More than 16,000 insects were recorded at this year's Open Farm Sunday, turning visitors to this popular annual farm event into an army of citizen scientists. The results of the first national farm pollinator survey are launched today, 18 December 2012, at the British Ecological Society's Annual Meeting at the University of Birmingham.Family taking part in the first national farm pollinator survey in June 2012. Photo: Barnaby Smith

Now in its seventh year, Open Farm Sunday has attracted more than one million visitors to UK farms since 2006, and in June 2012 the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) organised the first ever national farm pollinator survey during the event.

Insect pollinators play a crucial role in producing human food crops and in maintaining biodiversity in natural ecosystems, but the steady decline in the number of insect pollinators threatens our ability to feed a growing world population. Ecologists, therefore, are looking for cost-effective, long-term monitoring methods for insect pollinators.

CEH's Dr Helen Roy said the first national pollinator survey on farms demonstrated the value of engaging people in recording insects. "A staggering 16,380 insects were counted during one day and the event involved citizen scientists of all ages," Dr Roy said. "The large-scale dataset provides a unique resource for exploring relationships between insect abundance and land use and demonstrates the value of flowering field margins and other non-crop habitats on farms.”

Working with scientists from Syngenta, entomological consultant Mike Edwards and LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), CEH ecologists and students helped Open Farm Sunday visitors conduct more than 600 surveys across 36 farms in 23 counties. They surveyed an easily accessible site on each farm, and each site contained both crop and non-crop habitat to tease out which habitats supported most insect pollinators. The survey recorded 6,738 insects on crops and 9,642 on non-crop habitats. Flies were the most abundant group of insects across farms, and butterflies the least abundant.

The results show that the abundance of bees in crops was strongly affected by the type of crop: oilseed rape and beans had significantly more bees than cereal, pasture without animals and vegetables. Apart from oilseed rape and linseed, more bees were found in flowering field margins than in crops, and mean bee abundance on flowering field margins was significantly higher than on hedgerows.

Citizen science enthusiasm

As well as showing the importance of flowering crops and flowering field margins to insect abundance, the results show how much citizen scientists can achieve. “The Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey highlighted the enthusiasm of people for getting involved in citizen science. Despite the reasonably detailed and time-consuming nature of the systematic survey a high number of participants contributed data,” Dr Roy explained. “We plan to repeat the survey in 2013 and aim to build a long-term large-scale dataset assessing insect abundance on farms across the UK.”

Dr Michael Pocock, one of the CEH ecologists involved in analysing the data, said, “It was encouraging to find that the pollinator survey data collected by the citizen scientists very closely matched those of the experienced ecologists involved on the day. The OFS Pollinator Survey highlights the valuable roles that both scientists and citizen scientists can play in monitoring our environment.”

Dr Roy and Masters student Lucy Cornwell, who worked with the CEH team, are presenting their full findings today, 18 December 2012, to the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting at the University of Birmingham.

Additional information

The British Ecological Society issued a press release for this story.

View Helen and Lucy's presentation [PDF] and read more details on the CEH Science News blog

A full programme for the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting is available from the BES website.

CEH science at the 2012 BES Annual Meeting

Read a CEH blog post from June 2012: Reflecting on the first national farm pollinator survey




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