Is it true if bees die out, our planet has only four years left?
There’s no better person to ask than Dr Natasha de Vere, head of science at the National Botanic Garden of Wales , where up to 1.5 million bees are currently buzzing around the 568 acres of flowers and greenery.
What she and her team of scientists don’t know about bees and other pollinators (animals that move pollen around so fruit and seeds grow) probably isn’t worth considering.
Their world-leading expertise isn’t necessarily what you’d expect if you’re dropping into the garden on the Carmarthenshire tourist trail, with work which not only benefits the environment but could also bring relief to hayfever sufferers as well as discoveries about the superbug MRSA.
The scientific accolades are impressive. Natasha joined the garden 11 years ago, leading research which made Wales the first nation in the world to create a DNA barcode library of our native flowering plants and conifers, a project which has now expanded to build up a database of flora throughout the UK.
It means a tiny fragment of pollen, leaf or root is all that’s needed to identify a plant which has its DNA barcode in the library.
She emphasises, though, that just as important as the actual science is how they’re making their findings interesting and relevant to garden visitors and communities throughout Wales for people who may not be too concerned about what goes on in the labs.
“Our visitors are absolutely vital to us,” she says, as we sip coffee out of bee-adorned mugs in the science centre.
“Most of our funding comes from visitor entry, so they pay my wages really,” she adds. “Our visitors are core to what we do and being able to share what we do with them is really important, but not everyone is going to want to look at a graph and not everyone relates to science so we wanted to think of as many ways as possible to interact with people in ways which would appeal to them.”
A series of art and design projects including photographs which showed plants’ DNA sequences as Morse code has been one of the creative spin-offs.
In another project, a group of needleworkers from south and west Wales produced a hexagonal patchwork of embroidered flowers which represents plants identified by one of the scientists as important local pollen sources.
Natasha says these links help examine questions they want to answer, like how do we conserve biodiversity, how do we protect our planet?
“They’re not just questions for scientists, they’re questions for artists and the public, they’re questions for everybody,” she adds.
“People will go up and say, ‘it’s really beautiful, what do all those plants mean?’”
The DNA barcode project underpins most of what goes on in the science centre, and Natasha says it has enormous applications around the world. She’d just returned from work to regrow rainforest in Borneo, where orangutans and proboscis monkeys have been losing habitats.
Back in Wales, and as we finish up that coffee in the bee mugs, she tells me more about how the DNA barcoding project works.
“For example, I could take this cup of coffee and all of those little coffee grains in the bottom, and I’d be able to tell you that was coffee just from the DNA.
“Obviously, we know what that is, but I could take a little bit of root from the ground, I can take a pollen grain from the air, I can take something which has gone through the body of an animal, so I can tell you what a dormouse has had for dinner, and I can do that if I can identify things with DNA.
“Whenever you get that plant or animal again, you can identify what it is.”
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She brings out a framed picture of a plant, with a long string made up of the letters A, T, G and C underneath.
“This is rosebay willowherb,” she says. “It’s flowering at the moment, the pollinators love it.
“If we want to extract the DNA from that, we take a little bit of leaf, we extract the DNA and (pointing to the string of letters) this is the DNA barcode.
“These are DNA bases and the order of those bases will be unique to these species.
“If we want to make a reference library, we take the plant, we extract a bit of DNA, we make a herbarium specimen, we say ‘this is where it came from,’ and then we do the lab work so we get this DNA barcode.”
It’s not quite the same as the barcodes you see on food packets, and there’s no barcode reader, yet, but the possibilities stretch before them, especially when it comes to the work they’re doing with honeybees.
‘Pollinators are absolutely vital to us’
Natasha explains how one PhD student, Laura Jones, is looking at what plants the bees favour, as part of the Growing the Future project.
“Laura takes a pollen sample, gets the DNA from that, sequences it on a machine and what she gets back is hundreds of thousands of these DNA strands, and then using a supercomputer, we have a big library of all these DNA strands where we know what the plants are and we use a bit of software to compare each one of our little sequences to see which one it matches.
“We then know which plants the honeybee visits.”
On my question about whether we’re all doomed within four years if the honeybees disappear, Natasha says: “Whether it’s only four years or not is a bit of an urban myth, but could we survive without pollinators? No, because our food supply is dependent on pollinators and they’re facing huge declines.
“Pollinators are absolutely vital to us. 75% of the crops that we use are all pollinated by insects. If we didn’t have pollinators, we wouldn’t have coffee, we wouldn’t have chocolate. We also wouldn’t have most of the foods that keep us healthy.
