking the same route one way, then back, pausing to record data.
  3. Type B surveys involve 10 minute focused observations of a patch of flowers of one species, no larger than 0.5m x 0.5m, recording the number of flowers each pollinator visits.
  4. In both cases, identify the flower visitor to the taxonomic level to which you feel confident, e.g. it’s better to use Andrena sp. 1 or Calliphoridae sp. 2 or Diptera sp. 3 rather than guessing.
  5. Record all data plus metadata about your garden on this spreadsheet which has examples of data that I have collected so far.  When you return it, please change “Ollerton” to your own surname : Ollerton garden surveys 2020
  6. Please don’t modify the format of the survey sheets, it will make life very difficult when we collate the data.
  7. Collect data from now until the end of April.  By then we will know whether to continue further data collection.
  8. At the end of the month, send your spreadsheets to me: jeff.ollerton [at]  I will acknowledge receipt of each one, so if you don’t get an acknowledgement it may be that our spam filter has rejected your email, in which case message me on Twitter or comment below.
  9. Finally – please respect local/national restrictions on movements and social isolation: safe safe and keep your community safe.


Here are some Frequently Asked Questions – I will update FAQs as they come in:

Q: What’s going to happen to all of the data?

I think that’s for the pollinator research community to decide.  My feeling at the moment is that in the first instance there should be a data paper that summarises the results and makes the data freely available to everyone.  That would include all data contributors as co-authors, probably under a project name rather than individually.  After that it’s up to individuals and groups to work with the data to address their own research questions.  I know that in the UK there are several PhD researchers who are worried about not being able to collect data this year and who want to contribute to this initiative and use it in their theses.  I’m sure that there are others elsewhere.  As a community it would be great to support these young researchers.

Q: I am not based in the UK, can I still take part?

A: Yes, of course, though check in your local networks to see if anyone is coordinating local efforts.

Q: How do I calculate “Total floral cover” for survey Type B?

A: The idea is to estimate the area covered by all of the patches of the plant in flower across the whole garden, and then add it up to get a total area covered. It is always going to be a rough estimate, but it at least gives us a sense of how abundant the flowers are in your garden.

Q: How do I classify “floral units” for survey Type B?

A: Use the UK POMS approach:

POMS flower heads

Q:  Should I collect weather data?

A: You can certainly add data to another sheet on the spreadsheet if you want to, but the plan is to use data from local weather stations to capture standardised weather information.

Q: Should I collect nectar and/or pollen and/or pollinator behaviour data?

A: Again, collect any data that you have the time and equipment for and add it to a different sheet

Q: My garden has very few flowers and pollinators – can I still take part?

A: Yes, absolutely, we need a range of garden types, from the very large and florally diverse to small window boxes or lawns with just daisies and dandelions..

Q: How long should I survey for, and how many surveys should I do.

A: Try to aim for what you think is a representative assessment of the plant-flower visitor network in your garden.  The idea is that people do as many surveys as they can, as often as they can, given their personal time constraints. I don’t want to dictate to people how to use their time, this needs to be enjoyable as well as useful. As long as we know the sampling effort and floral diversity within the gardens, we should be able to take account of sampling effort in any analyses.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Gardens, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Moths, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Ecologists with gardens: in the current crisis, coordinate your networks to collect standardised data!


In the current lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of ecologists are stuck at home: universities and research institutes are closed and it’s not possible to get out and do field work.  Staring out of the window into our garden the other day I had a bright idea and I sent out this email to my network of colleagues in the UK who work on pollinator ecology:

Hi everyone,

I hope you’re all keeping well and safe during this difficult time. Given that we’re all supposed to be socially isolating as much as possible I wondered if we could use the time to generate some interesting data and keep ourselves sane in the process. The idea I had was for as many UK & Irish pollination ecologists as possible to carry out standardised garden surveys of insect-flower visitor interactions over the coming weeks. Combined with information about location, size of garden, floral diversity, etc. etc., it could give us some useful information about early spring plant-visitor garden networks along latitudinal and longitudinal gradients.

