Look out for the early bumblebee…they’re emerging now!

By Alida Robey

I am always so impressed and uplifted when I see the first bees out, braving the cold and wind to forage in the spring sunshine. The buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) braves the winter, emerging on fine winter days to forage, but another species that you are likely to see right now is the ‘early bumblebee’ or Bombus pratorum.

The early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum).
Photo credit: S. Rae [via Flickr CC by 2.0]

How to tell one stripy buzzing creature from another

Being larger and hairier than honey bees, bumblebees in general have a bit more protection to cope with colder weather conditions, giving them an advantage when it comes to foraging in the early spring. The early bumblebee is common throughout Britain from March until June or July, and in milder parts of the south of England, as early as February.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has a very good identification chart and video guide to help distinguish different bumblebee species. When trying to distinguish between species of bee, size, tail colour and stripes are the features to look at. Bombus pratorum is noticeably smaller in size than other bee foragers at work in the spring. Queens, workers and males have a yellow band on the thorax and abdomen, though the band across the abdomen is less obvious or sometimes absent in workers.

The tail is a strikingly dark orange-red, but can be tricky to see as this colouring is only in the final tail section and may also fade with time. Males have a broad yellow collar that wraps around the thorax, and yellow hair on the face.

The bee’s choice of diet

The early bumblebee is a  good pollinator of flowers and fruit, enjoying in particular white clover, thistles, sage, lavender, Asteraceae, cotoneaster, alliums and a range of daisy type flowers; it is also an important pollinator of soft fruit, such as raspberries and blackberries.

Habitat and lifecycle 

B. pratorum’s nesting period is shorter than other bumblebees at just 14 weeks. Queens are fertilised in late summer and then usually go into hibernation. They will emerge from hibernation between March and May depending on the climate in that location and find a place to make their nest. However, because of their short nesting period, they can have two or even three colonies a year in the warmer, southern regions of the UK; new queens mate and, instead of hibernating, immediately start a nest.

At the start of a colony cycle, the queen has a large store of food, which allows her to start laying her eggs to produce workers and foragers who will then gather all the supplies she needs in order to remain in the nest and continue to lay eggs. As the colony cycle nears its end, she will produce more queens before dying herself, allowing the young queens to take up the cycle for the next spring. These young queens will go out to forage for themselves and return to the nest for shelter, but they don’t contribute to the dying colony. When they are ready to mate, the young queens follow the scent of chemical attractants deposited by males. The old colony dies off, with B. pratorum rarely seen after July in the UK,  and so the cycle continues for another season.

The early bumblebee is known for nesting in unusual places such as abandoned bird boxes or rodent nests or just under the ground. Colonies are small at less than 100 workers.

Cuckoos

The bumblebee is no more immune than other creatures to being taken advantage of. Of the 24 bumblebee species in the UK, 6 are ‘cuckoo bees’, which don’t make their own nests, but rather kill off the queen in another nest and get the worker bees to raise her larvae. It is the species Bombus sylvestris, which is a nest parasite of the early bumblebee.

Buzz Pollination

I was intrigued to hear this term, describing a process unique to bees, whereby they catch hold of a flower and by emitting a high pitched buzz shake free the pollen trapped inside (watch a video here). I had also often wondered if bees had any way of knowing whether others had raided the pollen stores before them. It turns out that they have smelly feet that leave a distinctive odour on flowers, which indicates to other bees that the supplies have been raided.

What can we do to help?

As you will know, our pollinators are in decline not just in the UK, but globally.  I was saddened to learn that two species of bumblebee have become extinct in the UK since 1900 – Cullums bumblebee (Bombus cullumanus) and the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus). Having lost 97% of wildflower-rich grasslands, we can take action to plant the flowers that are rich in pollen and nectar and therefore of most benefit to bees – some flowers, like pansies, and most double flowers may look pretty, but are of little benefit to bees.

Then there is the whole issue of pesticides. Neonicotinoids, used in some pesticides, are lethally toxic and infiltrate every aspect of the plants systemically – one teaspoon of neonicotinoids is enough to give a lethal dose to one and a quarter billion bees. Professor Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex and a bee expert, has been on a mission to see how widespread the use of these pesticides are as plants with a ‘Bee-friendly’ label may have been treated with these pesticides before being put on the shelves of the plant nursery.

