Learning to Read the Urban Landscape

On a cold Sunday in March, a group of well-wrapped up bumblebee enthusiasts met up at the Water of Leith Conservation Trust Visitor Centre for the first BeeScene Bumblebee Survey of the season. This citizen science survey was organised by the Scottish Waterways Trust. The findings will be used for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s national Beewalk database, and will provide useful information on the health of the canal environment.

We walked down a mile-long stretch of the Union Canal in Edinburgh armed with a Guide to Bees of Britain, and under the expert guidance of Stephen and Willie we scanned the greenery on the side of the canal for signs of bumblebee life. At this time of year it is only likely that queen bumblebees would be seen. Each year only bumblebee queens survive into winter, and in early spring they come out of hibernation and collect pollen and nectar to feed a new brood of worker bees. We didn’t see any queens – perhaps it was too cold, but Anna (herbalist and forager at Floramedica) showed us a surprising variety of wild plants that will provide forage for bumblebees and other insects later in the year. She pointed out coltsfoot, garlic mustard, cow parsley, ground elder, sticky willy, blackthorn and hawthorn.

Towards the end of the walk we entered a housing estate where the urban aesthetic did not seem to our human eyes to be inviting for wildlife. At the children’s playpark, some kids hung out with shrimping nets and plastic balls by the side of the canal. At one point we found a chair, and at another, a ‘no parking sign’  floating in the water. Someone commented that we would be unlikely to find bees in this area, even when the weather improved. In response, Anna sprung onto the bank and rapidly reeled off the names of plants that would provide plenty of food for bees – vetch, cow parsley, dead nettle, jack in the hedge (aka garlic mustard), yarrow, dock and sorrel.

It made me think about how we read landscapes. In Misreading the African Landscape (1996), anthropologists James Fairhead and Melissa Leach found that the assumptions made by ecologists about deforestation in Guinea (West Africa) were wrong. These ecologists and others were reading the landscape backwards - instead of seeing that the human inhabitants had been nurturing forest in the savannah they only saw deforestation. The assumptions we made on our walk were not dissimilar. At the peripheries of cities, we often see high rise buildings with their human inhabitants packed in close proximity. The stark architecture, the prevalence of concrete, the rubbish strewn carelessly around gives the appearance of a world that has been taken over by humans, and is antithetical to the images that we nurture of the countryside where we imagine nature will flourish. It takes an expert eye like Anna’s to see the rich flora in this city environment. To notice wild plants and insects it is necessary to relearn the way we see the world around us and develop an eye for the small details, if we are to interpret the larger landscape.