Blog - Flora & Fauna


Wild flower pollen and bees

by The blog at woodlands.co.uk, 20 April, 2024, 1 comments

The period since WW2 has seen urban areas and, indeed farms, expand across the UK. The number of places where wildlife can thrive has been eroded.  Gardens and lawns have been changed to provide parking for cars, lawns are mowed and ‘weed-killered’, or worst still replaced with artificial grass so there is not a weed in sight.  Fortunately there are now initiatives like No Mow May that promote the growing of wild flowers in lawns and public spaces, like roadsides and verges.  Many common weeds are simply wildflowers by another name. Wild flowers / weeds (like dandelions, ragworts, clovers) are a lifeline for bees and bumblebees - who are facing so many threats [pesticides, habitat loss, invasive species] so adequate food is important. The flowers of these wild flowers / weeds offer food for a wide range of endangered bees, and at times when other resources are limited.  Dandelions, for example, offer an abundant source of nectar and pollen for bees & bumblebees when other options are limited - especially in urban settings. They produce their flowers (and therefore nectar and pollen) from early Spring right through to the onset of Winter. Recent studies have shown that the diet of bees has changed over the years.   In the past, the bees were able to forage and collect pollen and nectar from a wide variety of plants but with the loss of ‘natural’ wild areas their diet is now often dominated by brambles, clover and dandelions.  In the case of dandelions, their simple, open flowers makes for ease of collection.  They are visited by honey bees, bumblebees and carder bees.   Some studies have indicated that dandelion pollen, whilst it is rich in the amino acid proline,  has low levels or lacks certain amino acids (such as valine and isoleucine).  Bees need the same ten essential amino acids as us.  Without a supply of these particular amino acids, the development and growth of bees is impaired, as is their disease resistance and ability to raise the brood.  So, it is important to find ways to offer our pollinators a range of plants / pollen to provide all their essential nutrients. interesting related papers Food for Pollinators: Quantifying the Nectar and Pollen Resources of Urban Flower Meadows: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0158117 Shifts in honeybee foraging reveal historical changes in floral resources: https://www.nature.com/articles/s42003-020-01562-4
bark of redwood

Fires, drought and losing trees.

by The blog at woodlands.co.uk, 16 April, 2024, 1 comments

Forests, woodlands, trees are vital to life.  They absorb carbon dioxide, they release oxygen, they offer food and shelter to countless species (including us).  The global forests (equatorial to boreal) play an important role in mitigating climate change due to fossil fuel emissions.  However, many forests and their particular tree species are being  threatened by the world’s warming climate.  Recent years have seen catastrophic fires in many parts of the world, from Canada, Siberia, Sweden to Australia. In 2019/20, intense fires caused extensive damage to the Eucalypt forests in Australia.  Eucalypt rich woodland / forest is likely candidate for fire because the leaves of Eucalypts produce volatile and highly combustible oils.  The litter underneath such trees is rich in organic compounds such as phenols, which slow down the microbial breakdown of the dead leaves.   Consequently,  a layer of dry, eminently burnable material builds up. In Eastern Australia, some 40+% of the native eucalypt forests suffered severe canopy damage.   Trees on the west coast of America have also been subject to intense fires.  Their susceptibility to fire has been accentuated by drought across the region.  Analysis of the growth rings of trees, such as the Red Cedar (in areas such as Oregon) show that trees suffered reduced growth in the years prior to their death.  Drought stress increases the probability of attack by bark beetles and pathogens.  In California, many native species such as white fir, red fir and ponderosa pine have died and provided material for the fires that were to follow.  Fires in 2020/21 swept across the region, destroying vast swathes of forest.  The fires were of such an intensity that even Giant Sequoias were killed.   [caption id="attachment_40596" align="aligncenter" width="675"] Forest Fire in Canada[/caption] Sequoias had been thought ‘indestructible’ as they have a thick bark, which protects the inner living tissue, plus their canopy is usually well above the flames on the forest floor.  In the past, the fires burned litter on the ground, removing competitors, and releasing nutrients.  The heat would also open up the cones of the Sequoias releasing their seeds, so young trees could establish. Some of the Sequoias that died in these recent fires had stood for centuries and survived many wildfires.   In the past, the amount of litter / dead material was limited.  Indigenous people managed these forests (reducing the fuel load) to create forage for game animals, so that wildfires were of mild to moderate intensity.  Now, the fires are different - they are intense. There is more material to burn - including the trees that have already died from drought and disease. The fires can now reach into the canopies of the Sequoias. One of the Sequoias that died was the King Arthur tree - the 8th largest giant redwood in the world; it died in the Castle Fire of 2020. The drought driven deaths of many tree species is probably the start of a longer lasting shift in the growing range of the affected trees.  Temperature and water availability are two of the major determinants of the range of a given species.  It is possible that trees may ‘move’ northward and upward (grow at higher elevations).  Trees will begin to ‘die off’ at the edge of their range / lower elevations as drought / warming increases.  Die offs may also affect commercial plantations of species such as Douglas fir.
Butterfly updates

Butterfly updates

by The blog at woodlands.co.uk, 25 March, 2024, 2 comments

Solar farms have sprung up across the country with hundreds or thousands of solar panels, linked together in fields.  Now, researchers in the States have shown that sowing grasses and wild flowers in-between the panels on solar farms resulted in: A significant increase in the number of beneficial insects (bees in particular benefitted) An increase in insect diversity beneficial 'spillover effects' on adjacent farmland. The solar farms under study were sown with specially designed seed mixes. See also the previous woodlands  blog on solar panels and wildlife The seeding of solar farms would seem to offer support to : Renewable Energy Generation: Biodiversity Pollination services Habitat restoration: in fields that may have been damaged by intensive agriculture and / or development. They can also act as a refuge for native plants and wildlife. Erosion control: the root systems of native plant species (which penetrate to different depths) help prevent soil erosion. Reduced maintenance costs: as less mowing / weed control needed. The cabbage white butterfly is generally regarded as the enemy by the keen vegetable gardener.  If you are growing brassicas - cabbages, cauliflowers, brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale or pak choi, it is likely that you will have these butterflies as summer visitors.  The butterfly is white with black spots on the wings.  Males have a single spot on each of the forewings, whereas the females have paired spots. The butterflies are attracted to the plants as they produce the chemical - glucobrassicin. The butterflies can sense the glucobrassicin through the hairs on their front legs (they have three pairs of legs, a pair on each segment of the thorax). This chemical, glucobrassin, stimulates them to lay their eggs on the leaves of cabbage and other brassicas.  A female can lay up to 800 yellow eggs. These eggs may hatch and the green / black caterpillars emerge.  These caterpillars can double their mass in a day through their voracious feeding.  The adults are attracted to the glucobrassicin in the brassicas just as the caterpillars ‘enjoy’ the chemical - SINIGRIN.   When leaf tissue is damaged, the sinigrin is broken down into a mustard oil, responsible for the pungent taste of Cruciferous vegetables. There are a number of strategies that may help keep the butterfliess away from your crops, and reduce the damage by the caterpillars. Cover the plants with an insect proof mesh Offer ‘sacrificial brassicas’ away from the main crop Use companion / mixed planting, so that beneficial insects have 'hiding places' and it is more difficult for the female cabbage whites to find the brassicas.  Also, by mixing up the planting with herbs and other veg, it makes it a bit more difficult for the caterpillars to move from cabbage to cabbage etc. If you do need to use an insecticide, consider using the products derived from Bacillus thuringiensis.
Forests in the Fens ?

Forests in the Fens ?

