Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Gossip from the garden; citizen scientists!

Guest blog by Susan Jonas, proposer of the SOS for Honeybees campaign 

There is a wonderful podcast - ‘Gossip from the Garden Pond’ (Best of Natural History Radio 4) - three tales written by Lynne Truss which reveal the funny side of life in and around a garden pond and open a door into this fascinating world.

My favourite is the tale of the Garden Spider – it includes the protestations of a wasp being wrapped up ready for lunch and the delights to be had from consuming a butterfly, but I did feel sorry for the bee as it got caught in the web! All these insects are pollinators to be welcomed in the garden, but many are facing far worse problems than being eaten by a spider.

In 2009, honeybees were in the news because their populations were declining, and without pollination many crops are at risk of failing. The resolution ‘SOS for Honeybees’, which was carried at the 2009 NFWI Annual Meeting, highlighted the plight of bees and identified loss of habitat as a possible cause. The response from WI members was overwhelming; some members trained as bee-keepers, and bee-friendly plants were planted in even the smallest window boxes- there was something for everyone to do!

The national campaign led to the WI’s involvement with the National Pollinator Strategy.  

Loss of habitat, disease, pesticides, climate change – or a combination of these – may all be contributing to the decline in pollinator populations. However there is a huge need for more research, particularly in the field.  Scientists require data as the evidence base for policy decisions, but how is this data to be collected?

At a ‘Bee Summit’ hosted by the NFWI and Friends of the Earth to coincide with the first anniversary of the publication of the National Pollinator Strategy, I was asked to speak about ‘Engaging the Public in Citizen Science’. This involves creating a partnership between professional scientists and enthusiastic volunteers. In the UK, there is a wonderful history of volunteers collecting data, particularly for birds, butterflies and mammals, so could we do the same for pollinators?

To try this out, I signed up for a citizen science project - ‘Bees ‘n Beans’ – at Sussex University.  This project was a little bit more than just data collecting; it was actually doing an experiment alongside about 500 other people spread across the UK.  The aim of the project was to study insect pollination in gardens and allotments.

My garden is where it all happens!  I call it my evolving work of art, a place to experiment and sufficiently 'messy’ to be attractive to pollinators.  For those worried the science might be too hard, rest assured there are no ‘right answers’.  This is an investigation! All that is required is some knowledge of growing plants, a bit of time and some space.  It is no harder than following a recipe, and the results can be a surprise...

So what did I actually do?

The broad beans and ‘rat-tailed’ radish seeds arrived from Sussex University in April with plastic pots and plenty of instructions about how to grow them. I started a journal to record everything I did and everything I saw. I made sure I treated all the seeds fairly – same compost, same watering regime, etc.

Four specimens of each plant were selected in May - one plant was put under fleece, one plant for hand pollination, one free for all, and a spare in case of accidents!

Hand pollinating the broad bean flowers was quite straightforward- the bumblebees joined in! 

The radish flowered in July - the small white flowers were of no interest to bumblebees but attracted hoverflies. I hand pollinated with a paintbrush. 

Small beetles attacked the leaves and flowers of most plants, but under the fleece the plant grew magnificently with masses of flowers!

I harvested the broad beans in August, counting and weighing the pods and beans. The radishes had no pods to harvest – this was all part of the experiment! 

All the data was sent to the professionals for analysis plus information about the pollinators I had noticed.

As well as providing vital data for large-scale research, taking part in this citizen science project was fun. Recording everything in a journal is quite revealing.  I had not taken much notice of hoverflies before, but now I recognise them as important pollinators. The fleece protected plants from predatory insects but there was no harvest. No pollination means no crops.

Hand pollination is quite time consuming and may not give the plants the extra ‘buzz’ to release pollen that insects give them. I saw Carol Klein on Gardeners’ World use an electric toothbrush for this purpose. Research shows that good pollination increases both the quantity and quality of yields. My blackcurrants are testament to this - I won first prize for them in the village show.

Resolutions give us a mandate for action but we still need to be engaged and given something positive to do.

We are helping bees by creating ‘bee-friendly’ habitats and using less pesticide in our gardens – now the researchers need a helping hand too.  The need for information is great and creating partnerships can make it happen.

At Sussex University, the Buzz Club organises citizen science projects which connects enthusiastic volunteers with large-scale research.  This year I am taking part again – this time with two projects ‘All About Alliums’ and ‘Bees ‘n Beans’!

The Buzz Club offers citizen science opportunities across the UK and more information can be found on their website www.thebuzzclub.uk/

You can also take part in citizen science projects through Open Air Laboratories.

Susan Jonas speaking at the 2015 Bee Summit (credit: Amelia Collins)

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