Splitting and sharing plants and growing from seed can help ensure the plant hasn’t been exposed to these pesticides – it’s another thing we can do as gardeners to help these valiant and much-assailed vital workers in the garden. Also, as a Friend of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, you have a unique opportunity to grow special plants from seed collected at the garden!

Another fun way you can help is to take part in The Great British Bee Count using an app developed by Friends of the Earth and which will be running again this year from 19 May – 30 June 2017. This is an initiative to help monitor the numbers of the different bee species found
in the UK.  You can see the results of last year’s survey and access various educational resources on their website.

Alida Robey has a small gardening business in Bristol. For several years in New Zealand she worked with others to support projects to establish composting on both domestic and a ‘city-to-farm’ basis.

‘Tis the season…or is it?

By Helen Roberts

As I sit at my desk this morning, staring out the window, the weather is dire. There is slanting torrential rain and high winds, a typical December day perhaps.
Here in the UK, the seasons are changing and we are experiencing extremes of weather. For example, we have had wetter, milder winters in the southwest over the last couple of years along with increased flooding, particularly on the Somerset Levels. And then there was the very slow start to spring this year, with temperatures well below average in April. This was followed by a very hot end to the summer and warmer-than-average temperatures throughout autumn.
These changes to the seasons are linked to global climate change and are throwing the UK’s wildlife into disorder and affecting the fine balance of habitats and ecosystems. This is not a good scenario for biodiversity in the UK. Seasonal timing is off. When seasons start and end is shifting, and the length of the season itself is changing, making ‘growing seasons’ a more fluid concept. There is also increased risk for most gardeners of a ‘false spring’. Many plants and animals are changing their geographical ranges in order to adapt to these changes.
One of the most significant effects has been the disruption of lifecycle events and these are manifesting themselves in different ways. Bird migration, insect emergence, incidence of pests and diseases and flowering times are being thrown out of kilter.  
Researchers from the University of East Anglia recently analysed 37 years worth of data from the UK Butterfly MonitoringScheme (UKBMS) and found that extreme weather events were causing population crashes of butterflies. Uncommonly high rainfall events during the cocoon life stage affected 25% of UK butterfly species. And more than half of species were affected by extreme-heat during the overwintering life stage, possibly due to the increased incidence of disease or the effect of a ‘false spring’, causing butterflies to emerge too early only to be decimated by a return to cooler temperatures.
Warm temperatures are not all bad for butterflies though, as they will benefit from hot temperatures over the summer months when they are in their adult form and resources are plentiful. However, if populations crash more frequently than they expand, these extreme weather events could threaten UK butterflies.
The spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes).
Photo: Jacinta Iluch Valero via Flickr [Creative Commons]

Changes in seasonal timing are also knocking the relationships between plants and animals out of sync, including the delicate balance between plants and pollinators. Thiscan be detrimental to the balance of entire ecosystems. An elegant study carried out by scientists from Kew and the University of East Anglia found that earlier springs brought about by rising temperatures are affecting the relationship between a rare spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodesand its sole pollinator, the solitary miner bee (Andrena nigroaenea).   

This particular orchid has a flower that resembles and smells like a female miner bee and it uses this deceit in order to lure the male miner bee in. The male attempts to mate with the flower and by doing so, pollinates the flower. The plant has evolved to flower at the same time as the male bees emerge, but before the females do.
What the researchers discovered, by looking at the data set going back to 1848, was that rising temperatures are causing the relationship between orchid and bee to break down. Although rising temperatures cause both the bee to emerge and the orchid to flower earlier, the effect on the bees is much more pronounced. The male bees emerge much earlier and the orchids now flower as the female bees emerge. This means the males are not “pseudocopulating” with the flower because the real thing is already available and so the rare spider orchid is having fewer pollinations.
However bleak this picture may seem, plants and animals do have the ability to adjust to seasonal changes caused by climate change, it is just whether they can adapt quickly enough for these intricate ecological relationships to remain intact.
Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.


References

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault: a safe haven for seed

By Helen Roberts

Svalbard is a group of Norwegian islands located in the high Arctic and only 1,300 km from the North Pole. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The landscape is stark, unforgiving and wholly memorable. I visited these islands more than 16 years ago as part of a 6-week science expedition – I was part of a botanical group looking at the exceptionally low-growing Arctic Willow. 
Memories of that place are still strong today. Its beauty and sense of isolation is unique. The humdrum of everyday life is simply stripped away here. You are left with the landscape, weather and incredible flora and fauna. Although life became simple, the vastness of the place was exhilarating and I felt totally and utterly free. 
The stark landscape of Svalbard
Photo credit: Paul Williams [via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]

The Arctic is an ideal refuge for seeds

Within this unforgiving landscape, nestled deep within a mountainside, is a seed bank of global importance. It holds 12,000 years of agricultural history and contains the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. 
The Global Seed Vault is the brainchild of renowned scientist Cary Fowler, a former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. It started as a simple idea back in the 1980s in the spirit of global collaboration, and finally came to fruition in 2008 when the building was completed. However, building the collection within is ongoing.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Photo credit: Amber Case [via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]
The facility currently holds about 850,000 different varieties of seed and acts as the back up for seed banks across the globe. This is a collection that is vastly important for food security and the safeguarding of crop diversity. Those 850,000 packets of seed represent more than 5,000 species and nearly half of the world’s most important food crops, from cereal and rice to unique varieties of legumes. The seed deposits come from over 60 different institutions and represent nearly every country in the world. 
The chosen location of the global seed vault is an interesting story. It needed to be located somewhere safe from both potential natural disasters and human conflict. Svalbard itself is a safe place to store seed both in terms of physical and social factors. Svalbard’s remoteness ensures an extra layer of security, while its geological stability and location, 130m above sea level, means the vault would be safe even in the worst-case scenario of sea-level rise. The storage facility is buried 150m deep into the side of a mountain where there is no radiation and where humidity levels remain low. The mountain also acts as a natural freezer, reducing the facility’s reliance on mechanical refrigeration. The local infrastructure on Svalbard is also very good despite its remoteness – Svalbard is serviced by regular scheduled flights.
Svalbard itself is also politically very stable and military activity is prohibited in the region under the terms of the Treaty of Svalbard of 1920. The local government is highly competent and Norway has long been recognised as a key country in the international efforts to conserve Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA). 

Building and running the vault

The Global Seed Vault is built to store up to 4.5 million different varieties of seed. Constructed to be highly functional, the rectangular edifice emerging from the side of the mountain is stark but architecturally beautiful. The structure is energy efficient; insulated by the mountainside, it maintains an ambient temperature of -7°C and therefore only needs a further temperature drop to -18°C to reach the recognised standard temperature for the storage of viable seed. 
The vault was built and paid for by the Norwegian government to provide a service to the world community. The structure took 12 months to build and cost NOK 50 million (approximately £4.6 million). The facility runs as a partnership between the Government of Norway, the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Operations regarding the vault are administered and controlled by an international advisory council of experts representing the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), national gene banks, the Consultative Group on Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). 

Inside the building

Some people are lucky enough to visit the seed vault on the rare occasions that you can gain access inside. I had to see the interior of the facility via a virtual tour. 
The front entrance is understated, although to gain access you have to go through half a dozen locked doors, each requiring a different key. Although, security appears minimal, it’s not. The facility is under constant surveillance by Staatsbygg, the government of Norway’s property manager and developer;  security cameras and sensors are located throughout the building. There is some natural security, of course, as the roaming polar bears outside outnumber the human population of Svalbard. 
From the entrance lobby, a 150m long tunnel extends into the mountain before reaching the three main storage chambers. At the moment, only one storage chamber is in use, in time the others will be filled as more seed varieties are deposited. 
Seed is only deposited three times a year and this is the only time when the vault is opened. 

Making a deposit


The metal shelves inside the Global Seed Vault.
Photo credit: Dag Terje Filip Endresen
[via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]
On arrival to Svalbard, seed lots are x-rayed and taken to the vault by NordGen staff members. The seed boxes containing the seed, which have been carefully placed in 3-ply aluminium packages, are then wheeled by trolley to the main storage chamber within the vault. Each package will contain on average 500 seeds. 
The seed lots are placed on simple metal shelving and are assigned bar codes to allow easy retrieval. They are catalogued using an information system called the Seed Portal of The Svalbard Seed Vault. This allows depositors to submit seed inventories and the general public to look at basic information about the seed that is stored within. Storage is free to depositors and they control access to the deposits. It is an International Black Box system, which ensures that only the depositor can access the raw seed and open the boxes. 

The most recent seed deposits

Last year, the first tree seeds were deposited from Norway and Finland. In February, pine and spruce seed was taken to the vault for storage from the Norwegian Forest Seed Center and the Finnish gene reserves forests of Lappträsk and Puolango, and Filpula and Lovisa. This deposit provides a back-up in the event that global climate change, forest management techniques and other factors, such as pests and disease begin to compromise the genetic diversity of these forests. It is a method of conserving the existing genetic resources and enabling long-term monitoring of the genetic variation within these forests, including any changes that occur because of tree breeding. This long-term tree seed project involves the countries of Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Norway. 
The last deposit of seed was on 26th May 2016, with deposits from Germany, Thailand, New Zealand and the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan. Germany placed over 6,000 accessions into the vault of a number of different crop varieties, New Zealand deposited a number of varieties of sheep food including rye grass and white clover, Thailand deposited some 20 samples of very special chilli peppers and the World Vegetable Center deposited 1,200 seed lots from a number of different nations. 

Our agricultural future

The importance of this seed vault is apparent; it ensures the survival of the world’s most important crop species. Some seed varieties within the depths of this safe haven can survive for up to 4,000 years. In terms of food security, that is long term planning for human agriculture. 

Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.


References:

Doomsday Vault Opened for Syrian Seeds: 
What is NordGen?:
Croptrust: 
Forest seed destined for Svalbard:
Forest tree seeds arrive at Svalbard’s ‘Doomsday vault’:
Arctic seed vault ‘key to future global crops’:
Storing the World’s Seeds in a Frozen Mountainside:
From sheep food to chili peppers – seed deposit at Arctic Vault takes the world one step closer to future food security: 
In the vault: David Osit:
Svaalbard Global Seed Vault:

Plants and war

By Helen Roberts

For centuries plants have been closely entangled in the complexities of wars and hostilities. Shortages of food during periods of conflict are one of the most pronounced impacts on humans. Conflict can impede our ability to grow and harvest crops as well as distribute food. Restricting the movement of food is a tactic that is used to control territories and ultimately bring down enemies. 
In the 1990s, in sub-Saharan Africa, many countries suffered famine as a result of conflict and this was primarily due to the different sides using food and hunger as political tools. As well as immediate famine in those areas of active war, there were indirect impacts as people were displaced by war and could not return home to plant their crops. Even more recent examples include the siege warfare occurring in many parts of Syria where the act of starvation is used to make opposing sides submit. The devastation and suffering as a result of food shortages to humans is untold during conflict, but the ultimate survival of certain plants can be threatened too.  

Saving seeds in Svalbard

Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway.
Photo credit: Amber Case [via Flickr CC licence]

Seed banks – facilities that specialise in collecting and storing seeds that society has deemed worthy of cultivation – are critical in preserving and potentially restoring the plants lost as a result of war. In 2015, researchers made the first ever withdrawal of 38,000 seed samples from such a bank in order to rebuild a seed collection to replace one lost to the conflict in Syria. 

In 2012, when war reached Aleppo, Syria, researchers from the International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) shipped seeds representing 87% of their collection to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway (a subsequent blog will follow on this unique seed bank facility). The remaining seed was shipped out to other international seed banks. The ICARDA facility in Aleppo hosted seed from 150,000 specimens of significant agricultural importance from the Fertile Crescent – the birthplace of agriculture. Many of the plant varieties do not exist in the wild any more, including unique landraces and wild relatives of cereals, legumes and forages and are only represented in seed banks. 
Having fled Aleppo, ICARDA researchers, now in Terbol, Lebanon, have withdrawn some of this seed from Svalbard in order to recreate the collection lost in the war torn city of Aleppo. Seed was also sent to another ICARDA facility in Morocco. The seeds will be planted and allowed to germinate, grown up and seed collected and sent back to Svalbard to continue the loop of important seed conversation and diversity. At the facilities in Lebanon and Morocco, agricultural research will continue on the seed samples with germplasm being distributed worldwide to plant breeders. 

Russian scientists protect seeds with their lives

It is not the first time that scientists have battled for seed survival. Russian scientists during the Second World War were so desperate in their unerring determination to protect an internationally important seed bank from devastation that lives were lost. The man in charge of the collection was Nikolai Vavilov, a Soviet botanist and geneticist most famous for his work on the evolution of domesticated plants. As a child, he had witnessed first hand the horror of food shortages and this spurred him on to a follow a career in the plant sciences concentrating on plant breeding in order to help combat famine in Russia. He has long been considered the founder of modern seed banks. 
Unfortunately, Stalin who foolishly sought short-term solutions to Russia’s problem of famine, did not support his work. Vavilov fell from favour and whilst on a plant collecting expedition in the Carpathian Mountains was taken and incarcerated, slowly dying in prison of starvation in 1943. Vavilov’s vast seed bank survived the 872-day Siege of Leningrad. Dedicated scientists bent on protecting this valuable collection, barricaded themselves into the seed bank building and guarded it against looting. Sadly, they succumbed to either starvation or disease. This was an ironic tragedy considering they refused to eat any of the seed they were so intent on protecting. 

Plant-based resources in short supply

Not only does conflict cause basic food shortages and threaten plant species survival but it can affect the availability of important plant-based resources. Commodities such as rubber, coal, paper, timber, drugs, cotton and hemp, all derived from plants, have played a key part in conflicts. Of course, control of these critical resources has also propelled countries into war, including tea, spices, salt, grain, flour, bread, sugar and rice. 
One of the many ‘Dig for Victory’ posters
of the Second World War.

War also pushes the agricultural and manufacturing boundaries in the production of food and plant materials. One major commodity during the Second World War of vital importance was rubber. Natural rubber supplies from the plantations of Southeast Asia were severed at the start of the war and American forces were faced with the loss of a hugely important resource even though rubber had been stockpiled in the years preceding the war. With the fall of Singapore and the Dutch East Indies in 1942, rubber exports came to a complete standstill. The Americans invested heavily into developing synthetic rubber, but one of the twentieth century’s greatest ethnobotanists, Professor Richard Evans Schultes, was sent into the remote Amazon basin to hunt for wild rubber. For Schultes, this resulted in 12 years of exploratory research deep within the rainforest. 

People in Britain were growing their own to combat food shortage
s during the Second World War – spurred by iconic posters emblazoned with the words ‘Dig for Victory’. A staggering 1.4 million people dug up their gardens and lawns to grow vegetables and fruit in Britain. It was similarly successful in the US – by May 1943, 100 acres of land in the Portland area of Oregon was being cultivated by just children!

Plants used to commemorate lives lost

During and after conflict, many plants can hold particular meanings for people. The flowers of certain plants are commonly seen as peaceful elements imbuing a sense of calm and many plants are closely associated with the recognition and commemoration of those who have fallen in wars. The red poppy is one of the most emotive and unforgettable flowers because of war. A symbol of remembrance and hope, and worn by millions of people to remember those who have fallen in battle. The idea of using the poppies stemmed from one of the world’s truly poignant poems, ‘In Flanders Fields’ and is now inextricably entwined with the memory or war. It represents a powerful symbol of our relationship with a plant during and after conflict.

Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.

Sources:

  1. Seed bank aims to protect world’s agricultural inheritance from Syria war. (2016). The Guardian. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/24/seed-bank-aims-to-protect-worlds-agricultural-inheritance-from-syria-war>
  2. ICARDA’s update on its seed retrival from Svalbard <http://www.icarda.org/update/icarda’s-seed-retrieval-mission-svalbard-seed-vault#sthash.5nrDjLb8.dpbs>
  3. Richard D. Bardgett. (2016). Earth Matters: How Soil Underlies Civilization.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Wade Davis. (1996). One River: Science, Adventure and Hallucinogenics in the Amazon Basin. London: Simon & Schuster Ltd. 
  5. Kathy Willis & Carolyn Fry. (2014). Plants: From Roots to Riches. London: John Murray.