4 Jun 2024

Celebrating Pollinators

Ellyn Baker

Last weekend we celebrated all things plants and pollinators with a Pollinator Festival at the Botanic Garden! The Science, Education and Horticulture Teams all came together to create engaging displays, activities, tours, and demonstrations focused on pollinating insects and the plants that depend on them.

Pollinators come in all shapes, colours and sizes, from vibrant butterflies to tiny wasps, and they are essential for a healthy environment and our everyday lives. They go about their business, pollinating the crops and fruits that we rely upon for nutrition and also the beautiful wildflowers that are vital for ecosystems and biodiversity. With at least 1,500 insect species that pollinate plants in the UK, it is only fair that we spent the day celebrating and appreciating these amazing creatures!

The day began with opening the moth trap, which had attracted plenty of interesting moths the night before. Highlights of the morning included the Peach Blossom (Thyatira batis), Peppered Moth (Biston betularia), Buff Ermine (Spilosoma luteum)and White Ermine (Spilosoma lubricipeda). Moths are very important night-time pollinators, and are even thought to be more efficient at pollinating flowers than bees during the day! Some flowers, such as the Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) are specially adapted to attract moths, producing a sweet scent which is strongest at night. The long trumpet-shaped flowers mean that only long-tongued pollinators, such as moths, can reach the nectar contained within.

Next on the agenda was a guided walk around the meadows with Dr Kevin McGinn who shared insights into the rich diversity of flowers and the pollinators they attract. One species to always look out for in buttercup-filled meadows is the Buttercup Blacklet (Cheilosia albitarsis) hoverfly, which uses buttercups as its larval host plant. Research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales has shown that this species also primarily forages on Buttercup flowers, therefore acting as an important pollinator for both Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris) and Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens).

The ‘Make a Meadow’ activity proved popular with visitors of all ages, where pressed plant material was used to create a wonderful collaborative wildflower meadow display. This was to showcase our new National Lottery Heritage Funded Herbarium project, where we are aiming to digitise the 30,000 specimens contained within our herbarium at the Science Centre. Of course, we couldn’t use the precious herbarium specimens themselves for this display, but took a small amount of plant material from around the Garden to create a very full and diverse looking meadow by the end of the day!

The Science Team had a display of seeds, the fruits of pollination, to inspect under the microscope to showcase what can be found in the National Seed Bank of Wales. An interesting relationship exists between the Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera), which we have conserved in the Seed Bank, and the Digger Wasp that pollinates it. This orchid is a master of deception, releasing a pheromone which smells like a female digger wasp, attracting males and tricking them to attempt to mate with the flower. In the process, the male wasps pick up pollen on their bodies, which they carry on to the next flower that fools them, thus pollinating the plant.

Of course, we couldn’t have a pollinator day without mentioning the Honeybees (Apis mellifera) that we have on site! The Garden’s beekeepers gave an insight of life inside the hives, and there were some beeswax candle making activities. However, honeybees are just one of 270 native bee species in the UK, including bumblebees and solitary bees. Bumblebees, for example, are essential for pollinating tomato plants through ‘buzz pollination,’ where they vibrate their bodies to dislodge pollen.

Another interesting relationship between a bee and a flower is between Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris) and the Yellow Loosestrife Bee (Macropis europaea). True to its name, this species of solitary bee forages almost exclusively on this flower, collecting both the pollen and floral oils from the plant. It feeds the pollen to its larvae and the oil provides a waterproof lining to the nest cells, allowing the bee to nest in wetland habitats. 

The Education Team had a variety of activities for visitors to participate in. Younger audiences enjoyed making pollinator kites, and running around the Garden with brightly coloured butterflies trailing behind them in the air! Butterflies are some of the most charismatic and well-loved pollinators, and are important for a wide variety of plant species. Another of the education activities was calculating bee miles, where visitors were tasked with finding the greatest nectar concentration within a quadrat of flowers, which would be able to power a bee for the furthest distance.

A lesser known type of pollinator are beetles, which have been pollinating flowers for millions of years. Around a quarter of the UK’s beetles act as pollinators, and are attracted to flat, open flowers which allow them to graze and eat the pollen, while transferring some from flower to flower. In the Tropical House, you may have noticed a flower which has evolved a different mechanism for attracting pollinating beetles – the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanium) has one of the largest and also smelliest flowers of any plant! Standing 3 metres tall, the Titan Arum attracts carrion beetles through its pungent smell of rotting flesh – if it’s flowering, you will probably smell it before you see it!

In the afternoon, Science Officer, Dr Laura Jones gave a talk on the scientific research conducted at the Botanic Garden to investigate the relationship between plants and pollinators. This research has informed recommendations of what flowers are best for pollinators, and what people can plant in their garden to help pollinating insects. The Horticulture Team then gave a planting demonstration to inspire and give examples of what people could do in their own gardens or outdoor space. All of the plants used are available to purchase at our Garden Centre.

Overall, it was a fantastic day sharing our knowledge and passion for pollinators and plants, and the visitors enjoyed it too! We learned about a wide variety of pollinators and how we can help boost their numbers by planting more pollinator-friendly flowers in our gardens and wild spaces.