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Plum Labor: UK public urged to follow fruit trees for climate study | Trees and forests

The UK public has been asked to track flowering fruit trees to help determine if climate change is altering flowering patterns, in one of the largest studies of its kind.

The University of Reading and Oracle for Research have developed a fruit registration site where citizen scientists can easily publish their findings. People will first be asked to register cherry and plum blossoms near them, apple trees will soon follow.

Scientists fear that climate change could cause trees to flower earlier than when pollinating insects are most active. Pollinators such as bees, hoverflies, wasps and moths have evolved in symbiosis with the plants they pollinate. Now that plants are thought to flower earlier due to warmer weather, the annual emergence of these insects may be too late.

If so, it could mean that fruit trees such as apple, pear, cherry and plum are affected, as they depend on insect pollination to produce their fruit. It could also harm insect populations if they arrive after the plants have bloomed.

Chris Wyver, PhD researcher at the University of Reading who leads the Fruitwatch project, said: ‘We need members of the public to go into gardens, allotments, orchards or parks and tell us what they see. We want as many eyes on as many trees as possible to tell us if climate change is really impacting the pollination of fruit trees. If this is the case, measures will be necessary to avoid a potentially significant impact on fruit production.

“Pollinators and fruit trees that are out of sync could lead to supply issues and more expensive, lower quality fruit. Pollinators do incredible work for the planet, and if insects are unable to pollinate fruit trees, then something else will have to – potentially humans.

People are invited to submit details of the fruit trees they see and when they are in bloom. This information will be uploaded to an interactive map and will show how climate change affects flowering times in relation to pollinator activity. It will also give a clear picture of how flowering times differ between regions.

The information required will include the type of tree, its location and flowering stage, as well as photos, which will also be shared on the map.

Scientists hope to use this information to target conservation actions to the worst-affected areas and help with insect pollination in orchards. It is estimated that pollinators contribute over £36million a year to UK apple production alone.

Rich Pitts, Oracle’s Senior Research Advisor, said: “This is a hands-on project that anyone in the UK can take part in. The project has been warmly welcomed and we expect to receive many documents. If we get 50,000 records, the team will be very happy and we will owe a huge debt of gratitude to budding citizen scientists in the UK.