Category Archives: Gardens

The chapter titles for my book: Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society

A few people have asked me about what’s covered in my book which is being published by Pelagic and is currently in production. Here’s the chapter titles:

Preface                                                                                                                        

1         The importance of pollinators and pollination                               

2         More than just bees: the diversity of pollinators                           

3         To be a flower                                                                                               

4         Fidelity and promiscuity in Darwin’s entangled bank                 

5         The evolution of pollination strategies                                              

6         A matter of time: from daily cycles to climate change                 

7         Agricultural perspectives                                                                        

8         Urban environments                                                                                  

9         The significance of gardens                                                                    

10      The shifting fates of pollinators                                                            

11      New bees on the block                                                                              

12      Managing, restoring and connecting habitats                                 

13      The politics of pollination                                                                        

14      Studying pollinators and pollination                                                  

As you can see it’s a very wide-ranging overview of the subject, and written to be accessible to both specialists and non-specialists alike. To quote what I wrote in the Preface:

“While the book is aimed at a very broad audience, and is intended to be comprehensible to anyone with an interest in science and the environment, and their intersection with human societies, I hope it will also be of interest to those dealing professionally with plants and pollinators. The subject is vast, and those working on bee or hoverfly biology, for example, or plant reproductive ecology, may learn something new about topics adjacent to their specialisms. I certainly learned a lot from writing the book.”

The book is about 100,000 words in length, lots of illustrations, and there will be an index. My copy editor reckons there’s 450 references cited, though I haven’t counted. I do know that they run to 28 pages in the manuscript, and that’s with 11pt text. All going well it will be published before Christmas.

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Get a 30% discount if you pre-order my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society

PollinatorsandPollination-frontcover

In the next few months my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society will be published.  As you can imagine, I’m very excited! The book is currently available to pre-order: you can find full details here at the Pelagic Publishing website.  If you do pre-order it you can claim a 30% discount by using the pre-publication offer code POLLINATOR.

As with my blog, the book is aimed at a very broad audience including the interested public, gardeners, conservationists, and scientists working in the various sub-fields of pollinator and pollination research. The chapter titles are as follows:

Preface and Acknowledgements
1. The importance of pollinators and pollination
2. More than just bees: the diversity of pollinators
3. To be a flower
4. Fidelity and promiscuity in Darwin’s entangled bank
5. The evolution of pollination strategies
6. A matter of time: from daily cycles to climate change
7. Agricultural perspectives
8. Urban environments
9. The significance of gardens
10. Shifting fates of pollinators
11. New bees on the block
12. Managing, restoring and connecting habitats
13. The politics of pollination
14. Studying pollinators and pollination
References
Index

 

 

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A pollinator to watch out for in your gardens: the Red-girdled Mining Bee – UPDATED

Last week, during one of my lockdown garden pollinator surveys, I spotted a bee visiting Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) in the garden that I didn’t recognise. It initially confused me as it looked superficially like a Blood Bee in the genus Sphecodes. However the bee was clearly collecting pollen, which Sphecodes spp., being cleptoparasites, don’t do. A quick check in Steven Falk’s Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland and a look at Steven’s Flickr site, suggested that it was almost certainly the Red-girdled Mining Bee (Andrena labiata), which is frequently associated with Germander Speedwell.

I posted this video on Twitter and Steven kindly confirmed my identification:

The Red-girdled Mining Bee is considered “Nationally Scarce” and it has a scattered and southerly distribution, as you can see from the map above, which is from the National Biodiversity Network Atlas account for the species. It’s only recorded from about half a dozen sites in Northamptonshire according to Ryan Clark, the County Bee Recorder. However Steven tells me that it’s being seen more and more frequently in gardens, and indeed just the other day Sarah Arnold, who is also carrying out surveys, emailed me to say that she had spotted it in her garden in Kent.

So this is a bee that’s definitely one to look out for, especially if you have Germander Speedwell growing.

UPDATE: I should of course have also given a link to the BWARS account for this species, and mentioned that confirmed or suspected observations can be uploaded to iRecord.

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Garden plant-pollinator surveys: progress so far

The network of pollination ecologists and insect specialists who have confirmed that they are surveying plant-pollinator networks in their gardens now stands at 50. As the map above shows, most are in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe, but the Americas are also becoming well represented, we have a couple of people surveying in North Africa, and three in Australia. An x-y plot of the coordinates of the gardens shows the spread a little better:

Some people have started to send me data already, which is great; if you’re surveying and haven’t let me know your latitude and longitude, please do so, preferably decimalised – you can convert degrees/minutes/seconds to decimal here: https://www.latlong.net/degrees-minutes-seconds-to-decimal-degrees

I’ve managed 13 formal 15 minute surveys so far, plus have a few ad hoc observations that I am keeping separate, and I will be continuing my data collection for the foreseeable future. I’ve started playing with the data as you can see below. This is a plot made using the bipartite package in R, with plants to the left and pollinators to the right. The size of the bars is proportional to the number of pollinators/plants a taxon connects to. In the plants you can immediately see the dominance of apple (Malus domestica) and greengage (Prunus domestica), which attract a wide variety of insects to their flowers. Of the pollinators, the hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) and dark-edged beefly (Bombylius major) are especially common and generalist in their flower visits. It will be really interesting to see how this changes over the season, and how our fruit and vegetables are connected into the wider network via pollinators that they share with the ornamental and native plants.

If you are experienced at surveying pollinators and want to get involved, follow that first link and check out the protocol and FAQs, and please do email me: jeff.ollerton [at] northampton.ac.uk

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Pollination ecologists in gardens: protocol and links to other initiatives – UPDATE NUMBER 2

Andrena bicolor

UPDATE: Following conversations with a couple of the participants of the garden surveys, we’ve changed the protocol slightly to make Survey type A more quantitative and to take into account when we get large numbers of individuals all visiting the same plant at the same time – it’s crazy to have a single line for each individual.  Details are in the new spreadsheet which you can down load from here: Ollerton garden surveys 2020

The additions should be self explanatory.  If you are not able to go back to retro-fit the additional data, that’s fine, just use the new spreadsheet format for future surveys: all data are going to be useful!

In the present format the data will be useful for modelling using GLMMs etc., in order to test predictions about which plants, and in which contexts, support the most pollinators.  The data format will need tweaking slightly to make it analysable in bipartite, but that should be fairly straightforward.

If you are taking part in the surveys it would be really useful if you could email me your latitude and longitude as I’d like to start creating a map of where the surveys are happening.

Any questions, send me an email or ask in the comments.


 

Following up from my last post about ecologists using their gardens to collect standardised data, I’ve had a huge response from pollination ecologists all over the world wanting to get involved.  So to streamline the process I thought that I would put the protocol and updates on my blog.  Just to reiterate, this is really is designed for those who already have some experience of surveying pollinators and flowers.  I didn’t intend this to be a citizen science project, there are plenty of those around at the moment for inexperienced people who want to contribute, for example:

The Pollinator Monitoring Scheme’s  FIT (Flower-Insect Timed) counts: https://www.ceh.ac.uk/our-science/projects/pollinator-monitoring

Kit Prendergast’s “bee hotels” survey: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Beesintheburbs/announcements

If anyone wants me to publicise others, let me have the link in the comments below or send me an email.

OK, for those ecologists wanting to survey pollinators and the flowers they are visiting (or not visiting) in their gardens, here’s the protocol:

  1.  There are two types of survey – please do both if possible, it would be good to compare the results from the two approaches; otherwise choose the easiest one for you.
  2. Type A surveys involve regular walks at a steady pace around the garden, recording what insects and other flower visitors are active on particular flowers (and noting the ones they are not visiting).  Make your walks a standard time, proportional to the size of the garden. For example, in our 10m x 20m garden I am doing 15 minute walks, which involves walking the same route one way, then back, pausing to record data.
  3. Type B surveys involve 10 minute focused observations of a patch of flowers of one species, no larger than 0.5m x 0.5m, recording the number of flowers each pollinator visits.
  4. In both cases, identify the flower visitor to the taxonomic level to which you feel confident, e.g. it’s better to use Andrena sp. 1 or Calliphoridae sp. 2 or Diptera sp. 3 rather than guessing.
  5. Record all data plus metadata about your garden on this spreadsheet which has examples of data that I have collected so far.  When you return it, please change “Ollerton” to your own surname : Ollerton garden surveys 2020
  6. Please don’t modify the format of the survey sheets, it will make life very difficult when we collate the data.
  7. Collect data from now until the end of April.  By then we will know whether to continue further data collection.
  8. At the end of the month, send your spreadsheets to me: jeff.ollerton [at] northampton.ac.uk  I will acknowledge receipt of each one, so if you don’t get an acknowledgement it may be that our spam filter has rejected your email, in which case message me on Twitter or comment below.
  9. Finally – please respect local/national restrictions on movements and social isolation: safe safe and keep your community safe.

 

Here are some Frequently Asked Questions – I will update FAQs as they come in:

Q: What’s going to happen to all of the data?

I think that’s for the pollinator research community to decide.  My feeling at the moment is that in the first instance there should be a data paper that summarises the results and makes the data freely available to everyone.  That would include all data contributors as co-authors, probably under a project name rather than individually.  After that it’s up to individuals and groups to work with the data to address their own research questions.  I know that in the UK there are several PhD researchers who are worried about not being able to collect data this year and who want to contribute to this initiative and use it in their theses.  I’m sure that there are others elsewhere.  As a community it would be great to support these young researchers.

Q: I am not based in the UK, can I still take part?

A: Yes, of course, though check in your local networks to see if anyone is coordinating local efforts.

Q: How do I calculate “Total floral cover” for survey Type B?

A: The idea is to estimate the area covered by all of the patches of the plant in flower across the whole garden, and then add it up to get a total area covered. It is always going to be a rough estimate, but it at least gives us a sense of how abundant the flowers are in your garden.

Q: How do I classify “floral units” for survey Type B?

A: Use the UK POMS approach:

POMS flower heads

Q:  Should I collect weather data?

A: You can certainly add data to another sheet on the spreadsheet if you want to, but the plan is to use data from local weather stations to capture standardised weather information.

Q: Should I collect nectar and/or pollen and/or pollinator behaviour data?

A: Again, collect any data that you have the time and equipment for and add it to a different sheet

Q: My garden has very few flowers and pollinators – can I still take part?

A: Yes, absolutely, we need a range of garden types, from the very large and florally diverse to small window boxes or lawns with just daisies and dandelions..

Q: How long should I survey for, and how many surveys should I do.

A: Try to aim for what you think is a representative assessment of the plant-flower visitor network in your garden.  The idea is that people do as many surveys as they can, as often as they can, given their personal time constraints. I don’t want to dictate to people how to use their time, this needs to be enjoyable as well as useful. As long as we know the sampling effort and floral diversity within the gardens, we should be able to take account of sampling effort in any analyses.

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Last year’s mother, this year’s child: cinnabar moths in the garden

2019-07-06 11.48.35

Most summers we have a small colony of cinnabar moths (Tyria jacobaeae) reproducing in the garden.  The garish yellow-and-black caterpillars feed on species of ragwort and we leave a patch of common ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) to grow in the lawn.  The caterpillars eat for a few weeks, virtually destroy the ragwort, and in the process accumulate alkaloids from the host plant into their bodies.  This renders them toxic in much the same way as monarch butterflies accumulate toxins from their Asclepias food plants – see my recent post about the Monarchs and Milkweeds workshop.  Hence the stripes to warn birds of their unpalatability.

Ragwort is a much-maligned plant, hated by those with horses and livestock, and subject to a largely hysterical campaign of eradication – see here for example.   However John Clare clearly appreciated its virtues in a poem dedicated to the plant:

Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come & litter gold,
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves;
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold,
That without thee were dreary to behold.

The full text of the poem can be found here.

Once they have fed their fill, the caterpillars dig themselves into the soil to spend twelve months or so underground as pupae, before emerging as gorgeous adult moths, advertising their toxicity with a different colour scheme.

The adults live for a few weeks at most, during which time they feed on nectar, mate, lay eggs and die.  This (unposed) photograph that I snapped on my phone in the garden yesterday just about sums it up: an exhausted mother has laid her last batch of eggs then died, while a nearby young caterpillar munches away on the ragwort.  And so the generations pass.

Cinnabar caterpillars on ragwort

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The explosion in orchids as houseplants: what does it tell us about how flowers evolve?

Orchids 20180512_112533.jpg

One of the major trends in horticulture over the last 20 years or so has been the rise in popularity of orchids as house plants.  Orchids used to have a reputation as being delicate, choosy, costly things that needed expensive glasshouses, heating, and humidity systems to grow.  Some groups of orchids are certainly like that, but many are not (Orchidaceae is one of the two largest families of plants, after all).  These days it’s impossible to walk into any supermarket or department store and not see orchids for sale at a reasonable price, orchids that are tough and can withstand the relatively dry, centrally heated houses in which most of us in Britain live. 

The majority of these orchids are varieties of Phalaenopsis, the moth orchids.  Intensive hybridisation by commercial growers has meant that there is an almost inexhaustible range of flower colours, shapes, sizes and patterning available.  Take a look at this gallery of images and you’ll see what I mean, or go into a shop that sells such orchids and observe that almost no two are alike.

This is the stuff of natural selection: genetic variation in the phenotype that can be acted upon by a selective agent.  In this case it’s the growers of orchids who choose the most attractive types to sell and discard the others.  If this variation emerged in wild populations most of it would disappear over time, but some, just occasionally, would be selected for by a different group of pollinators and go on to form a new species.  This is much more likely to happen if the individuals with this variation are isolated from the rest of the population in time or space, for example if they flower later or have been dispersed to a distant valley or mountaintop (termed allopatric speciation).  But it can also happen within populations – sympatric speciation.

Back in 1996, near the start of this orchid explosion, one of my earliest papers was a speculative commentary in Journal of Ecology called “Reconciling ecological processes with phylogenetic patterns: the apparent paradox of plant-pollinator systems”.  It generated some interest in the field at the time and has picked up >250 citations over the years, mostly other researchers using it as supporting evidence for the discrepancies we see when trying to understand how flowers evolve within a milieu of lots of different types of potential pollinators selecting for possibly diverse and contradictory aspects of floral form.  In that paper I made a passing comment that I expected the reviewers to criticise, which they did not.  Once it was published I thought that perhaps other researchers in the field would critique it or use it as a jumping off point for further study, which has not really happened either.  This is what I wrote:

         “It appears that pollination systems are labile and may evolve quite rapidly….plant breeders can obtain a fantastic range of horticultural novelties through selective breeding over just a few generations.”

This is horticulture holding up a mirror to the natural world and saying: “This is how we do it in the glasshouse, look at the variety we can produce over a short space of time by selecting for flower forms; can nature do it as quickly, and if so what are the mechanisms?”  

I still believe that pollination ecologists could learn a lot from horticulture and there’s some fruitful (flowerful?) lines of enquiry that could be pursued by creative PhD students or postdocs.  Here’s one suggestion: part of the reason why these Phalaenopsis orchids are so popular as house plants is that they have very long individual flower life times, often many weeks.  Now we suspect that floral longevity is under strong selection; see for example research by Tia-Lynn Ashman and Daniel Schoen in the 1990s.  This showed that there is a negative correlation between rate of pollinator visitation and how long flowers stay open.  Plants with flowers that are not visited very frequently stay open much longer, for example the bird-pollinated flowers of the Canary Islands that may only be visited once or twice a day, and which can remain open for more than 20 days.  Is the floral longevity shown by these orchids (or other groups of plants that have been horticulturally selected) beyond the range found in natural populations?  If so, what are the underlying physiological mechanisms that allow such extreme longevity?  If not, does this mean that there is an upper limit to the lifespan of flowers, and if so, why?  

In the mean time I’m going to enjoy the orchids above that sit on our kitchen windowsill.  They actually belong to my wife Karin who has developed something of an interest in them in recent months.  The big spotty one is a late birthday gift for her that I picked up this morning from a local flower shop, and which stimulated this post as I was walking home.  I’d bet that we never see another one like it!

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What to do with plastic plant labels? Here’s one idea.

20180408_132052

This spring Karin and I are continuing to develop our garden which I have previously talked about in relation to the Big Garden Birdwatch and Renovating a Front Garden, for instance, as well as various posts about the pollinators I’m recording (search the blog for “garden pollinators” and you’ll see what I mean).

The main task over the past couple of weeks has been to demolish the old chicken run and plant it as a mixed border that will give interest all year round.  We’ve put in some plants that have been hanging around in pots for a few years waiting for a space to open up, plus bought clearance-area bulbs and perennials such as crocuses, narcissi, hyacinths and hellebores at knock-down prices (they look a bit scrappy at the moment but will be great next year).  Plus we’ve spent a bit of money on some nice flowering shrubs and small fruit trees.

The plants we’ve bought invariably come in a plastic pot which we re-use for propagating and giving plants away to friends.  However they usually also come with a plastic label that tells us at least the name of the species and variety, plus often cultivation details and a colour image.  The question is: what to do with these labels?  The obvious thing is to leave them on the plant or push them into the ground next to it to remind us what it is.  The problem with this is that (in my experience) the labels never last more than a year or two before the ink fades.  Over time the plastic starts to break down and you end up with fragments of the label in the soil.  There’s a lot of discussion online about how harmful different types of plastic can be, but there’s no doubt that some types can release toxins into the soil.  Regardless, it seems to us a bad idea to allow these plastic labels to disintegrate in the garden.  It also feels like a waste of resources: those labels took oil and energy to produce.

This year the BBC’s Gardeners’ World series is looking at ways to reduce the use of plastic in the garden, which is a good idea and another reason why I love the programme, as I’ve previously written about on the blog.  That got me thinking about the best way to deal with plastic plant labels, what else can you do with them other than leave them in the garden?

I suspect that if we put them out with the weekly plastic recycling they’ll just be landfilled, so that’s not an option.  However, like a lot of gardeners we keep a log book of what we’ve been planting, but we’re a bit lazy about keeping it up to date.  So we’ve taken to slipping those labels between the pages of the log book to remind us of what we have put into the garden.  The book is one of those with an elasticated retainer to keep it closed, so the labels don’t fall out when we move it on and off the shelf.  Hopefully the labels will last for years in there away from damp and light, and be a useful source of information for us in the future.

20180408_142102

If you’ve curious, here’s how that part of the garden looked before we started working on it; everything you see here has been re-used or recycled in one way or another:

20180330_105640.jpg And this is what it looks like now; we still have more plants to add and hopefully the border will fill out come the summer:

20180408_131949

 

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Can pollinators survive sudden changes in the weather?

Snow-Warm garden comparison

Just how pollinators cope with sudden changes in the weather early in the season is a bit of a mystery.  Take 2018 as an example; my wife Karin spotted the first queen bumblebee in the garden on 6th January, investigating a camellia flower just outside the kitchen.  Over the course of the next few weeks I saw a few more at various sites, plus occasional hibernating butterflies such as the red admiral. The various social media outlets were reporting similar things, it looked as though we were going to have an early spring.

Then at the end of February “The Beast from the East” hit the UK, a weather system from Siberia that brought some of the coldest weather and heaviest snow the country had experienced for several years.  That persisted for over a week then things got much milder.  On 16th March I was in the garden and spotted the first male hairy-footed flower bee of the year, plus a mining bee (Andrena sp.), and a brimstone butterfly, and a queen bumblebee, and a red admiral.  Great I thought, spring really is here!  The next day it snowed.  A “Mini Beast From the East” had arrived, rapidly: the two pictures above making up the composite view of our garden were taken two days apart.

What happened to all of those insects I saw? Were they killed by the cold weather?  Or did they survive?  We have no firm data to answer that question – as far as I’m aware no one has ever tagged early emerging pollinators and followed their progress (I could be wrong – please let me know if I am).  It would make an interesting, though labour intensive, project but could be done using non-toxic paint of various colours to mark the insects.

I suspect that some of the pollinators I saw were killed, but most were not and simply went back into hibernation for a short period, hunkering down in safe, sheltered spots.  That makes much more evolutionary sense: any insects in the UK that cannot survive sudden changes in the weather would have gone extinct long ago.  Another clue to support this idea is the fact that plants in flower early in the season, and in some cases the flowers themselves, usually survive the cold weather and come back as if nothing had happened.  If the flowers can do it, and they have to stay where they are, surely the mobile pollinators can also do it?

As always I’d be interested in your thoughts on this topic, feel free to comment.  And while we wait for the UK to thaw, here’s some topical and rather catchy music to listen to – The Beelievers singing “Mr Gove”.

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Big Garden Birdwatch – our first six years of data

Big garden bird watch

This morning I spent an hour gazing out of our bedroom window with a coffee, a notebook, and a pair of binoculars.  Not sure what the neighbours opposite us thought I was doing but I was happy – this weekend is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch!  I’ve taken part in it every year since Karin and I moved into our present house in February 2012, and I thought it was time to show the results to date.

As you can see in the graph above, for the first couple of years there were relatively few birds (only 6 species in 2013, 8 in 2014).  Then in 2015 it jumped to 15 species, including some that I’ve not recorded in the garden since such as Lesser redpoll.  Two reasons for this sudden increase I think.  First of all, January 2015 was particualrly cold which meant that more birds were moving into urban areas looking for food and a little more warmth.  But secondly, and the reason why higher bird diversity has been maintained since then, is that we’ve been developing the garden and planting more shrubs, small trees, etc.

So since 2012 we’ve gone from this:

2012-02-22 10.19.23

To this:

The garden 20180127_114638.png

This planting and development of the garden has been good for other wildlife including bees, butterflies and other pollinators, as I’ve recounted a number of times.  So here’s a close up from last summer just to remind us that, on this grey, drizzly January day, spring is not so far away:

20160702_100724

Of course you don’t need to have a garden to take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch – the RSPB also accepts data from surveys of public parks and green space.  In fact tomorrow morning I’m leading a group of residents around our local park, The Racecourse, to do just such a survey.

Right, must go and upload this years data to the RSPB’s site.

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