For those with kids at home it might be a good way of getting them out into fresh air and giving them something to do.
The response has been phenomenal and a lot of colleagues have agreed to take part.  We’ve worked out a protocol and we are starting to collect data.  If anyone (in the UK or elsewhere in the world) with the requisite pollinator and plant identification skills and experience wants to get involved, please send me an email: jeff.ollerton [at]

Of course others who are less experienced can still help out by taking part in the Pollinator Monitoring Scheme’s  FIT (Flower-Insect Timed) counts:

However, it also struck me that there are plenty of other ecologists who could use their gardens, and networks of colleagues, to collect a large amount of useful data, in a standard way, across a wide geographical area, e.g. plant-herbivore interactions, bird behaviour, earthworm counts, etc. etc.

Let’s get away from our computers and into the fresh air and start generating results!


Filed under Biodiversity, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Landscapes for pollinators: please take the survey!

BB on margin

One of the research projects and collaborations that I’m involved with is a BBSRC-funded project entitled “Modelling landscapes for resilient pollination services in the UK” with colleagues from the University of Reading, the University of Huddersfield, and the Natural Capital Solutions consultancy.  As part of that project we are surveying opinions on what people in the UK value as landscapes and how these landscapes contribute to supporting biodiversity.

If you are based in the UK and are interested in taking part in this short survey, please read the following text and click on the link to take the survey: 

Bees and other insect pollinators are major contributors to UK agriculture. Despite their importance for crop production, pollinator populations are threatened by many modern land management and agricultural practices. This raises questions about how secure this service may be to future changes: will we have enough pollinators where we need them? Will populations be able to withstand changes to the way we manage land? What might be the costs to us, both financially and socially, if we get it wrong?

Our research aims to address this knowledge gap. Our team of ecologist, economists and social scientists are working together to model the ecological, economic and ‘human’ costs of different land management methods.

As part of this we have designed a short online survey to capture the ways that people value and use the countryside, what features they prefer and why.

The survey takes less than 10 minutes and asks you to rate a series of images and say what you think about the landscapes that are illustrated.  It can be found here:

For more information about the project visit:


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Hoverflies, Pollination

Just published: Interactions between birds and flowers of Rhododendron spp., and their implications for mountain communities in Nepal – download it for free

Figure 3

Back in April I posted a series of reports on a student field trip that I was involved with in Nepal, supporting our University of Northampton partner college NAMI in Kathmandu; the first one is here.  During that trip, my NAMI colleagues and I made some interesting observations about the role of generalist passerine birds and specialist flower-feeding sunbirds as pollinators of rhododendrons in the Himalayas.  This was subsequently followed up with another set of observations in which I didn’t take part, and then written up as a short research note.  I’m pleased to say that it has now been published in the new, open-access journal Plants, People, Planet.  Here’s a link to the paper which you can download for free:

Ollerton J., Koju N.P., Maharjan S.R. & Bashyal B. (2019) Interactions between birds and flowers of Rhododendron spp., and their implications for mountain communities in Nepal. Plants, People, Planet 00:1–6. https ://

The report really asks more questions than it answers.  It points out how important these rhododendron forests are for the people of Nepal but that we know virtually nothing about the pollination biology of the dominant trees and therefore the long-term persistence of Rhododendron species in the face of forest exploitation and climate change.  Our hope is that it stimulates both further research on the topic and increased awareness of how important it is to protect these habitats.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Climate change, Pollination, University of Northampton

Ash on the beach, fire in the bush: Australia reflections part 1

2019-12-13 12.17.43

Although we’ve only been in Australia for less that two weeks, it feels as if we’ve been here forever; once we got over the jetlag and the weird sleeping patterns, Karin and I have easily settled into the life of a Southern Hemisphere summer.  It’s hard to believe that back home in the UK it’s cold, wet and (politically) miserable….

