Sunday, 31 March 2013

La Palma - a paradise for pollinators

For all who are waiting for spring to arrive in the UK here are some pictures from La Palma (Canary Islands) where spring is in full swing at the moment. There are so many flowers on this island; it is incredible to see all the colour everywhere and the numerous pollinators have no trouble finding nectar and pollen. There are also lots of other interesting insects and spiders to see. Even the "weeds" look pretty and grow everywhere, covering fields, road verges, gardens and wasteland.

A pretty hoverfly on a crucifer fower
Bee visiting Purple viper`s bugloss (Echium plantagineum)
Bombus canariensis in Purple viper`s bugloss flower
Bombus canariensis approaching a flower
Tachinid fly on Marguerite daisy (Argyranthemum frutescens)
Bee wolf (Philanthus sp.) digging a tunnel in moist sand
Bee wolf (Philanthus sp.)
Honey bee visiting a Purple viper`s bugloss flower
Where am I? Blue-winged grasshopper (Oedipoda caerulescens)
Little solitary bee (Andrena sp.?) in Purple viper`s bugloss flower
Road verge with hundreds of poppies
Soltary bee in Purple milk thistle flower (Galactites tomentosa)
Canary speckled wood on Cineraria flowers (Pericallis papyracea)
Scarabaeid beetle on Palmeran sow thistle (Sonchus palmensis)
Honey bee approaching Purple milk thistle flower
This Cape sorrel (Oxalis pre-caprae) is visited by a honey bee
Brimstone butterfly drinking nectar from Pitch trefoil (Bituminaria bituminosa)
Canary white butterfly (Pieris cheianthi)
This hoverfly had a bad day and got caught by a Heather crab spider
Oil beetle (Meloe sp.)
Fields are often full of flowers

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

How to recognise perennial meadow plant species when they are not in flower - part 1

About 12 different species are visible in this picture
Spring still has not arrived yet and the plants in our perennial flower meadows show no signs of flowering yet. But even if they have no flowers at the moment you can still tell the different species apart from each other if you look at other characteristics such as leave shape, hairiness and venation of the leaves as well as the growing habit. Once you get your eye in you will be amazed how many different species you spot when everything looked just like lots of green leaves before.
Below I have made a list of common (and some less common but worth finding) perennial meadow plant species and how they look like at the moment. I also give some clues of what to look for to identify the plant species. You can practice your plant identification skills in our perennial project meadows which you can find in Reading, Leeds, Edinburgh and Bristol ( or just have a look in your local area if you can find a suitable patch with a diverse mix of perennial meadow plants. If you encounter a species you do not recognise take a photo and memorise (or mark) the spot were you found the plant and come back in June or July and have a look if the plant is in flower. Plants are much easier to identify once they are in flower and most plant identification books use flower features to tell species apart.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)


Yarrow is quite easy to recognise as it has long, narrow very deeply divided leaves which are further divided into many deeply divided lateral lobes (the second part of the scientific name, millefolium, means thousand leaves). In some of our meadows it is quite abundant and easy to find.

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

Ox-eye daisy grows in clumps and has rounded serrated often dark green leaves which are abruptly contracted at the leave base (which often has a reddish colour). Abundant in most of our meadows.

Wild carrot (Daucus carota)

Wild carrot is a biennial plant and grows as a rosette with long pinnate leaves in its first year before it flowers in the second year. The root has a strong characteristic carrot smell. Wild carrot looks similar to the cultivated carrot so if you grow carrots in your garden or on your allotment you will probably have no trouble identifying this plant.Wild carot is quite frequent in most of our meadows.

Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Plantago lanceolata on the right, Leucanthemum vulgare on the left

Ribwort plantain grows as one to several rosettes and has linear, slightly hairy entire to sparsely and weakly toothed leaves. The leaves have a characteristic linear venation. It is quite common in most of our meadows.

Black knapweed (Centaurea nigra)

Black knapweed is an erect perennial and has greyish, hairy, elongated and mostly entire leaves. It is not as common as the species mentioned above but still quite easy to find in most of our meadows.

Field scabious (Knautia arvensis)

 At first glance field scabious looks similar to black knapweed but the leaves are broader, more dark green in colour, and have a distinct venation. The plant is also more hairy than Black knapweed. Field scabious is quite rare in our meadows and you have to search a bit for it.

Musk mallow (Malva moschata)

Musk mallow has green-yellowish rounded palmately-lobed leaves, the upper leaves are often very deeply divided. It is fairly common in many of our meadows.

Rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus)

Rough hawkbit forms clumps and has hairy deeply lobed leaves similar to dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis agg) leaves  (but dandelion leaves are never this hairy!). The leaves feel quite rough when handled, hence the common name. It is fairly common in most of our meadows but take care not to confuse it with dandelion.

Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare)

Wild marjoram has small rounded slightly hairy leaves, dark green in colour often with a reddish tinge. If the leaves are bruised they release the typical oregano smell you are probably familiar with if you like pizza and other Mediterranean dishes. It is not very common in our meadows but with a bit of searching you can probably find it in many of them.

Viper`s bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Viper`s bugloss is a biennial plant which grows as a rosette in the first year and forms a stunning flower spike in the second year. The leaves are long and narrow, entire and quite prickly. It is not very common but with a bit of searching you should find it in most of our meadows.

Lady`s bedstraw (Galium verum)

The leaves of lady`s bedstraw are small and narrow, entire and arranged in whorls of 6-12 leaves per whorl. The plants are quite small at the moment so you may have to search close to the ground.

Cowslip (Primula veris)

A real rarity in our meadows, so you may search for it to no avail. Cowslip leaves are all basal and normally light to greyish green with a distinctive venation. It flowers quite early in the year so you might spot it in flower already if you visit our meadows in March or April.

Look here for a complete species list of the seed mix we used for our meadows, but be aware that not all species have germinated yet:

Also have a look at part 2 of "How to recognise perennial meadow plant species when  they are not in flower":

If you want to try your hands at advanced identification of plants using vegetative characteristics you can have a look at the following book: 
The Vegetative Key to the British Flora by John Poland & Eric Clement, ISBN 13: 978-0-9560144-0-5

Monday, 18 March 2013

Planning the fieldwork

Even if it does not feel like spring at the moment we still have to start planning our fieldwork for this year. So last week the project teams gathered in Bristol to discuss the busy field season which will start in April this year. 

Apart from racking our brains over the flower meadow sampling (which we will do for the first time this year) we also discussed our urban habitat sampling which we will continue from last year. Plans were made for regaining permissions for our urban field sites and sharing news, events and fieldwork adventures on our website, blog and via our twitter accounts (have a look now and again to keep up to date with our work).

Admiring the crocuses
For some much needed fresh air to revive our brains we had a little field trip to the perennial project meadow near Stoke Bishops Halls of Residence, University of Bristol on Thursday last week. The sun was shining, birds were singing and the crocuses had opened their flowers to wait for pollinators. We even spotted a little fly in one of the crocus flowers, but it was probably too cold for bees. 

A pollinator!

Searching for perennial plant species
The perennial meadow was still in its winter slumber but we could find an amazing amount of different perennial species which will start to flower from May onwards. After a bit of searching we could even spot a cowslip (Primula veris) which is pretty rare in our meadows so far and will flower in April. 

We found a cowslip (Primula veris)!
Discussing perennial meadow maintenance this year

Now we are back for the final fieldwork preparations and wait for the spring to finally arrive to bring the flowers and pollinators out.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Urban Pollinators Project: a project update

2013 is the third year of the Urban Pollinators Project and in the run up to our final field season this year now is a good time to update you on some of the fieldwork we’ve carried out in previous years and let you know about work in progress.
The Bristol team sampling on farmland near Bristol
In the first year of the project (2011) we sampled urban areas, farmland and nature reserve sites across the UK from Dundee in the north to Southampton in the south to see how pollinator communities in urban areas compare to other habitats. Farmland makes up to 70 % of the UK land area while urban areas cover roughly 7 % of the UK.

Within each of our four study regions (Scotland, Northern England, Southern England, Western England/Wales) we selected 12 sets of farmland, nature reserve and urban sites, giving a total of 36 sites across the UK. Our teams carried out pollinator and plant surveys at each site between May and September 2011. At the end of the summer the field teams had sampled over 10 000 insects and had identified thousands of plants.

We are currently in the process of preparing the data for submission to a scientific journal and will provide a summary of the results as soon as the paper is accepted. So watch this space if you are interested in finding out more.

Sampling in Water`s Edge LNR, Hull
Fyfield Down NNR near Swindon
A woodland nature reserve near Leeds

Counting flowers in a field full of Phacelia near Leeds
Flower-rich pasture near Southampton
Bristol team sampling a front garden
Mark found a pollinator in Southampton

The BBC was visiting the Bristol team in 2011, filming pollinator sampling in front gardens

In the second year of the project (2012) we had a closer look at urban habitats to investigate where pollinators like to forage and what flowers they feed on. We concentrated on four cities/towns in the UK, namely Edinburgh and Leeds in the North, Bristol in the Southwest and Reading in the Southeast. In each of these areas we recorded pollinator activity and flowering plants in gardens, allotments, urban nature reserves, cemeteries & churchyards, parks and other public green spaces, on road verges, pavements and even in car parks. Pavements and car parks often seem to be a barren desert of concrete and tarmac but cracks in pavements or shrubs and trees in car parks can still provide floral resources for pollinators. Despite the wettest summer for 100 years we managed to be out and about in between the rain and to sample nearly 4000 insects.

