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Volunteering at the Millennium Seed Bank

Jean Helliwell
13 September 2013
Blog team: 
Ever considered volunteering to help at Kew's world-leading Millennium Seed Bank? Jean Helliwell explains what volunteering involves.

Thank goodness it’s Friday! How many of us have said that during our working lives? I know I have. In fact, I still do, but now I say it not because the weekend is near, but because Friday is my Seed Bank volunteering day. 

What do Seed Bank volunteers do? Well, some assist in the research and management support sections, but most of us work in the conservation and technology section. We help to clean the seeds which come in from all over the world, and prepare them for long-term storage. While awaiting cleaning, the seeds are stored at low temperature (15°C) and humidity (15% RH).

Cleaning seeds

All sorts of techniques are used: simply sieving to remove debris can be enough in some cases, but other seeds may need to be crushed to remove the pod (think peas), or rubbed to remove the husk (think grasses) or the pappus (think dandelions). Sieving is fine if the seeds and the debris are of different sizes, but not much use if everything is the same size. So long as the seeds and the debris are of different weights we can use a device called an aspirator – a sort of mechanised winnowing machine. The seeds are dropped down through an upward current of air and the lighter material is blown upwards to land in one box and the heavier material drops down to land in a separate box.

Sometimes it is just not possible to remove all the debris but we try to reduce the bulk as much as possible as space in the Seed Bank vault is at a premium.

Over the last few weeks we have been working on collections from the Falkland Islands, many of them grasses, and I think we’ll be glad when they are finished, as getting the seeds off the stalks and out of their husks has been very time-consuming.


Photo of an MSB assistant cleaning Falkland Islands grass seeds
Me wrestling with Falkland Islands grass seeds

We all enjoy our volunteering at the Seed Bank and are happy to turn our hands to any task, but please no more grasses for a bit!

There are currently 15 volunteers working in the Millennium Seed Bank. Each volunteer commits to at least one full day per week which is a great help. Due to the high profile of the MSB there is already a large waiting list of individuals wishing to donate their time for this great project so currently we are at full capacity.

- Jean Helliwell -

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24 September 2013
Fascinating. Its a great place to be a volunteer.

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