We’re based at Coogee Beach in the eastern suburbs of sprawling Sydney, just a short walk from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) where I’ve spent most of my time, and an even shorter walk from sand and surf.  It sounds idyllic but one of the recurring features of the past week has been the amount of ash and charred leaves washing up on the beaches from the bush fires that surround Sydney at the moment:

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The region is in the midst of an extended drought and this has worsened the fire season.  The Australian Government seems intent on denying that it’s anything to do with climate change, though recently one of the state ministers has broken ranks.  That’s going to be little consolation this year but may mark the start of some changes in policies.  Let’s see.

During our time here Karin and I have facilitated a workshop on “Writing for a non-academic audience” which was attended by 17 UNSW postgraduate researchers.  I’ve presented a lecture on “Macroecology and macroevolution of plant-pollinator interactions: pattern and process at large geographical and temporal scales”…..

2019-12-05 10.37.41

….and spent a lot of time chatting with staff and postgrads at UNSW.  In addition, Angela Moles, Stephen Bonser and I have made initial progress with a short paper that I’m hoping will be ready to submit before we head back to the UK in early February.

Time to actually get out and see some of the habitats and biodiversity of this part of Australia has been limited.  But we’ve done a couple of hikes north and south of Coogee Beach, along cliff-top trails and boardwalks through remnant coastal heathland habitat, enjoying the novelty of watching rainbow lorikeets visiting the inflorescences of native Banksia trees:

2019-12-04 12.56.12

Yesterday we went further afield with a bird watching trip down to the Royal National Park (RNP) with Kew/NRI scientist Phil Stevenson (who is in the country for a couple of weeks on a flying visiting to speak at a conference and meet with colleagues); and Graham Pyke from Macquarie University, whose work on foraging behaviour of pollinators I’ve known for many years, but whom I’d never met.  Leading our trip was Steve Anyon-Smith, a professional bird guide who literally wrote the book on birding in the RNP.  Steve was great, highly knowledgeable, and a mine of information about the Australian environment.  As well as seeing about 67 bird species we encountered a host of other wildlife, and I collected data on wind and animal pollination for another set of species.  Here’s some images from that day:

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An orchid – Dipodium punctatum.

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The bower of a male satin bower bird.

2019-12-13 09.17.10

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Not a great shot – it’s an Eastern dwarf tree frog.

2019-12-13 13.14.41 This is better – a very confiding Eastern water dragon along a well-used coastal trail.

Along that trail we also saw two forms of Banksia serrata – an upright one and a prostrate form – growing quite close together:

2019-12-13 13.17.162019-12-13 12.23.18

I’ve seen a lot of birds visiting the inflorescences of this species but it’s suggested that mammals might be the main pollinators – the flowers have a very thick, yeasty smell.  Perhaps it’s both?

2019-12-13 11.02.52

An Australian fringe-lily.

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This is Epacris longiflora – thanks to Ryan O’Donnell for the identification.

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And of course we saw a lot of the iconic laughing kookaburras.

Steve was really concerned that much of the forest and wildlife in the NPR may be destroyed over the summer.  None of it has yet burned and, with temperatures due to rise enormously by next week, much of this habitat could be lost to fire by summer’s end.  I sincerely hope not, it’s too precious and beautiful to lose.  Vegetation in relatively light burns can reestablish itself given time, as we encountered in one of the Coogee remnants that burned a few years ago:

2019-12-07 15.12.472019-12-07 15.12.51 (1)

But the bigger, hotter, more intense fires that are currently sweeping the state are something else entirely, and are alien to these forests.  Aboriginal Australians carefully managed their environment using regular, small burns, a practice that has been lost in most areas.

Fire in Australia is a theme that I keep coming back to.  A few weeks ago, during one of my second-year undergraduate grassland ecology lectures, I was  discussing fire as a threat and a management tool in grasslands.  I mentioned the situation in Australia with respect to Aboriginal use of fire and I asked my students what the purpose of their burning the grasslands was.  Someone suggested that it might relate to their agriculture.  My response then was “no” because Australian Aborigines were nomadic hunter-gatherers who never developed agriculture, which is what the received wisdom has been for decades.  The answer I’d give now is: “yes, quite probably”.  As so often is the case in science, the received wisdom was wrong.

