Category Archives: Urban biodiversity

Bees and beer in London: an urban beekeeping experience

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One of our Christmas presents from Karin’s son (my stepson) Oli and his girlfriend Kate was an “experience” – a chance to spend half a day with an urban beekeeping collective in London called Bee Urban.  The group has a partnership with Hiver Beer which uses its honey in its brewing, and we were promised a tasting session.  Bees, beer, London – what’s not to like?  Karin and I finally made the trip down to Kennington yesterday and it was a really enjoyable experience, highly recommended.  I know a little bit about beekeeping but it was great to see a small professional apiary at work and to take part in a hive examination.  It certainly deepened my appreciation of these remarkable insects.  It also made me think about having a hive or two when I retire and have the time to devote to the hobby – beekeeping is not to be entered into lightly!  However there’s a time and a place for honeybees: in the wrong setting they can be a conservation problem by negatively affecting plant reproduction, out-competing native bees and passing on their diseases to bumblebees.

Bee Urban, however, is also doing its bit for wild bees in London by providing opportunities, such as drilled logs, for cavity nesting species.  We saw lots of evidence that leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.) and those that seal their nests with mud (various genera) were taking advantage of these nesting sites.

Interestingly, one of the other attendees said at the outset that she was very scared of bees.  I asked her afterwards if seeing beekeeping up close had helped and she said it had.  Perhaps this is something that you could do with any insectophobes in your life?

The beer was great, by the way, also highly recommended!

Below are some pictures from the day.  Thanks to Lena and Barnaby for hosting us and making it such an enjoyable experience.

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When she saw this picture, Karin likened it to cult devotees attending a ritual – “All Hail the Bee Goddess!”:

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Karin and I get up close and personal with the bees:

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A real highlight of the day – seeing the queen of this hive (marked in red):

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Yum! – :

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Drilled logs being used by leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.):

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Honey bees, Urban biodiversity

Last year’s mother, this year’s child: cinnabar moths in the garden

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Most summers we have a small colony of cinnabar moths (Tyria jacobaeae) reproducing in the garden.  The garish yellow-and-black caterpillars feed on species of ragwort and we leave a patch of common ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) to grow in the lawn.  The caterpillars eat for a few weeks, virtually destroy the ragwort, and in the process accumulate alkaloids from the host plant into their bodies.  This renders them toxic in much the same way as monarch butterflies accumulate toxins from their Asclepias food plants – see my recent post about the Monarchs and Milkweeds workshop.  Hence the stripes to warn birds of their unpalatability.

Ragwort is a much-maligned plant, hated by those with horses and livestock, and subject to a largely hysterical campaign of eradication – see here for example.   However John Clare clearly appreciated its virtues in a poem dedicated to the plant:

Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come & litter gold,
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves;
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold,
That without thee were dreary to behold.

The full text of the poem can be found here.

Once they have fed their fill, the caterpillars dig themselves into the soil to spend twelve months or so underground as pupae, before emerging as gorgeous adult moths, advertising their toxicity with a different colour scheme.

The adults live for a few weeks at most, during which time they feed on nectar, mate, lay eggs and die.  This (unposed) photograph that I snapped on my phone in the garden yesterday just about sums it up: an exhausted mother has laid her last batch of eggs then died, while a nearby young caterpillar munches away on the ragwort.  And so the generations pass.

Cinnabar caterpillars on ragwort

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Filed under Biodiversity, Gardens, Moths, Urban biodiversity

Rediscovery of a plant species 170 years after it was lost from the Northamptonshire flora

 

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This past week I’ve been hosting a postgraduate researcher from the University of New South Wales in Australia.  Zoe Xirocostas has been recruited to work on a project on which I’m a collaborating with Prof. Angela Moles and Dr Stephen Bonser (University of New South Wales) and Dr Raghu Sathyamurthy (CSIRO).  It’s funded by the Australian Research Council and will run from 2019-2022.

Zoe’s PhD is about understanding the role of herbivores and pollinators in determining how plant species native to Europe have become invasive in Australia.  She arrived with a wish-list of species that she wants to study at sites in the UK (Northampton), Spain, Estonia, France and Austria, in order to compare them with populations in Australia.  One of those species was small-flowered catchfly (Silene gallica), a plant that I hadn’t seen in Northamptonshire.  The NBN Atlas account for the species shows almost no records for central England and when I checked the Northamptonshire Flora it stated that the species had last been recorded in the county in 1843.  Clearly this was not a plant we could study for this phase of the project.  Or so we thought.

