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.

Botanic gardens: places of research, education and beauty

By Nicola Temple

There are an estimated 3,400 botanic gardens around the world, many of which are associated with universities or other research institutions. This association with research institutions can give the impression that these gardens, Bristol’s own Botanic Garden included, are primarily research oriented and not particularly appealing to the public – nothing could be further from the truth.

In the last two years that I’ve been blogging for the Botanic Garden, I have taken myself to Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Tresco Abbey Gardens in the Isles of Scilly, El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden in Mexico and the University of Alberta’s Devonian Botanic Garden. I’ve been keen to see how they differ from my local Botanic Garden that I’ve come to love. These gardens have been different in their sizes and plant collections and clearly differ in their annual budgets, but they have all been united in their commitment to educate and they have all been beautiful places to spend a day (or two).

The history of botanic gardens

One of the many spectacular species of orchid on display
at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. Photo credit: Nicola Temple.

Botanic gardens seem to first make an appearance in the 16th century. They were set up largely as medicinal gardens where research and experimentation could be carried out on medicinal plants. They were often associated with medical schools and universities of the time.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the focus of research changed as global exploration started to bring back new exotic species of plants. Some of these plants were medicinal in nature and were of interest for that reason. Some, such as spices, were of interest because of their economic value. Some were simply of interest due to their exotic beauty and many of the wealthiest families wanted specimens for their own collections. In the 18th century glasshouses and heated conservatories were built in some of the botanic gardens in order to keep some of the species alive that were being brought back from tropical habitats.

A corridor through the Agapanthus at
Tresco Abbey Gardens. The species was
introduced to the Isles of Scilly by the
proprietor of the gardens in 1856.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple.

The research focus of botanic gardens has continued to evolve to meet the needs of society. Today conservation, climate change and sustainability are the greatest challenges we face and as a result, many botanic gardens around the world have active research programs in these areas.  The decades, and in some cases centuries, of information collected by these gardens is proving incredibly valuable in terms of how the climate is changing and how some species are responding.

Botanic gardens play a critical role in conservation

In 2010, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted an updated Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). The University of Bristol Botanic Garden, along with botanic gardens around the world support this global strategy in every aspect of the work that they do.

The strategy recognises that without plants, life on this planet would cease to exist. The aim, therefore, is to halt the continuing loss of plant diversity. The five main objectives of the GSPC are:

  • Plant diversity is well understood, documented and recognised.
  • Plant diversity is urgently and effectively conserved.
  • Plant diversity is used in a sustainable and equitable manner.
  • Education and awareness about plant diversity, its role in sustainable livelihoods and importance to all life on Earth is promoted.
  • The capacities and public engagement necessary to implement the strategy have been developed.

The El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden in San Miguel
d’Allende, Mexico had many parts that were less formal than
other botanic gardens. Photo credit: Shelby Temple.

The University of Bristol’s Botanic Garden developed the Local Flora and Rare Native Plant Collection in response to the GSPC. In the eight habitat themed displays associated with this collection – Carboniferous Limestone grassland, woodland and cliff face (found locally in the Avon Gorge & Durdham Downs, Mendip Hills and North Somerset cliffs and coastal islands), Coastal Communities, Deciduous Woodland, Aquatic and marginal areas, hedgerows and seasonally flooded sedge peat meadow associated with the Somerset Levels  – are many of the rare and threatened native plants to these regions. The Garden is therefore a global repository for this plant material in both these living collections as well as its seed banks. Over the coming months, Helen and I will blog about each of the Garden’s collections in more detail, so stay tuned!

A place for learning

Cactus in flower at the El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden.
Photo credit: Shelby Temple.

The plant collections at the Garden are used extensively by the University of Bristol for undergraduate teaching as well as in graduate student projects. Beyond this, however, it is a place to learn horticulture, art, photography, garden design, and numerous skills from willow weaving to wreath making.

Formal courses and training through the Royal Horticultural Society are also held at the University Botanic Garden – it’s an ideal setting.
< br />The Garden also offers tours – whether it’s a special interest group, school group or a group of friends wanting to join one of the summer evening tours. Having joined on a school group tour in the past, I know the volunteers are very good at tailoring the tours to draw together information the children have been learning in class with the collections on display.

