Walking among bees with Steven Falk

By Nicola Temple

Steven speaking to us in front of the limestone
meadow. Photo: Nicola Temple
I thoroughly love watching insects visit my garden (aphids and a few other pests excepted). However, I have to admit that beyond broad groupings, bumblebee, honey bee, hover fly, fly etc, I’m not very good at identifying them down to species. This clearly isn’t necessary to enjoy them, but I do find that when I know a species, when I know its routines and habits (as much as anyone does), then I have a deeper appreciation for them. So, when the University of Bristol Botanic Garden offered a bee identification workshop with Steven Falk, I signed myself up.
Steven Falkhas had an interest in insects since his childhood in London in the 1960s and 70s. Insects inspired his artwork and his skill as an artist earned him the honour of illustrating the book British Hoverflies, which he began working on when he was only 15. He has gone on to illustrate and write many publications since, including my newly acquired Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland (Bloomsbury, 2015).
Steven began the talk with some fast facts about insects in England. There are about 24,000 species of insect in England, 6,000 of which are regular visitors to flowers. “The biggest slice of this insect pie is wasps,” he explained. Even parasitic wasps visit flowers, and all together there are around 2,800 species.  Bees make up a mere 280 species and hover flies another 280. However, though they are less diverse in terms of species, bees and hoverflies are both abundant and extremely effective pollinators – so they punch above their diversity, so to speak.
Steven holding a yellow-legged mining-bee.
Photo: Nicola Temple
We start our walk in the Botanic Garden in the limestone meadow, just beside the West Terrace and the pond. If you unfocus your eyes a little and stare across the flowers, it is alive with activity. Steven shows us Myathropa florea, a reasonably sized hoverfly that has distinct grey markings on its thorax. It has an aqueous larvae, which lives in little rot holes at the base of trees. Then Steven points out a bumblebee mimic, Cheilosia illustrata, which tends to spend time near Hogweed because its larvae tunnel through the stems and roots. Apparently you can tell the age of a forest by the species of hoverfly present because they are so closely associated with certain plants.
Within minutes we’ve also spotted a common carder-bee (Bombus pascuorum) with its chestnut thorax – though Steven explains that this can be quite variable. It has a longer tongue and so this species is able to get down into the clover flowers. But there are also some buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) flying about also, which have shorter tongues and so they bite a hole at the base of the flower to rob the nectar. We spot lots of honey bees (Apis mellifera), which Steven also explains can be extremely variable in appearance, ranging from the typical striped appearance to almost entirely black – the tell tale sign being that its hind legs hang down as it flies. We haven’t even moved on the tour and we’ve already spotted at least six pollinator species – probably far more, I just can’t write fast enough to keep up with Steven listing them off!
The ‘fuzz’ of lamb’s ear is used by the female
wool-carder bee to line her nest.
Photo: Nicola Temple
Using what he calls his ‘praying mantis’ technique, Steven grabs a yellow-legged mining-bee (Andrena flavipes), and holds it so that we can all have a look at it. The long antennae tell you that this is not a fly, however, Steven goes on to list the colour variations that you can encounter. With all of these colour variations, I’m pretty sure I don’t stand a chance of accurately identifying anything on my own!
As we wander past some Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), Steven mentions that the female wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), a solitary bee, uses the fuzz from the plant’s leaves to line its nest. Steven then spots a patchwork leaf-cutter bee (Megachile centuncularis) and explains that it doesn’t collect pollen on its hind legs, but rather on its underbelly. Using his insect net, he catches it and place it temporarily in a little tube so that we all get a chance to look at it.
We walk past the wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) and there doesn’t appear to be a single flower that isn’t being visited by a bumblebee. It becomes obvious that while many of the tour participants are interested in the bees, they are equally interested in noting down which of the plants in the Botanic Garden are popular with pollinators so that they can create more bee-friendly gardens at home.

A great pied hoverfly (Volucella
pellucens
).
Photo: Nicola Temple
As one would expect, near the end of the tour Steven begins to discuss some of the challenges that our pollinators face these days. He discusses the use of pesticides and the loss of habitat. He mentions that more erratic weather patterns and mild winters can lead to mortality – the latter causing over-wintering bees to go mouldy. But, he also finds the silver lining, stating that some bee species are expanding their distribution due to climate change.
It was only the commitment to another tour that forced Steven to end our walk. His love and enthusiasm for insects was apparent and he could have no doubt gone on to discuss far more than he did.
I definitely had different expectations for the workshop. I’m not sure whether it was the term ‘workshop’ or my own background in biological sciences that set my expectations that we would be looking at example specimens and comparing their features so that we might be able to better identify them. This was more of a garden tour and pollinator walk, which was lovely, but I’m not entirely sure I feel better equipped to identify bees in my garden as a result of being on the tour. If anything, it has shown me how much variation there can be within species let along adding in mimics and related species into the mix!  In the end I bought the Field Guide because really, in the end, that’s what it takes…good ol’ practice! And if I’m unsure Steven said to send him a picture on Twitter and he’ll help me identify it, which is brilliant! Not to mention, he has a fantastic free site on Flickr with pictures and information about all the British species, which is an incredible resource.
Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) attracts
a tremendous number of pollinators.
Photo: Nicola Temple
This is the Year of the Pollinator at the Botanic Garden, so there are any number of pollination themed activities happening this year, including a beekeeping taster day, short courses for encouraging pollinators to your garden, and of course the annual bee and pollination festival in September.  And if you happen to snap a great photo of a pollinator this summer, you can enter the Botanic Garden’s photography competition, which will earn you a signed copy of Steven’s Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland as well as tickets to the Bee and Pollination Festival, visit the website for more details on how to enter.

Sowing Victoria

By Nicola Temple

A photo taken a couple of years ago – I
have a grasp on my son as he leans
over into the tropical pool to get a
good look. Victoria cruziana is in flower
as is the lotus above us.
Photo credit: Shelby Temple

For me, one of the highlights at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden is the giant waterlily (Victoria cruziana) that lives in the pond in the tropical glass house. Its enormous leaves, which can reach 2 metres in diameter, are studded with spines on the underside and always provide ample wow factor for visiting children (my own included).  

The plant is found in slow moving waterways in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia – in places such as the Pantanal. Its pollination story is an interesting one in that it is pollinated by a beetle (Cyclocephata castaneal). Its white flowers give off a strong scent that attracts the beetles in the evening. The flower then closes around the beetles, trapping them in the flower overnight. The flower produces heat (thermogenesis), raising the temperature as much as 9oC above the ambient temperature outside, which means the beetles can maintain a high level of activity without using as much energy. It’s a thermal reward and the plant benefits as the active beetles will pollinate the flower. The pollinated flower opens the next evening, revealing a new light pink colouration to its petals. The beetles flee the flower and make their way to the next unpollinated flower.

Of course, this species of beetle isn’t found in the Botanic Garden, which makes pollination a bit more challenging. However, there are other insects in the Garden that have filled this niche and the plants have set seed over the last few years. However, this is the first year that staff at the Botanic Garden have tried to sow this seed and, so far, things are going well!
The seeds of Victoria cruziana are kept wet.
Photo credit: Andy Winfield

Replicating the natural environment

In its natural environment, the seeds from Victoria cruziana would be buried in the sediments, stirred up perhaps by grazing capybara and swirling river currents. It wouldn’t be until the high water levels following the rainy season had receded that the water temperature and the amount of light penetrating to the sediments beneath would be sufficient to prompt germination.

In the Botanic Garden, botanical horticulturist, Andy Winfield, first primed the seeds by scratching the tough seed coat with secateurs. The seeds were then sown into topsoil and covered with a layer of horticultural grit. The pots with the sown seeds were then placed in a container of water to a level about 10 cm depth above the seed. This replicates the approximate water depth in the natural environment. The water is heated to a temperature of between 30oC and 32oC; this is critical to start the germination process.

Andy scores the seeds with secateurs
before sowing.
Photo credit: Nicola Rathbone

Victoria cruziana grows around the edges of water bodies and in wetland areas where there is no forest canopy. In order to replicate the amount of daily sun it would be receiving in the tropics and sub-tropics, grow lights on a 12h on/12h off cycle were hung above the pots. Then the whole contraption was covered in plastic film to reduce evaporation and maintain humidity.

Andy had read that germination time is generally about 2-3 weeks in this type of scenario, but within a few days he noticed that the seeds were starting to send out roots and when I visited a week after sowing, the hypocotyledonous stems were clearly emerging from the seeds and shooting upwards toward the surface of the water. 

Preparing to plant Victoria out

At the moment, the water temperature in the pool in the tropical glasshouse is only about 14oC, far too chilly for Victoria. In the coming weeks, however, these plants are

likely to grow quite quickly. Andy and the rest of the team at the Garden will pot them on several

times, gradually reducing their water temperature. At the same time, Bristol temperatures will be increasing and the tropical glasshouse will start getting warmer, as will the pool. By the time the Victoria plants have a few decent leaves, the temperatures between the tropical pool and the plants will have become similar enough that Victoria can be put into the planters in the pond.

The annual light intensity here in Bristol is considerably less than Victoria cruziana would receive in South America. However, the long summer days here mean that during those months more solar radiation is received here in a single day than in tropical South America. This helps Victoria cruziana flourish in the Botanic Garden tropical pool over the summer and it will be worth a visit to see it in flower. See the series of photos below taken the day the seeds were sown.

Andy prepares the loamy mix for sowing.
Photo credit: Nicola Rathbone

The seeds are sown into a loamy mix.
Photo credit: Nicola Rathbone

The soil is covered with a horticultural grit.
Photo credit: Nicola Rathbone

The seeds are sown and are ready for immersion
in a nice warm bath.
Photo credit: Andy Winfield
The pots immersed in the warm bath.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple
Only one week after sowing, the embryonic stem
has emerged and is stretching for the surface.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple

Sources:

Seymour, R.S. and Matthews, P.G.D. 2006. The role of thermogenesis in the pollination biology of the Amazon waterlily 
     Victoria amazonica. Annals of Botany 98(6): 1129-35.