Counting daisies in Edinburgh

Garden sampling in Leeds
The most challenging aspect of last year’s field season (beside the weather) was the garden sampling as we had to find 400 garden owners (100 per city) willing to let us into their gardens to sample pollinators. Luckily we found enough interested people, and in the end even had to refuse some garden owners because we had too many! We found that many gardens seemed to be attractive to pollinators, often with lots of pollinator-friendly flowers on offer. You cannot really do anything wrong if you plant single-flowered plants and if you avoid double flowered and highly bred plants. From our general observations cotoneaster, lavender, michaelmas daisies (Aster), bellflowers (Campanula), cranesbills (Geranium) and ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum) were visited often by insect pollinators. Plants that were less visited were pansies, begonias, bedding geraniums, double flowered chrysanthemums and double flowered dahlia varieties such as the cactus dahlias. You can also leave some areas of your lawn a bit longer which will encourage pollinator-friendly wildflowers such as white clover, dandelions and buttercups.

Ben counting flowers in Bristol
Pierre with a bumblebee in Edinburgh

For some suggestions of what to plant in your garden for early and late pollinators have a look here:

Also have a look at our project newsletter:

Sam and Peter look for pollinators in a garden in Reading

An allotment site in Reading with lots of flowers
Allotments were another good habitat for pollinators, and often had high numbers of insects recorded. We noticed that quite a lot of people like to grow some flowers in between their vegetables to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. Fruit trees and soft fruit bushes such as apples, currants and gooseberries provide pollen and nectar in spring and are often important food sources for early emerging bumblebees and solitary bees.  A lot of vegetables such as beans, courgettes and pumpkins have flowers which provide pollen and nectar in summer. We also noticed that some ‘weeds’ appear to be very popular with pollinators, including dandelions, sow thistles and buttercups. Often allotments are surrounded by flowering hedgerows which offer an additional food source for pollinators. Long grass, often found under hedgerows or on abandoned plots, can provide nesting habitat for bumblebees and food plants for the larvae (caterpillars) of some butterflies such as meadow brown, gatekeeper, skipper and speckled wood.

The Leeds team is counting flowers
Abandoned plots can be good for pollinators

If you want to plant some colourful pollinator friendly plants on your allotment this year have a look here:

To make your allotment plot more wildlife-friendly look here for some suggestions: 

Cemeteries and church yards can support good numbers of pollinators as well.  Some of the older sites were especially good, with diverse flower-rich meadows which were only cut a couple of times a year.
Norcot Road Cemetery in Reading with lots of wildflowers

Some cemeteries have flower-rich grasslands beneficial for pollinators
Sampling a cemetery in Leeds

The nature reserves we sampled in urban areas were very variable in terms of their habitat, ranging from flower-rich meadows to dense woodland, and not surprisingly the flower-rich meadows were often alive with bees, bumblebees and other pollinators.  In contrast, we found hardly anything buzzing around in the dense woodland.

Counting gorse flowers in Holyrood Park Nature Reserve in Edinburgh

Although we recorded pollinators visiting flowers in other urban habitats such as parks and road verges we noticed that numbers of pollinators seen depended a lot on the cutting regime of the councils. For example, in spring some of the road verges in Reading were full of flowers. Daisies, dandelions, clovers and hawk`s- beards were the most common among these and provided a good food source for pollinators. But by summer the road verges had all been cut and were devoid of life.

Are there any bees in this park in Leeds?
Counting cow parsley in a park in Edinburgh

Sampling in a park in Edinburgh. But where are the flowers?
Mark is wrestling with the quadrat for counting flowers on a road verge in Leeds

Neglected places often have pollinator-friendly wildflowers
Even habitats you’d think of being pollinator un-friendly, such as pavements and car parks, sometimes had flowers which attracted pollinators. Flowering weeds growing out of cracks and overhanging garden plants provide flowers along pavements.
Flower beds and flowering shrubs in car parks provide a splash of colour and can lure pollinators to an otherwise uninviting habitat. Common pollinator-friendly shrubs in car parks included boxleaf honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida), shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) and cotoneaster.

Counting overhanging flowers on a pavement in Leeds
Wildflowers can grow out of cracks in pavements

And what are we up to this year (2013)? As last year was so incredibly wet which limited the amount of fieldwork we could do, we are planning to repeat the surveys of urban habitats this year to improve our dataset. 

We will also survey the flower meadows we have sown in Edinburgh, Leeds, Bristol and Reading. To find more about our meadows have a look here:

Flower meadow in Victoria Recreation Ground, Reading, in 2012

If you want to visit the meadows this year go between July and September as this is the best time to see them in full flower. To find the meadows in your local area please follow the link:

Also have a look at some pictures of last year`s meadows: