Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Trooper's Hill

Congratulations to all the Urban Pollinator teams across the nation. We have finished sampling all of our cities once! Now to do it all again…

The Bristol team have been held back somewhat due to the inclement weather, but we finished our first round on a high – both in terms of temperature and elevation! The weather for the week of fieldwork was extremely helpful, with temperatures consistently exceeding 25°C and beautiful blue skies. Trooper’s Hill – a nature reserve by the side of the River Avon with breath-taking views over south Bristol – was our last stop. A section of our transect was running through deep heather that was shimmering with bees. Three hours later, with considerable tan lines, we emerged triumphant with Bristol’s record haul!

Here be dragons

As well as bees, flies and butterflies, we're always on the look-out for other denizens of our local urban wild (and not so wild) places.  Some, like the tiny parasitic wasps, ladybird larvae and froglets that we've come across recently, are easily overlooked, being small and secretive.  Others are less so, like this fabulous dragonfly we spent a pleasant lunchbreak watching at some Leeds allotments yesterday.

If you look closely, you can see that the lower, port-side (that's left, to you landlubbers ;) ) wing is cloudy and slightly deformed, though this didn't seem to affect his ability to fly strongly and fast.

The Sterile Hydrangea

One of the most consistently popular garden shrubs we see when surveying Reading gardens is the humble Hydrangea. With their waxy, perfectly formed, chiselled leaves and dense covering of bright pom-pom 'flower' heads that last the whole season (and which make good interior decorations when dried), and tendency to surprise you with their colour depending on the acidity of soil you have, they might be considered one of the best garden plants.

But in fact most Hydrangea specimens in gardens are flowerless. Those bright clusters of pink, blue, purple or white 'petals' are in fact no more than modified leaves. Like a dogwood, the cultivated strains of Hydrangea macrophylla that produce those bulbous, long-lived 'flower' clusters have only flower-mimic bracts. These bright mimics contain no reproductive parts. This means no pollen or nectar for pollinators. Take a look at your Hydrangea 'flowers' today – and see if a bee, or hoverfly visits those bright displays.

 Hydrangea macrophylla with sterile "flowers"

But its not all bad news for Hydrangea-lovers! There are other, beautiful varieties (“lacecaps”) that do have flowers, and are great for pollinators. We found this glorious specimen in a Tilehurst garden (see photo`s below), and it was consistently visited by bumbles, honey bees, and hoverflies. 

 Hydrangea macrophylla with fertile flowers and a bumblebee visiting

Friday, 27 July 2012

Reading flower meadows - before and after weeding

The flower meadows in Reading are coming along well, they only have one big problem: weeds! So we used the nice weather this week to have a break from pollinator sampling and to do some essential weeding in the meadows.

The annual meadows
Victoria Recreation Ground looked like this before weeding:

 ... and after weeding:
The annual meadow in Henley Road Cemetery was particularly overgrown and looked like this before weeding:
After over 2 hours of weeding (here you see Sam with a big sow thistle) ...
... it looked like this:
With california poppies flowering:

The perennial meadows
The meadow in Cintra Park looked really bad with shoulder high weeds:
... and after weeding:
All perennial meadows will be cut regularly this year to prevent weeds from growing and to help the establishment of the perennial meadow plants. Next year they will be left to flower and we hope we (including the pollinators) can all enjoy  a beautiful flower display.

Watch this space for more updates and pictures of the flower meadows in Reading in a few weeks time!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

What's in a name?

Anyone peeking inside a wildflower guide now and again may have noticed that aside from the near-impenetrability of the Latin binomial nomenclature (Latin names to you and me), there is a certain repetition in the species names used. This repetition is really useful to understand the ecology of the plant in question and with a bit of practice can slip off the tongue as naturally as the English common name.

For example, 'repens' means 'creeping'. Thus, a creeping buttercup is Ranunculus repens and white clover, which has a creeping growing habit, is Trifolium repens. The word 'reptans' also means 'creeping', as in Ranunculus reptans (creeping spearwort) and Potentilla reptans (creeping cinquefoil). Nigrum means 'black', so Centaurea nigra (black knapweed), Sambucus nigra (elder) and Solanum nigrum (black nightshade) have fairly intuitive descriptions.

The root word pratensis (or variant pratense) means 'meadow', and gives a clue as to the habitat in which one might find red clover (Trifolium pratense) or the meadow crane's bill (Geranium pratense). Similarly, 'arvensis' means 'in the field', and so Viola arvensis (field pansy) and Cerastium arvense (field mouse-ear) are easy to remember. Vulgaris means 'common', as in Linaria vulgaris (common toadflax). Silvestris means 'of the wood' and so Geranium sylvaticum refers to wood crane's bill; Myosotis sylvatica is commonly known as wood forget-me-not, and Stachys sylvatica is the binomial for hedge woundwort, which is usually found in woodlands. A word of warning though – get up close to the leaves at your peril: this is a seriously stinky plant!

Sometimes the English names and Latin names don't correspond. Take common ragwort for example. You'd be forgiven in this instance for guessing its Latin binomial to be Senecio vulgare. But you'd be wrong! Senecio vulgare refers to its petal-less close relative, groundsel. The Latin for common ragwort is Senecio jacobaea. This is one reason to get in the habit of using the Latin names for plants – that, and being able to name-drop plants at a summer garden party of botanists..... 

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Flower margins bring new hope for pollinators.

This week the Reading team have been visiting the flower margins (which were sown in May) and removing the fast growing, resource sapping weeds – back-breaking work - but worth every twitch of pain. Removing the weeds will allow the low growing wildflowers to flourish, and so produce the flowers favoured by our declining pollinators. We captured this longhorn beetle Leptura maculate on a cosmos daisy, together with a shot of one of our margins in Prospect Park, Reading, showing the varierty of flowers therein (Nadine, in the background, was making a photographic record of this margins progress).

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Move over, bees....

...the hoverflies are coming!

As the summer rolls on, the hoverflies are really making their presence felt - where earlier we saw plenty of Nomada and Andrena bees, we are now seeing a definite shift towards bumblebees and hoverflies as the most abundant pollinators.  In all habitats, hoverflies are floating around, some of them easily overlooked for being so small and slight - others, seen, but too zippy to catch with the camera!

Hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) on California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

Hoverfly cruising over courgette flower

We were out this morning, checking on progress of some of our nectar-rich flower beds around Leeds.  At Armley, the poppies were spectacular...

Poppies at Armley Park
...and the bed was buzzing with highly energetic bumblebees - some of them buzzing with such vigour, that they were knocking the petals off the poppies!  Just across the park, a flower bed planted with more conventional bedding plants (African marigolds, petunias, bushy lobelia) was noticeably quieter; fewer bumblebees, but there was an impression of more hoverflies being around.  The usefulness of such flowers as petunias for pollinators is often doubted, and though we did see them being visited by a few white-tailed bumblebees obviously seeking nectar, it was the activity of some of the hoverflies that proved most interesting: some appeared to be laying eggs in the upper side of petunia leaves, leading me to wonder whether the petunias were offering something particularly useful in terms of oviposition sites.

Hoverfly - egg-laying, or something else?

 I was surprised that anything would choose to lay eggs on the upper side of a leaf, especially at this time of year, as eggs and developing young would be at increased risk of dessication and sunburn - most insects choose to lay on the underside of leaves, to maintain a more stable environment, and to protect against predation.  It may be that the small white capsule seen being deposited was of a more scatological nature than an egg - we shall follow this up, when we get a minute! 

Monday, 23 July 2012

A cemetery meadow… after a strimming

The Reading team visited a superb flower meadow recently. It was glorious sunshine, and there was an array of multi-coloured delights: Cat’s-ears (Hypochaeris radicata), Hawk’s-beards (Crepis spp.), Red and white clovers (Trifolium pratense & T. repens), Oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Lesser and hop trefoils (Trifolium dubium & T. campestre).

  Flower meadow in cemetery before strimming

Unfortunately for the flowers (and the pollinators) this was an urban cemetery, and as we were sampling the workmen with their strimmers advanced. The strimmers were not selective. Every flower was cut. Upon leaving, our survey site all the flowers had gone, and the headstones now lie amongst the close-cropped grass and the scattered, drying remains of those flowers. We were not too impressed with this new flowerless landscape. Its hard to imagine why such severe strimming is necessary, and more importantly, what happens to the many insects that thrived in the area before the strimming? Where do they go when their habitats are modified so severely several times in a season?

Flower meadow  in cemetery after strimming

Thursday, 19 July 2012

"Kiss me!"

"I am an enchanted prince!"

We found this little chap in a wildlife garden today, hopping around in the grass. We had to be careful not to step on him or the other frog-lets in the grass during the sampling.

And by the way, we didn`t give in to the temptation to kiss him so we will never find out if he was an enchanted prince or not ;-).

Monday, 16 July 2012

Meet the Reading Team

It’s been a long time in coming, but we thought that an introduction to the Reading field team was about due! Dr. Nadine Mitschunas, Dr. Peter Harris and Dr. Sam Cartwright have been the field ecologists out and about in the Reading urban area. 

Nadine is our expert botanist, although she is originally a bat behaviourist by training. She hails from the Thuringian Forest in eastern Germany and has been working in research on the ecology of native and ornamental plants for several years now. Her curious plant-ID anecdotes and understanding of the little details that differentiate one similar plant species from another visually, has led to both Peter and Sam now being able to accurately identify most of the species we encounter during our surveys.  Nadine also holds her own allotment which she carefully manages for an award-winning bounty of fruit and veg, but also for wildlife. She keeps a bee hotel and over 30% wildflower habitat in the allotment to encourage insect pollinators.

Nadine in one of the parks we are sampling

 Peter is an entomologist; his interests are in the community ecology and biodiversity of invertebrate assemblages. Indeed, his PhD examined the invertebrate communities (Spiders, Beetles and Shieldbugs) associated with juniper, Juniperus communis, on Salisbury Plain, and the effect which habitat management had on these. He is also an expert bee-catcher and many of the close-up action photographs we've posted on this blog, of wild bees foraging, are down to his sharp photography skills.  

 Peter photographing a bumblebee

Finally, Sam is originally an avian ecologist by trade, having previously studied threatened African bird populations (most recently the Mauritius kestrel) affected by habitat loss and changing climates. Her attention is still drawn to the glorious sight of a low-flying red kite above the suburbs, or an unusual bird call in the woodland, but she is enjoying the chance to work in the UK for a change, and especially this novel foray into studying flying creatures other than birds!  

 Sam sampling a garden

Both Peter and Sam completed their doctoral research locally, at the University of Reading, and the team is based in the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research in the Agriculture Building. The three of us have been surveying the gardens, cemeteries, allotments, parks, road verges and other green (and not-so-green) spaces in Reading since April.  Do look out for us if you are in Reading on a sunny day. We're the ones walking in line staring at the ground with a measuring wheel, a fold-up ruler and net, probably laughing loudly at one of Peter's jokes!

And more photos of us in action ...

 Sam and Peter sampling in a local nature reserve

 Peter and Nadine walking a transect and looking for pollinators and flowers