This last couple of weeks parts of my daily walks have been accompanied by, the to me, unwelcome din of motor lawnmowers as lots of my fellow villagers strive to turn their lawns into ecological deserts. One of my neighbours has, to my knowledge, cut his lawn five times since the beginning of March, me I’ve done my spring cut and that’s it until autumn.
An ecological desert 😦
This mania for close-cropped lawns, sometimes ‘artistically’ striped, is, I think, the fault of my grandparent’s generation, which took a municipal park attitude to gardens, especially the bit that the neighbours could see; close-cropped, weed-free grass with regimented flower beds, also equally weed-frees. Out of sight, back gardens could be less manicured, and depending on the space available, might include a vegetable garden (also scrupulously weed-free), and a patch of lawn to be used by children for ball games and other activities. Unfortunately they drummed this philosophy into their children, who in their turn, with only a few exceptions (me for one), passed this fetish on to my generation. Sadly, my father, a keen gardener, also espoused this view as did the parents of all my friends. I spent many a grumpy hour removing dandelions and thistles from our front lawn and flower beds at my father’s behest!
So what are these weeds that so many people seem to hate? To those growing crops of economic value, be they agricultural, horticultural or silvicultural, then I guess the following definitions are very reasonable and relatable.
“Plants that threaten human welfare either by competing with other plants that have food, timber of amenity value, or by spoiling and thus diminishing the value of a product”
“Weeds arise out of the mismatch between the habitats we create and the plants we choose to grow in them”
Begon, Harper & Townsend (1996)
“A plant that originated under a natural environment and, in response to imposed and natural environments, evolved and continues to do so as an interfering associate with our desired plants and activities” Aldrich & Kremer (1997)
There are more tolerant descriptions of weeds available, which are much more in accord with my views:
What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered” (Emerson, 1878)
, “A weed is but an unloved flower!” (Wilcox, 1911)
”A plant condemned without a fair trial” (de Wet & Harlan, 1975)
I have, as I have mentioned several times already, been doing a lot of walking during the covid pandemic, or should it now be referred to as the Covid Pandemic? At this time of year, Spring, the early flowers of the hedgerows and roadside verges are alreday out; cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), blackthorn or sloe (Prunus spimosa) and closer to the ground, but as equally pretty, daisies (Bellis perennis), dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), Lesser Celandines ( Ficaria verna (although some of you may know it as Ranunculus ficaria), and Wood Anemones (Anemonoides nemorosa). The latter two species, although relatively common, are unlikely to be found in the average garden, as they have fairly specific habitat requirements. Daisies and dandelions on the other hand, are pretty much ubiquitous, although the former do not attract as much opprobrium from the traditional gardener as dandelions do. This is a great shame, as ecologically speaking dandelions are an extremely important resource for pollen and nectar feeding insects.
Male tawny mining bee Andrena fulva – Sutton March 25th 2021
Bumble bee, Sutton March 30th 2021
Seven spot lady bird, too early for aphids, Oulton Road March 30th 2021
I’m not alone in my love of dandelions 🙂
We shouldn’t forget the humble daisy either. It provides nectar to many butterfly species, including among others, the Green Hairstreak, the Grizzled Skipper, the Small Copper and the Small White. They are also important resources for honey bees (Raquier et al., 2015), bumblebees and hoverflies (Blackmore & Goulson, 2014).
A nice patch of daisies.
Domestic gardens, if managed correctly, have tremendous potential as reservoirs of insects and other invertebrates of ecological importance (Davies et al, 2009). The easiest thing that you can do to help the insects is to reduce the frequency at which you mow your lawn and grass verges. To sum it up in a nutshell, the less you move, the more flowers you get and the more flowers you get the more nectar and pollen feeding insects you make happy, some of which can be rare and endangered (Wastian et al., 2016).
The less frequently you mow, the more flowers you get. The more flowers you get, the more bumblebees you get (George, 2008).
It is not just flower feeding insects that benefit from reducing your lawn mowing activities; grass feeding insects also benefit from longer grass ( Helden & Leather, 2005) and if, for some strange reason, you are not a great fan of bugs, just remember that the more bugs you have the more birds you will attract (Heden et al., 2012). So do your bit to save the planet, be like me, only mow your lawn twice a year.
