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Urban Pollinators - a budding ecological scheme in Leeds

PUBLISHED: 00:27 08 October 2013

Mark Goddard (Reasearch Assistant) and Vicky Williams (Field Assistant) with Kirsty Robertson ( Field asst in white hat) checking for bees and hoverflies at the site in Hunslett Moor near the M621.

Mark Goddard (Reasearch Assistant) and Vicky Williams (Field Assistant) with Kirsty Robertson ( Field asst in white hat) checking for bees and hoverflies at the site in Hunslett Moor near the M621.

Joan Russell Photography

Urban meadows have been planted in Leeds as part of a nationwide trial to tackle the falling population of bees and other pollinating insects. Terry Fletcher reports

Flower meadows planted around Leeds as part of the Urban Pollinators Project. Flower meadows planted around Leeds as part of the Urban Pollinators Project.

If you are looking for spectacular wildflower meadows some of the finest in the country are to be found scattered across the Yorkshire Dales. But it is a rather more unexpected set that is capturing the attention of scientists, not in the county’s rolling farmlands but growing in municipal parks across our busiest city.

Biologists from Leeds University are studying more than a dozen which have been specially created with the help of the city council. They are part of a nationwide experiment which could change the way the towns of the future not only look but also decide whether our gardens, allotments and parks continue to thrive.

Ecologists from Leeds are working with colleagues from Bristol, Edinburgh and Reading to study the impact of the newly-created meadows on urban populations of bees and other pollinating insects. In recent years there has been growing concern about the collapse of bee colonies and dwindling numbers of other insects across the country. The numbers matter because they play a crucial role in pollinating flowers and the fruit and vegetables to put on our plates.

Most of our food crops are grown commercially on large-scale farms in the countryside but an increasingly significant amount is being produced in towns and cities on allotments and in people’s back garden vegetable plots. Some growers are simply looking for a way to cut their grocery bills but others want to know more about where their food is coming from, how it has been grown and especially about the chemicals with which it has been sprayed.

Overall it is thought that more than £500m worth of food crops such as apples, tomatoes and strawberries rely on insects to pollinate them. Without this unpaid winged workforce it is estimated that it would cost around £1.8bn for humans to do the work by hand.

In Leeds two kinds of meadow have been planted in parks from Beeston and Hunslet to West Park and Horsforth. The first is seeded with annual plants such as cornflowers, poppies, alysum, flax and marigold. The other is a perennial mix of native plants such as oxeye daisies, viper’s burgloss, buttercups and red campion. The flowers have proved popular with park visitors but it is their attraction to insects that really matters.

Prof Jane Memmott of Bristol University, who is leading the research said: ‘Urban areas have the potential to support large numbers of insect pollinators. However, many cultivated plants do not provide suitable forage for them. Sowing meadows like these that contain nectar and pollen-rich plant species increases the provision of foraging resources for bees and other pollinating insects. Replacing traditionally planted areas with flower meadows can also have economic benefits as wildflowers are less expensive for councils to replace than cultivated plants.’

Creating space for the insects to nest as well as feed is also seen as increasingly important as more land is built on. Dr Mark Goddard, of the Leeds University team, said the study was about finding out which plants served pollinators the best and looking for ways in which cities could be improved to reverse the decline in numbers. ‘A lot of the focus so far has been on honey bees but there are another 250 species of bees and lots of other pollinators such as hover flies to take into account. The meadows are visually stunning and we have had overwhelming support from people who have seen them but it is the reaction of the pollinators that really matters.’

Early results have been encouraging in that numbers seem to be higher around the 300 sq metres meadows than in surrounding areas and even higher at a meadow that was planted last year and is now in its second year of blooming. Dr Goddard said: ‘That’s not really surprising in itself but the magnitude of the increase is very impressive.’ That could also be explained by this year’s better summer after a washout last year but another possibility is that numbers can recover quite quickly given a helping hand.

The aim of the research is not only to find which plants have the most impact but also how land management can help. One area being looked at is the cutting of grass verges beside roads. Dr Goddard said: ‘The total area of verges across a city the size of Leeds is very significant and the way they are managed can have a big impact. If, for example, you just reduce the number of mowings each year even only slightly, it can help.’

The result in a few years’ time may be a less manicured road network but a healthier environment and more successful gardens. Likewise the varieties of plants in grown in parks, civic flower beds and even private gardens could change to create a happier insect workforce and more productive crops.

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