Bristol is buzzing, how the city is helping pollinators

By Helen Roberts

There has been a substantial amount of press coverage recently on the plight of our pollinators. They are now less abundant and widespread than they were in the 1950s. A number of threats are responsible, including habitat loss, disease, extreme weather, climate change and pesticide use.
A swathe of flowers for pollinators bring a
lot of cheeriness on a grey autumn day on
Horfield Common, Bristol.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple
There is not one smoking gun among these threats, but rather the combination that has endangered some species in the UK. Loss of wild flower rich habitat (due to intensive agriculture, industrialisation and urbanisation) escalates the effect of disease, extreme weather, climate change and pesticide use. Without food or shelter, pollinators are more vulnerable.

 Whilst visiting the University of Bristol Botanic Garden this autumn, I noticed the abundance of pollinators busily visiting many different flowers from the orchid look-a-like flower of Impatiens tinctoria to the swathes of Rudbeckia sp. and Verbena bonariensis. This year saw the 6th year of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden hosting the Bee and Pollination Festival in September. The Community Ecology Group from Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences was exhibiting and promoting their research as well as the exciting Get Bristol Buzzing initiative.
To find out more about pollinator research at the University, I met up with Dr Katherine Baldock, a Natural Environment Research Council Knowledge Exchange Fellow from the School of Biological Sciences and the Cabot Institute, to discuss the group’s work.
“Most people know that pollinators are important, but quite often don’t know what to do to help them, “ explained Katherine. “And this is where our research at the University comes into play”.
The aim of Katherine’s fellowship is to improve the value of the UK’s urban areas for pollinators by working with various stakeholders, such as city councils, conservation practitioners and the landscape industry. 

Translating science into solutions

NERC KE Fellow Dr Katherine Baldock.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple.

Up until 2014, Katherine worked on the Urban PollinatorsProject, which is researching insect pollinators and the plants they forage on in urban habitats.
Building upon research from this project and her current Fellowship, Katherine and her Bristol colleagues have contributed to the development of  a Greater Bristol Pollinator Strategy(2015-2020). The University research group has teamed up with Bristol CityCouncil, the Avon Wildlife Trust, Friends of the Earth Bristol, Buglife, SouthGloucestershire Council and the University of the West of England to implement this with the aim of protecting existing habitat and increasing pollinator habitat in the Greater Bristol area.
The group is also raising awareness of the importance of pollinators to a wide-ranging audience within the city and further afield. This is the first local pollinator strategy within the UK and follows closely in the wake of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ National Pollinator Strategy launched in 2014. It will help to promote aspects of the national strategy relevant to urban areas and hopefully set a precedent for the development of other local pollinator strategies throughout the UK.
The local pollinator strategy outlines actions that will help fulfill the strategy aims, including:
·         formation of a Local Pollinator Forum intended to share knowledge and best practice,
·         establishment of a joined-up approach to pollinator conservation by linking projects through the Get Bristol Buzzing initiative,

·         working with the public in local areas to explain actions they can take as individuals.

“Urban green spaces are important corridors for wildlife and help to provide linkages across the country”, explained Katherine. I envisaged a series of insect aerial motorways linking the whole of the UK, invisible threads connecting countryside, urban fringe and city centres.

The bee link-up

The Get Bristol Buzzing initiative is doing just that, as one of its strategic aims with the local pollinator strategy for 2016-2020, is to “Map pollinator habitat and identify target sites that allow habitat networks and stepping stones to be created to enable pollinators to move through urban areas”.
Katherine talked about how engaging the public at ground level was really important to Get Bristol Buzzing. The initiative is the pollinator component of My Wild City, a project whose vision is for people in Bristol to help transform spaces into a city-wide nature reserve. A number of interactive maps have been created that allow people to add what they have been doing in their area to help wildlife. The Get Buzzing initiative will feed into these maps.
Kath said, “The fact that you can add yourselves onto a map makes the Get Buzzing Initiative really visually appealing to people and much more personal.”

So, what can you do at home to help urban pollinators?

·         Plant for pollinators. Think about what plants you have in your garden. Could you change the planting or improve on it to make it more attractive to pollinators? Think about growing species that have nectar and pollen rich flowers and let your lawn grow longer to allow plants to flower.
·         Avoid pesticides. Most gardeners like their plants to remain pest free but avoid the temptation to use pesticides and accept the fact that you will lose some plants to pests. Instead try to encourage wildlife that will devour those pests or cultivate plants that will deter pests. 
·         Provide habitat. As pollinators need a home, you can always make your own nest boxes if you want to give your pollinating visitors a helping hand by drilling holes in a log or by bundling up lengths of hollow sticks such as bamboo. Visit the Botanic Garden’s bee hotel for inspiration!
“Setting aside a wild bit of garden can help pollinators by providing food, but provides nesting sites too”, remarked Katherine.

Additional information:

·         The Urban Pollinators Project was recently listed as one of the top 10 ground-breaking research projects in the Daily Telegraph. Read more.

·         Results from this research have recently been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B with more publications in press. A list of publications can be found here.

·         You can read more about Dr Katherine Baldock and the Urban Pollinators Project on page 7 of the 2015 edition of the Cabot Institute’s magazine.

Botanists disperse some 'big data'

Recently, Botanists at Trinity College Dublin launched a database with information that documents significant ‘life events’ for nearly 600 plant species across the globe. The database is the result of contributions from individuals working across five different continents, who compiled information on plant life histories for a near 50-year span, and is an example of big data.

What is ‘big data’?

Black pine (Pinus nigra), one of the species whose life
history data is part of the database, is seen against a
stunning backdrop of New Zealand. Credit: Yvonne Buckley.

In academic circles, the buzz-term across all disciplines seems to be ‘big data’, and it means exactly what it sounds like – a whole lot of information. More formally, of course, big data refers to data sets that are so large and complex that traditional methods of processing the information contained within them simply aren’t adequate. Big data draw upon many sources of information and represent a body of work that far exceeds what a single researcher, or indeed an entire research group, could gather in their careers.
While there are many challenges of working with big data – storing it, analysing, visualising it and ensuring its integrity to name a few – the benefits of working with such large data sets may make overcoming these challenges worthwhile. Repositories of such vast amounts of information can not only help foster collaborations, but they can be used to answer questions surrounding some of the most complex and pressing issues society currently faces, including climate change, food security, and mass species extinctions.
Of course, what is considered to be big data today will not be big data tomorrow as our management systems and computing capacity improve. This is the inevitable path of technological advancement; the Human Genome Project took over ten years (1990-2003) to sequence the human genome and now it can be done in a day for a fraction of the cost.

The importance of sharing knowledge

Plantago lanceolata at Howth Head, Dublin, Ireland – one of
the near 600 plant species that researchers have gathered
extensive life history data on. Credit: Anna Csergo.

The researchers at Trinity have made their database, called COMPADRE, freely available in the hope that other scientists access the information to advance their research. The size of the database means it can be used to help answer an infinite number of questions – such as how plant communities may respond to climate change or physiological processes that might provide insights into our own aging and health.
“Making the database freely available is our 21stCentury revamp of the similarly inspired investments in living plant collections that were made to botanic gardens through the centuries;” said Yvonne Buckley, Professor of Zoology at Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, “these were also set up to bring economic, medicinal and agricultural advantages of plants to people all over the world. Our database is moving this gift into the digital age of ‘Big Data’.”
The approach of free knowledge sharing is becoming more common and is a critical step toward resolving some of our biggest challenges. The University of Bristol’s Cereal Genomics Group has made the wheat genome along with hundreds of thousands of molecular markers freely available through their searchable database CerealsDB. These data can be used in wheat breeding programmes to develop new varieties of wheat that are more resistant to disease or droughts or produce higher yields.

Our best chance of overcoming some of the global challenges of the 21st Century is to work together. Sharing knowledge through databases, such as COMPADRE and CerealsDB, will ensure every scientific contribution counts towards this united effort.

Beans and bacteria – a complex story of communication

The symbiotic relationship between legumes and soil bacteria has been known for well over a century. The intimate details of this relationship, however, are only recently being revealed. It is a very active area of research as understanding this symbiotic relationship could lead to strategies that help reduce the environmental impacts of food production. 
Rhizobia nodules on the roots of cowpea
(Vigna unguiculata). By Stdout
[GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html),
via Wikimedia Commons.
Special soil bacteria – known as rhizobia – reside within the nodules of legumes, such as peas, lentils, beans, alfalfa and clover, which are found along the roots of these plants. The bacteria take nitrogen from the air and convert it into ammonia, which the plant is able to use – a process known as nitrogen “fixing”.
This allows legumes to grow well in nitrogen-poor soils. This nitrogen is taken up in the plant material, which can then be worked back into the soil as a natural fertiliser for subsequent crops.
While this all might sound very straight forward – there are details about this relationship that remain unclear. How do the bacteria get into the nodules? Are there signals that the plant uses to stimulate the bacteria to produce nitrogen?

An answer to a century-old debate

In 2011, researchers from the John Innes Centre in Norwich answered the mystery of how nitrogen-fixing bacteria crossed the cell walls into the nodules of legumes. 
It had been a century-old debate as to whether bacteria produced the enzymes to break down the cell walls or whether the plant did. The researchers showed that it was the plant which supplied the enzymes to break down its cell walls in order to give the bacteria access.

How legumes communicate with their symbiotic bacteria

In 2010, Stanfordresearchers discovered the gene in plants that triggered the chemical signal required for the bacteria to fix nitrogen. They found that the rhizobia bacteria would just sit around in the legume nodules if the plant failed to produce the protein that’s required to spur the bacteria into nitrogen fixing mode. This was only part of the communication story.
It is energetically costly for the plant to produce and maintain the root nodules in which the bacteria live; usually the benefit of having a supply of nitrogen outweighs this cost. If there is sufficient useable nitrogen in the soil, however, the plant is able to reduce the number of nodules on its roots.
Communication between the shoots of the plant and the roots of the plant help regulate the number of nodules. The leaves transmit a signal to the roots to either develop more or get rid of rood nodules, depending on circumstances. The roots communicate back up to the leaves using molecules known as peptides.
Research published recently has now discovered that the plant shoots use plant hormones, known as cytokinins, which travel down the phloem into the roots to help regulate nodule development.

The environmental benefits of understanding legumes

Understanding the symbiotic relationship between legumes and soil bacteria is not simply a matter of scientific curiosity. The ability for legumes to produce natural nitrogen fertilisers is a trait that US researchers would like to potentially transfer to non-legume crops as a way of reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.
Manufacturing nitrogen fertilisers for non-legumes is extremely resource intensive. It has been estimated that to produce 68 kg (150 lbs) of nitrogen fertiliser – enough for one acre of corn – would be the equivalent of driving a car 1,046 km (650 miles).
Beyond that, nitrogen fertilisers release the powerful greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, after they’ve been applied. Excess fertilisers also runoff agricultural land into rivers and lakes and eventually out into the ocean. This influx of nitrogen can provoke algal blooms and create oxygen deplete dead zones.

Therefore, there is great incentive to fully understand this relationship legumes have with soil bacteria. The environmental impact of agriculture could be significantly reduced by utilising legumes with their natural nitrogen fertiliser more by using them in more marginal land and using traditional breeding programs to select for drought resistance or temperature tolerance. In some countries, genetic engineering might even be used to introduce nitrogen-fixing abilities into non-legume species. Genetic modification, however, can be an inflammatory issue with considerable debate as to its pros and cons, particularly with respect to its use in food products.

'Tis the season of seed cleaning

Weeks ago, Nick suggested I come in on a rainy day to the garden as there was lots of seed cleaning going on in the potting shed. Then it didn’t rain for three weeks. Defeated by the glorious Autumn weather we’ve had, I phoned Froggie, and asked whether I could come in to learn about seed washing…yes, that’s right, I said “washing”. I’m such an amateur! However, Froggie was kind and  refrained from laughing at me and just said, “we don’t really wash the seeds unless they have a particularly fleshy covering”.
We arranged a time for me to come in and, as it happened, it was yet another glorious sunny day. While this made for a nice bicycle commute for me, it meant that the volunteer gardeners were all out in the garden so I would be having an individual, hands-on learning experience with respect to seed cleaning.

So many envelopes

As Froggie and I entered the potting shed, she took me immediately over to a bench lined with trays in which rows of envelopes were stacked up. On the outside of each envelope is written the plant’s latin name, the family name, the year the seed was collected, which collection the plant is from, the accession number and a number that corresponds with its numbered listing in the Garden’s Index Seminum. This is a catalogue of the seeds and spores that have been collected in association with the University of Bristol Botanic Garden. This catalogue goes out annually to the Friends of the Garden, other Botanic Gardens and research institutesRequests can be made for small quantities of seed for the purposes of research, breeding, conservation and education, or by members of the Friends of the Garden (subject to certain conditions).
The Garden likes to keep three years worth of seeds, but obviously different seeds have different storage potential. Some species, such as those in the Apiaceae family, which includes celery and parsnips, are generally only viable for a year, while other seeds have been found in archaeological digs that are estimated to be thousands of years old and have remained viable (see the 2,000 year old Judean date palm as an example).
Separating the seeds of Salvia forsskaolii. 
“We’ll keep back older years from groups such as the cereals, oats and wheat, as well as beans and peas,” said Froggie, “as they will likely remain viable and it’s good to have a reserve.”
Froggie explains that with the Garden’s involvement in the Seeds of Change project, there are even more demands on their seed stores. Though schools and community groups are encouraged to collect their own seed, the Botanic Garden is sending out lots of seed to start the projects off or replenish projects where collection efforts haven’t been successful.
In the little office at the back of the potting shed there are even more trays of seeds. This is where the staff compile all the seeds that go on the Botanic Garden’s annual seed list. Now having a sense of what the end product looks like, I sense that Froggie is about to show me how much work goes into filling each of these envelopes…

