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The global diversity of our gardens is playing a key role in the fight to save bumblebees

The most common species of bumblebee are not fussy about a plant’s origin when searching for nectar and pollen among the nation’s urban gardens according to a study by ecologists at Plymouth University.

But other species – in particular long-tongued bees – do concentrate their feeding upon plants from the UK and Europe, for which they have developed a preference evolved over many millennia.

Dr Mick Hanley, Lecturer in Ecology at Plymouth University, said the study showed the continued importance of promoting diversity and encouraging gardeners to cast their net wide when choosing what to cultivate.

“Urban gardens are increasingly recognised for their potential to maintain or even enhance biodiversity,” Dr Hanley said. “In particular, the presence of large densities and varieties of flowering plants supports a number of pollinating insects whose range and abundance has declined as a consequence of agricultural intensification and habitat loss. By growing a variety of plants from around the world, gardeners ensure that a range of food sources is available for many different pollinators. But until now we have had very little idea about how the origins of garden plants actually affect their use by our native pollinators.”

The findings of this study were backed up by preliminary results from the Royal Horticultural Society's Plants for Bugs research project.

The four-year study is the first field research project designed to find out if native or non-native garden plants are best at supporting wildlife – with the term ‘native plants’ referring to those species which arrived in Britain after the ice age without the assistance of humans.

At a conference held by the RHS and Wildlife Gardening Forum this week scientists said provisional analysis of the data indicated that all garden plant combinations (native and non-native) support abundant and diverse invertebrate wildlife.

However RHS entomologist Andrew Salisbury said analysis was at a very early stage and the data needed to be investigated in greater detail before firm conclusions and advice could be provided to wildlife gardeners.

Read more about the Plymouth University study

Click here for more advice on gardening for bees. 

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Bumblebee Conservation Trust welcomes National Pollinator Strategy

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT) has welcomed the Government’s proposed National Pollinator Strategy for England as a “brilliant first step” in getting the issues affecting bumblebees and other insect pollinators on the table.

The Trust, which has worked closely with the Government in drawing up the proposals, said it would continue to play a key role as the strategy moved forward over the next 10 years.

BBCT is currently developing its own five-year strategic plan which is due to be published in the near future.  CEO Lucy Rothstein said the development of the National Pollinator Strategy (NPS) was perfect timing for the trust.
“The vision of the strategy accords beautifully with the vision of BBCT,” she said. “It enables us to embed the vision of the NPS in our strategy but also use our work going forward to influence what is in the NPS.”

BBCT welcomes the proposed investment in science to fill gaps in understanding about the current status of pollinators and highlighted its own work in addressing these issues. BeeWalk, the Trust’s national bumblebee monitoring project, will play an important role in contributing to the information available about bumblebee trends.

The Trust is also involved with research into commercial bumblebees being carried out by scientists at the University of Sussex. At the same time, BBCT is actively working to improve habitat for pollinators – a key issue for bumblebee populations.

A few days ago, BBCT launched a Spring into Action campaign which provides resource packs to help people lobby their local authorities to be more bee-friendly and encourage garden centres to promote plants which are beneficial to pollinators.

BBCT is also working closely with organisations such as the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) and Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) to help farmers manage their land in a sustainable way.

In addition, BBCT is taking forward the development of an ambitious coastal project, which focusses on improving habitats for Kent’s wild pollinator populations with particular emphasis on bumblebees and solitary bees.

“We have a lot to bring to the table in terms of initiatives,” says Lucy. “The important thing now is to fill the evidence gaps. We have a five-year strategic plan that’s going to move this on. It’s a brilliant starting point. The next step for us is getting more happening on the ground.”

BBCT echoed the NPS’s Call to Action by calling on its own members to welcome the strategy and respond to it at: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/plant-and-bee-health-policy/a-consultation-on-the-national-pollinator-strategy

The Trust is now taking forward its own response to this consultation, which it will publish in due course.

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Road verges sown with wildflower seeds are very attractive to bumblebees, study shows

A new study into the attractiveness of road verges sown with wildflower seeds has found them to be extremely attractive to bumblebees.

The ‘On the Verge’ scheme manages the verges on roadsides, roundabouts, school grounds, parks and other unused urban land in central Scotland by sowing them with wildflower seed mixes. Up to 50 times as many bumblebees were found in the wildflower areas, showing that schemes like this are possibly extremely beneficial to bumblebee populations.

Lorna Blackmore, who carried out the study, says: “The On the Verge team that planted these patches have shown just how easy it is to boost nature in the city. They also provide city-dwellers with an opportunity to experience nature right on their doorstep.”

Professor Dave Goulson, the study’s senior author, says: “It is wonderful to see how effective this simple approach is. The flowers are beautiful, much more attractive than the regularly-mown grass they replaced, and less trouble to look after. In summer these patches were alive with insects of all sorts. With urban areas set to expand considerably in the UK, this is one way we can minimise the impact on wildlife. Perhaps we can turn our cities and towns into sanctuaries for wildlife, places where wildflowers, bees, butterflies and birds can all thrive.”

At Bumblebee Conservation Trust, we have created our own pack for Local Authorities to help people lobby their councils to do more to help bumblebees by doing things like this. Click here to view the pack.

‘Evaluating the effectiveness of wildflower seed mixes for boosting floral diversity and bumblebee and hoverfly abundance in urban areas’, Lorna Blackmore and Dave Goulson. Published in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity, online February 2014.