Davies, Z.G., Fuller, R.A., Loram, A., Irvine, K.N., Sims, V. & Gaston, K.J. (2009) A national scale inventory of resource provision for biodiversity within domestic gardens. Biological Conservation,142, 761-771.
Garbuzov, M., Fensome, K.A. & Ratnieks, F.L.W. (2015) Public approval plus more wildlife: twin benefits of reduced mowing of amenity grass in a suburban public park in Saltdean, UK. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 8, 107-119.
George, W. (2008) The Birds and the Bees: Factors Affecting Birds, Bumblebees and Butterflies in Urban Green Spaces, MSc Thesis, Imperial College, London.
Helden, A.J. & Leather, S.R. (2005) The Hemiptera of Bracknell as an example of biodiversity within an urban environment. British Journal of Entomology & Natural History,18, 233-252.
Helden, A.J., Stamp, G.C. & Leather, S.R. (2012) Urban biodiversity: comparison of insect assemblages on native and non-native trees. Urban Ecosystems,15, 611-624.
Lerman, S.B., Contostac, A.R., Milamb, J. & Bang, C. (2018) To mow or to mow less: Lawn mowing frequency affects bee abundance and diversity in suburban yards. Biological Conservation, 221, 160-174.
Requier, F., Odoux, J., Tamic, T.,Moreau, N., Henry, M., Decourtye, A. & Bretagnolle, V. (2015) Honey bee diet in intensive farmland habitats reveals an unexpectedly high flower richness and a major role of weedsEcological Applications,25, 881–890.
My first reaction to the leopard picture was to go through my shelves and look at all the front covers of the journal since they adopted the new size and format, to see how biased (I automatically assumed that they would be) they were towards vertebrates. I was not surprised, there was indeed a very strong vertebrate bias.
Journal of Animal Ecology front covers, 2009-2016
Just over 80% of the covers had a vertebrate subject; taxonomically they break down to 50% mammals, 20% birds and 11% fish. Considering the true species composition of the known number of vertebrates, mammals (less than 0.5% of described animal life, about 5 500 species) are vastly over-represented to say the least. Fish people should be particularly incensed 🙂
Relative proportions of described animal life. Fish as the most speciose vertebrate group get a picture 🙂 I apologise to any nematologists who might be reading this post 🙂
So what about the journal content, has editorial policy change since 2014 and how are the invertebrates doing? Ken stated in his blog that taxonomically speaking the papers published in Journal of Animal Ecology were approximately, 30% bird, 26% mammal, 12% fish and 20% insect related. I did a quick count of the papers published in 2015 and 2016. Things are changing, birds and mammals are down (24% and 22% respectively) and fish are on the up (17%), but vertebrates still account for 67% of papers published in the last two years. Although the journal is still very vertebrate biased that is a definite improvement, but still not back to the glory days of the 1970s, Nevertheless, well done Ken and colleagues. Progress is being made (whether deliberately or not) to redress the balance, but still much more is needed to put invertebrates in the lead where they deserve to be. More insect front covers would surely be easy enough to implement and help reinforce the message that insects and other invertebrates are where most of real world ecology is to be found. Over to you Ken 🙂
I always feel a bit guilty about taking the Journal of Animal Ecology to task, because when compared with the Journal of Zoology, JAE are paragons of virtue in regard to publishing invertebrate papers but I guess that as a long-standing member of the British Ecological Society I feel a somewhat more proprietorial interest 🙂
For those of you interested in the press coverage of the UK General Election, an analysis of the newspaper coverage. I guarantee that you will be surprised as to which were the two most impartial papers.
Once upon a time we had the milk lake and the butter mountain, but now a butter shortage means bad news for croissant lovers in France
I have just had the opportunity to take some photographs of what used to be the most biodiverse roundabout in Bracknell, the Sports Centre Roundabout. Just before Christmas I reported that there had been a large number of trees and shrubs felled, many of them native, reducing what was a very heterogeneous habitat to a much more uniform one. You can see the before and after pictures below.
Sports Centre Roundabout
It is a shame that it is winter and that the leaves have fallen, but I think that you can get the picture. it is particularly sad as we have recently published a paper showing that native trees are particularly useful on roundabouts for both insects and birds (Helden et al., 2012).