Help investigate the changing bluebell flowering season

07 April 2010

Scientists at the Natural History Museum are asking the public to look out for and record sightings of bluebells to help discover if flowering seasons are changing as a result of climate change.

Everyone, from children to scientists, can take part in the annual survey using the online forms and maps to record their sightings.

The survey results will help scientists understand the ongoing changes to bluebells in the UK and to the UK’s climate. It will build a nationwide picture of when bluebells start flowering each year, helping to discover if spring is arriving earlier.

'From 2010 onwards we want to document when bluebell flowers appear all across the country,' says Museum plant expert Fred Rumsey.

'This has been a very cold winter and our Bluebell flowers have still to appear. In most recent years however we think they are flowering earlier, not least because we believe the non-native types which now threaten our bluebells flower earlier.'

UK bluebells
Spanish bluebell with its blue pollen and open bell-shaped flower

Spanish bluebell with its blue pollen and open bell-shaped flower. The native UK species has distinctive cream pollen and a narrow darker more closed tubular flower.

In the UK there are 3 types of bluebells, the native, Spanish and hybrid.

The familiar native bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, is characteristic of woodlands, hedges and other shady places. Almost half the world's population of this species is found in the UK.

The Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica, is grown in gardens and found in the countryside if it is dumped there. And the hybrid, Hyacinthoides x massartiana, is now more common than its Spanish parent.

Bluebells worldwide

Outside the UK, bluebells occur mainly in the western Mediterranean, including North Africa (Morocco to Tunisia), the Iberian Peninsula, and the Maritime Alps of France and Italy.

New DNA research helps identification

There has been some confusion over the number, names and relationships of bluebell species and identifying the different species of bluebells can be tricky. Scientists usually look at things like the pollen colour and smell and shape of the flowers.

Recent research by Museum scientists and colleagues, however, has re-assessed the bluebell group, genus Hyacinthoides. The team carried out a genetic investigation and produced DNA sequences for all the different bluebell species. They also reviewed other bluebell studies.

A new key for bluebells was produced by the team, showing that there are 11 bluebell species and 1 hybrid. This helps make identification easier and is reflected in the updated ID guides in this year’s survey.

Taking part in the survey

People are encouraged to download the bluebell identification guides on the Exploring British Wildlife: Bluebells website, and start recording bluebells that they see (remember, you are not allowed to collect native bluebells in the wild as they are protected by law). 

'We would like everyone’s help to record when they first see bluebells so that we can build an accurate picture of our changing climate – and our changing bluebells,' concludes Rumsey.

Then, record sightings in the Google map and online recording forms. Updates to the map can be seen as more and more people update it with their results.


Fred Rumsey's and colleagues' bluebell DNA research is published in the journal TAXON 

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