A place to be inspired

A pollinator drinking nectar from milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
flowers at the University of Alberta’s Devonian Botanic Garden
in Canada. Photo credit: Nicola Temple.

The collections, knowledge and expertise held at the Botanic Garden puts it in an ideal position to raise public awareness of the plants on display, our interdependency on plants more generally and critical issues facing many of these species, including changes as a result of global warming, habitat loss and invasive species. These are common threads in all of the communications put out by the garden.

More than this though, the Bristol Botanic Garden aims to foster an interest in plants and inspire people through its work. We can all feel somewhat paralysed by the plethora of environmental gloom and doom stories sometimes. Sometimes inspiration and awe about a species can spur people into action more easily than anger and frustration. The Garden’s annual Bee and Pollination Festival is an excellent example of this. Pollinators are having a tough go of it and a National Urban Pollinators Strategy is under development in the UK as I write this to try and improve the situation for this critical group of animals. All the important information is at the Festival, but overall this is a celebratory event – an opportunity to learn and get excited about how amazing pollinators are and how we are so deeply connected to them in so many aspects of our life.

A sunflower display at the Devonian Botanic Garden, Canada
was very popular with the butterflies. Photo credit: Shelby Temple.

The Garden can also be a quieter source of inspiration. I have now spent many hours sitting with camera in hand trying to get perfect flower shots or just simply watching bees move from flower to flower. Sometimes inspiration can be found in these quieter moments, surrounded by beauty, in a garden in a city.

Children take a 'walk through time' at the Bristol Botanic Garden

It’s 1 pm, the sun is shining and the volunteer guides are starting to gather near the welcome lodge in anticipation of 60 Year 4 children arriving at the Botanic Garden for a tour. It’s my son’s school, Horfield CEVC Primary School, and so I’ve decided to come along for the tour and get a glimpse into how the Garden is viewed through the eyes of eight and nine year olds.
Anne is one of the volunteer guides at the garden and she and I get chatting while we await the children’s arrival. She was a teacher for 40 years – teaching at GCSE and A levels. She laughs as she tells me she was a bit nervous she would find touring younger children challenging when she started giving these school tours at the Garden. She soon found, however, that though it was different from teaching upper level students, it was also just good fun.
Volunteer guide Tony gives a talk to Year 4 students
from Horfield CEVC Primary School prior to their tour.
“I’m not responsible for making sure they learn the curriculum, I’m here to entertain them with interesting stories about the plants we have here in the garden – to get them excited and inspired by what they see,” Anne says from a shady bench.
The guides have come prepared; they know the Horfield children have been learning about Egypt and different habitat types. As well as discussing the logistics of touring sixty children around the garden in small groups, they check in with each other about plants that might be important to point out that will link to the topics and themes they’ve been learning in the classroom.
Then the coach arrives.

A tour through the glasshouses

Before the children break into small groups to go around the garden, volunteer guide Tony gives a very brief talk about what plants need to survive. The children enthusiastically put up their hands in response to Tony’s question of what plants need to grow. Horfield Primary is lucky enough to have a garden and most of the children will have grown plants in the classroom at some stage (my son brought a runner bean home from school a few weeks back that’s doing splendidly). So, although photosynthesis hasn’t been taught by Year 4, there are other opportunities where the children are learning the basic needs and processes of plant growth.
Students have a look in the pitcher plants in the sub-tropical
zone of the glasshouses.
Baking sun and a tight schedule keeps the introductory talk brief and I follow Anne’s small group down into the glasshouses. She points out the Deadly Nightshade along the way and talks about the large black poisonous berries – a good wow factor for the kids right off the start!
In the sub-tropical zone, the children talk about the challenges of plants growing in a rainforest beneath a heavily shaded canopy and some of the adaptations they’ve made to get alternate sources of food. They have a look into the pitcher plants to see whether any wayward insects have fallen into the plant’s pitcher-shaped trap. As Anne walks by the lichen, she talks about how lightning changes the nitrogen in the air into a form that’s easier for plants to use – lichens need a continual supply of nitrogen to survive. Lightning helps feed plants? This has the children’s attention.
Having a look at the giant lily pads in the pond in the
tropical zone of the glasshouses.
In the tropical zone the giant lily pads (Victoria) impress the children immediately. Then Anne points out the papyrus that’s growing at the corner of the pond and the children quickly make the link between this plant and the papyrus paper that they’ve been learning about in their Egyptian studies. As I switch between the different groups I hear one of the other guides tell a story from Egyptian Mythology about how the Scorpion-godess, Selkis, protects the child Horus by hiding him in a papyrus thicket.
The lotus plants (Nelumbo nucifera) are also linked to Egypt as there is a Nymphaea lotus that grows in the Nile. Anne encourages the children to splash some of the pond water onto the leaves of the lotus plant and I watch as two girls are astonished at how the leaves repel the water.
Water beads off the leaf of the lotus plant.
Some of the other highlights in the tropical zone were the cocoa plant, vanilla and cotton. The Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus) is also pointed out for its utility in treating leukaemia.
As the children stand beside the cacti in the glasshouses, they are told that some of these plants will go 10 years without ever experiencing rainfall – longer than these children have been alive. Anne and the other guides talk about all the adaptations these plants have made to go for long periods without water.
Students are given an opportunity to experience what
happens to Mim
osa plants when you touch their leaves.