By coincidence, the week of Zoe’s preliminary fieldwork coincided with two days of surveys of the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus by staff and students.  This is part of an ongoing project to understand how the development has affected local biodiversity.  Friday was to be the last spring bird survey of the season (see this recent post updating that project) and Thursday was to be devoted to plants and bees.

To help with this we had the assistance of two County Recorders: Ryan Clark for the bees and Brian Laney for the plants, both hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Northamptonshire’s.  We started the surveys on an area of short-cropped, species-rich turf that is being maintained by a combination of rabbit and Canada goose grazing:

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In no time at all Brian had racked up dozens of plant species; it’s really a very rich site indeed.  Bees were fewer and further between, but after an hour we had a list of about 10 species, including one of my favourites, the ashy mining bee:

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Zoe and her field assistant Susmita were busy bagging flower heads for the pollination experiments when suddenly we heard an excited shout from Brian.  He had moved on to look at some plants that were coming up in a disturbed area of ground some distance away.  Unbelievably, Brian had found small-flowered catchfly!  More than 170 years after it had last been record in the county.  On our campus!  We rushed over to take a look, and there it was, near a path that Zoe and I had walked just a couple of days before and completely failed to spot it.  In our defence, although it is striking in close up (see the image at the top of this post) it hides itself very well among other plants:

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An amazing discovery!  But what is this plant doing here?  The answer is that small-flowered catchfly is an annual species of disturbed areas, it requires soil to be turned over in order to allow its seeds to germinate from the soil seed bank.  The construction work on the site has involved moving around hundreds of tons of soil and this has provided ideal conditions for the plant and for many others that are associated with this kind of habitat.  The challenge now will be to work with the university’s estates department to decide on a management plan that involves regular rotovating of that area.  That shouldn’t be too hard, they are as keen to maximise the biodiversity of the campus as we are.

The natural world is full of surprises, especially “lost” species turning up unexpectedly.  Soil seed banks for some species can be very persistent, with seeds remaining dormant for decades or even hundreds of years until conditions are right for germination.  It’s very satisfying to be present at just the right time to see it happen!

To finish here’s a shot of the survey team, minus one member (Vivienne) who had to leave early; from left to right – Ryan, me, Brian, Susmita Aown, Duncan McCollin, Zoe, Janet Jackson:

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Photograph and poem: the only alien here

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Wind the propagator propels air-borne seeds

To urban refuge and new opportunity

Where they germinate, elongate, grow, and flower,

Roots seeking soil, making do with mortar and render,

As, persistent in its invader role,

Buddleia grips a gable cliff, dispensing offspring

From house wall warmth into frigid space

And a clear night of stars backdrops the only alien here.

 

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Filed under Biodiversity and culture, Personal biodiversity, Poetry, Urban biodiversity

The impact of building a new university campus on urban bird diversity and abundance: a seven-year study

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Over the past few years I’ve posted several pieces about how colleagues, students and myself have been monitoring one aspect of the environmental impact of the University of Northampton’s brand new 22 ha, £330 million Waterside Campus development.  Specifically we have been looking at how the construction work has affected bird diversity and abundance in and around the site: see my posts “An interim report on the Waterside bird surveysand “Monitoring the impact of the new Waterside Campus“.

Our approach has been to repeat the baseline bird surveys (three winter and three spring) that were done in 2012/13 as part of the environmental impact assessment prior to work taking place.  The new campus opens this summer and, following our most recent set of surveys in April/May, it’s time to reveal our findings so far.  Here are the headlines:

The baseline surveys recorded a total of 52 bird species.  In the following graphs birds have been categorised according to their RSPB Red, Amber, Green status.  Four species from the original surveys remain unrecorded:  Marsh tit, Bullfinch, Collared dove, and Lesser whitethroat.  However at least two of these (Bullfinch and Collared dove) are still found within 1km of the site.

During the repeat surveys we have recorded an additional 25 species that were not found in the baseline surveys.  This is not surprising – bird assemblages are dynamic, given that most species are very mobile – but it’s still interesting to find that so many more species are finding homes in the area.  If the four “missing” species return then the potential full diversity of the site is at least 77 species:

Waterwide birds - RAG

However this overall good news story is more complex than it first appears.  In the graph below I have plotted the Simpson’s Index for each survey, with a LOESS regression showing 95% confidence limits.  Simpson’s Index combines the data on both the number of species and their abundance to provide an overall measure of the impact of the construction work.  It’s clear that during the main phase of construction the average bird diversity per survey dropped significantly.  Following the completion of the noisiest and most disruptive activities, diversity has started to return to its pre-construction levels:

Waterside Simpsons

This overall assessment hides a lot of detail; as you can see below, Green status birds have fared best, Amber status birds have done ok; Red status birds have fared worst, especially in spring, but better in winter:

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The bird diversity is not quite back to what it was, but overall our findings are very encouraging.  In the initial phases of the development we talked with the landscape architects about adding ecological value to Waterside by including more native trees, reed beds, wild flower meadows, etc.  We’ve yet to assess how these features will affect biodiversity on the site, including birds, but we might predict that the final diversity exceeds that of the original brownfield site.  With that in mind we will be doing at least one more cycle of three winter and three spring surveys during 2018/2019.

