Friday, 31 August 2012

New addition to the Edinburgh team

The Edinburgh team is pleased to welcome Sabrina Bettoni, who shall be volunteering on the project during September. Sabrina recently completed her MSc in Wildlife biology and conservation at Edinburgh Napier University, and two weeks ago she got married dressed as a Gorilla...

Sabrina on her wedding day.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Where have all the butterflies gone?

We've noticed that there's far fewer butterflies around than expected - allotment holders and gardeners, and random people who stop to talk to us in parks and on streets, have all been asking the same question recently.  It seems no-one has seen many butterflies fluttering by as they thought they should have done.  Even the so-called Butterfly Bush (buddleia, to those who like these things more scientific) has been noticably empty of colourful wings, so each sighting, like the Holly Blue down at the allotments last week, has become something of a major event. 

I hear that the blues, as a group, have done better than other groups so far this year, due to their larval food plants (what the caterpillars feed on) have not been knocked back by the strange and mixed-up weather.  So well done, the blues! (This is starting to sound like a football blog....!)

Meanwhile, other people are asking our question... Guardian gardening blog

Update (4 September)

Though we have been seeing members of the blue and white groups for a while now, the more familiar butterflies (peacock, red admiral, tortoiseshell) have been notable by their relative absence.  Until now.  Peacock butterflies particularly seem to becoming far more apparent, and in good numbers (see Leeds post, 4 Sept Leeds - A taste for buddleia), and though red admirals and tortoiseshells are still in low numbers, it looks like things are looking up for them.  The Butterfly Conservation Trust thinks this is due to a late improvement in the weather (hurrah!) - see their webpage here for more info Butterfly Conservation soggy summer  Sightings of skippers also are on the increase, though not so many individuals in one place.  We also have sightings of small coppers and burnet moths from rough amenity grassland.  

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Bee & Bee in your garden or how to help solitary bees

Solitary bees are important pollinators but often overlooked in favour of the bigger and more obvious bumblebees and honeybees. We thus thought it can’t do any harm to bring them into the spotlight here on our urban pollinator blog.
There are more than 200 species of solitary bees and you can see them buzzing around in your garden as early as March. Solitary bees do not live in large colonies and do not have any worker bees (with a few exceptions). Each female solitary bee is fertile and inhabits a nest built by herself. There are two different types of nests; ground nests build by sweat bees, (Halictids) and alkali bees (Andrenids) and cavity nests build in hollow reeds, twigs or holes in wood by leafcutter bees and orchard bees (e.g. genus Osmia).

Andrena fulva, a ground-nesting solitary bee

Each female constructs a series of cells, each with a food source (pollen and nectar packed into a ball) and a single egg that is laid on top. The nectar and pollen for each cell is gathered in several foraging trips, and this is why solitaries are such useful pollinators. Depending on the species, the cells are lined with various materials, including leaves, petals, mud or body secretion. When the entire nest is complete it is sealed off and the next nest started.

Depending on the species, solitary bees have one to several generations a year. In species with just one generation per year, it is usually the pupae or larvae that overwinter in the nest and emerge in spring the next year. The first bees to emerge are normally the males. They will often wait near flowers to mate with the emerging females. The males will then die and the females will search for nesting places.

A little Red mason bee male emerging from a nest

If you want to learn more about different solitary bees have a look at our other blog posts about the   Hairy-footed flower bee (Anthropora plumipes), the Tawny mining-bee (Andrena fulva), the Red mason bee (Osmis bicornis), the Harebell carpenter bee (Chelostoma campanularum) and the Ivy bee (Colletes hederae).

A female Hairy-footed flower bee visits Pulmonaria flowers

A shed is a good place for solitary bee "hotels"
If you want to help solitary bees you can provide nesting places in your garden. Ground nesting bees normally find their own nesting sites in loose and often sandy soil in sunny places with short grass. But you can really help the cavity nesting bees if you provide them with hollow reeds, canes or twigs stuffed tight in a wooden box, tube or tin or with wooden blocks with holes drilled into them (try to drill holes with different diameters, ranging from 2 mm to 10 mm). You can also cut bamboo canes of different sizes in pieces, bundle them together and hang them up (make sure you cut them before a join so they are closed at the back).

Soon the first solitary bees will arrive to nest in your "bee hotel"

Of course you can also buy a commercially available bee hotel but make sure you buy one with holes with different diameters to attract a range of different bee species.

Mason bees like bee hotels attached to south-facing house walls
It is very important to hang the bee hotel somewhere warm and sheltered about 1-2 m above the ground, a south facing wall is often ideal. And don’t be afraid of hanging the bee hotel close to your door or window as solitary bees do not sting.

Solitary bees tend to forage in the vicinity of their nest. If you don`t have already lots of bee friendly flowers in your garden or allotment you can further encourage them by planting these. To find out which plants are considered bee friendly, just visit a plant nursery or garden center on a sunny day and buy the plants which are most visited by bees and other pollinators. Also have a look here and here for more ideas of what to plant.

Plant lots of flowers for your solitary bees

Below you can see some examples of bee hotels we found in the gardens we have sampled for pollinators.

A bee palace, but try to put it in a location as sunny as possible
If you add more holes you will attract even more bees
A bee hotel made from a wooden block with holes drilled in.
A bee hotel with enough space to accommodate other insects as well

Singin' the blues

Well, maybe not singing, exactly, as this beautiful blue was rather skittish - but we might get away with a quiet hum of appreciation!  A small patch of colourful, and nectar-rich, flowers on the Osmandthorpe Road allotments in Leeds drew in plenty of hoverflies, and a persistent, flighty little blue butterfly.

I think this is a Holly Blue - probably a male, first or second brood - and it seemed to find the blue cornflowers irresistable.  Me, I found the colour combination irresistable! 

Friday, 24 August 2012

Meet the Hornet Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)

With a body length of 16-22 mm, the hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) is  Britain's largest hoverfly species and looks quite spectacular.

 Hornet hoverfly on creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense)
  in a local nature reserve in Reading

The adults resemble worker hornets and visit a range of flowers such as thistles (Cirsium and Carduus), brambles, privet and buddleia between June and September. The larvae live as commensals in wasp-and hornet nests and eat the detritus accumulating under the central nesting chambers. It is not yet fully understood how female hornet hoverflies are able to lay their eggs in wasp and hornet nests without being attacked. It is believed they may have some "calming pheromone" which keeps them safe.
The pupae overwinter in the soil and finally hatch in spring to form a new generation of hornet hoverflies.

The distribution of hornet hoverflies ranges from Asia and Northern Africa to Southern and Central Europe. In England they are mainly found in the South East, some scattered  records are also known from the South Coast, Devon and the area around Bristol. It appears that hornet hoverflies prefer suburban habitats (presumably because of climatic factors) and can be found in parks, gardens, local nature reserves and other suburban areas with a good supply of flowers and hornet and wasp nests.

Hornet hoverfly feasting on a thistle flower

If you life in the South East of England (or any other area within the distribution range), look out for this interesting hoverfly in your garden, park or local nature reserve.
Maybe the hornet hoverfly is just sipping nectar from a flower around the corner and you just have to find it ...

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A perfect day of garden sampling

Garden sampling normally begins with consulting weather forecast websites the day before. If all the weather forecast websites agree on dry weather the next day the garden sampling organisation can start. This involves phoning, texting and emailing the 10 garden owners in the region we want to sample and there is always a bit of uncertainty involved. Will the garden owners be at home or will they leave their garden gate unlocked? Are they maybe on holiday which means we have to use a reserve garden (if we have one)? 

The day of garden sampling begins with an anxious look at the sky and the weather forecast websites (again). But the blue sky looks promising and the day can begin. 

We see really nice gardens with lots of flowers and bees buzzing around ...

And gardens which you cannot really call gardens (rather like a swimming pool without water) ...

Don`t forget to take a photo of the transect ... 

I feel like someone is watching me ...

Wild boar spotted!

A well earned break with some coffee and stretching ...

A fluffy dog in need of cuddling ...

We don`t know if this cat enjoyed the attention ...

A rain shower, and the weather people did say it will stay dry ...

Last garden sampled and pollinators bagged, yippee! 

All garden gates unlocked as promised or garden owners at home to let us in the garden, only one rain shower and lots of pollinators ... a perfect day of garden sampling!*

*In reality we encounter locked garden gates, garden owners who have forgotten we are coming, garden owners who have moved out and someone else owns the garden now, rain when we were promised a dry day and days with hardly any pollinators around. But nevertheless we still manage to sample the gardens, just not always in the perfect way ;-).

The world of tiny trifoliates in your lawn

If you have a less than model-standard evergreen lawn, the chances are you've a few clovers lurking in there. But don't despair - there's more to those tiny trifoliates that interrupt that gramineous monoculture. They're a diverse group of legumes with intricate flowers and the larger species even attract bumble bees. Red and white clovers (Trifolium pratense and T. repens, respectively) have bright, bulbous blooms and will grow nearly half a foot tall in fertile unmown ground.
The tinier Trifolium dubium (lesser trefoil), and T. campestre (hop trefoil) have bright yellow flowers, with those of T. campestre being larger with a paler yellow and more pompom-like. T. dubium can be easily confused with Medicago lupulina (black medick – so-called because of its coiled seeds that turn charcoal-back when ripe) but a good distinguishing feature of black medick is the tiny point on the tip of each leaflet – there is no such point on the leaflets of T. dubium.
T. arvense (rabbitfoot clover) meanwhile, has a furry bunny-tail like flower. They'll all continue to grow if mown, but as with many species, including dandelions and daisies, they'll be considerably smaller than their unmown counterparts. We found Trifolium arvense, Medicago lupulina, T. campestre and T. dubium all within a 2m-sq area on a road verge in Reading last week – fantastic, unless one has to count all of those flower heads....

From left to right: rabbitfoot clover (Trifolium arvense), black medick (Medicago lupulina),
 hop trefoil (Trifolium campestre), lesser trefoil (Trifolium dubium)

Friday, 17 August 2012

Non-technical signs of life

Even when there's not a flying thing in sight, you can spot pollinator presence in a habitat through the tell-tale signs some leave behind (and no, I'm not talking about really tiny footprints in the butter).

I've posted previously about bumblebees apparently supping on cornflower (Centaurea) flowerbuds, before they were open - this is known as nectar robbing, and we saw it earlier in the season on a wide variety of plants, including Geraniums and Aquilegias.  A bee will bite through the fabric of a flower bud (petal, sepal, or whatever is in the way) to get a meal at the nectaries that lay hidden inside.  This will happen on flowers which are still closed, and also on those that have a trumpet longer than that bee's tongue.  In the fullness of time, those flowers will open, and then you will see the evidence of crimes past - here, the holes around the edge of a bindweed flower - that were made while the flower was still curled up, and the petals folded together. 

Bindweed flower, showing evidence of nectar-robbing
Leaf-cutter bees (Megachile sp.) take small, perfectly formed sections of leaf to make larval casings, using many plant species, such as bramble, honeysuckle, and trees such as this beech.

Leaf-cutter holes in beech leaves
These leaf sections are taken away to a sheltered spot and rolled up around some tasty food morsel, all ready for the larva to emerge from the egg that's laid alongside it.  A nice little parcel of pollinator potential!

Raindrops keep fallin' on our heads...

.... so here's a bit of good Yorkshire sunflower sunniness from yesterday's visit to the allotments to keep you all chipper!

Huge thanks

Just wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone for the feedback, comments and info we've been getting through the blog, email and twitter... I hoped that this blog would become more than a means for the teams to communicate, and it certainly seems that is the case - so please keep dropping by :)

Blog stats

I know what you're thinking... stats? Yaaawn! .... but hang on, these are the good stats (not the ones that send you to sleep, or into a delirium of confusion).  Just to let you know that you're not the only ones who are having a look now and again, we have to date had over 3,000 page views since going live back in April, and our audience has included people from UK, USA, Russia, France, China, Netherlands, Greece, India, Poland, Canada, Germany and Ukraine - and a few others that I know about, but that have dropped off the end.  So a big hello to all you blog viewers! And well done, teams.  Why, I almost feel like my work here is done ;) (... though apparently it's not, so I'd better crack on...).

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Reading Flower Meadows in August 2012

We visited our flower meadows this week and what a great change it was.

The annual meadows

The annual meadows are really colourful and every one of the 5 annual flower meadows looks a bit different in spite of the same seed mix sown. California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), poppies (Papaver rhoeas), pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis), red flax (Linum grandiflorum), cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) and showy baby`s breath (Gypsophila elegans) are in full flower now.

Annual flower meadow in Victoria Recreation Ground, Tilehurst
(photo by G. Mumford)

The colours are beautiful with red poppies, orange california poppies, blue
 cornflowers and pink cosmos

Hundreds and thousands of  poppies in the Henley Road Cemetery meadow

And the pollinators seem to enjoy the flowers as well ...

The perennial meadows

The perennial meadows have some flowers now but most perennial plants will not flower until next year. You can see yarrow (Achillea millefolium), catsear (Hypochaeris radicata), musk mallow (Malva moschata), rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus) and wild carrot (Daucus carota) flowering. The meadows will be cut soon to help the establishment of the meadow plants and to suppress weeds.

The perennial meadow in Prospect Park with yarrow and catsear flowering

 Perennial meadow in Meadway Recreation Ground with wild carrot and
 scentless chamomile (not a perennial plant but good for pollinators as well) flowering

Musk mallow flowering in the Cintra Park meadow

Come and visit the flower meadows on a sunny day, experience the wonderful colours of the different flowers and watch the bees flying from flower to flower collecting pollen and nectar.
Please follow this link to find a flower meadow near you:

More pictures and flower meadow progress updates coming soon!

Technologically-aided Identification II: Pooter

Computers and the Internet are becoming more and more frequent in everyday use. Even, it appears, when out on fieldwork. Many people now own smartphones, each with the capacity for a miniature identification guide, or two. But what really caught the Bristol team’s eye was an app for the iPhone called Pooter ( The idea is to take plenty of photographs of bumblebees and then identify them yourself, with different species earning different points, depending on the rarity of the species in question. The Bristol team have found it to be an excellent way of sharpening up one’s identification skills in a friendly, competitive manner.

The great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus)  is found in the Outer Hebrides, and not in Cornwall or Kent. The large black, thoracic stripe is characteristic, as well as the heavily striped abdomen. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Lynne Osgathorpe. 
There are problems, however. As you can imagine the identification skills of members of the public are not quite up to scratch, even with relatively characteristic fauna like bumblebees. Pooter, like all games and competitions, is liable to cheaters. For instance, the rare great yellow bumblebee, Bombus distinguendus, (worth a massive 200 points!) is localised to the Outer Hebrides, yet –  according to Pooter – can be found as far from Scotland as Cornwall and Kent. The Bristol team think some people are a bit too optimistic for the improvement of the great yellow’s conservation status. 

Monday, 13 August 2012

The demise of a pollinator

Whilst sampling in Caversham last week, we came across this crab spider Misumena vatia (so-called because of its general appearance – spiders belonging to this family, Thomisidae, have the first two pairs of legs longer than the rest, can walk forwards, sideways and even backwards!) feasting on a hoverfly. Females of M. vatia blend in with their background, and are commonly found on white or yellow flowers; as such they can vary in colour from white, yellow or light green.


Friday, 10 August 2012

Online identification using iSpot

The Bristol team recently became aware of a website called iSpot (, an Internet resource that makes identifying that troublesome butterfly that tiny bit easier. Unlike Pooter, iSpot is an online community of enthusiastic naturalists who collaborate to identify of unknown insects one chooses to upload, with identifications reviewed by other members to ensure it is correct. The Bristol team tested iSpot out with the photograph above. We saw this wonderful insect in an allotment in north Bristol, huddling from the wind. It was large (about an inch long), a very hoverfly-like head with large eyes, but the two pairs of wings us back to bee. Do you know what it is?

Undecided, we submitted it to iSpot. Not 12 hours later – success! A positive identification came back as a honey bee drone. iSpot is wonderful online community that all of us at Bristol have joined. And we suggest you do too.