She says there are multiple threats to these little creatures.
“It’s loss of habitat, a big threat is loss of flowers, because all their food comes from flowers and in current agricultural environments across the world, including Wales and the UK, we’ve lost our hedgerows, we’ve lost our meadows, we’ve lost all the flowers which kept all these animals alive.
“There’s the use of pesticides, and the problem often with pesticides like the neonics [neonicotinoids], which hopefully will be banned permanently, is that they don’t necessarily kill them outright but they reduce their mental ability so they can’t find flowers any more, it stops them reproducing properly.
“So we’ve got pest diseases, insecticides, loss of habitat, loss of flowers, all those things working together mean that the pollinators can’t deal with these things all at once.”
I tell her how my own concern over the mass building on green spaces (including hedgerows around Cardiff being ripped out for new housing, and in my own front garden, my decision to remove grass in favour of block paving) took me on a search to compensate a bit by planting bee-friendly plants in a raised bed.
The problem is, Natasha tells me, there’s no agreed standard for environmentally and pollinator- friendly plants, something they’re hoping to address at the garden with an assurance scheme – something like the “Fair Trade” label we’re used to seeing.
“The vast majority of people will go to a garden centre and they will want to buy something that helps nature,” she said, explaining about research from Sussex University which looked at plants on sale with pollinator-friendly labels.
“They tested it, and said ‘does that actually work?’ and the answer was ‘no’.
“Some of the plants were fine, but the plants which were labelled weren’t necessarily better compared to ones that weren’t.
“In a way, that’s not the end of the world because most of the plants were fine, but there was another study done which tested those plants for insecticides, and an awful lot of the plants which were being sold as perfect for pollinators actually had so many insecticides on them that they were harmful for pollinators and you simply wouldn’t know this as a buyer.”
As well as Laura’s research into what plants honeybees prefer, another PhD student, Lucy Witter, is looking at what plants wild pollinators like best.
We walk out of the science centre, past beehives and down to a glorious display of multi-coloured wildflowers.
How to attract bees
Our photographer is already making the most of this display, shown off to best effect in the summer heatwave, but it’s also “doggy Monday” and Lucy visibly stiffens as one of the four-legged visitors lollops over to the flowerbeds she’s toiled to Rotovate, hand-clear of weeds and plant out as the foundation of her research.
Lucy looks relieved as the dog and its owner move on, and she tells us about the four different seed mixes planted in the beds, two of which are marketed by manufacturers to attract bees and other pollinators.
“The aim of my research this year is to look at ‘is there a difference in the diversity of pollinators on the four different seed mixes?’ she says.
“The ones that are designed to attract pollinators, are they any better or just as good as the ones that haven’t been designed to attract pollinators?
“I haven’t analysed any of the results yet, but I’m finding the native mixes tend to be more attractive to the solitary bees and hoverflies but I think that might be because there are more open flowers rather than the fact that they’re native.”
Based on the results, Lucy will then go on to design an evidence-based seed mix of her own, a challenging ask, says Natasha.
“People don’t just grow the plants because the pollinators like them, they’ve also got to look beautiful, so she’s also asking our visitors ‘which one of these is most beautiful, which one of these would you most like to grow?’” Natasha says.
It’s going to be a tough act for her, because these mixes so far are stunning and she’s got to make one which is more pollinator-friendly and just as beautiful.
“It’s a pilot project, but if it was successful, my dream would be that this is rolled out across Wales and Wales becomes the first nation to actually have this ‘plants for pollinators’ assurance.
“We were the first nation to DNA-barcode all of our plants, so it was a world first to do that, so I’m hoping this is also a world first.”
The research plays into a five-year project called Growing the Future, set up with £2.3m of EU funding via the Welsh Government.
It celebrates and promote Welsh horticulture, and aims to help protect wildlife and encourage everyone to grow their own plants for food, health and wellbeing.
“There’s been lots and lots of research which has looked at the importance of being outside for physical and mental health,” says Natasha.
“If you’re told to just ‘go to the gym,’ a lot of people are just not into that, and that’s really not something they’re going to do, whereas with gardening, you can almost exercise by stealth.
“You’re outside, you’re doing something, you’re also doing a lot of physical activity at the same time, so it’s also a good way of getting people to be fitter without having to think about it too much and obviously if you grow your own food, then that helps in terms of diet and thinking about where your food has come from.
“If you’ve grown it yourself, you’re more likely to think again about processed foods in supermarkets. The data on children is really, really interesting, so they looked at things like behavioural difficulties to social inclusion and fitness and showed that schools that had gardening activities made a huge difference to the wellbeing of the children.
“The premise of the Growing the Future project is to get as many people outside growing food, flowers, just having a lovely time.”
Grow your own
It’s something you may come across yourself as displays and activities from the botanic garden go on the road at events like the National Eisteddfod.
Meanwhile, a series of “hubs” will be set up around Wales where adults and children can learn how to grow their own plants and food.
“By the end of the project we really want to make a significant impact on the importance of horticulture in Wales, both by promoting it to people, ‘look at where you buy your products from’ but also really getting into people’s minds of gardens for health and wellbeing, and what they can do in their own gardens,” Natasha says.
She stresses it’s just as applicable to tiny urban spaces, even indoors, as it is to the vast and open Carmarthenshire countryside.
“Part of what we want to do, particularly in urban areas, is say ‘well, you don’t need lots of space always. Even if you’ve got a windowbox.”
Natasha also talks about a joint project led by Bangor University, which is hoped could help hayfever sufferers.
“If people suffer from hayfever they know that it’s a particular type of pollen that triggers it, so people will say ‘is it trees or grass?’ but actually it’s probably a specific type of grass which causes the problem,” she says.
“Because we’ve made this DNA barcode library of all of the plants in the UK, we’re working on a big joint project to collect pollen from the air, DNA- barcode that and say ‘well, what grasses are present and does that link to hospital admissions for asthma?’
“In the short term, it would just mean that people could avoid those situations, so it would mean they could say ‘the cocksfoot grass, dactylis glomerata, is in flower now, I’m not going to go on a camping trip’.
“What we hope with the project is that we could get a better technique which the Met Office can use, so they could say there’s, say, five grasses which people are really allergic to, this one is now there.”
An army of volunteers
Earlier research found a certain type of Welsh honey from north Wales which could kill the antibiotic-resistant bug MRSA in laboratory conditions.
“We had a PhD student, Jenny Hawkins, and Jenny tested different honeys for their anti-microbial properties and we DNA-barcoded them to see which plants they were visiting and we did find a honey from north Wales that worked better than others, and it had more bluebells in,” Natasha says.
“We found this honey worked better than the other honeys and it had more bluebells in, it actually destroys the MRSA.
“The problem is, we don’t know whether it’s the bluebells, or is it something else about that honey sample that has the effect? That was just in a Petrie dish.
“We haven’t done too much more than that because there were too many possibilities to narrow it down to be useful. We came to the conclusion that honey’s really good for you regardless of what plant it comes from.”
There’s an air of energy and purpose among everyone we meet working at the botanic garden, which also relies on an army of some 300 volunteers.
But things haven’t always been so rosy.
The garden was one of the biggest Millennium projects in Wales, but in 2004, just four years after it opened, only a rescue package from the Assembly, the Millennium Commission and Carmarthenshire Council saved it from closing, with more difficulties in the years that followed.
The current director, Huw Francis, arrived in 2016, and he’s helping broaden the garden’s appeal with a target of a 10% year-on-year increase in visitor numbers.
“We’re an independent charity,” he says as we walk around, adding that 35% of operating costs come from the Welsh Government, and turnover was over £3m in the last financial year.
“Having more visitors generates more income, so it’s critical to have the visitors in, and the more of those we get the better,” he says.
He’s naturally delighted they won the Botanic Gardens Conservation International’s (BGCI) Botanic Garden Accreditation in May this year, a body he describes as “sort of the trade body for botanic gardens worldwide.
“That’s quite a high accolade and a reflection of the conservation and the science work that Natasha does.”
August will be their busiest tourist month, with around 30,000 people coming in, and with education programmes, corporate events and weddings all part of the business plan too.
I ask him how secure their financial situation is now, and he replies, “it’s like any business, we have to earn our money.
“We have to generate more income, we’re looking to run it as a business and plan for that going forward, so we’re looking to develop things that will bring more visitors in.”
I remember visiting the Botanic Garden of Wales as a journalist just after it first opened. We struggled to get the broadband to work and there was nowhere near the amount to see and do as there is now, although the centrepiece Great Glasshouse hit the senses back then just as it does now.
A Mediterranean aroma welcomes visitors as soon as they enter the huge dome, the largest single-span great glasshouse in the world.
With its own bird population, it recreates plants from countries with Mediterranean climates around the world including South Africa, Chile and Spain.
A separate butterfly house, an apothecary hall recreated from an historic Anglesey pharmacy, play areas and the newly opened bird of prey centre are among the current attractions.
A walk onto higher ground to the side of the Great Glasshouse brings us to a view of a new £7.2m project backed by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
Work is beginning here to restore its Regency splendour, going back to how it looked during its heyday at the start of the 19th century, when Sir William Paxton owned the estate.
He commissioned two of period’s leading designers, the architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell and the landscape designer Samuel Lapidge, an apprentice of “Capability” Brown. They created lakes, dams and cascades, making it one of the finest water and landscape parks in Britain.
“You can see where the bare mud is, that’s where the lake will reappear once they’ve fixed the dam,” Huw points out, as we stand on the footprint of the former mansion, which burned down in the 1930s.
“They’re clearing all the mud and the old silt out from the lake bed and they’ll reline it with clay.”
It’s due to be finished by 2020, making the garden an even bigger space for visitors than it is now, already an accessible meander of several miles.
“At the moment, most people stay in the core botanic garden but we’ve got another 400 acres that we want to encourage people into.”
Hop to it
At that core is the double-walled garden. We pass the Welsh Heritage Orchard, the nation’s biggest collection of native apples, as director Huw talks us through some of the features of an area which would have fed the mansion’s owners and visitors.
“Over there we’ve got the vegetable garden, which is historically how this would’ve been used, producing vegetables for the big house,” he says.
“Just over in the corner, see the trellis against the wall? We’ve been growing hops because most of the hops used in brewing in Wales come from the south east of England so we’ve trialled five different types of hops and then one of the breweries is going to take them and do some trial brews to work out which ones are really good.”
He explains the air is much cleaner in this part of Carmarthenshire than further east towards Swansea, allowing lichens and other rare plants to grow, and inside the walled garden there’s a microclimate.
“It’s noticeably warmer most of the year. Hence this area here, this was the peach house and they had furnaces on the other side of the wall. It heated the wall, so they could grow peaches for the big house most of the year.
“One of the plans is to re-create a modern interpretation of the peach house so we can expose the archaeology underneath and give people access to it and we’ll build over the top of it, hopefully with a glass floor so people will be able to see what used to be there and how it works.
“As part of that, we’ve just put in a new biomass boiler the other side of the wall, similar to what they used to do in the old days, but we’re now doing it in a modern context.”
The plans, and the work, never stop. We haven’t had time to look at the working, organic farm with its Welsh Black cattle and native Welsh sheep breeds, and one of the next projects will be to revamp the Japanese Garden with 100 flowering cherry trees. Glamping pods are due to go up soon, opening up more possibilities for tourism and residential trips.
The major event this year is the British Bird of Prey Centre, which opened last month, and, like everything, the visitor attraction ties in with the garden’s wider aims.
The biology forms part of the schools programme at the garden, says Huw, and also plays into the conservation mission.
“Ultimately, if you’ve got a healthy eco-system, you have more birds of prey, so we use the birds as a very interactive way of getting that across,” he says.
Falconer Rob Cannell welcomes us in, as four young kestrels he’s training to fly in formation call out to him from their cage.
Rob admits the kestrels, Eeny, Meeny, Miny and Mo, think of him as “Dad”.
“It’s quite funny,” he says. “Every bird’s got their own personality and a lot of the birds show preference towards certain falconers. I get told these birds are mine now.”
A particularly insistent call from behind starts drowning out his words.
“That’s Miny,” he says. “Miny’s the noisy one.”
The birds of prey, all native British species, are flown every day, and although they’re fitted with trackers, the falconers also have to rely on them wanting to come back.
I ask what’s the secret of training them, especially when I see Midas, the feisty Golden eagle.
“Food and trust,” Rob says. “Getting to know the bird, gaining the bird’s trust.
“They’re not affectionate animals, you don’t touch them, cuddle them or stroke them, there’s no benefit to them for doing that, it’s just they trust us to look after them and feed them.
“So, if it lands on my glove he knows that any bird is going to get food and you’re not going to do anything to it, you’re not going to stop it eating.”
“Some bonds take a lot longer to form than others,” he says. “We had the kestrels from about 14 days old, whereas I met Midas when he was about a year old, so I had to get to know him.”
We’ve walked over four miles on this tour around the site without seeing everything. On the way out, Y Pot Blodyn cafe was a very welcome tea stop,.
The staff had already impressed on us they want visitors to enjoy “a great day out”, and – as the director put it – “where they can also engage in the botanic garden work, the conservation and the research that we do.”
National Botanic Garden of Wales is at Middleton Hall, Llanarthne SA32 8HN. It’s open seven days a week. Entry is £11 for adults, £9 concessons and £5 for children aged five to 16. Visit botanicgarden.wales
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