by Chris, 15 March, 2024, 1 comments

To see the forests of  The Fens,  you would need to be a time traveller, as they were ‘lost’ some four thousand years ago.  Today, The Fens are a low lying agricultural region that forms part of Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire.    The Fens contain some of the best agricultural land in the U.K., growing potatoes, sugar beet, and wheat.  A naturally marshy area, it was drained centuries ago and is now maintained through a complex system of drainage canals, dykes and pumping stations.  As a result of the drainage, the level of the land in many places has shrunk.  Indeed, in places, the land level is below sea level.  There are occasional ‘hills’ or islands, which have remained dry even when the surrounding area has been flooded.  The city of Ely and its cathedral was built on such a clay island. Deeper ploughing (e.g. for potatoes) in this area has over the years exposed  ’bog oaks’, large logs between two and eight metres in length.  The trunks were sometimes piled up in so-called clearance  cairns on the edges of a field, or allowed to dry out and later used for fuel.  Recently, ‘oaks’ from a number of farms across the region have been examined by researchers at Cambridge University and many have been identified as the remains of ancient yew trees.  The various logs were often well preserved in the peaty soils of the area, and this allowed detailed analysis of the annual rings (dendrochronology). The rings showed that some of the Yews were 400 years old, when they died.  Tree ring analysis plus examination of the pollen grains* (found in the peat), suggests that the area had dense yew (and oak) woodlands some 4500 years ago.  However, these woods were lost about 4200 years before today, probably due to an abrupt rise in sea level.   The trees would have been unable to tolerate the salt water (nor salt spray) when the area around The Wash was inundated.  Quite what was responsible for the rise in sea level is not clear, though other significant climatic events in different parts of the world have been recorded at this time. the 'wall' of pollen grains  [the exine] is made from a chemical [sporopollenin] that is extremely resistant to decay / degradation, so the grains  retain their shape / markings for thousands of years;  this means that plant species can be identified [palynology].  
A model of Masting.

A model of Masting.

by The blog at woodlands.co.uk, 11 March, 2024, 3 comments

Every now and then, some trees produce massive numbers of their fruits and seeds.  This sudden ‘excess’ of seeds / fruits, mens that the various animals that feed on the fruits / seeds cannot eat all of them - so many will survive to germinate, and go on to develop into seedlings and saplings. This excess of fruits [such as acorns, beech nuts] is known as masting.  Whilst it is thought to help with the long term survival of tree species, it is not without certain risks.  Masting uses up considerable nutritional and energy resources to produce flowers and fruit, which can affect the long term viability of the tree and the growth / reproductive capacity in subsequent years.  It is also possible that the abundance of food for animals could lead to an increase in small mammals (rodents?) and other animals, some of which might be vectors for disease. Masting has seemed to be a random process.  However, researchers at Hokkaido University have now developed a computer based model of masting - by studying the Japanese Oak (Quercus crispula).  The model considers such factors as : the resource budget of the tree pollen limitation weather patterns The researchers hope that apart from predicting the likelihood of masting that the model will also help predict : ‘the effects of climate change on woodlands and forests’ ‘long term trend availability of  food for animals’.   Though the model is currently based on the Japanese Oak, it is hoped to extend the model to include other species through collaboration with workers across the globe.     [caption id="attachment_41085" align="aligncenter" width="675"] Woodland path covered with mast[/caption]
Trees in trouble ?

Trees in trouble ?

by The blog at woodlands.co.uk, 27 February, 2024, 0 comments

A lot of research work now focuses on the resilience of woodlands and forests in the light of climate change, that is their ability to cope with conditions like drier, hotter summers and/or  warmer/wetter winters. It has generally been assumed that trees at the limit of their range in dry regions would be most affected by climate change (with rising temperatures and less water).  However, a major study of some six million tree annual ring samples, (involving 120+ species) coupled with analysis of historical climate data has shown that trees in drier regions show a certain resilience to drought.  Trees seemingly become less sensitive to drought as they approach the edge of their range.  Trees in wetter climates are less resilient when they experience drier conditions or drought.  It seems probable that many species in wetter woodland and forest ecosystems will face significant challenges if the climate does move to a drier and warmer state. Assisted migration may be needed.  One idea is to ‘exploit’ the genetic diversity found at the edge of a species range.  The slow natural migration of trees may not be able to keep pace with the speed of climate change. Full details of this study by the University of California can be found here : Drought sensitivity in mesic forests heightens their vulnerability to climate change The effects of climate change have become very clear in recent times.  This last year witnessed:- Record breaking wild fires in Canada, with the smoke extending across to the East coast of the States. [caption id="attachment_40597" align="aligncenter" width="675"] Canadian forest fire[/caption] Heat waves in parts of America , for example, Phoenix (Arizona) suffers the best part of a month with temperatures of 43oC. Parts of the North Atlantic Ocean saw unprecedented temperatures The global temperature in July was 1.5oC above the pre-industrial average, September saw temperatures 1.8oC above the pre-industrial average. Parts of Chile and Argentina saw a ‘heatwave’ in the middle of their winter. It is clear that ‘unchartered waters’ lie ahead.
orange tail bee 1

The importance of woodlands to bees.

by The blog at woodlands.co.uk, 16 February, 2024, 0 comments

The diet of bees has changed over the years.   In the past, bees were able to forage and collect pollen and nectar from a variety of plants.  With the spread of highly mechanised agriculture, increasing urbanisation and road network - now their options are somewhat limited.  Large fields of monocultures, for example, of oil seed rape are now common. Whilst oil seed rape is a good source for foraging bees and bumblebees, they need to collect nectar and pollen from a variety of sources so that they get a range of nutrients, such as the essential amino acids.  Without these particular amino acids, the growth and development of bees is affected, as is their resistance to disease and their ability to raise the brood.  It is important that our pollinators are able to find a range of plants / pollen to provide all their nutrients. Whilst wild flowers [aka weeds], like dandelions, ragworts, and clovers are a lifeline for bees and bumblebees, recent research at the University of East Anglia has shown that woodlands can offer important habitats for bees, isuch as the leaf canopy.  The research team studied 15 woodland sites in agricultural areas across Norfolk (in Spring).  Within the woodlands, they looked at the bee activity in  the understorey  the woodland edge  and at different levels in the tree canopy.   They found that bees were active high up in the sunlit tree canopy, and their activity was particularly high near flowering sycamore trees.  Red tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) were busier in the canopies than elsewhere.  The understorey and woodland edges were also significant contributors to bee activity.  This study emphasises the importance of woodland habitats for the wild bee community.  
oozing resin

Fungi helping bark beetles !

by The blog at woodlands.co.uk, 9 February, 2024, 0 comments

The woodlands blog has previously reported on the damage being wreaked by bark beetles.  These beetles may be small (less than a centimetre in length) but their effects on the western forests of North America has been immense. Some areas have lost 90% of their conifers.   Outbreaks of these beetles have been increasing in size and severity.  Indeed, across Europe, the eurasian bark beetle (Its typographus) has killed millions of conifers. Whilst bark is broadly protective, it can also offer a home to certain insects.  Bark beetles lay their eggs just below the bark so that when the larvae hatch, they can feed on the nutrient-rich living tissue of the cambium and phloem. Consequently, the tree's transport systems begin to fail.  The beetles may also introduce disease-causing fungi and bacteria. Ageing stands of trees coupled with warmer winters, which help the overwintering stage of the insect, have contributed to the spread of bark beetles. .  Conifers, by their nature, are not defenceless.  When a pine tree is cut / wounded, it produces a pale yellow and sticky fluid - RESIN to seal the cut or wound [see above image]. This material helps prevent the entry of pests or pathogens, and can stem water loss. The resin may trap insect invaders as  witnessed by those trapped in time capsules of amber.  Resin is rich in terpenes, these are used in the building of many complex organic molecules and contribute to the make-up of the volatile oils, produced by many plants.  Terpenes are made from units of isoprene, which has the formula C5H8. So the basic formula of a terpene is (C5H8)n, where n is the number of isoprene units that have been joined together.  Terpenes are also readily available in coniferous oils, which contribute to the unique smell of a pine forest or a burning log. [caption id="attachment_40973" align="alignleft" width="300"] Old and dying tree[/caption] These ‘chemical defences’ should trap, poison or deter an insect invader, such as the bark beetle.  But it would seem that bark beetles ‘don’t mind’ these defences. Research suggests that the eurasian bark beetle might have an ally.  Certain fungi (from the genus - Grosmannia) are found in association with these beetles. When the  Grosmannia fungi infect spruce trees they alter the chemical profile the trees, so that infected trees produce different volatile chemicals - ie they smell different.  The bark beetles are able to detect these differences and exploit this ‘breach’ of the trees natural defences.  The unique chemical profile of infected trees and the pheromones produced by the beetles probably help explain the swarming behaviour of the bark beetles.  A heavy beetle infestation results in the death of a tree. However, there is a possible positive in this rather sad tale.  At present, traps for bark beetles rely solely on using pheromones but if the pheromones can be combined with the chemicals produced by the fungi then it opens the door to more effective beetle traps.  

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