My colleague at the University of New South Wales, Angela Moles, has loaned me a book called Dark Emu which draws on early European settler accounts, Aboriginal oral tradition, and recent archaeological discoveries to turn our understanding of the ecology of pre-European Australia on its head.  In particular, it seems as though the (then) very large Aboriginal population was much more settled and had developed a sophisticated form of agriculture that included the creation and exploitation of huge areas of native grasses for their grains.  This was all destroyed by colonial European agriculture within a short time period, before it was fully understood.  One of the arguments in Dark Emu is that these native grasses are much more suitable to the Australian climate than wheat and may allow more sustainable agriculture in the future.

If you want to know more, here’s a link to a recent review and interview with the author, Bruce Pascoe:

Strange as it might sound for a professor to say, I was happy to be wrong on this (or indeed any) occasion: scientific understanding only progresses by people being wrong and incorrect ideas being superseded by new knowledge.  I made a point of sending my students an email telling them about what I’d discovered.  It may well form a question on the test they have to take next term…..


Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Birds, Climate change, Pollination

Beexploitation in social media – UPDATED

2019-07-28 11.15.10

UPDATE:  I should really have linked to Charlotte de Keyzer’s “bee-washing” site – – it’s making much the same argument in a more comprehensive and elegant way.  That’s what happens when you post blogs first thing in the morning before the (bee pollinated!) coffee has properly kicked your brain into gear…..


I am fond of new words – neologisms – and if pollinators can be included, so much the better.  For example see my recent post about autobeeography.  That refers to memoirs which focus around work or encounters with bees, of course.  So here’s a new one:  “beexploitation”.

Beexploitaton is a play on blaxpoitation of course, and refers to articles, campaigns, social media, etc., that seeks to make financial or reputational gain from making wild and unsubstantiated claims about pollinators, most often honeybees.  Here’s an egregious example that caught my eye this morning and stimulated this post:

Worryingly, this is set up by the French Government and is aimed at raising money from well meaning people to “save the bees”.  But it’s full of nonsense claims such as that bees pollinate cocoa plants to give us chocolate.  They don’t – the pollinators of cocoa are primarily, perhaps exclusively, small flies.  There are other errors too and we know that honeybees, globally, are not as important as wild pollinators for crop plants.  We need to highlight and critique this sort of rubbish because it diverts money and attention away from genuinely well thought out initiatives to conserve pollinators.

As always, I’m happy to receive comments and other examples of beexploitation.


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Pollination

Are you ready for SCAPE 2019?

SCAPE logo

Later this week the 33rd annual meeting of the Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology (SCAPE) takes place at a venue near Lund in Sweden.  Here’s a link to the conference website on which you can find the programme and the abstracts.

SCAPE is the longest running such conference in the world and this year’s meeting promises to be a bumper one, with at least 130 delegates and two great keynote speakers: Prof. Rachael Winfree and Prof. Sharon Strauss.

For the first time I’m giving a short “flash talk” of just four minutes which will be interesting…..will I be able to stick to time?

I will try to post some thoughts from the meeting on the blog but to be honest I’m more likely to tweet using the hash tag #SCAPE2019 and the account @SCAPE_Poll_Ecol.  Watch out for those if you’re on Twitter.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Pollination

What exactly is a “pollination system”?

Pollination systems

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time, but have never got round to.  What’s catalysed me is an email this morning from Casper van der Kooi asking me about how I define the term “pollination system”, as he’d had some discussions about its use with his colleagues in The Netherlands.

“Pollination system” is one of those terms that seems to mean different things to different people. The way I use it, and I think the way we meant it in the 1996 paper Generalization in pollination systems and why it matters, is that the pollination system = floral phenotype + pollinators.  That is to say, the colour, shape, size, odour, rewards, etc. produced by a flower (or an inflorescence functioning as a single reproductive unit) plus the animals that effectively transfer pollen.

To me this is distinct from a “pollination syndrome” which refers only to the floral phenotype, or “pollinator guild/functional group” which refers only to the flower visitors.  However I have seen “pollination syndrome” used to include floral phenotype + pollinators.  But to my mind they are distinct things.

