Monday, 25 June 2012

One week on: Reflections on the first national farm pollinator survey

Staff and students from Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) were heavily involved with the first ever national farm pollinator survey on 17 June which took place as part of Open Farm Sunday. One week on Lucy Cornwell and Olivia Richardson, two MSc students spending the summer at CEH, describe the important role they played in a very successful day.

Sunshine, stag beetles and sibling rivalry
2012 is the first year that a national citizen science pollinator monitoring scheme has been attempted. On June 17th, ecologists from CEH and Syngenta, and other local experts, travelled to over 20 farms around the country to coordinate this project. Along with Morag, an ecologist from CEH, I was based at Crowmarsh Battle Farms in Oxfordshire where local school children had been invited to visit for the first time. To celebrate this, the sun came out on our farm (and luckily many others across the country!) leading to a huge sigh of relief from everyone involved. From 2pm a steady stream of visitors arrived, all very eager to take part in the survey. Our two sites were a wheat field and neighbouring field margin containing a mix of wildflowers.

Sunshine helped to attract a good selection of invertebrate life to the wildflowers, with particularly high numbers of bees and flies. The children were really enthusiastic about hunting for insects, and had very clear ideas about what they would see; “Stag beetles, definitely”. Sibling rivalry was very high, and answer sheets were closely guarded to prevent copying. Despite some unrealistic predictions and serious competition levels, everyone was thrilled with their results and left with a little more knowledge and passion for wildlife.

Searching for pollinating insects

Around 60 people visited Crowmarsh Battle Farm, and we managed to collect 22 surveys, a great result. Nationally we have received over 500 records from 30 farms across the country. These cover ten different farm habitats, five each of crop and non-crop. From this data we will be able to investigate geographical patterns – is there a North/South divide? We will also be able to determine the most important farm habitats for invertebrates, which should help to provide advice for farmers who want to increase pollinator populations on their land.  

So far it seems that the pollinator monitoring project has been a great success, providing a very interesting dataset and helping to connect people with farmland wildlife. To quote Toby, age 6 who visited College Farm in Duxford; “I think it’s super”. 

Lucy Cornwell

Pollinators and sunshine

 “A bee, a bee, I’ve found a bee, come and see!” As an MSc student from the University of Leeds, doing my dissertation at CEH’s headquarters in Wallingford, it was great to hear the enthusiasm of a small child about wildlife on Open Farm Sunday. Although my project isn’t related to pollinators, when I heard about the fantastic opportunity of helping with the Pollinator Survey, I knew I wanted to get involved. This was the first time that the Pollinator Survey had been run and it sounded like an excellent way for Citizen Science to help research such an important topic that affects us all, as well as create greater awareness and enthusiasm about the wildlife that surrounds us every day.

Olivia helps a young volunteer complete the survey

On the day, I went with a team of three members of CEH staff to College Farm in Cambridgeshire, one of the farms participating in Open Farm Sunday. It was a gloriously sunny day (Thankfully! We all had imagined that we might be standing by our site under umbrellas…) and everyone we met at the farm immediately made us feel welcome and were very helpful in setting up the survey. Our first task of the day was to select the two habitat areas where the pollinator survey would take place: a crop habitat and a non-crop habitat. The whole survey would consist of looking for pollinators on flowers (aided by an invertebrate key) at the crop habitat as well as at the non- crop habitat for five minutes each. After much discussion, we chose an area a short distance from the tractor rides which had an abundance of flowering plants, with the option of either Oilseed rape (Brassica napus) or Potato (Solanum tuberosum) plants as a crop habitat. A strip of flowering field margin that ran along the crops was classed as the non-crop habitat.

Once we were set up, we eagerly awaited the public to arrive to try out the survey. After the farm was open, we didn’t have long to wait, with children racing each other to reach us at the site. A range of generations, from grandparents to toddlers came to our site, all interested to hear about what we were doing and how they could help. When the survey had been explained, members of the public, either in groups or as individuals started searching at each habitat for invertebrates aided by CEH experts and invertebrate keys. It was great to see how quickly everyone (from the experienced to complete novices) got involved in the survey, with children and adults alike amazed at the variety of different species of invertebrates seen. Throughout the day, you could hear groups of children shouting at each other when they found something. The afternoon was a great success with groups of people coming in a constant flow and with over 40 pollinator surveys undertaken within a few hours. There was such a positive attitude towards learning about wildlife from the survey; it was a really great thing to see.

Olivia Richardson

Additional information

Latest results from the Pollinator Survey from the Open Farm Sunday website

More details about the farm pollinator survey from the Open Farm Sunday website.

