Sunday, 30 July 2017

Why is the world's largest bee hotel like Glasgow's postwar regeneration?

I was in Scotland last weekend to lead a couple of bumblebee ID training events.  As I needed to bring a fair bit of kit with me, I drove, and passed through Glasgow on the M8 motorway on my way to Loch Lomond.  The M8 is strange in that it passes through heavily-populated areas: the splitting of communities caused by the massive new road is one of the many reasons cited for the failure of Glasgow's massive post-war regeneration, where entire neighbourhoods of slum tenements in the centre were demolished and the inhabitants moved out to newly-built flats around the edges of the city.

This, slightly implausibly, came to mind again this morning when I saw a tweet from the BBC's Springwatch about 'the team' at WWT Martin Mere building 'the world's largest bug hotel'.
The thing is huge - 17 cubic metres of bamboo, straw, wood, slate, chicken wire and pine cones that took four weeks to construct.  And I'm rather concerned that it - and the general fashion for building ever-bigger edifices of 'insect habitat' - is repeating very similar mistakes to the planners and builders of post-war Glasgow.

The new developments in Glasgow failed largely because they disrupted families & local communities, and they didn't provide amenities - shops, schools, places to work.  Huge numbers of people were placed in new flats in the middle of nowhere seemingly almost at random.  To see friends or family meant facing long, arduous trips across town; any desire or need to work, visit shops or pubs, or do anything outside their new homes meant difficult trips back to the city centre and their former neighbourhoods.

This is almost exactly what happens with these giant bug hotels.  Usually unaccompanied by any more favourable management - more flower-rich grassland, say - they are giant blocks of just-about-passable accommodation in the middle of nowhere.  Bees - especially the smaller solitary species which are the main targets of 'hotels' - have a fairly limited flight range, especially to forage efficiently and bring back the maximum of pollen & nectar in the minimum time.  The area around a giant 'hotel' is unlikely to be able to support the number of bees which could nest in 17 cubic metres of hotel! Thus most will remain empty... which makes things a bit of a waste of time.

Additionally, any large aggregation of host species will inevitably attract parasites, pests & diseases.  There is already some evidence that 'bee hotels' may potentially do as much harm as good by artificially aggregating solitary bee nests in areas which are easy for parasites and parasitoids to spread between nests: one 'hotel' manufacturer even recommends that the products are cleared out each winter to reduce the parasite load on the bees.

Overall, while these giant 'bug hotels' certainly make a statement to the casual visitor, they almost always remain virtually empty (apart from the inevitable earwigs), and those bees which do set up home are at greater risk of death than those nesting in more natural situations.  I haven't visited the Martin Mere 'hotel': I can't comment on whether they have begun managing the site more for pollinators, or whether their showpiece hotel is accompanied by more natural, more dispersed options for nesting or overwintering.  

But I can virtually guarantee that they don't set out to increase bird numbers on the reserve entirely by putting out more nestboxes, which appears to be essentially what they've done here for insects.

More information on the Glasgow regeneration projects can be found on the University of Warwick website and Buzzfeed has an impressive gallery

Monday, 12 June 2017

One day... one thousand species?

Out in the wilds of the Lizard peninsula, the near-full moon was visible past the old windmill.  A brisk wind was whipping the grasses back and forth as the final seconds until midnight ticked away.  As the clock struck 12, the generator died, and the light of the moth-trap went out.  Seconds later, the loose connection in moth trap no. 2 played up and it too went dark.  In the distance, the third remaining trap blew over, and it began to rain.  Clearly it was going to be one of those days...

But the story actually begins several months previously.  Graeme Lyons, ecologist at the Sussex Wildlife Trust and fellow Pan-Species Lister, had suggested a challenge: was it possible to find and identify a full one thousand species in just the 24 hours of one calendar day in the UK?  With a few rules (2 people who must stick together as a team, one vehicle, no outside help) and a set date (10th June 2017), the gauntlet was laid down...

My team would be myself and Sally, a friend and fellow PSL-er based just outside Penzance in Cornwall, so Friday evening saw me piloting a van laden with caffeine, ID guides, site species lists and a sleeping dog down the ever-smaller Cornish lanes en route to our first destination, Windmill Farm.  Having to use both the windscreen wipers and the heater didn't bode well, but the site was a Cornwall Wildlife Trust & Cornwall Birdwatching & Preservation Trust Reserve covered with species-rich pools, heathland, mires, trees and grassland, plus a Red-footed Falcon hanging around for the past week - must be good!
Moth trapping at Windmill Farm
Unfortunately, mains power was out: fortunately, the warden Dougy Wright had given us permission to borrow the reserve's generator (thanks Dougy!).  We set up my MV trap in as sheltered a place as we could find, put out a couple of small battery-powered traps, test-ran the generator, and then waited for midnight... without the most auspicious start!

A bit of tweaking and I eventually got the generator running properly, sorted out the dodgy wiring, and moved the other trap to the shelter of the windmill.  A couple of hours torchlit searching and moth trap checking and we were up to 95 species - needing 42 new species an hour we were up on the deal!  With the wind howling, rain falling, temperature dropping to single figures and both of us shattered from election-watching the previous evening, we decided to get a couple of hours sleep.
4am is not a time the dog would like to be awake on Saturday mornings. Can't say I blame him!
At 4am, with the dog snoring next to me and the sun, if not breaking through then at least vaguely illuminating things, it was time to get going again.  We checked the moth traps (a March-like 13 species in all, though three Eyed Hawks were great to see) and had a good poke around the derelict farm buildings (Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell pupae, banded snails, a very fat toad) before heading out across the heathland.  One of the ponds on the farm, Ruan Pool, had loads of high-quality freshwater wildlife as well as rare plants by the bucketload in the trackways leading to it - just the thing to really get our total rocketing.