Long-term monitoring of this kind is almost never undertaken for infrastructure projects of this nature. Universities, I would argue, need to take a lead in promoting such activities and making then a common component of the planning process.  From this work I think that our main conclusion is that redevelopment of peri-urban brownfield sites such as this doesn’t have to mean a loss in biodiversity, at least not as far as the birds are concerned.  We also plan future surveys of mammals, plants and invertebrates to assess how they are doing.

My thanks to all the colleagues and students who have been involved in the work so far: Duncan McCollin, Janet Jackson, Joanne Underwood, Kirsty Richards, Suzy Dry, Charles Baker, Pablo Gorostiague, Andrew Hewitt.

To finish, here are some photographs that we took of the work being carried out so you can see the scale of what has been achieved at Waterside:

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

The flowers, the bees, and the tractor: a true story

Yesterday I was up and out early with colleagues and students to carry out the first of this season’s spring bird surveys of the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus – see my previous post on this topic.   We had finished one stretch of the survey and were walking back along the path next to Midsummer Meadow when I spotted a huge expanse of Red Dead-Nettle (Lamium purpureum), mixed in with some While Dead-Nettle (Lamium album):

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Both species produce a lot of nectar; as kids we would often suck it from the flowers of White Dead-Nettle, and they are just as attractive to bees and other pollinators:

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Sure enough, a quick survey showed that there were at least two species of bee working the flowers, Common Carder Bees (Bombus pascuorum), and male and female Hairy-footed Flower Bees (Anthophora plumipes) – here’s a shot of the female:

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Suddenly there was an exclamation from one of my colleagues: whilst I was focused on the bees he’d seen a tractor pulling a grass cutter coming towards us:

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It got closer…:

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…and closer…:

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…and we were sure it was going to mow this beautiful patch of wild flowers, and the bees, into oblivion:

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But it didn’t!  The driver carefully mowed round the patch and headed back the way he’d come:

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A big relief!

Urban recreational grasslands like this clearly need to be managed by regular cutting, but this should be done strategically as these sorts of wild flower patches are important nectar and pollen sources for urban pollinators.  They are especially critical at this time of year when resources are needed to build up colony numbers in the social species like Common Carder Bee.  I don’t know who manages Midsummer Meadow – presumably contractors working on behalf of Northampton Borough Council?  But I hope that this is a conscious strategy by them to conduct “smart mowing” whereby they cut around flower patches like this even when they are not planted.  The bees (and I) thank you for it.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Can pollinators survive sudden changes in the weather?

Snow-Warm garden comparison

Just how pollinators cope with sudden changes in the weather early in the season is a bit of a mystery.  Take 2018 as an example; my wife Karin spotted the first queen bumblebee in the garden on 6th January, investigating a camellia flower just outside the kitchen.  Over the course of the next few weeks I saw a few more at various sites, plus occasional hibernating butterflies such as the red admiral. The various social media outlets were reporting similar things, it looked as though we were going to have an early spring.

Then at the end of February “The Beast from the East” hit the UK, a weather system from Siberia that brought some of the coldest weather and heaviest snow the country had experienced for several years.  That persisted for over a week then things got much milder.  On 16th March I was in the garden and spotted the first male hairy-footed flower bee of the year, plus a mining bee (Andrena sp.), and a brimstone butterfly, and a queen bumblebee, and a red admiral.  Great I thought, spring really is here!  The next day it snowed.  A “Mini Beast From the East” had arrived, rapidly: the two pictures above making up the composite view of our garden were taken two days apart.

What happened to all of those insects I saw? Were they killed by the cold weather?  Or did they survive?  We have no firm data to answer that question – as far as I’m aware no one has ever tagged early emerging pollinators and followed their progress (I could be wrong – please let me know if I am).  It would make an interesting, though labour intensive, project but could be done using non-toxic paint of various colours to mark the insects.

I suspect that some of the pollinators I saw were killed, but most were not and simply went back into hibernation for a short period, hunkering down in safe, sheltered spots.  That makes much more evolutionary sense: any insects in the UK that cannot survive sudden changes in the weather would have gone extinct long ago.  Another clue to support this idea is the fact that plants in flower early in the season, and in some cases the flowers themselves, usually survive the cold weather and come back as if nothing had happened.  If the flowers can do it, and they have to stay where they are, surely the mobile pollinators can also do it?

As always I’d be interested in your thoughts on this topic, feel free to comment.  And while we wait for the UK to thaw, here’s some topical and rather catchy music to listen to – The Beelievers singing “Mr Gove”.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Gardens, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Pollinator biodiversity and why it’s important: a new review just published – download it for free

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In a new review paper that’s just been published in the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics I have looked at the question of just how diverse the pollinators are, and why pollinator biodiversity is ecologically important and therefore worthy of conservation.  I’ve taken a deep time and wide space approach to this, starting with what the fossil record tells us about when animal pollination evolved and the types of organisms that acted as pollinators in the past (the answer may surprise you if you’re unfamiliar with the recent paleontological literature on this topic).  Some of the most prominent biogeographical patterns have been highlighted, and I have tried to estimate the global diversity of currently known pollinators.  A conclusion is that as many as 1 in 10 described animal species may act as pollen vectors.

As well as this descriptive part of the review I’ve summarised some recent literature on why pollinator diversity matters, and how losing that diversity can affect fruit and seed set in natural and agricultural contexts.  Extinction of pollinator species locally, regionally, and globally should concern us all.

Although I was initially a little worried that the review was too broad and unfocused, having re-read it I’m pleased that I decided to approach the topic in this way.  The research literature, public policy, and conservation efforts are currently moving at such a fast pace that I think it’s a good time to pause and look at the bigger picture of what “Saving the Pollinators” actually means and why it’s so important.  I hope you agree and I’d be happy to receive feedback.

You can download a PDF of the review entitled Pollinator Diversity: Distribution, Ecological Function, and Conservation by following that link.

Pollination ecologists should also note that in this same volume of Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics there’s a review by Spencer Barrett and Lawrence Harder called The Ecology of Mating and Its Evolutionary Consequences in Seed Plants.  If you contact those authors I’m sure they’d let you have a copy.

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Filed under Apocynaceae, Bees, Biodiversity, Biogeography, Birds, Butterflies, Climate change, Ecosystem services, Evolution, Honey bees, Hoverflies, IPBES, Macroecology, Mammals, Moths, Mutualism, Neonicotinoids, Pollination, Urban biodiversity, Wasps

The Buzz Club: citizen scientists protecting pollinators

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


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

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

For more information and for a list of current projects, please visit our website: http://thebuzzclub.uk/

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

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

Join the Buzz Club here: https://alumni.sussex.ac.uk/buzzclub

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TheBuzzClubUK

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/The_Buzz_Club


From Jeff:  if citizen science is your thing, don’t forget that the Ivy Pollinators project will run again this year: https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/ivy-pollinators-citizen-science-project/

 

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

6000 scientists can’t be wrong: the International Botanical Congress 2017

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A late afternoon flight from Heathrow got me to Beijing International Airport just in time for me to enjoy a nine hour delay in my connecting flight to Shenzhen in southern China.  I finally arrived at my hotel at 2:15am, exhausted and sweaty in the 30 degree night time heat.  The one consolation is the the hotel was short of rooms so upgraded me to a suite the size of a small city, with a shower like a tropical rainstorm.  Perfect to wash off the dirt of travelling before collapsing into bed.

Why am I here and why is the hotel short of rooms?  Because 6000 scientists have descended on Shenzhen for the 19th International Botanical Congress (IBC).  The IBC is a six-yearly event that rotates around the world; I attended in 1999 in St Louis and 2005 in Vienna, but missed Melbourne in 2011.  At this IBC I’m giving two talks, one at the beginning and one at the end of the conference.  More on that later in the week.

Six thousand botanists need a big conference venue and this morning, after a late breakfast, I strolled up to the convention centre where it’s being held.  It’s enormous, the scale of the thing is overwhelming.  I wandered around whilst they were getting ready for registration opening this afternoon and took some images on my phone.

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There are some fabulous displays of living plants, including this one at the main entrance:

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These are attracting pollinators: in 10 minutes I counted lots of honey bees, one butterfly, at least two species of wasps, and a large carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) visiting flowers.  I only managed to photograph the first two though:

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On the way back to my hotel I gatecrashed an international turtle expo.  Who knew turtles were such a big thing in China….?

OK, that’s all for now: I have to head back to the convention centre to register, so I’ll leave you with the view I’m seeing from where I’m writing this.  Shenzhen is quite a place and I’ll write more about it later in the week:

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Honey bees, Pollination, Urban biodiversity, Wasps