Time travel through the evolutionary dell

I leave the heat of the glasshouses to join Tony’s group as they begin their walk through the evolutionary dell. Tony is telling the children about horsetails (no friend of the gardener) and pointing out the nodes of the plants. He tells them that 350 million years ago this little snippet of a plant would have been the size of a tree! The kids crane their necks up imagining and as we walk toward the tree ferns one of the girls says “It feels like time travelling!”
Tony takes the children on a walk through time in
the evolutionary dell.
Indeed it is like time travelling in the dell. In the 100 m span of the dell, we travel 200 million years from the horsetails (350 mya) to the first flowering plants (150 mya), such as the magnolia that’s on the left as you leave the dell. Surrounded by ferns, moss, horsetails, Wollemia and other conifers, the guides tell the children about how plants reproduced before the evolution of flowers and pollinators.

It’s never long enough

Somehow an hour seemed to fly by and before long the guides were rushing through the last few displays before sending the children off on their coach. As I had the opportunity to hop between the different groups I got the great sense that each group would have left the garden with a different experience as each guide has their own style and favourite stories associated with the garden. It’s never possible to see everything, but hopefully that means some of the children will encourage their parents and guardians to bring them back for another visit!
Tony holds up a horsetail and talks about plant nodes.

Linking to the curriculum

Mrs Amy Parkin, one of the Year 4 teachers at Horfield Primary, was kind enough to speak with me the next day after the tour about how tours such as this link with the classroom curriculum. This is the first time Horfield Primary has done the tour at the Botanic Garden and it was prompted by Curator Nick Wray giving a talk earlier this year to the Key Stage 2 children.
“We had two weeks where we talked about prehistoric Bristol, dinosaurs and fossils,” said Mrs Parkin. “Each class did a science trail with various outside activities and we also had speakers come in to talk to the children. Nick spoke about what plants would have been around 160 million years ago and he brought in some different species to show the children.”
As well as learning about Egypt, the Year 4 children have also covered the topic of habitats under their science curriculum and there are also cross-curricular links with their geography topic of water.
“The tour at the Botanic Garden helped extend the children’s knowledge on habitats,” said Mrs Parkin. “We focused on animals in different habitats in the classroom and in the tour we saw how plants adapt to different habitats as well.”
This tour will also give the Year 4 students a taste of what lies ahead as they will have plants as a topic in Year 5.

Talking with the students after the tour

After the tour I had a chance to speak with Megan and Henry about what they thought of the Botanic Garden. Megan said “I really liked the giant lily pads, especially since a small child could sit on one!”, while Henry really liked the giant lemon that was in the glasshouse.
When I asked Megan and Henry what the most interesting thing they learned was, Megan said she couldn’t believe that some plants can live for 10 years without water. Henry, on the other hand, learned something new about pollination, “There are lots of different bugs that pollinate plants – blowflies and beetles – and birds too!”
The Botanic Garden will run about 15 school tours during the months of June and July, with the help of their dedicated volunteer guides. These tours are in keeping with the Garden’s mission to promote education and awareness as well as to encourage and foster interest in plants within the Bristol community. In fact, the garden would like to run more school tours, so if you are involved with a local school and are interested in a trip to the Botanic Garden, please contact them via:   www.bristol.ac.uk/botanic-garden