seaweed 5 mod 2

The Queen of Seaweeds – the story of Amelia Griffiths, an early 19th century pioneer of marine botany.

In 2010, the Royal Society compiled a list of the ten most influential female scientists in British History. One of the ten was Mary Anning (1799-1847) who from humble beginnings in Lyme Regis, Dorset came to be recognised as the “greatest fossil hunter ever known”. Her discoveries of long extinct, fossilised creatures in the cliffs around Lyme Regis were central to the development of new ideas about the history of the earth at the start of the 19th century. She became an expert in her field but did not get the recognition she deserved because science at the time was an exclusively male profession. Nowadays she is receiving this recognition and the fascination of her story has spawned biographies, novels and children’s books. The Lyme Regis Museum has well-developed plans to build an extension, to be called the Mary Anning Wing.

349px-Mary_Anning_painting
Mary Anning

I had thought that Anning was the only prominent West Country female scientist of her time until, walking along the coast path near Torquay recently, I paused to read an information board. This included a panel dedicated to the work of Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) “who collected and preserved nearly 250 species of seaweed ……. one of the first women to be recognised for their contribution to science.” Never having heard of Griffiths, my interest was piqued, especially when I discovered that, in the 19th century, she was described as “facile Regina – the willingly acknowledged Queen of Algologists”. [Seaweeds are large multicellular marine algae.]

So who was Griffiths and what did she do?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Part of the information board that alerted me to Amelia Griffiths

Amelia Warren Rogers was born in Pilton, North Devon in 1768. In 1794 she married Rev. William Griffiths and the couple moved to Cornwall. Eight years later, her husband died suddenly under mysterious circumstances leaving his widow with five young children but not without money. Amelia Griffiths decided to leave Cornwall for Devon, living first at Ottery St Mary before settling in Torquay where she could best follow her favourite pursuit of studying seaweeds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
One of the Torbay coves that Griffiths may have frequented when she lived in Torquay. Plenty of seaweed is still visible.

For much of her adult life she collected seaweeds avidly: in north Devon and Cornwall, in Dorset and along the East and South Devon coasts. When she began, identification of species was difficult as many had not been named or clearly described so Amelia devised her own names – “bottle brush”, “cobweb” etc. She helped male seaweed enthusiasts in producing scholarly studies on the larger and smaller seaweeds, generously giving her knowledge and donating samples. One such enthusiast was the leading botanist William Henry Harvey with whom she corresponded and who eventually became a close friend. Her reputation grew and in 1817, the Swedish botanist Carl Agardh named a genus of red seaweed Griffithsia in her honour.

seaweed 1 mod 2
Griffithsia setacea from Griffiths’ books. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

Dried samples of seaweeds collected by Griffiths are held in several museums including Kew, Torquay and Exeter. Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum holds three slightly battered leather-bound volumes of her seaweeds which I recently had the privilege to see. Each sample is mounted on stiff white paper and annotated with the name and location in Griffiths’ neat handwriting. Many of the seaweeds still retain their bright colours despite being collected more than a century and a half ago.

seaweed 3 mod 2
Enteromorpha intestinalis. Collected in Torbay. The name suggests that early collectors saw the resemblance with the human intestine. From Griffiths’ books. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

Griffiths was often accompanied on her seaweed sorties by Mary Wyatt, formerly a servant in the Griffiths household but eventually the proprietor of a Torquay shop selling shells, polished madrepores and pressed plants. Harvey encouraged Mary Wyatt to sell books of pressed and named seaweeds to help identification. Supervised by Amelia, she produced the first two volumes of Algae Danmonienses (Seaweeds of Devon) by 1833. Each volume contained 50 species and cost 25 shillings or £1 if you subscribed to the series. The books sold well, being partly responsible for making seaweed collecting the must-do pastime at seaside resorts in early Victorian Britain. Followers of this seaweed craze were able to explore nature, improve their scientific knowledge and perhaps produce a memento of their seaside holiday.

book mod 2
The title page of one of Mary Wyatt’s books of seaweeds with a special Royal dedication. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council.

Despite their extensive correspondence, Harvey and Amelia Griffiths did not meet until 1839 when he visited Torquay. At her urging, he wrote a hand-book of British Marine Algae later expanded to Phycologia Britannica, illustrating all known British Marine Algae. This great work required constant correspondence with Griffiths who despite being in her late 70s provided extensive knowledge of the plants in their natural state. Harvey held her in high regard and his hand-book contained the following dedication: “To Mrs Griffiths of Torquay, Devon, a lady whose long-continued researches have, more than those of any other observer in Britain, contributed to the present advanced state of marine botany….”

The more I investigated the story of Amelia Griffiths, the more I found similarities with Mary Anning. Both were systematic collectors, acquiring immense expertise in their fields and passing on samples to male scientists who furthered their own careers as a result. Both were strong women who pursued their interests whether or not these conformed to norms of society. Griffiths is known to have collected at Lyme Regis so perhaps she encountered Anning on the beach; it is an interesting thought. Anning is now better known, partly because her discoveries were much more significant for science and partly because of the well developed Mary Anning-industry in her home town.

Griffiths lived until nearly 90 maintaining her passion for seaweeds to the end. We must not forget that she began her systematic study of seaweeds in the early years of the 19th century, a time when women could not develop independent scientific careers. Despite this, she made a major contribution to marine botany and deserves to be more widely known.

I should like to thank Holly Morgenroth of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, who showed me Griffiths’ books of seaweeds and took the photographs.

This article first appeared in the August edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the top of this post is of Phycodrys rubens (formerly Delesseria sinuosa) in Griffiths’ books (copyright 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter City Council).

Watering cans, wild flowers and swifts – looking back at the Garden in July

At this time of year, only a small corner of the Leechwell Garden is visible from our kitchen window; the rest is obscured by the thick green wall erected by the trees. I can still see the three silver birches, also two of the benches and the lower part of the water course, popular with young children who like to paddle, especially during the hot weather we experienced this July.

July 14 5
red valerian in seed

There had been storms about and we did hear distant rumbles of thunder on more than one occasion but in Totnes this month there was little or no rain for more than three weeks. With the sultry temperatures everything began to look rather parched. Many of the flowers on the red valerian lining the paths near the Garden turned to seed; this felt earlier than previous years. The plants acquired a downy covering of numerous seeds equipped with small parachutes to aid windborne dispersal; no wonder it grows everywhere. I was also surprised to see ripe blackberries – in my mind blackberries are a feature of autumn.

July 14 6
blackberries

The swifts were an almost constant feature this month, shrieking over the Leechwell Garden morning and evening. Typically there were ten or so probing the air above the Garden looking for insects. On the 21st, the swift spectacular stepped up a notch and we counted more than 40 that evening. I had noticed flying ants in our garden so I wondered if the extra food had attracted the birds.

swifts over Totnes
swifts over the Garden

What is it about the swifts that captures our attention? We have to look, we have to try to count. They speed past our house, they manoeuvre, change course quickly and regroup like miniature spitfires in an old Battle of Britain film. But suddenly, on the 28th we noticed their absence. They had gone, making their way back to Africa for the winter. We miss them.

Down in the Leechwell Garden, one problem this July has been the lack of easily accessible water. There was no actual shortage; water flows freely through the garden but it has to be carried some distance as there are no taps. This was the first prolonged dry spell for some years and I sensed that plant growth was being affected. The Garden volunteers came up with the clever idea of providing watering cans for visitors so that, as they looked around, they could also water the plants. Some of the watering cans are child-sized so watering can become a game.

July 14 4
The pergola with clematis Perle d’Azur and lavender. The notice urges visitors to help with watering.

On the pergola, purple seemed to be the colour of the month. The later flowering clematis showed well and the path was lined with burgeoning banks of lavender.

July 14 1
wild flower bank

At the far end of the pergola there is a long wild flower bank. This has been carefully planted and showed a fine mixture of native plants in July – I saw proud yellow-flowered stems of mullein, floppy flowers of evening primrose, peering ox eye daisies, wild marjoram, musk mallow, knapweed, and, towering above them all, spindly purple-flowered verbena bonariensis (native to South America).

July 14 9
marjoram

It’s very good to see the wild flower bank as it’s one way to provide extra habitat for pollinators. I saw plenty of insects there in the morning but later they seemed to desert this part of the Garden for the attractions of other flowers. One of the competitors was a large patch of golden marjoram covered with white flowers; on sunny afternoons this positively pulsated with honeybees and hoverflies. The beautiful borage also continued to flower well and its starry blooms were well used by bumble bees.

July 14 3
borage
July 14 7
borage with bumblebee

 

I want to finish with more pictures of bees and flowers.

 

July 14 8
scabious with honeybee
July 14 2
I found this marigold with a bee turning in circles rubbing its abdomen around the flower centre. I think this might have been a leaf-cutter bee. I hope so.

The picture of the swifts was taken by Hazel Strange.

Disturbing the natural order – the case of neonicotinoid insecticides and farmland birds

Apus apus 01.jpg
A swift

 

One of my favourite nature writers is Mark Cocker who has the ability to capture a scene or an idea in a few hundred words. Despite his immense knowledge he never loses his sense of awe and with clever use of metaphor, his descriptions of nature leap in to life.

Here is Cocker writing about the interdependence of birds and insects:
“…… that vast efflorescence of insect life is integral to spring. After all, those swifts newly screaming over our village and the chorus that greets us at first light are little more than arthropods processed by avian digestive systems”.

Another favourite nature writer, Kenneth Allsop wrote, nearly fifty years ago, also about bird/insect interdependence. He took the example of a pair of dunnocks in the breeding season who consume more than 1000 insects each day just to maintain their chicks. Many of those insects, he pointed out, will be garden pests, “worth bearing in mind when irritated by bird damage to the green peas and apple buds”.

Despite this obvious dependence of bird life on insects, we still dump insecticides on to our gardens, parks and farmland with little real thought about the long term consequences.

One class of insecticide that has recently attracted scrutiny is the neonicotinoids. The neonicotinoids were introduced in the 1990s and are now very widely used to kill insect pests on a broad range of crops. In the UK, for example, a large proportion of the oil seed rape is grown using seed treated with neonicotinoids. One of the advantages of the neonicotinoids is their selectivity for invertebrates; in principle they have low toxicity towards vertebrates. There has, however, been increasing concern about effects of the neonicotinoids on non-target insects such as bees and the accumulation of the chemicals in soil and water courses with more general effects on invertebrates.

New worries about the neonicotinoids surfaced last week in a paper published in Nature by Hallmann and colleagues from Radboud University in the Netherlands. The Dutch group investigated whether these chemicals might be affecting the numbers of farmland birds indirectly by reducing the numbers of insects that these birds depend upon especially in the breeding season.

They took advantage of long-term monitoring schemes in the Netherlands to compare the average concentrations of one neonicotinoid (imidacloprid) in surface water between 2003 and 2009 with bird population trends over the same period. The comparison was made in different regions across the entire country and focussed on 15 species of common farmland bird that depend on invertebrates during the breeding season.

Yellow wagtail.jpg
Yellow wagtail (one of the farmland birds suffering a decline)

 

The comparison showed that in regions where concentrations of imidacloprid in surface water were higher, population growth rates of these insectivorous birds were lower or negative. Although superficially this suggests that imidacloprid has caused the decline in bird numbers, we first need to rule out alternative explanations for the apparent association.

Hallmann and colleagues consider two possible alternatives: first, the apparent effect of imidacloprid might actually reflect an ongoing decline in bird numbers that predated the introduction of this insecticide; second, the apparent imidacloprid effect might actually reflect changes in land use linked to agricultural intensification. They eliminate both of these alternatives.

