Tag Archives: Urban ecology

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

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

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

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

Urban Pollinator Knowledge Exchange summary – Bristol 22nd February

P1110838The importance of urban environments for supporting pollinator populations is a topic that I’ve covered several times on the blog, for example: “Urban pollinators for urban agriculture” and “Urban bee diversity – a new study“.  It’s a subject that’s generating a lot of interest at the moment with some really exciting research being published and conservation practice taking place.  However there’s clearly a lot to do if we are really to understand where pollinators are distributed across out townscapes, and how we can best manage urban habitats to support this diversity and increase their numbers – here’s a link to an interesting round table discussion on this very topic.

Recently I was invited to take part in a workshop event co-organised by Defra, NERC, and Dr Kath Baldock from Bristol University entitled: Knowledge Exchange: urban grassland management and creating space for pollinators.  As well as doing a short talk which contextualised the current scientific knowledge on urban pollinators, I facilitated one of the breakout discussion sessions.

The workshop was very well attended with some 50 delegates from a wide range of organisations, including local and national authorities, businesses, NGOs, and universities.  Feedback from those delegates was generally positive and most people learned something about managing urban settings for pollinators, and made some useful connections.  I certainly learned a lot: it’s good to get out of academia sometimes and talk with practitioners.

If you follow this link you’ll find a PDF of the summary from the facilitated sessions, covering topics such as grassland and verge management, the urban edgeland, innovative projects, and green infrastructure.

Over at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s blog, Sam Page has a very nice summary of the whole day which is also worth reading:  Trials and tribulations of managing urban grasslands for pollinators.

Many thanks to all of the organisers for their work in putting on this event.

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

Garden pollinators for PAW no. 4 – Gatekeeper butterfly (Pyronia tithonus)

Gatekeeper 3 - summer 2014

For my fourth contribution to Pollinator Awareness Week I’m going to highlight the Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), a butterfly that I featured on this blog last year.  As I noted in that post, it’s fairly rare to have Gatekeepers in an urban garden which indicates that the shrubs and hedges grown by myself and my neighbours are providing the right microclimate for the adults.  In addition the overgrown lawns of some adjacent gardens give opportunities for egg laying as the caterpillars are grass feeders.

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Adult butterflies are very well camouflaged when resting with their wings folded. They take nectar from a range of plants in my garden but particularly love the dark, heavily scented infloresences of the buddleia variety pictured here.  They also visit the wild blackberries scrambling through the hedge that separates us from next door’s garden and probably pollinate those flowers.  Although it’s often said that butterflies are poor pollinators compared to bees, due to their general un-hairiness and habit of holding themselves above the stamens and stigmas in a flower, it very much depends on the type of flower.  We have an unpublished manuscript that I hope to submit to a journal later this year showing that butterflies are actually better pollinators of one grassland plant than bumblebees.

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Pollinator Awareness Week – 13th – 19th July 2015

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Next week has been designated Pollinator Awareness Week (PAW) by Defra and there are events and profile-raising activities going on all over the country.

The motivation behind the PAW is (quote) “to bring attention to the essential needs of pollinators and the simple actions that we can all take to help pollinators survive and thrive”.

With that in mind, next week I intend to produce one blog post a day that highlights, with photographs, a pollinator (or group of pollinators) that I’ve found in my own urban garden in Northampton.  The purpose is to illustrate the diversity of pollinators that even a town garden can support, something about their fascinating life histories, and the different ecological requirements of these pollinators that our gardens can provide.  For some of them I’ll even discuss the garden crops that they pollinate.  First post will be on Monday.

If you, or the group you work with, are doing something for Pollinator Awareness Week feel free to share it in the comments section below.

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Plantlife’s road verge advice could negatively affect pollinators

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Did anyone else hear the item on Radio 4 this morning about Plantlife’s road verge campaign and associated petition?  I listened carefully to the discussion and am broadly supportive of what they are trying to achieve.  But I was immediately struck by a comment that local councils should cut the verges “from mid July onwards” because most plants will have set seed by then.  I’ve seen this advice given before and whilst it might be an appropriate option for plants, it could severely impact local pollinator populations.

The printed advice that Plantlife is offering (which can be found here) states that if it’s only possible to cut a verge once a year:

“Cut the full width of the verge….between mid July and September. This allows plants to flower and, importantly, gives time for seed to be set.”

This misses a vital point: between mid-July and September there is still an abundance of flower-visiting insects that require these flowers to provide resources for their nesting and egg laying activities, or to build up reserves of energy to allow them to hibernate, particularly newly-mated queen bumblebees.

Where’s the evidence to support my assertion?  It’s been demonstrated by a number of studies, but I’ll point you in the direction of a paper that came out of the PhD work of one of my former students, Dr Sam Tarrant, who now works with RSPB.  If you look at Figure 4 of this paper, you’ll see that on restored landfill sites the abundance of pollinators in autumn surveys (conducted September-October) was just as high as for summer surveys.  On nature reserves, which are routinely cut from mid-July onwards (see Figure 2), this was not the case.

