Thursday, 28 February 2013

Some blog statistics

First a big thank you to all who have visited our Urban Pollinators Project blog so far and for the feedback, comments and info we've been getting through the blog, email and twitter. We hope you enjoyed reading about pollinators, flowers, our field work and other urban related things. For those who are interested in some blog statistics please read on.

We have started our blog in May 2012 and have reached 10 500 page views now. To us this sounds quite a lot. Most people find our blog via our project website ( as well as via Twitter, Facebook and Google. Most people who visit our blog come from the UK, USA, Russia, Germany and France. A lot of people also visit from Canada, India, Netherlands, Australia and Ireland. It is interesting to see that people from all over the world are interested in urban pollinators and in what we are doing.

Your top 5 favourite blog posts are the following:

1. Mahonia: a magnificent magnet for winter-active pollinators

2. Tried and tested pollinator-friendly flowers for your allotment or vegetable patch

3.  Reading Flower Meadows in August 2012

4. A perfect day of garden sampling

5. Late flowers for pollinators

Watch this space to read more about what we were up to the last 2 years as we will publish a project update in the next couple of weeks. As the new field season will start in April you can also follow our urban adventures again soon :-).

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Early spring flowers for pollinators

Finally, after a long wait, the first spring flowers are showing their heads in our gardens, parks and other green spaces. It is such a delight to see all the crocuses, snowdrops and winter aconites brightening up dull winter days. If the weather stays mild emerging bumblebee queens, honeybees and early solitary bees will all take advantage of the early spring flowers and will forage for much needed nectar and pollen.

One of the earliest crocuses is Tommasini's crocus (Crocus tommasinianus) which is easy to naturalise in lawns and under deciduous trees as it self-seeds readily. It is also more shade-tolerant than most of the other crocus species. Early bees like to visit the flowers on mild days.

There are also many other crocuses which flower early and are loved particularly by emerging bumblebee queens as you can see below. Bumblebee queens are often starving after their long hibernation (some of them were asleep since last summer) and need all the nectar they can get. So finding a big patch of crocus flowers in a sunny corner of a garden will help a lot.


Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) with their bright yellow flowers can cheer up any dull winter day. The plant likes humus-rich alkaline soil that does not dry out in summer and is best planted under deciduous trees were it will naturalise if conditions are suitable. In some beech woodlands in Germany I have seen winter aconites in such great numbers that the woodland floor seemed to be covered with a yellow carpet. It is best to plant the tubers "in the green" in spring (actively growing with leaves and all) as winter aconites do not establish well if planted as dry tubers  in autumn. Bees like the flowers and you may see them visiting on mild days.


Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are out now as well and can even push their way through frozen soil as they have hardened leave tips. Snowdrops mainly spread by bulb division and do not depend on pollinators as they often flower so early in the year that there is not much flying around. But if we happen to have some mild days pollinators will still visit the flowers for nectar and pollen. Plant the bulbs in spring "in the green" as dry bulbs planted in autumn will often fail to establish. If planted in a sunny place the flowers tend to produce more nectar and pollen than if planted in the shade.

A little fly is visiting these snowdrops

The cheery yellow flowers of daffodils (Narcissus spp.) will soon start to flower, rocking on tall stems in a light breeze. The flowers look nice to us but it is a shame that many are not of much use for pollinators as most daffodils commonly sold in garden centers are highly bred and have lost their pollen-attracting features. You can plant the wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) instead which is pollinated by bumblebees. The bulbs are best planted under trees or in grass so they can naturalise. Wild daffodils like moist ground with rich soil.

Wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) are good for bumblebees

Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis)
And last but not least, lenten rose ( Helleborus orientalis) is in flower as well and cheers us up with saucer-shaped, often spotted blooms in various colours from white and green to pink. They are best planted under deciduous trees  and prefer a heavy neutral to alkaline soil. The plants are slow to establish and don`t like disturbance, so best to leave them alone once planted. They are a good food source for early bees. Also try out christmas rose (Helleborus niger) with pure white flowers but which is a bit more difficult to grow than lenten rose.

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger)

Look out for early spring flowers on mild and sunny days and if you are lucky you may even see some hungry pollinators foraging for pollen and nectar.

For even more early spring flowers have a look at my follow-up blog post "More early spring flowers for pollinators".

If you are after pollinator-friendly flowers for spring and early summer have a look here. For winter and late winter flowers look here.

Monday, 11 February 2013

In praise of urban trees

What would we do without all the trees in our towns and cities? They provide us with shade in summer, filter the air we breathe, provide nesting and feeding places for birds and other wildlife and bring us a bit closer to nature in urban environments. Deciduous trees are covered with leaves from spring to autumn and the structure is hidden from our view, but to really appreciate their beauty now is the time to look out for them, to see their beautiful shapes, colour of bark and structure of their branches.

In the last couple of weeks I photographed urban trees in Reading to reveal their beauty. Many of the trees in the pictures below grow on the Reading University campus which has beautiful old trees, well worth a visit if you are in the area.

Sunrise at Forbury Gardens, Reading
Trees in Forbury Gardens in the center of Reading
An old oak near the Whiteknights Lake
An old cedar tree on the University campus
Cedar tree in the morning sunlight
In winter trees reveal their beautiful structure
A glorious old oak in Harris Garden on the University campus
A still life
Eucalyptus tree in Harris Garden, Reading University campus
Sunrise over Whiteknights Lake

One tree to look out for if you are after early flowers is cornelian cherry (Cornus mas). It has clusters of bright yellow  flowers which open from February to March. The flowers are a good food source for early bees. The red, (purple when ripe) cherry-like fruit are edible and are a bit tart to begin with but turn increasingly sweet and juicy when fully ripe. Look out for the trees in hedges, along roadside verges, in parks and gardens.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), one of the earliest trees flowering

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Pollinators like herbs too!

Herbs do not only add flavour to our food or provide us with natural medicines and perfumes but also attract lots of pollinators to our gardens and allotments. During last year’s pollinator sampling we realised that some herbs are more attractive to pollinators than others but that herbs in general, if left to flower, will nearly always attract at least some pollinators.
One of the best herbs for pollinators we encountered in gardens last year has been lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) which was, especially on sunny days, covered with bees and bumblebees. Lavender is best planted in very well drained nutrient-poor soil in a sunny position and the best looking plants with the most pollinators have often been in sunny front gardens, probably because the soil was less improved compared to the back gardens. 

Sam watching the bumblebees in a front garden in Reading

Another excellent herb for pollinators is mint (Mentha spp.), often planted on allotments (or at least we mostly found it on allotment sites). I remember walking past a big clump of flowering spearmint (Mentha spicata) on one allotment site in Reading and seeing an amazing amount of bees and bumblebees flying busily from flower to flower. Mint can be quite an unruly plant especially in rich moist soil, spreading far and wide from its intended place with creeping stems. But with enough space and a bit of control it should not be too much of a problem. Just think of all the pollinators you will attract and all the mint tea you can drink.
A gatekeeper has found the wild marjoram
If you want to attract butterflies as well as bees and bumblebees plant wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare). We often found it planted on allotments and in gardens and could not only spot bumblebees and honeybees visiting the flowers but also the occasional butterfly. Wild marjoram is quite an undemanding plant and only asks for a sunny spot with well-drained soil. Once the flowers open in mid-summer, wild marjoram will never be without a visiting pollinator on a sunny day. Wild marjoram grows wild in some places in the UK, especially on calcareous soils.

Wild marjoram growing in calcareous grassland, its natural habitat in the UK

A good plant to attract hoverflies and beetles is fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Fennel is a beautiful herb with feathery foliage (this can be green or bronze) and lots of tiny yellow flowers on top of tall stems. The plant fits equally well in a flower border or in a vegetable garden and can cope with dry soils. 

Other good herbs for pollinators are hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) with deep blue flowers, common sage (Salvia officinalis) which is often used as a remedy for sore throats and coughs, and winter savory (Satureja montana) which can be used to flavour summer vegetables, egg- and cheese dishes. Thyme, either common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) or the various creeping thymes (e.g. Thymus praecox, T. serpyllum or T. herba-barona), is also very popular with bees and other pollinators. All need full sun and well-drained nutrient-poor soil. 

Hyssop growing together with bedstraw in southern Germany

I also quite like chamomile (Matricaria recutita), a native annual plant which is used in teas to help with a sore stomach. If you grow this plant in your garden you can make your own stomach tea and provide a valuable food source for various pollinators at the same time. 

Chamomile (middle) growing next to wild marjoram (right)

If you haven`t tried growing herbs so far why not make a start this spring? Or if you already grow a collection of herbs add some new herbs you have not grown before. If you want to grow a wider selection of herbs you can also build a herb spiral (for more info have a look here: which will provide a lot of space for herbs with various moisture requirements. Have a go and you will be amazed how many pollinators you will attract even with just a few plants.