Every Flower Counts

This month’s blog comes to us courtesy of Chris Foster and Jonathan Mitchley, lecturers in the School of Biological Sciences.

Pollination is one of the most important ecosystem services and a great example of plant-animal interactions which are essential for maintenance of biodiversity. On the University of Reading campus there are hundreds of different wild and cultivated plants pollinated by a wide variety of insects.  In recent times, modern agriculture and other land uses have reduced the variety and abundance of pollinators through use of pesticides and inappropriate management and increasingly, conservation organisations are encouraging people to be more aware of the importance of pollinators.  

For example, the conservation charity Plantlife has been running the ‘No Mow May campaign for some years now, encouraging the public and local authorities to cut back on mowing to allow wild flowers to bloom. Letting flowers bloom on your lawn helps provide a vital source of nectar for bees and other insects, and at the end of the month you can count the flowers on your lawn to take part in Plantlife’s Every Flower Counts survey. You’ll then get your own Personal Nectar Score, which tells you how many bees your garden is helping to support.   

The University of Reading campus is home to a wide variety of grassland habitats and last spring Chris Foster and Jonathan Mitchley from the School of Biological Sciences decided to check out this Plantlife method to quantify the potential for pollinators on Whiteknights campus.  Starting last year several amenity grassland areas have been left as unmown ‘pollinator lawns, providing additional flower-rich habitat to the well-established flowering meadows, and we surveyed both of these habitats. This video introduces one of the areas and the map shows the grassland areas of different sizes which were. surveyed. 

Survey locations across Whiteknights campus

In June 2021 we counted the flowers in 1m x 1 m quadrats and following the Plantlife method the number of quadrats was calculated according to the size of the area – bigger areas sampled with more quadrats.  Twenty-four flowering species were recorded overall and the six commonest flowers recorded (in order of abundance) were Meadow Buttercup, Common Daisy, Hairy Vetch, Bulbous Buttercup, Red Clover and Common Mouse ear. 

Once the quadrat work was done the data were collated and the flower numbers for each species were input into the Plantlife online tool.  The results from tool output are shown in the table below.  Remember these are predicted numbers of pollinators using Plantlife’s algorithm, not actual pollinator measurements, but they provide a useful guide to the pollinator potential of the campus grasslands. The headline result was that the most pollinators per unit area were supported in the amenity grassland areas with lots of daisies and dandelions which are great plants for pollinators.  However, these areas tended to be smaller than the bigger less flowery meadows, so overall it was the larger areas that are likely to support the greatest number of pollinators.  

The outputs of the Plantlife online tool estimating how many pollinators each area supports

The analysis showed that the greatest number of pollinators was supported by meadow #22 (ca. 4 bees m-2) which was ca. four times as many as meadow #11 though both areas had roughly the same number of flowers (ca. 60 m-2).  This result is likely because meadow #22 had the largest numbers of the most nectar-rich plant species such as Buttercups and Red Clover.  

These results support the results of bee data collected on campus a few years back, which showed the amenity grasslands hosting slightly more bee species than the meadows, but a particularly high abundance of some of the commoner bumblebee species in the meadows once they were in full flower. More work by staff and students in the future should reveal in more detail how pollinators are using the varied flower rich habitats on Whiteknights campus throughout the year.  

Keep an eye on the Plantlife website to participate in this year’s ‘Every Flower Counts’ survey: https://www.plantlife.org.uk/everyflowercounts/ 

Many thanks to Chris and Jonathan! If you’re interested in contributing to the Whiteknights blog, please get in tough with Vicky Boult: v.l.boult(at)reading.ac.uk.

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