Category Archives: Urban biodiversity

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

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

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

Recent developments in pollinator conservation: IPBES, 10 Policies, pesticide conspiracies, and more

Bee on apple blossom - 1st May 2015

It’s been a busy week for anyone interested in pollinators and their conservation, lots of things happening that I thought I would summarise in a single post with links.

First of all IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) has finally released the full text of its Thematic Assessment on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production  – nine months after it was discussed at the 4th IPBES Plenary Meeting, and three months after the Summary for Policymakers came out.  Even now the document is not in its ultimate state, it’s the text without its final layout or appendices (though it still runs to 868 pages!)  The preamble to the report states that:  “A full laid out colour version, including a preface and annexes will be posted here shortly”.

Sources tell me that there have been some delays while the exact style and colour scheme of the report are finalised, which, if true, is frankly not very encouraging : this is an important document that needed to made public at the earliest opportunity.  I accept that it’s got to be correct, and it’s a complex report, and this is not a criticism of the authors, rather of IPBES’s bureaucracy.  Pollination ecology and pollinator conservation is a fast moving field and there have already been significant scientific and policy developments since the text was finalised which will not be incorporated into this version.

To coincide with the release of the report comes two important articles in the two most prestigious scientific journals by some of the authors of the report.  In “Ten Policies for Pollinators” (Dicks et al. Science 354: 975-976) the authors set out a series of recommendations for politicians.  The article is paywalled so here’s their list with some annotations [in square brackets]:

1. Raise pesticide regulatory standards [to include our most important pollinators – wild bees and other insects!]
2. Promote integrated pest management (IPM) [rather than automatically feeding the profits of agrochemical companies].
3. Include indirect and sublethal effects in GM crop risk assessments.
4. Regulate movement of managed pollinators [lots of evidence that poor husbandry is a major cause of colony collapse disorder, for example].
5. Develop incentives, such as insurance schemes, to help farmers benefit from ecosystem services instead of agrochemicals.
6. Recognize pollination as an agricultural input in extension services.
7. Support diversified farming systems [does Brexit provide an opportunity to do this in the UK?]
8. Conserve and restore “green infrastructure” (a network of habitats that pollinators can move between) in agricultural and urban landscapes [already lots being done on this in urban areas but much less in rural areas].
9. Develop long-term monitoring of pollinators and pollination [there’s already been a report on this – expect more news early next year].
10. Fund participatory research on improving yields in organic, diversified, and ecologically intensified farming.

Overall it’s a sensible set of recommendations – the only ones that I would have added would be to develop education and awareness programmes of the importance of natural capital and ecosystem services, aimed at farmers, civil servants, politicians, planners, business and industry, developers, etc.  And also to build consideration of natural capital into local planning systems so that the loss of habitats, trees, ponds, etc. are properly accounted for.  I’m sure others can think of more – feel free to comment.

Getting politicians to take notice of these recommendations in an age where scientific experts are derided as no different to “soothsayers and astrologers” will be a challenge though.

Lead author Lynn Dicks discussed these recommendations on the BBC Radio 4 Farming Today programme (from about 3:27) – well worth a listen.

Following on from this some of the authors of the 10 recommendations article were also involved in a review published this week entitled “Safeguarding pollinators and their values to human well-being” (Potts et al. Nature) – hopefully that link will take you to the full text of the article which is being widely circulated for free in a read-only form (it can’t be downloaded unless you have an e-subscription to Nature).

On the subject of safeguarding pollinators (and specifically from pesticides) a video of Dave Goulson speaking at the 2015 National Honey Show appears to have been edited to remove his comments about neonicotinoid pesticides (about 34:08 to 34:28).  Dave’s not sure if this is conspiracy or cock-up, but it’s an odd coincidence that this is the only glitch in an otherwise well-produced video.

At about 39:20 Dave talks about the importance of engaging kids with nature and specifically pollinators.  I completely agree and last week did a live Q&A phone interview with Year 7 pupils at Abbeyfield School in Northampton who are doing a project on bees.   The kids asked some great questions and were very well informed – a credit to their teachers!