Separating the seed from the chaff

Pouring the Salvia seeds into a sieve to get
rid of the chaff.
I’m shown yet more trays of envelopes – but much bigger envelopes this time – many with stems poking out the top. The gardening staff and volunteers have collected the seed heads and placed them in these envelopes ready for cleaning and this is where the work begins. Froggie picks out the first envelope, it’s Salvia forsskaolii, commonly known as Indigo woodland sage.
We sit at the table, each with a white tray nestled within a larger black tray, which I assume is to collect the seeds that catapult out beyond the borders of my white tray. Froggie doles out a few sprigs of dried plant and shows me that the best technique for this particular plant is a simple flick of the seed head to help release the seeds. I flick and my white tray is scattered in small black seeds. Easy.
With the larger unwanted bits removed, we now pour our tray contents into a sieve to clean the seeds of any smaller bits. The clean seed is then poured into a smaller envelope that is placed back into the big envelope with the remaining plant material that is yet to be cleaned. When all the plant material has been worked, Froggie will then process the seed envelope, doing and final quality control check on the seed and making sure all the information is clearly written on the envelope.  
Nigella damascena before we begin to collect the seed.
We wipe down our trays and spray an anti-static spray to ensure there is no contamination as we move on to our next species – Nigella damascena. This too requires a tapping method, though some persistent seeds need to be squeezed out. There are numerous implements on the table for crushing plant material to get at the seed, but Froggies says they try to discourage crushing as much as possible as it makes for a lot of fine chaff that is difficult to separate out later.
As we work, Froggie fields questions from the volunteer gardeners who are looking for equipment or just confirming that what they’re doing is right. As we work, Froggie relays a few stories about misguided efforts of volunteers – stories of pruning gone awry or cutting back incorrect species – she chuckles about it all and has an ‘it all grows back’ sort of attitude about it. I know Froggie no doubt has a mill
ion other things she needs to be doing, but she gives me her full attention and focus and makes me feel as though she has all the time in the world for me. She creates a calming atmosphere, which no doubt comes in very handy when coordinating the efforts of so many volunteer gardeners and teaching new skills.
What my tray looks like after I’ve removed the Nigella seeds
from the seed heads. 
There is quite a bit of fine material mixed in with the Nigella seeds and so Froggie introduces me to another technique for separating seed from chaff. She takes some newspaper and folds it in half and pours seed and fine chaff together onto the paper. Then with a motion not dissimilar from a chef tossing almonds in a skillet, she carefully tosses the seeds in the paper. The fine, lightweight chaff moves to the top of the crease in the paper, while the heavier seeds move down. She can then simply give a very gentle blow to get rid of the chaff off the top of the paper. In the end she’s left with just the clean seeds.
We start on the last one – Avena orientalis – a grass. For this seed you hold the spikelet in one hand and flick the seed out. This particular species has a lovely dark seed, so it is very clear when you’ve got it all separated. 
Froggie uses newspaper to separate the lightweight chaff
from the heavier Nigella seeds.
Not all the seed cleaning is this easy. There are dust masks as some can be particularly dusty – but the staff tend to do the really nasty seed cleaning themselves, letting volunteers do the easier ones. If this were a rainy day, there would be volunteers everywhere working on this and having a good old chat.
Looking at the stacks of envelopes, I ask Froggie when seed cleaning needs to be finished.
“We need it all complete by February at the latest,” Froggie replies. “The seed list goes out in February and people will start to put requests in. We also start sowing at the end of February, beginning of March.”

Checking the lists

Cleaned Avena orientalis seeds with the
lighter leftover spikelets in the background.

In many of my excursions to the garden, the staff have introduced me to the many lists that they keep. There is a seed sowing list, a putting the garden to bed list, and now, I have seen the seed collecting list. This is where the staff make notes against each species – for example, if a plant was too small or late to come into flower. These notes are kept year to year and so if a species is less productive in one area of the garden than another or from one year to the next, all of this information is captured.
“The list is never finished,” says Froggie. “I will just update it when something else changes.”
In years where they are unable to collect seed for a particular species, they draw upon their reserves from previous year so that it can remain on the seed list. Annuals tend to be a priority, but also shrubs. The Garden works hard to insure that there is variety on the seed list.
As a member of the Friends of the Garden myself, I now look forward to receiving the seed list next year and I will have a much better appreciation of the work that goes into collecting the seeds for each of the nearly 200 species listed.