More photos from the Open Farm Sunday pollinator survey

Watch videos about the pollinator survey on our YouTube channel

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Record, Research, Respond! – Biological recording in a changing world at BBC Gardeners’ World Live 2012

CEH is back at the BBC Gardeners’ World and Good Food Show at the NEC in Birmingham this year, hoping to encourage the gardeners and food lovers amongst you to get involved in biological recording. Scientists will also be on hand to explain more about how the records sent in by volunteers get used for scientific research and in policy making.  The show opened on Wednesday 13 June and runs until Sunday 17 June, so still plenty of time to come along for a visit!

Biological recording in a changing world - the CEH stand!

The UK probably has the best recorded flora and fauna of any country in the world. Much of this is down to the invaluable inputs of amateur recorders. Everyone can contribute records of things they see during their everyday lives, from butterflies and bees to flies and fleas – websites and mobile phone apps are making the process even quicker!

Insect specimens can be viewed up close and under the microscope

Biological records submitted are used to form initial distribution maps. The first national atlas was the Atlas of the British Flora, published 50 years ago in 1962 – members of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) are at our Gardeners’ World stand to explain more about this ground-breaking publication and the legacy it created, as well as chat more generally about topics such as wildflowers.

Members of the BSBI were at the stand discussing wildflowers and
historical botany recording.

Scientists at CEH and other research institutes use this wealth of biological data within research projects that look to develop answers to the complex environmental issues facing the planet. Scientists from two such projects, the Conker Tree Science Leaf Watch and the UK Ladybird Survey, are on the stand to discuss their own experiences while our displays of heathland plants in decline and urban plants on the increase represent some of the environmental changes that have been detected thanks to biological records.

Cream-spot ladybird larva under the microscope.

Scientific discoveries help to inform, conserve
and restore the environment

Please pop by for a visit to learn more and play biodiversity Jenga! The stand is number GFW3 in Hall 19 of the NEC.

Postscript: added 27 June 2012

We were delighted with the wonderful response and interest from visitors to the stand over the five days of the show. What's more, our stand won a Highly Commended award from the organisers! You can view lots more photos on our Flickr set (link below).

Additional information

Posted by Paulette Burns

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Pollinators, the public and putting your MSc project in the hands of the elements

Staff and students from CEH are heavily involved with the first ever national farm pollinator survey on 17 June as part of Open Farm Sunday. In this week’s guest blog, newly arrived MSc student Lucy Cornwell describes the role she will be playing in the survey.
I am an MSc student from the University of Leeds, based at CEH’s headquarters site in Wallingford for the summer. My main role is to assist Dr Helen Roy and Dr Michael Pocock with a citizen science pollinator monitoring scheme, a collaboration between the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), Linking Environment And Food (LEAF) and Syngenta. The data will be collected by the public, and the project will run as part of Open Farm Sunday, a nationwide event organised by LEAF. For the past six years, farmers have been opening their doors (and gates!) to educate the public on food production and modern farming issues. This year around 300 farms are taking part on June 17th, and at least 30 of these will also be participating in the pollinator monitoring scheme. Limited funding in biological recording means that citizen science programmes are now an important tool in gathering large and geographically widespread datasets.

The public play an important role in biological recording.

The pollinator activities will consist of two surveys; one making five minute observations of two habitats; crop and non-crop, recording the invertebrate orders which visit the flowers. The second targets five species which are included in current recording schemes and participants simply note whether or not they have seen them. Voluntary experts will be available for assistance and to identify any interesting invertebrates. On the day I will be based at a farm ten minutes from CEH’s Wallingford site, which has invited children from two local schools. Parents will also be coming and we will welcome their help with the survey, adding extra sets of eyes to the task.
Aside from looking at invertebrates, the children will have a chance to learn about crop production, see some large farm machinery and play with the chickens! The focus at this site is keeping the children entertained so they don’t lose enthusiasm and their invertebrate spotting skills. If the weather doesn’t cooperate then the survey will have to take a back seat to other activities, and I will quietly weep into the redundant recording sheets.
The aim of the pollinator monitoring project is to increase public interest in wildlife and biological recording schemes, whilst collecting scientifically useful data on farmland pollinator communities. Once participants have completed the survey they can either enter their data onsite to see it added to the database, or upload it via the Open Farm Sunday website. Headline results will be released in the days following the event, before we look at the data more closely. If all goes to plan then the data should provide patterns of distribution of certain species, and form the basis for a repeatable survey revealing any changes in this over time.  It may also reveal differences in invertebrate community structure geographically, and between different farm types. Our hope is that a better understanding of how pollinators carry out their work in different habitats will help farmers to grow more food sustainably, and lead to a more wildlife friendly landscape.

There are nearly 300 bee species in Britain, most of them
solitary bees such as this one. Together they provide a large
proportion of pollination services in the country.