Climate change means that flower-visiting insects are now active in the UK for a much longer period of time than was previously the case, up to at least November in the south of the country.  I agree with Plantlife that road verges are important habitats for plants and other wildlife.  But advice that suggests cutting floral resources at a key time of the year for these insects is simply misguided.  A cut between October and December would be much more appropriate.

I don’t use Twitter so if anyone could point this at Plantlife’s account I’d be interested to see what their reaction is.

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Urban bee diversity – a new study

Bee on apple blossom 2 - 1st May 2015

Over the past couple of years I’ve mentioned urban pollinators, and specifically the work of my PhD student Muzafar Hussain Sirohi, several times; for example here and here.  Muzafar is currently finishing off the writing of his thesis, and during that time he’s also managed to publish the first paper from the study.

We are really pleased with this paper because not only is it the product of a lot of hard work to systematically sample and identify the bees, but the results are really exciting: Muzafar has shown that the centre of Northampton is home to a more diverse set of bee species than expected. In fact at least 50 species of bees are thought to live within a 500m radius of All Saints Church, which is significantly more than are found in the nature reserves at the edge of the town.

Muzafar’s work involved surveying the small gardens, road verges, traffic islands, and other patches of plants in the urban centre of Northampton.  These areas provide important nectar and pollen sources for the bees, whilst old stone walls and bare soil offer opportunities for nesting sites. This community of bees includes one nationally rare Red Data Book species called Coelioxys quadridentata that is known from rather few sites.

Our estimate of about 50 species of bees is certainly too low because we focussed on the more neglected groups of bees and didn’t include the social bumblebees. The true figure is likely to be over 60 species, a remarkable number given the small area surveyed.

As I’ve discussed many times on this blog, pollinators such as bees are hugely important both ecologically (most plants require them for reproduction) and economically (much of our food production relies directly or indirectly on pollination by animals). However a significant proportion of bee species in the UK are declining in abundance, and some have gone extinct. Understanding how these bees are distributed across the landscape, including urban areas, is crucial to the conservation of such pollinators in a rapidly changing world. The project therefore has implications not only for conservation of biodiversity, but also food security, given the number of urban gardeners who grow their own food, and the ability of many bees to travel significant distance from urban to rural areas.

The research is published in the international, peer-reviewed Journal of Insect Conservation. The full reference (with a link to the abstract) is:

Sirohi, M.H., Jackson, J., Edwards, M. & Ollerton, J. (2015) Diversity and abundance of solitary and primitively eusocial bees in an urban centre: a case study from Northampton (England). Journal of Insect Conservation DOI 10.1007/s10841-015-9769-2

If anyone would like to receive a PDF of the paper, please leave a comment below or drop me an email: jeff.ollerton[at]northampton.ac.uk

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

Is Booterstown Marsh the best small urban nature reserve in Europe?

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On a recent visit to Dublin, where I’m External Examiner for some courses at UCD, my host Dr Jan-Robert Baars took me on a short early evening excursion south of the city to Booterstown Marsh.  What a great little nature reserve it is!  It’s tiny (only 4.3 ha) and is boxed in by urban development on all four sides.  To the north there are buildings; to the east runs a busy main road and housing; on the southern side is a car park and the entrance to Booterstown train station, with the railway line completing the rectangle of infrastructure to the east.  Beyond that is a beach and the open water of Dublin Bay.

The reserve is largely saltmarsh, fringed with trees, with a freshwater stream coming in from the north (visible in the bottom right corner below.

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As the tide turns, seawater rapidly ebbs and flows from the reserve, bringing with it food particles and nutrients for the plants and invertebrates of the marsh.  The next photograph was taken only a few minutes after the previous one.

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If you click on these photographs above to maximise their size you can see something of what makes this reserve so special – the bird life that is supported by those plants and invertebrates.  The very abundant dark birds are Black-tailed godwits, the white ones are Black-headed gulls.  During our visit, which lasted less than an hour, we saw a total of 12 species including other wading birds such as Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Little egret, Grey heron, and Redshank.  These are birds that one often sees from a distance, foraging on lake margins or mudflats.  But here they are just a few metres from a busy railway line which funnels commuters to and from the city every day.

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Whether by accident or design the open-ended station bridge makes a great viewing platform; here you can see Grey heron and Little egret.

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At its eastern side the bridge looks over Dublin Bay and provides further birding opportunities.

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If you have the opportunity to visit Booterstown Marsh (and I strongly recommend it) there’s a useful guide produced by the Irish Wildlife Trust.  This urban nature reserve is one of the most interesting I’ve ever visited, because it affords the opportunity to get very close to a diverse assemblage of birds that are not normally so confiding.  Clearly these birds feel secure despite the rumbling traffic and the dashing trains.  I almost envy the local commuters!

If you think you know of a more interesting small urban nature reserve I’d be interested to hear about it – feel free to comment below.

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My thanks to Jan (pictured below on the bridge) for introducing me to this wonderful site.  The final list of birds that we saw on the reserve was:  Black-tailed godwit, Dunlin, Grey heron, Little egret, an unidentified duck, Black-headed gull, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Woodpigeon, Moorhen, Mute swan, Jackdaw.  On the Dublin Bay side we also spotted Pied wagtail and (from a distance) a Curlew.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Urban biodiversity