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A fortnight of fieldwork

Isobel and Vincent carrying out floral quadrats at Christmas Common

I write this post on the penultimate day of our fortnight of fieldwork, though it’s only supposed to take ten days! As with all fieldwork in the UK we are at the mercy of the weather and so are constantly glued to a variety of weather forecasts, refreshing the pages periodically throughout the evenings.

Despite our weather woes, what we are doing is pretty cool. Vincent (post doc), Isobel (undergraduate) and I are collecting pollinator species on farms around the south of England to investigate the role of agri-environment schemes on disease transmission in pollinators. This project involves a large sampling strategy - sampling from flower margins planted on farms signed up to a higher level agri-environment agreement and on naturally occurring wild flowers on farms in entry level agreements (where wildflower mixes have not been sown for pollinators).

All of our study farms have demonstrated a vast diversity in their flora and fauna, with amazing wild flower meadows, hedgerows and scrubland. We have had the pleasure to work with some amazing farmers who are extremely dedicated to sustainable farming and conservation, many of them great characters. The flower meadows at our farm in Christmas Common were a particular highlight. This farm has been working closely with the agronomist Marek Nowakowski from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology for the past 15 years to develop several fantastic flower meadows (details for his work on the agricultural landscape with Richard Pywell can be found here), providing excellent forage for bumblebees, such as Bombus hortorum (the garden bumblebee), B. lapidarius (the red-tailed bumblebee) and B. terrestris (the buff-tailed bumblebee), as well as many of their respective cuckoo bumblebee species.

Bombus hortorum feeding on kidney vetch at Christmas Common

This is not to say that non-agri farmers didn’t offer their fair share of exciting species and habitats. We’ve found that wild comfrey and thistle provide excellent forage for bumblebees. Honeybees were often seen on umbellifers, bramble and also robbing nectar from field bean flowers.

Bombus vestalis, terrestris and ruderatus on spear thistle

Personally, it’s wasn’t always amazing, awe inspiring, fun fieldwork. Unfortunately I am part of the 1 in 4 with allergies to grass pollen. Now working in Penryn, Cornwall as I usually do, this is not a problem; our county lacks any large area of grassland. However, many of our field sites lie in vast swathes of grassland. This makes fieldwork for this particular month quite uncomfortable. However, with anti-histamines in hand, nasal sprays, hat, sunglasses and a technological advancement suggested by Vincent - a face mask - the fieldwork was much more enjoyable.

Myself in my hay fever kit

The next step is to transport our samples back to Penryn for the task of RNA extraction, and then the really interesting stuff starts. What viruses do our bees have? Will we discover any new viruses? Previous research carried out by Tom Wood at Sussex University suggests that flower margins significantly increases the abundance and diversity of pollinators on farms. We hypothesise that the increase in abundance and diversity of pollinators highlighted by Tom may also increase disease transmission between pollinators. We aim to identify whether flower margins increase transmission of viruses between pollinator species, who transmits diseases to whom, and are there any new pollinator viruses out there. Further questions relating to flower morphology and the persistence of viruses in flowers are being addressed in lab and semi-field experiments with our collaborators at Royal Holloway and East Malling Institute.

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