Expert comments from Kew on pollinator research for Bees Needs Week




Episode 4 of Kew's podcast Unearthed: Nature needs us, the Hive installation at Kew Gardens, and new bee bank at Wakehurst - all celebrating the wonder of pollinators

Bees Needs Week (8th July to 14th July, 2024) is an annual event coordinated by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), with the aim of supporting pollinator health and diversity in the UK. A wide array of businesses, conservation groups and charities like the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew lend their support to shine the spotlight on pollinators and their crucial role in supporting healthy ecosystems.
Prof Phil Stevenson, Priority Leader for Character Trait and Evolution at RBG Kew, says: "About 90% of flowering plants globally are pollinated by animals and if we are to protect these plant species, many of which provide us with essential foods and medicines, we need to establish what is driving pollinator decline and then act upon that evidence. Land use change and disease are key contributors of the problem and we're increasingly seeing the effects climate change has on pollinator numbers.

"At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew we carry out ground-breaking research into the environmental factors that affect pollinator health, such as identifying compounds in nectar and pollen with medicinal properties for bees. We also work closely with property developers to help them design and manage landscapes that boost pollinator diversity in urban settings by providing diverse floral resources, nesting sites and reducing pesticides and herbicides.

"Additionally, through our Nature Unlocked programme at Wakehurst, Kew's wild botanic garden in Sussex, we are establishing which Trees are best for bees.  Trees are a very important and overlooked pollen and nectar resources for pollinators.  This work is engaging members of the public to help identify which trees are most effective at supporting diverse populations of bees, butterflies, and a many more insect pollinators. I think an initiative like Bees Needs Week offers a great opportunity for the wider public to engage in the conversation on pollinator health and to inspire us on an individual level to support wild pollinators in our immediate surrounding."

The latest episode of Kew's award-winning podcast Unearthed: Nature needs us explores ongoing pollinator research at Kew Gardens and Wakehurst, including the new bee bank providing a safe-haven for ground-nesting bees. In the episode, Dr Janine Griffiths-Lee, Postdoctoral Research Associate says: "We're building an experimental bee bank, which we hope will encourage the nesting of ground-nesting bees. We have 270 species of bee in the UK, and everybody knows about honeybees and people generally know about bumblebees as well, but people really don't know very much about these solitary bees, and they're amazing pollinators and they come out at different times of the year. They nest in different places, they forage on different things, and so they pollinate different things and we need to conserve them all.

"We hope that other scientists will visit and use the bee banks for their research, but in terms of the research we're doing at Wakehurst, I'd really like to collect pollen from the bees when they return to their nests. It will influence any decision we make on habitat management and landscape planning if we know what trees, for example, that they're visiting."

Charles Shi, Botanical Horticulturist at Kew Gardens, says: ‘This year we have created a new Wild Rose Garden at Kew as, despite having one of the best wild rose collections in the world, it had become overgrown and overlooked. We look to wild roses for traits to breed into cultivars, as they are generally more disease-resistant and hardy than cultivated varieties. Wild roses also play a crucial role in ecological conservation by providing food and habitat for pollinators and wildlife (crucially the diverse colours and scent signature in wild roses attract a range of different pollinators). By maintaining wild rose populations, we can support local ecosystems and promote biodiversity in natural landscapes.

‘Kew horticulturists have been working with Kew scientists to collect data that will form the basis of new scientific papers. Some of the methods include ‘capturing scent’ in bags, describing their colours and smells, looking at how much they reflect UV for pollinator analysis, examining the differences in their genetic material (ploidy, using flow cytometry) and taking herbarium specimens.

‘Early results show that Rosa moyesii (a stunning scarlet colour) has a special pollen arrangement, a scent like cider (as opposed to the normal smells of ‘old rose’, myrhh, spice, and fruit of roses), and it is a polyploid. This rose is particularly special as the flower colour – red - is usually reserved for pollination by birds or mammals, yet it was smothered with bees indicating it reflects UV. This was then confirmed by a UV detector. Its polyploidy has perhaps allowed it to develop such traits, but we’re keen to study this further and find out more about the importance of wild roses for pollinators’.

Sam Stapleton, Botanical Horticulturist at Kew Gardens, says: ‘Kew is renowned for its carefully planted gardens and glasshouses, some of which date back two centuries, but we recently began to create some ‘wilder’ areas at Kew, at the boundary where the more formal Gardens transition into our Natural Area.

‘The aim has been to create multiple habitats for insects using dead wood, fallen branches and other natural products from the Gardens in creative ways. This is combined with the planting of native plants and flowers which are known to attract certain insects, resulting in a mixed woodland-type habitat that is already brimming with wildlife.’

If plant life stops, all life stops
At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew we are dedicated to harnessing the power of plants and fungi to halt the dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. With Kew’s world-leading research, global partnerships and beloved gardens – home to the world’s most diverse collections of plants and fungi – we are using our trusted voice to shape policy and practice worldwide. As a charity, we rely on the critical support of our visitors, not only to sustain the gardens, but to protect global plant and fungal biodiversity for the benefit of humanity and all life on Earth.

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Main picture, Bees at Kew Gardens - Credit Sebastian Kettley © RBG Kew. Top, Bees at Kew Gardens - Credit Jeff Eden © RBG Kew. Middle, Bees at Wakehurst - Credit Jim Holden © RBG Kew copy. Bottom, 1Bees at Kew Gardens - Credit Sebastian Kettley © RBG Kew


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