I have also seen other authors use “pollination system” to mean the community of plants and pollinators in an area, or as analogous to the breeding system, but neither of those are the way that I use it.  I decided to look at the history of the term on Web of Science and the earliest use on there is a paper by Levin & Berube (1972): Phlox and Colias – efficiency of a pollination system.  There were a few other papers from the same decade and all were using pollination system in the way I described above, i.e. floral phenotype + pollinators.

To look for earlier usage of pollination system I searched the Google Ngram Viewer; as you can see in the image above, I found examples of the term back as far as the 1940s in which the pollination system of grasses is referred to as being “cross pollination” (i.e. what we would now refer to as the breeding system).  There’s also texts from the 1950s referring to artificial wind pollination of date palms as a “helicopter pollination system”.

Does it matter how “pollination system” is used, or that it varies in meaning according to the author?  Probably not as long as the meaning is defined in the text.  Ecology is replete with terminology that has slightly different usage according to the researcher (“biodiversity” being an obvious example) and I don’t get a sense that this has held back the field.  Or is that too optimistic a conclusion?  Do you use the term in a different way to me?  As always, your comments are welcomed.


Filed under Biodiversity, History of science, Pollination

Auto-bee-ography – a new genre of writing?


In the post today I was pleased to find a copy of Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s first book Dancing With Bees that she had kindly signed and sent after I reviewed some of the text.  It was great timing – I’ve just finished Mark Cocker’s Our Place, a really important historical and future road map of how Britain got to its present position of denuded and declining biodiversity, and what we can do to halt and reverse it. Highly recommended for anyone interested in environmental politics and action.  So Brigit’s book will be added to the pile on my bedside table and may be next in line, though I still haven’t finished Dave Goulson’s The Garden Jungle – perhaps I will do that before I start Dancing With Bees?

And thereby lies a problem – there’s just too many interesting books to read at the moment if you are interested in the environment, or indeed even just in pollinators.  Because a new genre of writing seems to be emerging that I call “auto-bee-ography”. A number of writers are using bees to frame their memoirs and anecdotes.  Dave’s trilogy of Buzz in the Meadow, Sting in the Tale, and Bee Quest is probably the best known. Then there’s Buzz by Thor Hanson; Following the Wild Bees by Thomas Seeley; Bees-at-Law byNoël Sweeney; Keeping the Bees by Laurence Packer; Bee Time by Mark Winston; Bees Make the Best Pets by Jack Mingo; Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee
by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut; The Secrets of Bees by Michael Weiler; and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury.

All of these books fall more-or-less into the category of auto-bee-ography, and I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed (feel free to add to the list in the comments below).  They follow a strong tradition in natural history and environmental writing of using encounters with particular groups of organisms, for example birds and plants, as a way of exploring wider themes  Which is great, the more high profile we can make all of these organisms, including pollinators, the better in my opinion*.

However there’s not enough written about the other pollinators, that does seem to be a gap in the literature.  Mike Shanahan’s Ladders to Heaven has a lot about his encounters with figs and their pollinating wasps, but that’s about it, unless I’ve missed some?  Perhaps in the future I’ll write something auto-fly-ographical called No Flies on Me.  But before that, look out for Pollinators and Pollination: nature and society which I’m currently completing for Pelagic Publishing.  It should be out in Spring 2020.

*Though not in everyone’s – I had a very interesting discussion on Twitter with some other ecologists recently about whether pollinators had too high a profile compared to organisms that perform other functional roles in ecosystems such as seed dispersers.  You can follow the thread from here:






Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Book review, Pollination

Websites about bees and other pollinators that are not in English – can you add to my list?

2019-05-20 15.22.16

The book I’m currently completing is going to have a list of useful websites with information about bees and other pollinators, and pollination itself, that are not written in English.  Following a shout-out on Twitter I’ve come up with the following list – can anyone add to it?  There’s a lot of countries/languages missing.  Please respond in the comments section or send me an email:












French Canadian:










With thanks to everyone on Twitter who responded.


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Pollination