Keeping up with the Joneses harms Britain's bees
Posted: 6 June 2012
Written by Graham Soult
A new study from the University of Leeds has revealed that poorer neighbourhoods are a bee paradise compared to richer suburban areas.
Pressure to 'keep up with the Joneses' often means that gardens in better-off areas have manicured lawns and rows of regimented bedding plants that usually don't have any bee-friendly nectar or pollen.
The study, carried out by Dr Mark Goddard from the School of Biology was the first scientific examination of the link between an area's socio-economic status and wild bee abundance. Mark explained: "Previous studies looking at the prevalence of birds and plant diversity had concluded that the better off the area, the greater the number and variety of birds and plants - this is known as the 'luxury effect'. The assumption was that the same would be true of bees, but this research suggested that the opposite is true."
Dr Goddard's research found that gardens in poorer neighbourhoods had a significantly greater number and variety of bees than those in richer neighbourhoods, despite the fact that richer neighbourhoods tended to have bigger gardens with a greater number and variety of flowers.
Mark commented: "We know that flowers are incredibly important to bees, so we were really surprised with these results. However, when I analysed them more closely we found a likely explanation: that not all flowers are equal in the eyes of bees.
"Exotic and double flowers - that is flowers such as peonies which often have anthers replaced by extra petals - are relatively inaccessible to bees and contain little nectar or pollen rewards. A secondary problem is that many common bedding plants such as pansies, French Marigolds, busy lizzies and petunias are sterile F1 hybrids, and often contain little pollen to attract bees. Both these types of plants were found more in wealthy gardens, while bee-friendly native plants, such as brambles and white clover, were more common in less affluent neighbourhoods.
"The cumulative impact that garden management has on the overall number of bees in the UK is enormous. Gardens account for a significant amount of green space in our cities. In Leeds, for example, gardens make up 30% of the total area. Across England, urban areas occupy 10% of land surface, of which between 20% and 40% is garden.
"The decline of bees in the UK and the knock-on effect that this has on the pollination of crops and flowers has been well documented. This research shows that if we can persuade individuals to make small changes to the way they garden, it could make a significant difference to the conservation of bees and other pollinators."
Dr Goddard's study also examined factors which influence householders' gardening habits, and by far the biggest influence was found to be neighbours and friends. Community pride, fear of what the neighbours might think, and the effect on house prices were all important issues, particularly when it came to keeping front gardens neat and tidy.
Mark said: "Because we often hear that community spirit is lacking these days, this was another fascinating finding. The pressure on householders to conform to social norms was very evident - in fact, in the most affluent neighbourhood we looked at, respondents told us that their neighbours had been known to knock on doors if a lawn or hedge was thought to be overgrown.
"While community pride undoubtedly has many benefits, it is a real shame that it can cause people to harm our native wildlife, probably without even knowing it. Apart from anything else, we know that the majority of people really enjoy seeing wildlife in their gardens - 85% of people we spoke to felt that it added to their quality of life.
"To encourage wildlife, we aren't talking about major changes or letting a garden get completely overgrown. Just leaving a patch of grass to grow a little longer than the rest of the lawn or planting a few bee-friendly plants can make a real difference."
Last month, the University of Leeds brought Dr Goddard's findings to life by demonstrating bee-friendly gardening techniques at its Chelsea Flower Show exhibit. The exhibit also highlighted other gardening measures to improve water and carbon management as part of an "ecosystem services" approach.
To encourage people to find out more about bee-friendly gardening, the University has also launched a Facebook page dedicated to 'messy gardening' at www.facebook.com/GardeningForChampions, and produced a series of useful tips on how you can easily create a more bee-friendly garden.
Gardening for Champions Facebook Page [external link]