Tag Archives: Gardens

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

Spiral Sunday #15 – Happy New Year!

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

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

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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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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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“Insect pollinated” crops that don’t actually require insect pollination

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Yesterday evening I learned that a large grant application that I’d submitted earlier this year had failed to secure funding.  Statistically there was a high likelihood of this happening but that doesn’t make it feel any better: weeks and weeks of work have come to nothing.

So in a mood of bloody-minded contrariness and general displeasure at the unfairness of the world I thought I’d provide an alternative to the Bees’ Needs week I mentioned yesterday by focusing on food crops that look as though they should be insect pollinated (and their ancestors certainly were) but which don’t actually require pollinators.

The example pictured above is an F1 hybrid cucumber (Cucumis sativus) variety called “Mini Munch”, kindly grown from seed and given to me by my friend and colleague Dr Janet Jackson.  Many cucumbers don’t need insect pollination, despite their large, colourful flowers, and the fact that related crops (melons, courgettes, squashes, etc.) generally do require pollinators.  Indeed some varieties taste bitter if they are pollinated.  I can recommend this web page on how to grow cucumbers for further advice.

As I was taking that photograph, and in another demonstration of how the world is against me at the moment, I spotted a bee feeding on one of the all-female flowers of this variety.

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It spent some time there probing the centre with its tongue, so I think these flowers still produce nectar despite them not needing pollinators, a hang-over from their ancestry.  Plants have a whole range of mechanisms that ensure reproduction without the agency of insects and other animal pollinators, and this has been exploited by crop breeders who have selected crop varieties for their ability to self pollinate or to reproduce asexually via apomixis (as in the case of this cucumber).

The same bee then flew onto a tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) flower (another group which varies in its demands for pollination) and I got a better look – seems to be a Leaf-cutter Bee of the genus Megachile.

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The final example of a crop which requires little or no insect pollination are the chillies (Capsicum spp.) all of which are self-pollinating, I believe.  This variety is a scrambling purple type called Orzoco*.

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So, crops vary hugely in their need for pollinators and the presence of certain traits of animal pollination, such as large, brightly coloured flowers and nectar, is no guarantee that the crop really does have to be serviced by pollinators.  The only way to be certain is to experimentally test the plants, a topic I hope to come back to later in the summer.

Don’t worry, this grumpiness won’t last long, in no time at all I’ll be back to banging on about the importance of pollinators.  At least Monty, one of our two cats, still loves me.

 

*At least, that’s what it said on the seed packet; I’ve also seen it referred to as Orozco – does anyone know which name is correct?

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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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Silver Medal for the BES’s pollinator’s display at RHS Chelsea Flower Show!

RHS Silver Medal

An early train to London yesterday got me to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in time for the gates opening at 8am.  I’d agreed to spend the day staffing the British Ecological Society’s Animal Attraction: The garden and beyond display, which deals with the relationships between plants and their pollinators – see my recent posts here and here.

The first thing I noticed as I approached the display was how impressive and well designed it looked, with some wonderful planting to complement the simple, bold scientific information.  The second thing I noticed was that we had won a Silver Medal!  The whole team was very pleased – it’s the third year that the BES has been represented at Chelsea, but the first time that it’s won a medal.  I’m proud to have made a small contribution to that by advising on the plants and the scientific content, but the main kudos goes to the BES’s staff and to the garden designer Emily Darby.

Over the course of a long day we talked to hundreds of visitors about the display, what it represented, and the different ways that flowers are adapted to their pollinators.  There was a huge amount of public interest and support, very gratifying to see.  Here’s some pictures from the day:

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RHS crowd

RHS crowd with fig

RHS Jeff

RHS display

 

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Pollinators, yeast, and the BES at RHS Chelsea – official press release

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The official press release for this week’s British Ecological Society display at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which I talked about last week, was embargoed until this morning; here’s the full text that’s been tailored by the University of Northampton press office:

 

Scent, colour and form all shape the choices we make about what to plant in our gardens. Gardeners know that flowers produce nectar and scent to attract the birds, bats, insects and other animals they rely on as pollinators, but few realise that organisms too small to see with the naked eye also play a vital role in this process.

Ecologists have discovered that a yeast called Metschnikowia plays a key part in the pollination story and next week, for the first time, visitors to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show will be able to get a sniff of it and see how it looks under the scanning electron microscope.

The yeast forms part of the British Ecological Society‘s Animal Attraction: The garden and beyond display, which focuses on the relationships between plants and their pollinators – relationships that are amazing in their diversity as well as crucial to global food security. The University of Northampton’s Professor of Biodiversity, Jeff Ollerton, has been advising the British Ecological Society on the project.

Metschnikowia is ubiquitous, present in most flowers in most gardens, yet ecologists are only just beginning to uncover its mysterious role in pollination. The yeast is studied in only four laboratories in the world and Dr Manpreet Dhami from Stanford University has donated the yeast for the British Ecological Society’s garden.

Like other yeasts, Metschnikowia may produce volatile chemicals that mimic the scent flowers use to attract pollinators, thus helping the flower to attract more pollinators and therefore set more seed. In return, the yeast becomes attached to birds, insects and other pollinators, which it relies on for dispersal.

Professor Ollerton explained: “It was a pleasure to work with the British Ecological Society on this project as it highlights two important points about the natural world: that pollinators other than bees are just as important to both wild plants and crops, and that the diversity and abundance of many of these groups is declining worldwide.” Professor Ollerton’s recent study, published in Science, found that 23 species of British bees and flower-visiting wasps have gone extinct since the 19th century.

According to Jessica Bays of the British Ecological Society: “To tackle this decline, we need to understand its causes, including climate change, habitat loss and pesticide use, and we also need to understand the role played by yeasts such as Metschnikowia, which is why we decided to bring it to Chelsea this year.”

Tickets are still available for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016 – for more information click here.

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A new bee for Northamptonshire!

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Back in the summer I produced a series of posts for Pollinator Awareness Week highlighting the pollinators to be found in our own urban garden in Northampton.  One of those posts was of what I believed to be the Little flower bee (Anthophora bimaculata), a species which at the time I’d never previously seen.  I noted that this was a new urban record for Northampton as my PhD student Muzafar Sirohi had not recorded it during his bee surveys, which I discussed earlier this year.

Some time later I checked the bee records on the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Gateway site and realised that not only was this the first urban record of the species in Northampton, it was actually the first record for the county of Northamptonshire as a whole!  The record has recently been accepted on iRecord and will be added to the NBN records.

Of course this is personally exciting (a new record for a large county found in our back garden) and it adds a significant regional record to the currently known distribution of the species.  The map on the BWARS account of Anthophora bimaculata shows that the species is predominantly southern in its distribution, with a few eastern and western outliers.  This new record places the species firmly in the centre of England, confirming that it is more widespread than previously assumed.

There are two possible explanations for the discovery of this bee in Northamptonshire.  One is that it’s a very recent range expansion and the species is becoming more common and widespread, perhaps as a result of climate change.  The second is that it’s always been present in Northamptonshire, but just never recorded.  At the moment it’s impossible to decide between these two possibilities as there’s evidence to support both.  Not only did Muzafar not record A. bimaculata in his surveys in 2012, neither did Dr Hilary ErenlerDr Sam Tarrant or Kathryn Harrold in their pollinator surveys in the region between 2007 and 2015. Having said that, we do know that Northamptonshire is a historically under-recorded county for bees as it has no County Recorder for Hymenoptera, and both Hilary and Muzafar recorded species new to Northamptonshire, which I hope to report on at a later stage.

Differentiating between these two scenarios will be difficult and may be impossible unless we can discover previously unknown historical specimens of this bee that were collected in the county, or the species continues to expand in its range.

Understanding the distribution of pollinators such as bees is a key component of initiatives such as the National Pollinator Strategy – if we don’t know where the things we are trying to conserve actually are, how can we conserve them?  So it’s very pleasing to be able to make a small contribution to that process from the comfort of our own garden!

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