Overall it should be a really enjoyable day for everyone involved, and a chance for us all to learn something about farmland invertebrates.
Fingers crossed for sunshine!
Posted by Lucy Cornwell

Additional information

More details about the farm pollinator survey from the Open Farm Sunday website.

Staff pages of Dr Helen Roy and Dr Michael Pocock at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Creating a buzz: the first ever national farm pollinator survey

Supporting Open Farm Sunday
Ecologists, including scientists from CEH,
 are supporting the survey
Hundreds of farms around Britain are opening their gates to members of the public on Sunday 17 June, with activities for all ages taking place as part of the seventh annual Open Farm Sunday.

This year’s event will also feature the first ever national farm pollinator survey taking place on selected farms across the country, with members of the public joining ecologists in the scientific recording of “pollinators” such as bees, beetles, hoverflies, butterflies and moths which play an important role in the production of our food and the health of the environment.

LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming), the organisers of Open Farm Sunday, have teamed up with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and Syngenta to carry out the survey in order to find out more about these essential insects. Scientists from CEH will not only be carrying out surveys on the day itself, but will validate and analyse the results collected by the public.

The information collected through the survey will identify trends, improve understanding of the ecology of insects visiting flowers on farms, and in turn help farmers with their work to conserve and encourage pollinating insects.


Pollination is an important and natural process that is vital to the production of many foods and the countryside. It is the movement of pollen from one plant to another, and is needed for many plants and crops to reproduce. Pollination takes place when the pollen lands on the stigma of plants, having been transported there by insects, the wind or animals.

Those taking part in the survey will be provided
with information on how to identify insects.


Approximately 80% of plant types rely on insects for pollination, which is why insect pollinators such as bees, beetles and flies are so important to both the production of our food and the countryside.

It is estimated that insect pollinators are worth more than £500 million to the UK economy because of their contribution to food production and also because they are needed to help maintain the biodiversity of the countryside. As well as their importance to the economy, scientists and farmers need to know much more about the activity of different insect groups and their role in providing a service on farms through pollination.

Insects are attracted to plants for a variety of reasons, of which smell is the most common, although colour and nectar can also play a part. For pollinating insects, plants are also an important source of nutrients.

Pollination is an essential ecosystem service which also supports other vital ecosystems including soil protection and flood control. Without pollinating insects, plants would not be able to reproduce as efficiently, while birds that rely on seeds would be at risk.

As there are thousands of insect species in the UK alone, the scientists leading the survey are asking the public for help. Dr Helen Roy, an ecologist at CEH, said: “We are extremely concerned that long-term surveys are highlighting declines in pollinating insects. People across the country can play a valuable part in recording pollinators on farms and help us to discover more about these important insects.  We want visitors on participating farms to spend a little time recording how many insects they see in two different habitats, such as a field of wheat and a margin of wildflowers. "

Dr Helen Roy introduces the Pollinator Survey

Dr Roy continues, "In addition we have selected five insects, including the common blue butterfly and the 14-spot ladybird, for visitors to record anywhere on the farm they visit.  After Open Farm Sunday all the research will be collated and analysed by a team of scientists and the results shared with farmers to help them conserve pollinating insects on their farms.”

It is a myth that bees are the only insects that pollinate plants and crops. Although it is widely recognised that honeybees carry out insect pollination, the managed honeybee is just one species amongst the 25 species of bumblebee, 225 species of solitary bee and hundreds of butterfly and hoverfly species that make up the UK’s pollinator fauna. Moths, wasps, ladybirds and other insects also play their part in insect pollination.

Visitors needn’t worry however if they don’t know the bumblebee from the honey bee or a stag from a soldier beetle as there will be trained recorders on hand to help on many farms, as well as leaflets, posters and website downloads to help with the identification of the insects.

Additional information

The seventh annual Open Farm Sunday on 17 June 2012 provides a great opportunity for the public to get to know how their food is produced and how the countryside around them is cared for. Visitors will be able to learn from farmers themselves how natural plant and insect species are encouraged to thrive alongside crops, they will get a close-up look at farm animals and see how the needs of wildlife are balanced with modern food production.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Global change, plant-soil interactions and ecosystems services.

Dr Nick Ostle of CEH is an ecologist and biogeochemist interested in global change effects of land use, climate change and atmospheric deposition on biodiversity and other ecosystem services. He also has a history of work on plant-soil interactions and their influence on carbon and nitrogen cycles in peatlands and grasslands in the UK and around the world.  Nick was one of the speakers at this year's inaugural Plant Science conference held at the John Innes Centre in April, designed to showcase the wealth of plants science undertaken in the UK.

You can watch the video of his talk now, made available on YouTube by the conference organisers. It includes examples of CEH's research activities which involve a combination of long term plant-soil surveys, field scale experimentation and measurements, and laboratory manipulations.