Tag Archives: Gardens

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

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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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Carol Klein’s Plant Odysseys starts 29th July (and I put in an appearance in episode 1)

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Back in June last year I talked about taking part in a day of filming with Carol Klein for her new four-part series, made with Oxford Scientific Films, called Plant Odysseys.  It’s an exploration of horticultural biodiversity, each episode focused on a particular group of plants.

The first episode, devoted to roses, is broadcast this Monday 29th July at 7pm on BBC2, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the production team did with our footage from Chester.  The name may be misspelled in the publicity material but it’ll still be me….

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Garden pollinators for PAW no. 7 – Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum)

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For my final post for Pollinator Awareness Week I’ve chosen another bumblebee, one with a fascinating history and ecology. The Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) is a relatively new arrival on our shores.  It was first discovered near Southampton by Dave Goulson in 2001; since then has spread out through the country, as far north (currently) as central Scotland, and has recently been recorded from Ireland.  It arrived in Northamptonshire in 2006. The Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) has been tracking its spread through a recording scheme: it’s very distinctive being the only one of our 25 bumblebees to have a ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail.

All the evidence suggests that this was a natural range expansion for the species rather than a deliberate or accidental introduction by people.  It’s what species do, they move around and change their distribution over timescales of decades to hundreds of years (there are lots of bird examples of this, including the Collared dove in the UK).  There’s no suggestion that this was due to climate change, however: Bombus hypnorum has long been present in colder parts of Europe and Scandinavia.

That said, there is probably a human influence to its spread as the species is closely associated with houses and gardens, often nesting in bird boxes or roof spaces (we had one in our roof for three years running).  The natural nesting habit for this bee is tree holes (hence the common name) which is why they are usually found in cavities above the ground.  However, like the Buff-tailed bumblebee, they can also be found in compost heaps, as a recent posting on the Bees Knees Facebook group showed (if you’re not a member of that group I can recommend it as it’s full of friendly, practical gardening advice for those interested in how their garden can be beautiful, productive and wildlife-friendly).

Although the Tree bumblebee will take nectar and pollen from an assortment of garden plants it seems to be particularly associated with members of the rose family (Rosaceae) and is a frequent pollinator of rosaceous soft fruit such as raspberries and blackberries.  I tried and failed yesterday to photograph the bee on our raspberries, so here’s a photograph of the outcome of that pollination.

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The Tree bumblebee is rapidly becoming one of the commonest garden bumblebees.  Is this likely to cause problems for our other bumblebees, by out-competing them for nectar and pollen, or even nesting sites?  It’s too early to tell but I’d be surprised if it does.

Bombus hypnorum March 2010

Phew!  That’s it!  It’s been a bit of marathon preparing these posts on top of writing a large grant application and a thousand other jobs, but it’s been a lot of fun.  Thanks to everyone who has viewed my posts For Pollinator Awareness Week and commented on them, either on the site or on Facebook.  Hopefully they have raised a broader awareness of our amazing native pollinators.

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Garden pollinators for PAW no. 5 – Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa)

Bee on apple blossom 2 - 1st May 2015

The Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) is also referred to as the Early mining bee due to its habit of emerging from over-wintered nests as early in the year as March.  In truth, however, many Andrena species put in an early appearance, making them important pollinators of orchard fruit such as apples, which you can see from the photograph above, taken in my urban garden earlier this year.  So “Orange-tailed” is a more descriptive name.

Thanks to the Orange-tailed mining bee and other early bees, this unnamed apple variety (which Karin and I rescued from the bargain area of a local garden centre) has gone on to produce a heavy crop of eating apples (see below). There’s considerable interest in the role of wild bees such as these as pollinators of fruit in commercial orchards, not just in Europe but in the USA too, where other Andrena spp. also pollinate apples.

The epithet “Mining bees” refers to the fact that these solitary species of the genus Andrena usually make their nests in soil, excavating deep tunnels in which to construct individual cells.  It’s another generalist, taking pollen and nectar from a wide variety of garden and wild flowers.  Dandelions are particularly important early in the year – so don’t over-manage your lawn and allow some to flower!

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Garden pollinators for PAW no. 3 – Little flower bee (Anthophora bimaculata)

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There are only five Anthophora species in the UK and the Little flower bee (Anthophora bimaculata), as the name suggests, is one of the smallest.  This is a fast moving little beast and my fairly bog standard cameras (and a generally impatient personality) struggle to capture it: Steve Falk’s images do it justice better than I ever could.

Once again, as with the Patchwork leaf-cutter bee, the flowers of Lamb’s ear are a real favourite in my garden.  Also like that bee, this is a solitary species, though this is one that nests in dry, sandy soil.  I’ve not been able to locate any nests in my own patch and I wonder whether it’s nesting in a nearby garden.

Another generalist species, I’ve seen this bee visit food crops with open flowers such as blackberry and raspberry in my garden.  Despite its size it is likely to be quite a good pollinator of those fruit as it’s abundant, fast moving between flowers, and hairy, and can carry significant amounts of pollen.

Interestingly, Anthophora bimaculata was not recorded by Muzafar Sirohi during his surveys of bees in Northampton town centre, so it’s another species that we can add to that urban list.

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