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The Urban Pollinators Project: Researching insect pollinators in urban habitats in the UK

December 10, 2012 nadinemitschunas, Urban Pollinators Project No Comments
The "golden meadow" in Prospect Park, Reading

Urban environments are growing in extent and importance for wildlife.

Perhaps surprisingly, flower rich oases in otherwise uninviting city habitats can support large numbers of pollinating insects. For example, a single Leicester garden was found to contain 35% of British hoverfly species. Honeybees produce more honey in urban Birmingham than in the surrounding countryside. Pollinators supply a crucial ecological service, and finding ways to improve their lot is a major challenge.

This Urban Pollinators Project was designed to answer three questions:

1.    What is best for pollinators: urban habitats, farmland or nature reserves?

2.    Which type of urban habitat supports the most pollinators?

3.    What can we do to help pollinators in urban areas?

To answer the first two questions we are looking into what types of bees, flies, butterflies and beetles do occur in specific habitats and the flowers of which plant species they visit there. The field work for this has been carried out by research ecologists at universities in Edinburgh, Leeds, Bristol and Reading. For example, my team of field helpers and I are based at the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research (CAER) at University of Reading. Our research project is funded jointly by a grant from BBSRC, Defra, NERC, the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust, under the Insect Pollinators Initiative

Sampling pollinators in a park in Reading: Where are the flowers?

Sampling pollinators in a park in Reading: Where are the flowers?

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 9 % of the UK, a similar area to that of nature reserves. We selected 12 different farmland, nature reserve and urban sites, and ended up with a total of 36 sites spread over the whole of the UK. Our teams carried out pollinator and plant surveys at each site between June and September 2011. At the end of the summer the field teams had identified thousands of plants and had sampled over 10 000 insects .

We are currently in the process of preparing the data for submission to a scientific journal. We will provide a summary of the results of the first year of the project as soon as the paper is accepted.

Catching pollinators on an allotment plot to bring back to University for identification

And how about urban habitats? Which of those are best for pollinators? To answer this question, we looked at a wide range of urban habitats, including, amongst others, parks and other green spaces, gardens, allotments, cemeteries, local nature reserves, road verges, pavements and car parks. The weather proved a bit difficult and we had quite a slow start as it was so cold and wet from April to June 2012. The pollinators also seemed to dislike this type of weather, at times, we found only small numbers of them. But as the weather picked up in subsequent months, we began to record much larger numbers of pollinators, and we were able to get some preliminary answers to our questions.

Measuring a garden before starting the pollinator sampling

As we will repeat last years field work this year (2013) to get more data we have only some preliminary results to report. General trends in the data collected so far suggest that allotments are among the most beneficial habitats in urban areas,  followed by gardens, cemeteries and nature reserves with good numbers of insects recorded in these habitats as well. Allotments often have quite a lot of flowering weeds (at least the ones we visited) and there are always at least some plot holders who like to plant colourful and pollinator-friendly annual and perennial plants such as cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) and cosmos (e.g. Cosmos bipinnatus). Fruit bushes and – where present – fruit trees also provide a good pollen and nectar source. Some of the allotment sites we visited even had bee hives and the long grass under hedgerows along the allotment boundaries may in some instances provide nesting opportunities for bumblebees.

Talking to allotment holders who planted lots of flowers to attract pollinators

Now, in the second half of our project, we are also looking into what can be done to support pollinating insects in towns and cities, which was our third question. To answer this, we established flower meadows with plants high in nectar and pollen to selected parks and green spaces in Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds and Reading. In 2013, the final year of our project, we will have a look if this has successfully boosted pollinator numbers in comparison to areas where we have not applied such measures. For this, in Reading, we have already set up 5 annual and 5 perennial flower meadows in 2012 and the meadows comprised of annual species looked really stunning this year already. And they were visited by large numbers of pollinators! The perennials were a bit slow to start with, but as they need more time to establish, we did expect this. They will also flower in 2013, and will hopefully support a wide array of pollinators. Thus, 2013 will show whether adding flower meadows to towns and cities can be the way forward not only to create aesthetically pleasing green spaces, but also to boost numbers of pollinator insects in such urban ecosystems.

Annual flower meadow in a small park in Reading

But irrespective of such large-scale applications, you can also do a lot yourself to help pollinators in the green space that is your allotment or garden. For some inspiration on what to do in your allotment, feel free to have a look at my earlier post “Bring back the flowers”.

The “golden meadow” in Prospect Park, Reading

If you are interested to read more about our project, please visit our project website and have a look at our project blog. You can also follow us on twitter

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