BLOG: Perfect Pollinators

This Greater Manchester Tree Month we kick off Week 1 with ‘trees and bees’ – celebrating our amazing pollinators, the role they play and how crucial trees and woods are for them to survive.

In this blog Dave Winnard from Discover the Wild looks at some of our pollinating species and top trees.

Beautiful Bees

There is always a poster species when it comes to conservation, a species which can carry the message that we need to do more or protect something. Currently, one of the key poster species in the UK to try and bring awareness is the humble bee. The pollinator, the species that makes sure all of our flowers in the garden and indeed trees get pollinated so we don't lose some of our vital flora. But are they the only insects that pollinate and how important are our trees for them?

To begin, bees absolutely do lots of pollinating. It is easy to see in spring as the Blackthorn begins to blossom as it quickly attracts the attention of many of the early emerging bumblebees, honey bees and even some of the mining bees like the very attractive Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva). The whole hedgerow can be literally buzzing on a nice, still, warm spring morning, and even the early flowering plants can also be frequently visited by bumblebees which love the spring Dandelions.


Lucious Lime

I have been studying our local flora and fauna for 30 years, ever since I was a young boy, and I have seen some amazing wildlife in my lifetime, but one thing I remember was a few years ago involving our buzzing friends and a few flowering Lime Trees (Tilia sp.) in my local park.

Have you ever seen Lime flowers? Sometimes referred to as Linden Blossom. In fact, whilst I am on the subject, have you seen Oak flowers, birch flowers or even the flowers of the Ash tree? We see the showy Horse Chestnut flowers in spring, their large candelabra flowers are easily spotted, with other trees displaying modest flowers. However without these flowers being pollinated we don’t get the fruits of the tree. In fact, imagine if the apple trees did not get pollinated, we would get very few apples indeed!

But the Lime tree can produce tens of thousands of flowers, which smell delicious and the bees love them too. One day, whilst walking in the park, I thought I was getting tinnitus, I could hear a constant, distant buzzing. It wasn't until I got near the Lime trees that I could see thousands of bees coming and going, gathering pollen and taking it back to the hive. It was truly spectacular, the sight, the sound and the smell of the flowers, truly memorable.


Marvellous Moths

But the bees had company, a few species of hoverfly were also attracted to the flowers as were a few butterfly species, pollinating the tree just like the bees.

Now, in the garden we see bees regularly pollinating our plants, but wasps, hoverflies, beetles, butterflies and indeed flies are just some of the species helping to pollinate our plants and trees. Of course, the species are familiar to us as we see them, but what about the ones we don’t see? Moths.

When the lights go out it is the moths that take over the pollinating role of many insects, working the nightshift, visiting many flowers throughout the evening and ensuring the job of pollination continues while we are tucked up in bed.

The Rowan tree at the bottom of our garden always seems to attract moths in an evening when it is in flower. Again, when the showy bees and butterflies have gone to sleep our moths step up.

To give you an idea, I have recorded 15 species of butterfly in our small urban garden over the last 3 years, 11 species of bees and 507 species of moth. Yes, that’s correct over 500 species of moth in our mid-terraced garden in an urban area (and a similar number will also be visiting your garden if you have one too!).

This goes to show how important our nocturnal allies are in helping our flowers and trees get pollinated. Although not all moths pollinate, some do not visit flowers at all, so how can our trees be important for pollinators in other ways?


Trees and Leaves

We forget how important trees can be for supporting our pollinators simply with their leaves. Many species may not use the flowers of certain trees or may appear after they have already flowered, but the leaves can be incredibly important source of food for many species, moths especially. Species like the buff-tip can be seen in great number feeding on oak and our tiny micro moths make the first part of their lives in a single leaf of a tree.

When it comes to monitoring the species of insects in our garden, during the day it is easy, as we can see them no problem, but at night we rely on different techniques to know what is around.

Sometimes you can use a sugar solution painted on a fence post or wall to attract insects but a moth trap (a humane trap with a bright light source) is often easiest to use and allows us to record the species and then let them go.

Many people think moths are dull brown boring things that are not as impressive as the butterflies, however I would even go as far to say that moths are far more beautiful and varied than butterflies (controversial I know!). Some of the common species of moth that visit our gardens are brightly coloured and can be quite big, such as the pink and green Elephant Hawk-moth or even the striking Green-silver Lines.


Boosting Biodiversity

Trees are a vital part of our ecosystem. Many pollinators need lots of wildflowers, grass meadows, and flowers as well as leaves and bark which play such an important role in feeding many insects as well as giving them home.

So our bees are important for pollinating plants that is certainly true – but they aren’t the only ones! However, if it means they must be the flagship species to bring awareness to the wealth of other insect life that is on our doorstep, working all hours of the day and using our wild plants, garden plants, native trees and ornamental trees and using them as food and shelter, then so bee it.

Next time you are near some trees, have a look for the signs of insects using them - their leaves being nibbled, mines through the leaves where caterpillars have been or even see them resting on the bark and you will be amazed at what is hiding right next to you.  Tweet us your ‘perfect pollinator pics’ on twitter, Instagram or facebook at #GMTreeMonth