Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Rare photo: blogger and fieldworker caught on film

...and smiling!

More used, as I am, to being on the other side of the camera, we were giving our best beaming smiles last week...

Why?  Because the flowers are beautiful in the annual meadow strip at Middleton Park...

..and because we have now finished all fieldwork for this season!

That's actually something of a shame, as being out and about, and seeing the natural world in all its glory, is definitely the biggest perk of a job like this :) 

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Nectar robbers caught red-handed on allotment site

We always think bumblebees are cute and fluffy and help pollinate our plants in return for food (pollen and nectar). Most bumblebees are really doing what we expect them to do, but some have a darker side: they take the food (in this case nectar) without doing any pollination. This behaviour is called nectar robbing.

The culprits are often the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) and the white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum). They are short-tongue bumblebees and therefore lack the morphological adaptations to access flowers which have the nectar hidden at the base of a long tubular flower, which would normally only be accessible to long-tongue bumblebees.

But the aforementioned two species have found a way around this problem. They bite a hole into the flower tube near its base, i.e. where the nectar is located, and sip the nectar trough this hole. Once a hole is created other bumblebees may use it as well, and this is called secondary nectar robbing. As these bumblebees don`t access the flower in the normal way they do not take up  any pollen and thus do not get involved in pollination.

Nectar robbing bumblebee. The holes at the base of the flower are clearly visible.
 We have watched Bombus terrestris and B. lucorum robbing nectar from comfrey flowers (Symphytum officinalis) at an allotment site (see two pictures below). Nearly every single flower had one or more holes and the bumblebees were busy flying from one flower to the next sipping nectar through the hole. We have not seen a single long-tongue bumblebee accessing the flowers in the normal way. Pollination of the comfrey flowers cannot be really high, but luckily comfrey is partly self-fertile so doesn`t really need the bumblebees to distribute pollen from one flower to the next.

Have a look yourself, comfrey is still flowering and perhaps you will spot the little nectar thieves at work on a sunny day.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

An excuse for gratuitous flower and pollinator photos…

It's the end of our summer of insect and flower surveys now and we thought it would be a good time to showcase some of the flowers and insects we've happened upon along the way.  So, each of us in the Reading team have put forward our favourite flowers and insects that we've encountered over the way. The flowers weren't ones that were particularly rare - or indeed - even native.  But each of us has a favourite and here we explain why! 

Nadine's favourite flower is the sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and favourite insect is the rose chafer (Cetonia aurata):
"It always cheers me up if I see a sunflower (see picture below). They are tall and impressive plants with huge flower heads and so easy to grow. Bees like them too and the seeds are loved by birds in winter (most of the time eaten up well before winter arrives).”

“The rose chafer beetle (picture below) is a really good looking beetle, quite big, all metallic green and not shy at all. We have seen these beetles quite a lot in June and July enjoying Spiraea and hogweed flowers."

 Peter's favourite flower is the california poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and top insect was the hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria):
"California poppies (picture below with Peter in the background) have a nice bright orange colour (which is not a very common flower colour) and they seem to glow even when we have a gloomy day. They are loved by pollinators and it is a joy to photograph them in different angles. “

“The hornet hoverflies (see picture below) we have seen in August were a great find and the first time I have seen them. They are impressive hoverflies and have a very interesting lifestyle (see our August blog “Meet the hornet hoverfly”). I also like all the other hoverflies but the hornet hoverfly was the nicest one so far."

Sam's favourite flower is the orange hawkweed (Pilosella aurantiaca) and favourite insect was (unsurprisingly) the early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) (see our June blog: "Charismatic MICRO fauna"!):
"We only encountered this bright Composite (picture below) in one allotment and on the edge of a pavement on the way to a park that we surveyed. The flower has the most incredible orange colour - it’s unlike any of the yellow Composites and really stands out.  It is a deep orange in the centre - almost red and has the most amazing scent of honey. Although this is a well-known garden plant (sometimes a bit weedy) we never actually encountered it within one of our transect survey walks.  

"My favourite insect has to be the tiny bumble Bombus pratorum (in the picture below enjoying Oreganum flowers). I blogged about this bee earlier in the season and I shamelessly maintain that it is the cutest bumblebee we have encountered!"

 There you have it - our gratuitous, subjective, and distinctly unscientific blog for the week. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Reading Flower Meadows in September 2012

As promised here comes an update on the progress of the Reading flower meadows.

Annual meadows:

The annual meadows still look beautiful and some of the meadows really came into their own in the last weeks with lots of flowers providing a much needed food source for pollinators this late in the year and it also gives us something nice and colourful to look at. All 5 annual meadows have a different character and consist of a slightly different mix of species flowering.
The meadow in Caversham Crematorium (see below) is dominated by poppies and you can also see quite a lot of pot marigold (Calendula) now .

Christchurch Meadows has an annual meadow which looks very beautiful now (after a slow start) with lots of Cosmidium and Cosmos flowering (see below).

The meadow in Victoria Recreation Ground (Tilehurst) is probably the most colourful of the 5 annual meadows and full of poppies, cornflowers, pot marigold, Cosmos, Cosmidium and red flax (see below).

Prospect Park has a golden meadow with mainly Cosmidium flowering interspersed with some Cosmos (see below).

Finally the meadow in Rabson Recreation Ground has, after a flush of poppies in August, a nice mix of pot marigold, red flax, cornflowers and Cosmos flowering (see below).

Also the pollinators seem to enjoy the annual meadows. All meadows were alive with bees, hoverflies, bumblebees (like the one on the Cosmos in Rabson Recreation Ground in the picture below) and other pollinators.

Perennial meadows

The perennial meadows are all cut now and you will not see a lot at the moment. But all 5 perennial meadows have quite a good mix of perennial plants like ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), knapweeds (Centaurea sp.), musk mallow (Malva moschata), birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculata), wild carrot (Daucus carota) and more. You can look forward to seeing all of the perennial meadows in flower next year which will hopefully bring a nice change from the closely mown grass you will usually find in our parks.

This will probably be the last update on the progress of the Reading flower meadows for this year (we will start again next year when we find the first flowers in the meadows). If you have not seen the meadows for yourself so far, make the most of the nice autumn days we have at the moment and have a look, there is still time.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Bee and Pollination Festival at Bristol University Botanic Gardens

The weekend of the 9th September was warm and breezy – perfect for the Pollination Festival hosted at Bristol University Botanic Gardens. Clare and Ben from the Bristol Urban team were present to explain the project and recommend bee-friendly plants and share out information on anything pollinator related, to the best flowers for pollinators at certain times (Royal Horticultural Society plant list) to the lifecycles of bumblebees and how they differ to honeybees. The Bristol public were fascinated by the amount of insects we had found across the city, and many spoke of their delight with the urban wildflower meadows planted for the next year of this project. No doubt more astonishment will be had when the perennial margins come to the fore!

Clare and Ben at the colourful Urban Pollinator stand at the Bee and Pollination Festival at the Bristol University Botanic Gardens

The event – spendidly organised by volunteer Alice Maltby and garden curator Nick Wray – attracted huge numbers of people ranging in age, gardening experience, and love of honey-based products! Other stalls included charity Bees for Development, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, the Bristol City Council allotment department, and botanical drawing and paintings by local artist Jenny Brooks.

We had a wonderful time this weekend talking to the engaged and informed people of Bristol. We would like to thank everyone for coming and showing much interest in our project, and we would like to thank Alice and Nick for inviting us to take part.

An allotment fit for bees

We write a lot on this blog about allotments, but it is becoming clear that these are probably our best urban habitats for insect pollinators after gardens. Sampling last week, the Reading team visited an allotment that was practically leaking flowers it was so densely planted.  The site was humming with bees - even this late in the season. The typical allotment vegetables were interspersed with dozens of bright blooms - planted simply to provide forage for bees.  

Ina and Malcom on their pollinator friendly allotment plot
The allotment keepers Ina and Malcolm watched amused as we proceeded to count each and every single flower in our square metre quadrats that were positioned every four metres along the edge of their plot.  After that exhaustive exercise we strolled alongside their plot catching bumblebee after bumblebee! Even in the height of summer we would struggle to capture as many bees as we found on this single plot so late in the season.  

The Reading team discusses insect conservation with the allotment holders
Peter catching a pollinator
Pollinator put in a tube to be identified at University
 Allotments are phenomenally hard work to keep productive, and rainy weather, armies of slugs, green fly, cabbage white caterpillars and weevils will do their best to unravel all your hard work. So, although we wish every allotment was as well-tended and wildlife-friendly as this one, its important to note that simply growing your vegetables on such a site will benefit the insects we all rely on.   

These flowers were sown to attract pollinators to the allotment site

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Hornet Hoverfly and the Hornets

In August we reported about the hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) and its interesting life history (see here for the blog entry:

In short, the female hornet hoverfly  will seek out a wasp or hornet nest to lay its eggs in the nest. The hoverfly larvae develop in the nest and eat the detritus (dead or dying hornets and larvae). Today we witnessed the hornet hoverfly behaviour of seeking out a hornet nest to lay its eggs first-hand on an allotment site in Reading.

On the allotment site an allotment plot holder told us about a bee nest near his allotment plot. When we had a look it turned out to be a hornet nest with hornets buzzing in and out of the entrance to the nest in an old compost heap.We watched the hornets flying in and out for a while before we discovered a female hornet hoverfly (easy to recognize as it has the eyes separated with a wide yellow band) sitting on a nettle leave near the entrance.

After sitting there for a while the hornet hoverfly started to creep closer ...

... and closer ...

... until it was right near the entrance of the hornet nest with the hornets flying past it in and out of the nest (you can see the hornet hoverfly sitting on the left in the picture above, a hornet flying to the nest entrance on the right). The hornet hoverfly sat there for a while, watching the hornets flying past, then it started to fly towards the nest entrance, sneaking past the angry looking hornets at the entrance (see picture below) and disappeared in the hornet nest. The hornets seemed not to notice the hoverfly at all and just continued flying in and out.
We found it amazing to watch this hornet hoverfly behaviour first-hand after we read about it in a book and on the internet. Allotment sites are always good for a surprise.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Ant-bee interaction

Okay, rather a one-sided interaction, if I'm honest!  But you have to admire this little chap, in his efforts to drag a dead Bombus pascuorum back for the rest of the family - battling a headwind, and very rough terrain, as well as moving something several times his own body weight.

More on feeding preferences

We took a stroll out to check the progress of the annuals flower bed at Middleton Park - and found a glorious riot of mostly Cosmidium, glowing in the afternoon sun!  This has been a really successful bed, despite a touch of patchiness in the sowing - there's been a good mix of annual flowers here for most of the summer, now, providing a good food source for local pollinators, and a splash of colour in the park. 

There were hoverflies in abundance, of all shapes and sizes, dizzy with so much choice and falling in and out of one flower after another. 

Hoverfly on Cosmidium at Middleton Park, Leeds

Interestingly, we saw few bumblebees or solitary bees, and those that there were, were managing to ignore the shiningly bright Cosmidium in favour of Autumn hawkbit hanging on around the edges.

Solitary bee on Autumn hawkbit at Middleton Park, Leeds

We've been considering the question of how flowers appear different to bees, compared to how they appear to us, or other pollinators, and I'll expand on this further in a later post (it's past time to knock off for today, there's a whole lot of fieldwork to be done tomorrow!), so prepare yourselves for an investigation into bee-vision and the wonders of modern photographic method :)  All very interesting, I promise you.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A taste for buddleia

One of the gardens we surveyed in south Leeds today had two buddleia bushes - one with white flowers, one with the more familiar purple flowers.  There were butterflies all over this garden - it's taken a while, but they're finally starting to make a very welcome show.  We spotted peacock, tortoiseshell, whites and red admirals, visiting the buddleia and mophead hydrangeas, and basking on the path in the warm sun.

Butterflies enjoying the sun!

The whites flitted through, scarcely stopping to sup at all; the tortoiseshells seemed to have very eclectic taste, visiting pretty much any flower in the garden.  The peacocks and red admirals, however, seemed to show a marked preference for one kind of buddleia over the other - the peacocks were predominantly seen visiting the purple-flowered bush, while the red admirals gathered on the foamy white flowers of the other bush. 

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io) on purple-flowered buddleia

Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) on white-flowered buddleia

Le Mega Quadrat!

In Edinburgh the annual margins are blooming away, but accurately estimating the number of flowers is proving a little tricky as many species are patchy in their distribution. To compare various sampling strategies, Pierre - our quadrateur formidable - has designed a mega quadrat! It has so far been unleashed upon two margins and will hopefully reveal the best way to count flowers.

Sabrina and Frazer modelling the mega quadrat.

Allotments can be great places for wildlife!

We are always looking forward to sample pollinators in allotments as this can be so much more interesting and rewarding than most of the other urban habitats that we sample.  Walking into an allotment site is like walking into a different world: All of a sudden, we are surrounded by flowers and vegetables, buzzing bees, ripening fruit and the wind rustling in the leaves. We can almost forget that we are in the middle of a busy city.

A typical allotment site in Reading

Allotments are like green oases in a concrete desert, especially in areas without many gardens. There is a newly-found interest in allotment gardening at the moment and many people try to grow their own vegetables without pesticides which is good news for the wildlife.

Vegetables and flowers mixed together in this wildlife friendly allotment

We often find a great diversity of flowering plants, especially if people plant flowers in-between their fruit and vegetables. Also, some of the more weedy plots, while potentially providing fewer vegetables for their owner, may nonetheless be good foraging and nesting habitat for wildlife. Also, allotments are often surrounded by hedges made up by plants such as bramble and blackthorn which are a good source of pollen and nectar for pollinators and a good source of food for birds, and can also provide the latter with valuable nesting opportunities.

You can attract lots of bees to your allotment if you sow Phacelia
 as a green manure and let it flower

Allotments are under threat as councils and private owners of allotment sites are tempted to generate income by selling off allotment land for site development. But luckily, ‘statutory' allotment sites (as opposed to ‘temporary’ allotment sites) are subject to some protection under the 1925 Allotments Act so land on which such allotments are cannot be sold off as easily.

A wildlife friendly allotment site in Tilehurst, it was amazing to see all the bees and hoverflies
 visiting flowers planted along the edge and in between the vegetables

Let’s hope that future generations of allotment holders will be able to enjoy allotment sites to the same extent as the current one, and that such sites will be able to provide a lifeline for some of the wildlife to survive in an increasingly challenging urban environment.

A wildlife paradise ...

Borage is loved by bees and once you plant it it will seed itself around
and you never have to plant it again

You can also watch the two allotment videos I recently made to see how my own allotment looks now and to get more ideas of how to make your plot more wildlife-friendly.

My wildlife-friendly allotment in June/July 2015

My wildlife-friendly allotment plot in early August 2015