Another possible confounding factor that the authors seem to have ignored is the effect of other pesticides. The Netherlands is a very intensively farmed country with more than 60% of land under cultivation. Many different chemicals are used to control pests including imidacloprid. It seems likely that areas with high imidacloprid use will be associated with high usage of other chemicals. Another Dutch group has analysed the large numbers of chemicals present in Dutch agriculture and shown that, in some regions, concentrations of imidacloprid are high enough to kill invertebrates but levels of other chemicals also exceed toxic doses. So, it could be imidacloprid that is leading to the decline in farmland birds or it could be a generally toxic environment. Either way, the conclusion is bleak and ought to make us reflect on the way we are producing our food.

Although the effects of imidacloprid described in this paper are open to interpretation, the evidence against the neonicotinoids continues to accumulate and some authors believe they are having widespread deleterious effects on the natural environment. George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian last week, called for a complete ban on the use of these insecticides.

The Center for Food Safety, a US-based non profit organisation, recently took a different approach to the neonicotinoid problem by asking how much the insecticides actually increase crop yield. Analysing 19 published studies, they found either inconsistent or no evidence that neonicotinoids increase yield. So, astonishingly, dumping neonicotinoids on farm crops has little discernable effect on productivity. Have we all been conned by the agrochemical companies?

 

[picture credits:  "Apus apus 01" by Paweł Kuźniar (Jojo_1, Jojo) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

"Yellow wagtail" by Andreas Trepte - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.]

A loo with a view

[This article appeared in the June edition of the Dorset-based  Marshwood Vale Magazine]

 

The hamlet of Monkton Wyld lies in a deep wooded valley in the far west of Dorset a few miles inland from Lyme Regis. The hamlet is dominated by the Victorian church and neo-gothic rectory, Monkton Wyld Court. For many years, the rectory was home to an alternative school and is now an education centre for sustainable living. It has also acquired a reputation for its award-winning compost toilets. In 2011, its compost loos made Permaculture Magazine’s top five and in 2013, Monkton Wyld Court’s sustainable privy was rated world number one in a competition organised by Transition Town Totnes.

MW 3

I wanted to find out what was so special about these compost toilets so, on an overcast but mild April day, I drove down the narrow road to Monkton Wyld. The setting is idyllic and the high verges were heavy with spring flowers: bluebells, wood anemones, stitchwort, primrose, red campion and wild garlic. At the old rectory, I was welcomed by Lynden Miles, who designed and built the compost loos. Lynden works and lives at the Court with his family and he took me to see the
conveniences.

MW 9
Monkton Wyld Court

Monkton Wyld Court does have conventional flushing toilets but there are also two compost loos, both situated in the grounds a short walk from the house and shielded by trees. Each toilet consists of an attractive wooden building, constructed from locally sourced larch, on a raised platform. Within each building is a toilet with a decorative wooden seat and a hand-washing sink which uses harvested and filtered rain water. There is also a supply of sawdust for visitors to add after they have used the toilet. Lighting is solar-powered and the windows afford lovely leafy views. Using the toilet is a pleasant experience and there was no smell that I could detect.

MW6
One of the compost toilets
MW5
The rather beautiful toilet
MW 2
A loo with a view

There is, however, the question of the waste. We are so used to “flush and forget” systems that we don’t normally give this a thought. In the award-winning compost toilet, waste accumulates in a chamber below, where it gradually decomposes under the influence of bacteria. The process is termed “aerobic” because the bacteria depend on oxygen so it is essential to maintain good ventilation. The sawdust is also an important part of the process: it keeps the moisture content of the decomposing waste low and provides carbon as a fuel for the bacteria to do their work. The bacteria also consume any pathogens in the human waste. Eventually the chamber will be “full” and at that point Lynden will move the toilet above a second chamber. He expects this will be in about two years. The waste in the first chamber will then be left for a further two years before it can be recycled as fertiliser for fruit trees; it will never be used directly on edible crops.

MW4
Lynden Miles

I asked Lynden why he had developed these novel toilets. He told me that he had experienced awful compost toilets elsewhere and thought he could do better. Compost toilets also fit well with the ethos of sustainable living at Monkton Wyld Court. Conventional “flush and forget” toilets consume vast amounts of water which disappear in to the sewers along with the human waste. This water has been carefully purified to drinking standard only to be flushed away using up to a third of our domestic water supply. The human waste is only partly recycled and important nutrients are lost. By comparison, Lynden’s compost toilets consume a little rainwater and potentially recycle all the human waste.

Although Lynden’s compost toilets may seem very innovative, the idea is by no means a new one and a different kind of compost toilet was invented a century and a half ago, also in Dorset, by the Rev Henry Moule, vicar of Fordington near Dorchester. At that time, sewage disposal was very primitive and Moule became convinced that poor disposal was a source of much disease. He experimented by mixing his own excreta with dry earth and was surprised that within 3-4 weeks the mixture was odourless having fully broken down. With the help of a local farmer, he showed that earth reused five times in this way was an excellent fertiliser for crops. Moule designed and patented his “earth closet” in 1860. This had a handle that, when turned, delivered a measured amount of earth on to the human excrement. For a time the earth closet was very popular and competed with the water closet as a sanitary device. Indeed, Queen Victoria had an earth closet installed at Windsor Castle. Earth closets were adopted in some schools in the UK and in gaols, government buildings and mental hospitals in Australia and India.

As we know, “earth closets” did not persist in the UK and this may have had something to do with the difficulty of ensuring that the waste was properly disposed of by individual users. Because it is so important to deal effectively with the waste problem, especially in big towns, the “flush and forget” system linked to sewerage works has been adopted. This may also have had something to do with our attitude to human excrement.

Although the earth closet now appears a historical curiosity, with increased awareness of the need to conserve water there has been an upsurge of interest in compost toilets. They are particularly useful where mains sewerage is not available, for example at allotments and at music festivals. They are popular at roadside locations in rural Scandinavia and in national parks in the US. These modern designs, including of course Lynden’s world number one, are not exactly the same as Moule’s but they are certainly in the same spirit.

MW 1
A Monkton Wyld bee pollinating a fruit tree

Flowering Dogwood, Bachelor’s Buttons and a living fossil – the Garden in June

Many mornings this month when I have looked out of the kitchen window, the Leechwell Garden has been bathed in a warm, clear light that I hadn’t noticed previously this year. Perhaps it’s the early sunrise, perhaps it’s the dry weather, and the lack of rain and mist, that has persisted throughout much of the month.

As well as being dry, the weather has been quite warm at times, re-creating that summery feeling expressed so well by Edward Thomas in his poem “Adlestrop”, written 100 years ago this June after his train stopped unwontedly at the station.

Yes. I remember Adlestrop -
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

But let me drag you away from the Cotswolds to look at some of the highlights of the month in the Leechwell Garden here in Devon.

June 14 6
The pergola with the wild flower bank on the left

On the pergola, the climbing roses put on a wonderful show as if they were saluting the warm weather. For a short time, they cloaked the natural wood structure with a luxuriant overcoat of pink and white petals.

June 14 5
Clary Sage with immature flowers

In the herb garden, large fleshy leaves and flower spikes of clary sage rose from the ground. The closed buds were very pale and reminded me of ghostly toothwort. They opened to a mass of very pale lilac flowers. The plant was called “clear eye” by Culpeper in his 17th century herbal and its sticky seeds were recommended for removing foreign objects from the eye. Nowadays, clary sage is grown commercially for its essential oil.

June 14 2
The patch of feverfew (behind and to the left are some mature flowers of clary sage)

Nearby is a large patch of feverfew, impressive for its many small yellow and white daisy-like flowers, also called “bachelor’s buttons.” The flowers grow so densely that they seem to coalesce to a bright yellow and white mosaic which glows when the sun shines.

I like Culpeper’s dedication for feverfew in his herbal: “Venus has commended this herb to succour her sisters” – in the past it was indeed used to treat gynaecological problems. Nowadays, feverfew is commonly used as a herbal remedy for migraine headaches, although a systematic review of clinical trials of feverfew failed to show any effect over placebo.

June 14 3
Flowering dogwood

Elsewhere in the Garden I found two interesting trees. One is a Flowering Dogwood (probably Cornus kousa), notable for its unassuming, small flowers each surrounded by four large, white bracts performing the function of petals. The bracts take on a pink tinge as they mature.

June 14 7
Ginkgo biloba

The other was a Ginkgo Biloba, the world’s oldest tree. The Ginkgo has unique leaves, fan shaped with veins radiating in to the leaf blade which sometimes splits. It is referred to as a living fossil as the modern species has been found to be related to fossils dating back 270 million years.

Extracts of Ginkgo Biloba have been long used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a range of disorders. There has been great interest in the western world in the use of Ginkgo extracts to improve memory and prevent Alzheimer’s disease but controlled clinical trials do not support this idea.

I first heard of the Ginkgo tree through a painting, not via a garden. In the mid 1980s, the artist Tom Phillips had been commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint a portrait of the author and philosopher, Iris Murdoch. I used to be a fan of the writer and I remember going to see the painting; I was surprised to find that it also contained a branch of a tree. Apparently, the artist wanted to include “a bit of nature” in the picture and after consultation with Murdoch they agreed on Ginkgo. Here is a link to the story and the picture.

The bees have been busy whenever the weather has allowed and I have included a couple of pictures.

June 14 4
Flowering thyme with a bumblebee
June 14 1
Brambles with a honeybee
June 14 8
Red Valerian growing from walls near the Leechwell Garden. Three flower colours are seen: the predominant pink, also red and white

The enclosed narrow paths leading to the Garden were striking earlier in the month, bathed in the mostly pink flowers and fleshy green leaves of red valerian growing from the walls. This plant, which was introduced from the Mediterranean many years ago, is now naturalised and grows widely in the South West wherever it can – in walls, on waste ground, in gardens. It was recently also featured on the Words and Herbs blog. Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber) is very much a feature of the urban landscape of this part of Devon and contributes to a southern European feel, at least until it rains heavily. By the end of the month, much of the red valerian near the Leechwell Garden had lost its petals contributing to the slightly dried-out look that has replaced the lush greenness of gardens and hedgerows just a month ago.

The Flying Squad*

An imposing, white-painted beehive stood in the middle of the room. Emblazoned across the front in large black letters was one word – POLICE.

The police keep bees?

But why?

On a nearby wall was a screen showing a short documentary film: “Policing Genes” by Thomas Thwaites. The film featured police beekeeper, Mark Machan, from the Metropolitan Police Genetic Surveillance Unit. Machan manages 43 beehives around south London and part of Kent. He collects pollen from bees returning to their hives. The pollen is analysed to see if people are growing GM crops and infringing intellectual property; also whether they are cultivating illicit substances. Machan takes advantage of the bees’ “waggle dance” to locate the source of the pollen. Bees returning to the hive perform this dance to communicate the location of rich forage to their nest mates. Machan analyses these waggle dances to infer the location so that officers can be sent to suburban gardens growing unlicensed GM plants. The advantage of using bees is that they can go anywhere, they don’t need a warrant. They save human time and money.

It sounded plausible and I must admit that, for a short time, I believed the story, but this was an art gallery and I should have been more circumspect.

0TC1004_WELLCOME_ 092_fin_RGB_v2_Large.jpg
The poster advertising the Apiculture exhibition

 

I was visiting the recent exhibition “Apiculture: Bees and the Art of Pollination” at the University of Plymouth which showed how artists have responded to the problems faced by bees. The exhibition was curated by Amy Shelton as part of the Honeyscribe project which explores the relationship between bee health, human health, the environment and the arts. Her exhibition brought together the work of ten internationally known artists many of whom also work with scientists.

Once I realised that I was being taken for a ride, I could see that the police beehive and this film might be warning about of the perils of a culture where overexploitation of wildlife and infringement of personal freedom were commonplace.

I was made to think again, however, when I read a recent paper from the Apiculture Group at Sussex University. Dr Margaret Couvillon and colleagues had been interested to find out whether so-called agri-environment schemes really were effective. Major changes in farming have occurred since the middle of the 20th century leading to the loss of habitat for wildlife and the increased use of chemicals. European Union agri-environment schemes are designed to provide practical support to farmers to protect valuable and threatened landscape and to encourage them to adopt practices that support wildlife. Different levels of “stewardship” exist corresponding to different levels of support for the environment. Payments amounting to £400 million a year are made to farmers in England for these schemes but outcomes are often unclear.

In this new study, Couvillon and colleagues have used foraging honeybees to act as assessors of landscape quality to see if agri-environment schemes actually do deliver.

Honeybees depend for their survival on the availability of abundant forage in the form of flowers so they are continually assessing the “quality” of the surrounding environment. Worker bees returning to the hive perform the “waggle dance” to communicate to their nest mates the location of the most profitable foraging locations. The waggle dance encodes information about the distance and direction of the preferred forage and if this “language” could be decoded then honeybees could be used to monitor the quality of the landscape.

The Sussex group have done just that. By analysing the bees’ waggle dances, they can “eavesdrop” on honeybee workers when they express their foraging preferences for different types of landscape. Three hives situated at the University of Sussex were studied over two flowering seasons. The bees foraged over a mixed landscape consisting of urban land, rural land receiving no environmental support and rural land receiving different levels of agri-environment support. Couvillon and colleagues decoded waggle dances from 5484 worker bees and found considerable variation in foraging preference for different parts of the landscape. Rural land supported by agri-environment schemes was visited more often by the bees whereas urban land, rural land not receiving agri-environment support and, surprisingly, rural land under organic stewardship were visited less often.

The bees expressed their strongest preference for rural land under higher level stewardship including local nature reserves. These schemes provide the greatest support for the environment and may encourage growth of forage-rich wild flowers. Money spent on higher level stewardship schemes and nature reserves may, therefore, be helping to support bees and other important pollinators whose habitat has been degraded by changes in farming practices during the 20th century.

In contrast, the bees expressed their lowest preference for rural land under organic entry level stewardship. Although this scheme does provide support for the environment and the land is farmed using organic principles, the practices used to establish the land may prevent nectar-rich plants from flowering. This unexpected observation should make organic farmers reflect on the methods they are using.

This is a fascinating study illustrating how the language of the honeybee waggle dance is used to communicate information about the health of the surrounding landscape to the hive community. Couvillon and colleagues have shown that by translating the bee language they can also access this information and, potentially, use it as an important tool to inform policy for supporting wildlife.

At the end of the paper, Couvillon and colleagues emphasise how, with their analysis, honeybees can be used to survey landscape health and they can do this more cheaply, more effectively and more quickly than humans could ever do – a surprising echo of the words used by the “police beekeeper”.
…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

*The Flying Squad is a branch of the UK police specialising in the investigation of commercial armed robberies. They were immortalised in the TV series, The Sweeney.

Springtime frolics, sudden snow-falls and careening swifts – looking back at the May garden

Five hundred or so years ago, it was common practice to celebrate the end of winter and the arrival of spring by “going a maying” or “bringing in the may”. On May Day eve, men and women disappeared in to the woods to emerge the next morning carrying flowering branches of the may tree to decorate their houses. A large branch formed the maypole, acting as a focus for dancing. There are few descriptions of their nocturnal activities; this is probably just as well as it seems unlikely that they had spent the night discussing the contemporary political situation.

In 1595, Thomas Morley published his well known madrigal, “Now is the month of maying”, a hymn to these springtime frolics. Here is the first verse:

Now is the month of maying
When merry lads are playing

Fa la la la la la la la lah
Fa la la la la la lah

Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass

Fa la la la lah
Fa la la la la la lah la la la la lah

As well as the obligatory fa la las, the song rejoices in dubious double-entendres linked to the woodland wanderings of those naughty medieval lads and lasses. If you would like to hear the song in full, have a look here, but promise not to laugh.

Nowadays, I feel sure that we are still affected at some deep level by the increasing warmth and light of the longer days but, despite this, we celebrate May Day in a much more restrained manner. Thomas Morley’s madrigal is sung from various church towers, Morris dancers drag themselves out of bed to herald the new morn, Hobby Horses appear in some towns, maypoles are danced around and May Queens are crowned.

The Leechwell Garden in Totnes got in on the act this year by holding its Spring Event in the middle of the month. On a sunny Sunday morning, the Garden was decorated with bunting and flags. Tables were put in place and covered with canopies to make the stalls, one selling teas and delicious cakes, another well-stocked with plants for sale. There was a book stall and tombola, a children’s face-painting tent and a nature table explaining the background to the Garden. A steady stream of people arrived, some lounged on the ground enjoying the glorious sunny weather and beautiful surroundings, tea and cake were consumed, children played.

May 14 2
The tea stall. Note the warning – this is Totnes
May 14 4
The plant stall

May 14 14

Local musicians (mum, dad and daughter) sat under the pergola and provided mellow music.

May 14 6

The Mayor, Jacqui Hodgson, arrived to provide gravitas and to unveil the new rustic benches. She gave a short speech and then ceremonially removed the covers from the benches.

May 14 12
The opening ceremony. Shirley Prendergast is speaking about the wood used for the benches. Mayor Jacqui Hodgson is on the right wearing a straw hat and her mayoral regalia.

During the unveiling ceremony, Shirley Prendergast recounted how the 3 inch thick plank used to make the chess board-bench should by now have been sailing the high seas. It was felled in Torbay to provide the keel for the Grayhound, a replica of a 1776 lugger, launched in 2012. The wood was, however, not quite the colour needed and so the Leechwell Garden inherited it.

May 14 9
The chess board bench

This was a lovely relaxed event. New people were introduced to the Garden, fresh acquaintances were made and a pleasant afternoon was passed. £900 was raised to help with the Garden’s running costs.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The May weather with its alternating warm days and wet days has been very good for the Garden providing near-ideal growing conditions; I have heard more than one person this year refer to their own garden as looking “lush” and this certainly applies to the Leechwell Garden. Aside from the Spring Event, there has been much to see in the Garden.

May 14 11
Crab apple flowers and buds

Early in the month, the crab apple developed a rash of small round pink buds which opened to a sudden snow-fall of white flowers. By the end of May, the petals had melted leaving a new crop of fruit which will swell as the year moves on.

May 14 3
Sage
May 14 10
Bloody cranesbill

In the herb garden, delicate violet flowers decorated a sage plant and a bloody cranesbill was covered with magenta “eyes”.

The clematis on the pergola have continued to entertain. Early in the month, a cascading pink waterfall of flowers covered the Montana Elizabeth. The Duchess of Edinburgh tantalised with her chunky, pale green buds whose developing petals reminded me of the “dead man’s fingers” of a crab. These unusual structures metamorphosed in to delicate, double white flowers.

May 14 1
Clematis Montana Elizabeth
May 14 7
One of the buds on the clematis Duchess of Edinburgh
May 14 8
A flower on the clematis Duchess of Edinburgh

In the damp ground near the bridge, a stand of yellow flag caught the eye with tall green stems and vibrant lemon yellow flowers.

May 14 13
Yellow flag

All around us now is the feeling of early summer and nothing typifies that more than the joyful screeching of the swifts. We saw them for the first time on May 5th flying at high speed above the Garden, shouting, swooping, gliding and suddenly turning as they relished the insect-filled air. With their spitfire-like flight, they are a pleasure to watch but they will gone again by early August.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 73 other followers

%d bloggers like this: