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Honeybee Historians: Honeybees reveal how our floral landscape has changed over the last 65 years - National Botanic Garden of Wales

Honeybees have been helping researchers from the National Botanic Garden of Wales track how the UK’s fields, hedgerows, wild spaces and gardens have changed since the 1950s.

Honeybees reveal how our floral landscape has changed over the last 65 years – and the controversial invasive plant they now adore

Honeybee historians might seem like a flight of fancy but these tiny pollinators have been helping researchers from the National Botanic Garden of Wales track how the UK’s fields, hedgerows, wild spaces and gardens have changed since the 1950s.

Using cutting-edge DNA barcoding techniques, scientists at the Botanic Garden identified which plants modern-day honeybees visited most often by looking at the pollen grains trapped within honey.

They compared this to a 1952 survey of honey plants where a microscope had been used to painstakingly identify pollen grains in honey sent from hives across the country.

The differences were clear. White clover had been the most important plant for honeybees but, with fewer pastures today and increased use of herbicides and inorganic fertiliser in farming, this has dropped to second place. Now the insects are visiting much more of:

Also important were spring-flowering shrubs and trees, including hawthorn (Cratageus monogyna), apple (Malus species), Cotoneaster species, sycamore and maples (Acer species), cherries and plums (Prunus species), and towards the end of the season, heather (Calluna vulgaris).

Dr Natasha de Vere, Head of Conservation and Research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, said: ”The last 65 years have been a period of profound change within the UK landscape. Agricultural intensification after the Second World War led to a decline in species-rich grasslands and permanent pastures, while hedgerows and woodland were destroyed so that field sizes could increase, and new crops were grown. The distribution and abundance of the UK’s wildflowers has changed, with some species declining whilst new plants have been introduced. Natural historians, scientists and government agencies have made detailed records over this time, but they are not the only witnesses to this changing world. Honeybees also travel through these landscapes, flying through fields and woodlands, over hedgerows and croplands, searching for nectar and pollen to return to their hives.”

Access the paper: Jones, L., Brennan, G.L., Lowe, A. et al. Shifts in honeybee foraging reveal historical changes in floral resources. Commun Biol 4, 37 (2021). doi.org/10.1038/s42003-020-01562-4

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