After about 45 minutes walking, sweep-netting and tree-beating, it was becoming very clear that we were going to need the aquatics: everything else had buried itself deep down in the undergrowth, away from the ever-more-insistent rain pelting against us.  We reached the edge of the Ruan Pool field to find... a large number of large cattle, all very interested in the dog.  We beat a hasty retreat and walked over to the dragonfly ponds on the other side of the reserve.  A couple of stunned-looking damselflies awaited (Common Blue and Blue-tailed), but there was little sign of life otherwise.

The Windmill Farm records
We sought sanctuary in the activity centre with coffee to ID some galls and work out our next move.  With about 300 species spotted we were badly behind, and as the weather was even worse on the coast, the exposed clifftops at Lizard Point and Kynance Cove were out.  Instead we went round the corner to the more sheltered Predannack Wollas, spotting new species from the van as we went (neither of us had ever been so excited to see a horse-chestnut tree!).  A valley pathway out of the wind gave us brief respite with some cold-dazed hoverflies and micromoths added to the tally, but before long we were out on the open grasslands again.  On a warm day the fields are alive with dung beetles, butterflies, choughs and rare clovers, but today the mist was closing in, the wind was buffeting, and there was nothing airborne to be seen except raindrops.  The route to the clovers was fogbound, wet, slippery and wind-beaten a hundred feet above the pounding sea... so we turned tail and headed back to Sally's for lunch, drying out, and a bit of indoors ID time.
The view from Predannack Wollas
We'd only just about managed to scrape together 400 species and it was already 2pm - we knew from Facebook that Graeme had blown past that at about 4am!  With rockpooling looking a bad idea even though the rain had (temporarily) slowed, we headed back outside to do Sally's local patch.  The first stop was a nicely-untidy garden behind the village hall... but the pub next door had annexed it for the occasion, and the garden's ant nests and assorted other creatures were buried beneath a giant white marquee.

We headed back up the hill into the intensifying rain.  Both of us wear glasses and it wasn't long before neither of us could see much of anything, peering Magoo-like at leaf mines and aphids sheltering beneath leaves.  My boots had reached the fully-saturated stage where they actually worked like tiny wetsuits, and I was regretting not bringing my waterproof notebook.  The only way I was managing to record things now was by hunching over my phone to put records directly into the iRecord app: my notebook was long-saturated.

Waiting for the rain to clear slightly
Another indoor spell to ID specimens, dry out and eat tea beckoned before, about 8.30 pm, the rain finally took the hint and sodded off.  We piled back into the van and headed for Marazion: ponds, sand dunes and coast!  Getting there, we pulled over and scanned the ponds for wildfowl... one mute swan.  We parked properly and scanned the sea for birdlife... a mixed flock of Dunlin and Sanderling scuttled around by the waves, but everything else had gone to bed for the night.  Closer at hand, Sally spotted Mullein plants - a bit of poking around and Mullein moth caterpillars were added to the list.  Across the car park (Mossy Stonecrop) and into the dunes, where everything seemed to begin with 'Sea-' - we added Sea-holly, Sea-beet, Sea-bindweed, Sea-rocket, Sea-spurge and the mighty Sea-daffodil in a matter of minutes.

Running out of things prefixed by the word 'sea', we headed back to the van and onwards to the north coast and Upton Towans, another Cornwall Wildlife Trust reserve.  It was beyond dimpsey by the time we arrived, needing some 450 species in the final two hours of the day.  The Towans were clearly a brilliant site: we quickly stumbled across Soapwort, Portland Spurge, Brown Chafers by the bucketload, a Garden Tiger caterpillar.  Further into the dunes, dozens of Amara ground beetles criss-crossed the path with tiny ants, and we cursed the lack of time for microscopy.

The species kept coming - Thyme broomrape, Devil's Coach-horse beetles, galls of the mite Aceria thomasi on wild Thyme - but it was clearly going to be too little, too late.  The sand of time were trickling away too fast, and when a Tawny owl hooted in the trees by the van it proved to be our final species of the day: number 657.
Final scores
So we failed by 343 species in the end, though we were both pretty pleased with the score given the conditions.  A bit of sunshine and I reckon we'd have picked up enough insect life to get there or thereabouts (we finished on 50 moth species (13 of them in the traps), 3 butterflies (all caterpillars/pupae), 38 true bugs, 32 beetles and 1 grasshopper).  I saw more bee species when walking the dog for 25 minutes the next morning in sunshine than in the full 24 hours!  Add in a bit of rockpooling and a few more birds (our 25 bird species didn't include a single blue tit, great tit, starling, black-headed gull, or many others) and a few more plants from the exposed sites, and we'd have reached the target.  After all, in sunshine up the coast in Sussex, Graeme had reached the magic 1k by 7.30pm, so it was definitely possible!

Dog on his way home, channelling both of us
If you fancy sponsoring us, please visit our JustGiving page - all donations go to Cornwall Wildlife Trust to help them maintain the sites we squelched round