Home gardens in cities and towns are the biggest source of food for pollinating insects such as bees and wasps, according to researchers.
The study, led by the University of Bristol and published in the Journal of Ecology, found that residential gardens accounted for 85 per cent on average of nectar produced in urban areas.
Researchers found that three gardens generated on average each day around a teaspoon of the unique sugar-rich liquid found in flowers that pollinators drink for energy. This is the equivalent to more than a tonne of food for an adult human and is enough to fuel thousands of flying bees.
The more bees and other pollinators can fly, the greater diversity of flora and fauna that will be maintained.
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“Although the quantity and diversity of nectar has been measured in the countryside, this wasn’t the case in urban areas, so we decided to investigate,” said Nicholas Tew, an ecologist at the University of Bristol.
“We expected private gardens in towns and cities to be a plentiful source of nectar but didn’t anticipate the scale of production would be to such an overwhelming extent. Our findings highlight the pivotal role they play in supporting pollinators and promoting biodiversity in urban areas across the country.”
The research was carried out in partnership with the universities of Edinburgh and Reading, along with the Royal Horticultural Society. It examined the nectar production in Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds and Reading.
Nectar production was measured in almost 200 species of plant by extracting nectar from more than 3,000 individual flowers.
The extraction process used a fine glass tube, with the sugar concentration of the nectar then quantified with a refractometer – a device that measures how much light refracts when passing through a solution.
“We found the nectar supply in urban landscapes is more diverse, in other words, [it] comes from more plant species than in farmland and nature reserves, and this urban nectar supply is critically underpinned by private gardens,” said Tew, who is studying for a PhD in ecology.
“Gardens are so important because they produce the most nectar per unit area of land and they cover the largest area of land in the cities we studied.”
In total, 29 per cent of the land in urban areas comprised of domestic gardens – six times the area of parks and 40 times the area of allotments.
Tew said it was vital for new housing developments to include gardens and called on gardeners to ensure their spaces are “as good as possible” for pollinators.
He suggested planting nectar-rich flowers, ensuring there is always something in flower from early spring to late autumn and mowing the lawn less often to let dandelions, clovers, daisies and other plants grow. Gardeners should also avoid spraying pesticides as these can harm pollinators, and avoid covering their gardens in paving, decking or artificial turf, he said.
“This research highlights the importance of gardens in supporting our pollinating insects and how gardeners can have a positive impact through their planting decisions,” said Dr Stephanie Bird, an insect scientist at the Royal Horticultural Society.
“Gardens should not be seen in isolation – instead they are a network of resources offering valuable habitats and provisions when maintained with pollinators in mind.”
Reader Q&A: Am I helping or hindering the bee population by eating honey?
Asked by: Amy Rouse, via email
It depends on the brand of honey you buy. Most supermarket honey is imported, and farming methods overseas, particularly in China, may be weakening the honey bees’ immune system.
Buying local, non-blended honey is much better since small-scale producers have a vested interest in preserving the health of their hives. But the real threat to bees comes from habitat loss, not honey harvesting. Planting wildflowers in your garden and buying organic vegetables (to reduce pesticide use, which can poison bees) makes a much bigger difference.