On a warm September Tuesday, a masked and socially-distanced cohort from Pollinating London Together visited four more Livery company gardens to audit them. The Worshipful Companies of Plaisterers, Salters, Goldsmiths and Stationers all let us look around and take photographs of their little sanctuaries in central London.
It would be rude of us not to share with you some of the highlights and insights of the day, but I also took the opportunity to dig deeper into the purpose of the visits with Gill Perkins, CEO of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, our lead auditor.
I think the first thing people may want to know is what is a 'pollinator audit', and why is PLT carrying them out?
Pollination is a crucial ecosystem service and crucial to human health and wellbeing – one in every 3 mouthfuls of food we eat depend directly on pollination. Our pollinators are in decline, specifically bumblebees and solitary bees, there are lots of other insects that visit flowers like flies, wasps, hoverflies, moths and butterflies even some beetles which are also under threat. Honeybees are also good pollinators but are not at risk of extinction or decline.
With bees threatened by habitat loss, pesticides and climate change, researchers are finding that planting bee friendly flowers in urban and city gardens and green spaces can help restore essential pollinators. The positive results are already being seen in cities like Bristol. Pollinating London Together wants to make a difference to pollinators starting in the City of London and spreading out to make London a pollinator ‘hot spot’.
Our first ambition, working with the City Livery companies who have gardens is to help them make their green spaces as pollinator friendly as possible. We are doing that by setting them a challenge! We check out their gardens as they are now – and score them for pollinator friendliness.
A pollinator audit will demonstrate where they are now with helping pollinators and give them advice as to how they can be even better at reversing the declines in pollinators and encouraging more into their gardens.
And what sort of things are being looked for in the audits?
We use simple criteria in the audits, for example, bee friendly plants, nesting and hibernation places, flowers blooming throughout the bee season (March – October), understanding of bee friendly plants, use of pesticides, if they are using any pollinator monitoring schemes to track their bee friendliness and whether they are supporting other charities that are helping to reverse declines in pollinators – like the Wild Life Trusts, RHS or Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
We also introduce them to the national pollinator strategy so they can measure up against some of the objectives the government is looking to achieve.
How have the visits and results gone down with the Livery Companies visited so far?
We’ve had fun! All of the Liveries we have so far audited have been open to learning, engaged and inspired by our audit process – I also feel there is a hint of competitiveness creeping in to achieve the highest score – watch this space next year!
All the sites were in Central London, were they very similar?
We had an amazing array of gardens to audit – for example a sensory herb garden, a true wildflower strip in the heart of the City, a formally laid out garden and one that was bursting with exotic flowers - but enjoyed by pollinators nonetheless. Each garden we have visited has been different and exciting with lots of opportunity to help pollinators with a few tweaks here and there.
Did the team see any bees or other pollinators during the audits?!
Yes – we managed to see bumblebees, honeybees and solitary bees, a few butterflies and flies as well.
What are the next steps for the Liveries who have participated so far? And for the audit team?
Once all the Audit reports are completed and the ‘scores are on the doors’ we will encourage the Livery gardeners to consider their planting for next year, we have given lots of advice so we hope they will take on board some of our ideas. We will be working with their nominated ‘bee champions’ to help them set up simple monitoring methods so they can actually see the increase in pollinators from their planting and in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger – ‘we’ll be back’ next year to check on them and re-score – and maybe even give a prize for the most improved!
And finally, not all Liveries have gardens, and not all readers will be linked with Liveries, can we audit ourselves? What would be the key things for us to look at?
The easiest way for individuals with gardens, patios, window boxes or balconies is to ‘think bees’ when deciding what to plant and use the Bumblebee Trust ‘Beekind’ tool https://beekind.bumblebeeconservation.org/ to choose the best bee friendly plants, buy from a reputable source, don’t use pesticides and if possible use peat free compost.
A quick tour in pictures...
First on our list was Plaisterers' Hall - what Gill described as a 'wildflower strip', which buffered a section of Roman wall from the bustling City. It was the most 'natural' of all the locations visited and I felt honoured to be rooting around in the undergrowth. A passing workman looked down and saw me and helpfully offered to send in a rescue party as parts were so wonderfully overgrown. This garden scored 7.5/10 on planting, which is a strong place to start from. We loved the range of wild flowers here; yarrow, buddleia, valerian (a favourite of the hummingbird hawk moth) and so many more.
Next on our list was the Salters garden. This is a sunken garden, in a more modern setting and accessible to the public. There was also a nod to our precious pollinators here in the form of some large bee hotels. The planting score here was 5/10; there is lots of potential, with a range of beds and planters. It should be noted that we don't expect gardens to score highly in their first year; we'd like to give pointers and return again and for the scores to be improved upon. For example, switching out flowers like begonias, which are not rich sources of nectar could be an easy 'win' for any garden or window-box. Gill was bee-lighted to spot some beautiful hostas, which are a great choice for a bee friendly garden, if you can distract the slugs with an alternative menu.
The Goldsmiths' garden was our third port of call. This is a busy public garden, on split levels and clearly a lot of effort goes into maintaining it. It was a nugget of green, with splashes of colour from the flowers in bloom. This scored 5.5 on planting, but was one of the locations we spotted bees - we noted a bombus pascuorum (common carder bee) on a Japanese anemone and there were hydrangeas, cyclamens (a great early flowerer for the emerging bumblebee queens in the spring), and others, some of which were unknown to us as they were a little 'exotic'. David Arkin, who looks after the garden was on-hand with information and enthusiasm. I simply couldn't move on without mentioning Betty, and thanking her for permitting us to look around her fiefdom.
Last but certainly not least, was the Stationers' walled courtyard garden. It was a little different as it is predominantly shady, and any planting would need to take that into account. Shady however, does not mean gloomy - we were impressed by the large plane tree which took centre stage. Ivy was left to grow up it, which is wonderful as ivy flowers are an excellent source of autumn nectar for our pollinators, and are favoured by colletes hederae (ivy bees). Another score of 5.5 and an excellent point to build upon. There were a number of apis mellifera (honey bees) and I was excited to find what appeared to be a wasp's nest at the base of the plane tree. (Wasp identification is a hefty gap and is on my to-do list.) It should be remembered that wasps are pollinators and these didn't bother us at all as we investigated the nooks and crannies of their garden. Here we met the delightful Gus who excitedly bounded up to us whilst we were filming a piece about solitary bees. I am sorry to say that I didn't get a photograph of him, but he was such a friendly dog.
I'd like to thank Ali Mackey of the Worshipful Company of Plaisterers, Tim Smith of the Worshipful Company of Salters, David Arkin representing the garden of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, and David Valentine and William Alden MBE DL of the Worshipful Company of Stationers for their engagement with us on the pollinator audits. It speaks volumes that people will take time out of their busy days to show us their gardens. And none of this would have been possible without the organisation and support from Heather Barrett-Mold OBE, the Master Gardener, so thank you too.
I think I speak for the audit team when I say that we are all very much looking forward to revisiting all the sites which have welcomed us so far, and we hope to engage even more livery companies and their members in the future.
If you missed the details of our last livery garden visit, you'll find the blog HERE