Let's count pollinators for science!
Most flowering plants on the earth need help with pollination to produce seeds and fruit, and reproduce. For this they need pollinators. And since we rely on many plants for our food, medicine and other resources, we need pollinators too.
Many pollinators in the UK are in decline and we're not sure why. This is mainly because there haven't been long-term, standardised studies of their populations.
This is where you come in!
The Pollinator Monitoring and Research Partnership has set up two new surveys to form a UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme (PoMS): the FIT Count, Flower-Insect Timed Count, and the 1km square survey. It's the FIT Count that we're inviting you to take part in.
What is the FIT Count?
The Flower-Insect Timed Count is a count of all the insects that visit a patch of target flowers during ten minutes. You find your patch, take a picture and then watch it for ten minutes to count the number of insects visiting the flowers - we've given you more detailed instructions below. This could be a great way of getting to know the insects visiting your wildflower patch, as well as contributing to a long-term national dataset. It's for science, you know!
These 14 target flowers were chosen because they are attractive to a range of pollinating insects and they're relatively common across the UK as well as appearing between April and September when the FIT Count takes place. Two of these target flowers even appear in our 2018 seed mix.
Insects are identified within broad groups, such as bumblebees and hoverflies.
So if you want to do your bit for Britain's bees and other pollinators, why not have a go? Read through the steps below, watch this video or visit the PoMS website. You can also follow PoMS on Twitter.
Step 1: Register for an iRecord account
You will need to log into iRecord to share your count. Register your account here.
Step 2: Make a quadrat
A quadrat is a 50cm x 50cm square that you use to mark out your target flower patch. You can make it using stiff cardboard or wire, or lengths of cane cut to be 50cm on each side. Or you can make one using a 2-metre length of string, with knots tied in at each 50cm interval to allow you to arrange it in a square, or with folded gaffer tape. It is also possible to buy 50cm quadrats (put "buy quadrat" into a search engine).
For plants growing at or near ground level the quadrat can be positioned over the area being counted. For tall plants/shrubs, such as Hawthorn or Ivy, the quadrat can be positioned vertically or at a convenient angle in the shrub, as long as it clearly marks out the area of flowers that you are going to use for your count.
Step 3: Find your target flower patch
You will need to find a location containing a target flower species to watch during the FIT Count. This can be in a garden or park, in the countryside or on a nature reserve – anywhere that has suitable flowers can be used. Here is a list of all the target flowers and a guide to help you identify them.
It would be best to focus on just one of these target flowers if possible, as this will make the counts more consistent and enable the research team to compare insect numbers from year to year. However, if you cannot find any of the target flowers in your area it is fine to choose another flowering plant as your focus. A list of suggested alternative flowers is provided on page 19 of this PDF.
The researchers need to know two things about your target flowers:
- How much of your 50×50cm patch is occupied by the target flowers? e.g. less than half the patch, half, or more than half
- How many of the target flowers are there within the 50×50cm patch?
To answer the second of those questions you will need to count the flowers, but different flowers need to be counted in different ways. Depending on the flower structure, you may need to count:
individual flowers (e.g. hawthorn) – each flower counts as one unit flower
umbels (for flowers that have small flowers grouped into ‘umbels’, like inside-out umbrellas, e.g. hogweed) – each umbel counts as one unit
flower heads (where there are lots of tiny flowers within a larger flower head, e.g. dandelion) – each flower head counts as one unit
flower spikes where a number of small flowers are arranged along a stem (e.g. lavender) – each spike counts as one unit
In some cases you may have very many flowers to count (e.g. in a dense patch of lavender). If so it is fine to make an estimate, e.g. by counting flower ‘units’ in a quarter of the quadrat and multiplying by four to get a total for the whole quadrat. Only count flowers that are reasonably fresh and that are likely to attract insects – ‘dead-head’ flowers and seedheads should not be counted.
Step 4: Prepare for your FIT count
Once you have found your target flower patch, you will need to bring with you:
- Your quadrat
- A digital camera or camera phone, as you will need to take a photo of your target flower patch and may need to photograph examples of the types of insect you're seeing
- A print out of the recording form
- A pencil or pen to record your counts
- Something with which to time your 10 minutes.
You may also want to print out and bring your flower and insect guides for reference.
Read through the recording form in detail, so you don't forget anything you will need to look out for.
A FIT Count can be carried out at any time of day between the beginning of April and the end of September, as long as the weather is dry and warm. If sky is clear (less than half cloud) the minimum temperature for a count is 13°C; if sky is cloudy (half cloud or more) the minimum temperature for a count is 15°C.
Step 5: Count the insects
Finally you are ready to count the pollinators! This is what you've been waiting for... the hum and buzz of tiny wings. Your pencil scratching softly as you mark each visitor to the flowers in your quadrat.
Here is a guide to recognising the insects you need to count, or watch this video from PoMS:
The actual count should last for ten minutes so remember your timer. Stand close enough to the flowers so that you can see visiting insects easily, but try not to lean right over the top of the flower patch as this can prevent insects from visiting.
During the ten minutes, use a tally count on your recording form to count every insect that lands on one of the flowers of your target flower species within the 50×50cm square patch:
- Only count insects that land on flowers of your target plant species, within the patch
- Tiny insects (up to 3mm long, including pollen beetles) should be counted as “Small insects under 3mm long” – there is no need to distinguish which insect group these tiny insects belong to
- Unidentified insects over 3mm should still be counted, in the “Other insects” category
- Ignore insects that do not land, or that land on flowers of other plant species, or that land on leaves
- Ignore any spiders, snails or other non-insects that may occasionally be seen on flowers
- Occasionally you may find insects ‘hiding’ at the bases of flowers, but these should not be counted unless you saw them actively land on or move over the flower during your 10 minutes.
There's more guidance available from PoMS.
Step 6: Send your data to the scientists!
Once you have logged into iRecord, you will need to go to the FIT count section. The online form is almost exactly the same as your printed one, so simply transfer your recordings over.
You can do a count once or several times, they're all useful! There's information at the end of this document about how your data will be used, don't forget to read it through.
And let us know how your FIT count goes! Tag Grow Wild and PoMS in any posts you do. Or comment below. We look forward to hearing from you!