This week there was a lot of pollinator and pollination ecology being discussed at the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference – Manu Saunders has produced a Storify to summarise the talks and Twitter comments – here’s the link.

Linked to this, against my better judgement and as an experiment, I’ve finally joined Twitter.  It’s a bit of an experiment to see how I get on and so far I’m enjoying it, though I’m sticking to science and environmental news – my handle is @JeffOllerton if you want to follow or tweet at me.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, IPBES, Neonicotinoids, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

The Biodiversity Impact of Waterside Campus: an interim report on the bird surveys

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In previous posts I’ve discussed the work that we are doing monitoring the effects of building a large, new campus for the University of Northampton (see: Monitoring the biodiversity impact of the new Waterside Campus and a video I did of a talk about this project).  We have finally got round to writing an an interim report on the bird surveys we have been conducting (2014-2016), repeating the initial baseline surveys that were carried out in 2012-13.  The executive summary is below and you can download a PDF of the full report here.

As you will see it’s a mixed picture, with some losses and some gains of species, but we are broadly optimistic that the planned landscaping and habitat creation will have a positive effect come the 2018 opening date of Waterside Campus.  It’s important to note that studies such as this which follow up initial ecological surveys and assess the subsequent impact over time are extremely rare as there is no statutory obligation to do so.

Winter surveys will begin shortly and I will report back late next year, time willing.  Any questions or comments, please let me know.

 

Executive summary

  • Surveys of winter and spring bird diversity are being carried out to assess the effects of construction activities and habitat creation on local biodiversity at the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus.

 

  • These results are compared to pre-construction baseline surveys in winter 2012-13 and spring 2013, undertaken as part of the ecological impact assessment of the site.

 

  • Results after two repeat sets of surveys (winter 2014-15 and 2015-16; spring 2015 and 2016) are presented, with birds grouped into RSPB Green, Amber and Red categories.

 

  • Winter bird diversity has dropped from 41 species to 31 species; more Red and Amber listed birds have been lost than Green listed species.

 

  • Spring bird diversity has dropped from 40 to 36 species; more Green and Amber listed birds were lost, but the number of Red listed species increased slightly.

 

  • As well as losing species the site has gained birds that were not recorded in the baseline surveys, including Green-listed Coot and Treecreeper, the Amber-listed Stock dove, and the Red-listed House sparrow.

 

  • In addition, most of the “missing” birds are known to occur at sites 500m to 1000m from Waterside and could return following the end of construction and appropriate habitat creation.

 

  • Surveys will continue until after Waterside Campus opens in 2018, and analyses will be undertaken to tease out how these changes in bird numbers are related to changes to both the local and regional environments.

 

  • Outputs from this project so far include two conference presentations and two final year dissertations (one completed and one planned). At least one peer-reviewed research paper is anticipated.

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

International Wildlife Gardening Conference – 23rd November

20160702_100724An International Wildlife Gardening conference is to be held at the Natural History Museum in London on 23rd November this year, organised by the Wildlife Gardening Forum.  The theme is:  “What European wildlife and nature gardeners can learn from each other” – very apt in these post-Brexit times.  The cost is £50 for the day (including lunch) and you can book by following this link.

Here is the programme for the day:

10.00 Registration and tea/coffee

10.30 Introduction and background; The Forum and the Wildlife gardening movement in England and Wales – Dr Steve Head (WLGF)

10.50 Nature gardening in Germany: an historical view from the start to today. How useful is the concept of native plants for wildlife? – Dr Reinhard Witt (President of Naturgarten e.V. [Nature Gardeners’ Association], Germany)

11.25 Naturgarten e.V.: nature-oriented design in gardens, educational institutions and public space in an era of climate change – Ulrike Aufderheide (Naturgarten e.V. [Nature Gardeners’ Association], Germany)

12.00 Lunch and networking (optional guided tour of the Wildlife Garden)

1.30 Biodiversity path in a heritage park: a case study – Jérôme Constant and Carole Paleco (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) (Afternoon Session Chair: Andrew Salisbury)

2.05 Looking for oases – Marianne van Lier and Willy Leufgen (Stichting Oase [Oasis Foundation], Netherlands)

2.40 Tea/coffee

3.00 Looking after our roots and the brown stuff – Sarah Rubalcava (Ireland)

3.35 19 years of Garden for Life: working together to promote wildlife gardening in Scotland – Dr Deborah Long and Juliette Camburn (Garden for Life Forum, Scotland)

4.10 Panel session with speakers (led by Adrian Thomas)

4.30 Summing up and Close

(Please note; this programme may be subject to late changes)

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Filed under Biodiversity, Gardens, Royal Horticultural Society, Urban biodiversity

Urban areas as a refuge for insect pollinators: conservation for the city

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Urban conservation ecology is a fast growing field that has mainly focused on how towns and cities can support populations of plants, animals and fungi that may be declining or threatened in the surrounding rural environment.  That is, the city for wildlife conservation.  In a new essay in the journal Conservation Biology, written with colleagues from across the world, we argue that conservation for the city (an idea originally conceived, I believe, by Steward Pickett) should also be a focus of future research and management activities.

Conservation, or ecology, for the city in essence means that plants, animals and fungi, as well as being supported by the city (see our recent urban bees example), play a role in supporting the city itself through the provision of ecosystem services such as decomposition, flood alleviation, and crop pollination.

It’s pollinators and pollination that we particualrly focus on in this essay – here’s the abstract:

Urban ecology research is changing how we view the biological value and ecological importance of cities. Lagging behind this revised image of the city are natural resource management agencies’ urban conservation programs that historically have invested in education and outreach rather than programs designed to achieve high-priority species conservation results. This essay synthesizes research on urban bee species diversity and abundance to suggest how urban conservation can be repositioned to better align with a newly unfolding image of urban landscapes. We argue that pollinators put high-priority and high-impact urban conservation within reach. In a rapidly urbanizing world, transforming how environmental managers view the city can improve citizen engagement while exploring more sustainable practices of urbanization.

I’m happy to send the PDF to anyone who wants a copy; here’s the full citation:

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Renovating a front garden for pollinators: because there has to be more to a scientist’s life than just…..science!

Over at the Standingoutinmyfield blog, the author has posted some “Photos from a hardwood floor“, and contrasted the satisfaction to be derived from a project such as (in this case) laying a new floor in her home (and great it looks too!) with the dissatisfaction that life as a scientist can bring.  Don’t get me wrong, I think I have the best job in the world, but I agree with her that there has to be more than science in the life of a scientist.

It’s probably not widely realised amongst non-academics, but failure and rejection are MUCH more common than success and acceptance in our professional lives.

Rejection rates for most journals are greater than 50%, and frequently as high as 80% to 90%; success rates for large grants are typically lower than 20%.  In the past seven months I’ve had one grant application and five papers rejected.  It can be very disheartening,  which is why I have to have more in my life than just science.

Of course there’s the teaching and admin that is a vital part of my job, but, like Standingoutinmyfield, other projects are important.  So Karin and I have spent part of the summer refurbishing an old summer house at the back of the garden (on-going) and renovating and planting our front garden (almost done).  As the latter project involves plants that are good nectar and pollen sources for pollinators, I thought I’d post some photographs:

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The original front wall – built in the late 1980s/early 1990s I think, and not at all in character with the late Victorian house.

The garden itself was paved and concreted over:

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Demolition in progress!  While I supervise…..:

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We salvaged what bricks we could, for other projects, and the rubble was taken to the local recycling centre to be used as hardcore.

It’s amazing where plants will grow:

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The site is almost cleared, ready for a local semi-retired bricklayer (with 56 years of experience!) to build us a new wall using similar bricks to those of the house:

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And here it is:

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The soil in the front garden was very poor, varying from solid clay to builder’s rubble, so needed a lot of peat-free compost and sharp sand to improve it.  But finally we were ready to plant it up:

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The garden is south facing so we had to choose plants that would do well in a hot, dry summer (not that we have many of those at the moment….).  It will take a year or two for them to get established and knit into a full display.  The plants are a mixture of pollen- and nectar-sources for pollinators plus things we just like – here’s the full list:

A small scrambling rose Rosa “Warm Welcome” – a beautiful, unusual colour, a very nice scent, and appropriate name for the front garden!

Lavender “Hidcote” – planted as a low hedge along the full length – even as we were putting in the plants, worker Buff-Tailed Bumblebees were visiting the flowers.

Plectranthus argentatus –  not hardy here but a lovely foliage plant, fast growing, and with flowers that bees like.  I’ll take cuttings in the autumn to keep it going.

Wisteria – this is quite a large plant that was a birthday present for Karin.  But I’ve lost the variety name so will have to try to track it down.

A fig – Ficus “Panache” – because we like figs.  The roots have been constrained in a sunken container to encourage the plant to produce more fruit and less growth.

A self-sown privet (probably Ligustrum vulgare) that was already in the front garden; we allow it to flower (rather than treating it as a hedge) as the bees love it and the black fruit can be eaten by birds.

Potentilla “Gibson’s Scarlet and “Jean Jabber” – deep red and vivid orange, respectively.

Achillea “Fanal” – also deep red and favoured by hoverflies.

Salvia nemorosa “Caradonna” – beautiful, intense purple.

Curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) because we love the smell and hoverflies love the flowers.

Japanese Anemone x hybrida “Honorine Jobert” – pure white and late flowering.

A perennial sunflower Helianthus “Lemon Queen” – likewise a late flowering hit with the pollinators.

Lamb’s Ear – Stachys byzantina – particularly favoured by the Wool-carder bee Anthidium manicatum.

There will be more to come in the near future.  Meanwhile, here’s a before-and-after shot:

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Gardens, Hoverflies, Personal biodiversity, Urban biodiversity

Scientists and gardens

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This morning I tied in some tomato plants to their canes and removed a few side shoots and lower leaves,  the scent of the foliage transporting me back to my father’s allotment in Sunderland.  There, in a greenhouse constructed from old window panes, he grew luscious, sweet tomatoes, fed and watered by “filtered beer”.  It was some years before we realised that he was filtering the beer through his kidneys, which didn’t impress my mother.  Stephen King captured it beautifully when he said that we don’t buy beer, we only rent it*, and feeding tomato plants rather than flushing it down the toilet is certainly the environmentally savvy solution.  Clearly my dad was an environmentalist before his time.

These childhood allotment memories represent my first exposure to horticulture, an interest and a practise that has remained with me ever since.  I’ve always gardened and, even when I didn’t own or rent a garden, I grew house plants.  This link between scientists and their gardens is a persistent one.  For example I’ve recently finished reading The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf’s great biography of Alexander von Humboldt, and gardens feature several times as places of calm and inspiration for both Humboldt and his mentor Goethe.

There are many other historical scientists who have used and been inspired by the gardens they have cultivated.  Humboldt’s friend and colleague Aimé Bonpland maintained a garden during his time in South America. Darwin’s garden at Down House certainly inspired the great man, and he carried out numerous experiments on plants and earthworms there.  The University of Uppsala maintains the garden in which Linnaeus cultivated plants that he used in his teaching and research (I’ve visited this a couple of times, well worth the trip if you are in that part of Sweden).

More recently I can think of several prominent scientists in my own area of pollination ecology and plant reproduction who are also keen gardeners.  These include: John Richards (formerly of Newcastle University); Spencer Barrett (whose garden photo gallery shows the location where he did some of the work on the mating costs of large floral displays, subsequently published in Nature!); Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex; and Simon Potts (University of Reading) who (if my memory of a talk he gave a couple of years ago is correct) has experimental plots set up on his lawn.

There must be many others and I’d be grateful for other examples – please comment below.  All of the individuals noted above are “biologists” in the broadest sense so I’d be particularly interested for suggestions of scientists in other fields who are also gardeners, or inspired by gardens.

The garden that Karin and I are developing in Northampton (pictured above) serves many functions: as a centre of quiet relaxation, a place to write, to be inspired by the pollinators and their behaviour, to enjoy physical labour, grow food, and (occasionally) to collect data.  I cannot imagine being a scientist without a garden; as Francis Bacon said, “it is the purest of human pleasures”.  However he was writing in the 16th century before the advent of pesticides, herbicides, inorganic fertilisers, electric mowers, and other gardening modernities that, one way or another, can have a profound environmental impact.  Good gardening must be tempered with a sense of how we go about those activities in a way that minimises that impact.

 

*I first read it in King’s novel From a Buick 8, but a quick google suggests that it was originally an Archie Bunker line.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Charles Darwin, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Urban biodiversity

How to deal with bumblebees in your roof [UPDATED]

Bombus hypnorum

This week I’ve had two enquiries from colleagues at the University of Northampton asking advice on what to do about colonies of bumblebees that have set up home in their roofs.  In both cases these were nests of the Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum), a species that only colonised the British Isles in 2001 and has since spread rapidly (see this post from last year for a more detailed account).  Because of their association with human settlements they are significant pollinators of garden produce: over the past few weeks I’ve been watching them pollinating the raspberries in our garden and we now have a large crop.

But having a bee nest in your home is, for many people, a real concern.  I thought it might be useful to discuss the issue by quoting from the email correspondence I had with my first colleague, Paul.


Paul wrote:   I wonder if you can give me some advice. I returned home from holiday on Saturday to find that a colony of bees had taken up residence in a roof space above my front porch. The bees are not domestic honey bees but large bumblebees with white rears. I am not sure how many there are, they buzz furiously when I close the door…..  They are not in the house and I cannot see them from my loft…..so they are not causing a problem at the moment other than a moderate dead rabbit smell in the porch.

I am considering contacting the local council pest controllers, but fear they may just gas and kill them as they are not honey bees. What would your advice be, would it be safe to leave them alone, if so how long are they likely to stay, how large is the colony likely to become, are they likely to cause any damage or mess?

Here’s my response:   From your description they are almost certainly Tree Bumblebees which often use loft spaces, bird boxes, etc. As the name suggests they naturally nest in holes in trees. The colony is not likely to get much bigger though over the next few weeks you may find males patrolling the front of the nest, waiting for the virgin females to emerge so that they can mate. That sometimes makes the colony seem larger than it actually is – there are not likely to be more than about 150 bees in there.

I’ve had Tree Bumblebees in my roof a few times and they’ve never caused any damage. All bumblebee colonies die over the winter and the newly-mated females fly off and hibernate. So by late August or September (perhaps earlier if the weather ever gets warmer….) the bees should have gone. At that time you could seal the entrance to the roof space, though they are unlikely to return next year (although it’s not unknown).

Yes, a pest controller would kill the colony. But they are unlikely to be aggressive unless you stick your fingers in the nest hole! My advice is to let them be and take pride in your own bee colony – they are very discerning and don’t nest just anywhere 🙂


So there you have it: my advice is, leave them alone.  Of course if you or your family have a particular sensitivity to bee stings you may need to think carefully about this advice, but in my experience bumblebees are only aggressive if they feel directly threatened.  In over 25 years of field work focused on bees and other pollinators, I’ve only ever been stung a few times, and mainly by honey bees.

UPDATE: A commenter on Facebook had a great suggestion, that I provide a link to Dave Goulson’s nice little video showing what the inside of a bumblebee nest looks like – so here it is.

 

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Honey bees, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity