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

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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.

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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.

So, 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.

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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

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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.


One of the compost toilets


The rather beautiful toilet

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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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Flowering thyme with a bumblebee

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Brambles with a honeybee

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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.

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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.

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The tea stall. Note the warning – this is Totnes

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The plant stall

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Clematis Montana Elizabeth

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One of the buds on the clematis Duchess of Edinburgh

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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.

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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.

Leats, larks and cuckoos on a Dartmoor ramble

Water bubbled and splashed in a purposeful manner along a rough, narrow trench cut in the high moor. This watercourse is the Devonport Leat, built towards the end of the 18th century to feed drinking water from Dartmoor streams to the growing south Devon port, some 10 miles away. Our walk followed the course of the Leat as it crossed rocky upland scrub and as it cascaded down Raddick Hill to cross the River Meavy on a short aqueduct to flow down a brick-lined channel through a conifer plantation.

Aquaduct & sluice gate Devonport leat

A view of the aqueduct and sluice gate from Raddick hill showing how the watercourse “turns” left after crossing the River Meavy

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A close-up shot of the aqueduct

We had reached the Leat on the high moor after climbing steadily up a rough, rocky track from the car park at Norsworthy Bridge. The soundtrack to our walk was the constantly questioning song of skylarks high above. This was the only sound until a faint “cuckoo, cuckoo” floated across the scrubby moorland, receiving a reply from a bird much closer. Then, ahead of us, we saw two large birds glide across the track in to neighbouring woodland. From their silhouettes, we guessed one of these was the answering cuckoo.

Later, as we were crossing open moorland, we noticed a large grey bird accompanied by a much smaller bird approaching a lone tree not far from the track. The large bird landed rather clumsily and the smaller bird flew off. Through my binoculars, I watched the larger bird trying to steady itself on the branch. It was surprisingly long and wobbled back and forth, wings down and long stubby tail up as though it hadn’t completely mastered the art of balancing. Its breast was white with clear horizontal black stripes as if it were wearing a Breton sailor’s shirt. This, together with its white wing bars told me that here was another cuckoo and from its comically ungainly behaviour, I presumed it must have been a juvenile. The smaller bird would have been its surrogate parent, working hard to provide food for its voracious “offspring”.

Cuckoo (from Wikipedia)


It’s a nice coincidence that, at the time the Devonport Leat was being constructed, Edward Jenner, who became one of the pioneers of vaccination, was studying the parasitic habits of cuckoos in rural Gloucestershire. He was the first to show that, after a female cuckoo has laid her egg in the nest of another species of bird, it is the young cuckoo that ejects all the other eggs and nestlings. The surrogate parents can then concentrate solely on the welfare of the much larger interloper.

The photos of the aqueduct were taken by Hazel Strange.

Our walk comes from “Dartmoor, great short walks for all of the family”, Crimson Publishing. We walked the route on June 1st 2014.

A solitary bee story

The boys were hanging around aimlessly although a few did go in to investigate. Some seemed to get bored; they buzzed off for a short time but were back soon, as if they anticipated some action. There was jostling,  a bit of play fighting, but on the whole they waited patiently for the girls to emerge.

This might sound like the antics of a group of teenage boys but I am actually by the Bug House in the Leechwell Garden in Totnes, delighting in the behaviour of the bees. For several weeks I have been watching, hoping that I might spot some of the occupants when they emerged this spring. I knew that solitary bees had used the many of the bamboo canes last year judging from the visible mud filling. I had also seen leaf cutter bees sealing a few of the canes with pieces of leaf, so I had high hopes.


The rather messy tubes, some still occupied, with one mason bee

By the third week of April many of the mud seals had been broken so I was pretty sure that some new bees had hatched and I did see a few bees hanging around the bug house. Then on the 29th April, I visited the Garden and got quite a surprise. Many bees were flying around the bug house, going in and out of the holes bored in to the wood and to a lesser extent the bamboo tubes. Some flew off but seemed to return quickly. Sometimes there seemed to some aggression between the individuals, although I could be imagining this!


No, I’m going to get there first!

The bees seemed to fall in to two groups, some were stripy, the others darker without stripes. Both seemed to have lighter “noses”, a bit like a small brush or moustache.


One of the stripy bees with its pale “moustache”


A darker bee but the pale “moustache” is visible

The next day I had another look and the same bees were there but I had the impression that the darker ones were displaying a preference for one of the bamboo tubes, hanging around and even going in to the tube for a short time.
From my photographs and given the huge number of possible solitary bees, I wouldn’t want to be definitive in identification but I would guess these are mason bees (Osmia sp.) and the stripy ones might be red mason bees. It is also likely that the bees I saw were the males who hatched first and were waiting to mate with the females when they emerged.


A non-stripy female, note the lack of pale nose hair


By May 10th the principal bees going to and fro were slightly larger, they lacked the pale nose hairs but had a distinct fringe of pale hairs around their abdomen. The abdomen itself was dark but clear striations were visible. On May 12th I had a further look and, particularly when the sun shone, there was much movement with the larger bees going in and out of the tubes and one cleaning away old mud. I assume these are mated females beginning to make nests. A few of the smaller males were also still present.

Susan Taylor told me that about the same time she had seen these bees mating.

A few days later (May 15th) it was another warm sunny day, and the bees were very busy, coming back frequently, some clearly laden with bright yellow pollen. By eye there seemed to be one kind of bee but my photographs reveal differences; again there seem to be two populations, stripy and non-stripy.


A stripy female with “friend”. Bees are often seen resting in their tube, especially on a cooler day. One tube has been newly filled with fresh mud.

By May 16th some of the tubes had been filled and sealed neatly with mud; four days later almost all had been filled. A filled tube will contain several cells, each containing an egg with pollen and nectar. Cells created first contain fertilised eggs that will produce female bees, the later cells contain unfertilised eggs to produce males that will emerge first next spring. For more on the life cycle of these bees take a look here or here.


Most tubes filled!

I can’t help but be impressed by the industry of these creatures. They work very hard transporting mud and pollen to fill the tubes to ensure their survival.      They fly for a few weeks and once the nest is complete their job is finished, until the next spring.   Don’t forget that all the time they are flying, they are performing an important job pollinating our trees and flowers.

For more on mason bees there are interesting posts with much better photos on A French Garden and its sister site Bees in a French Garden.

Thanks to Hazel Strange for tidying up my photos.

The risks of eating poppy seed bread

Our local baker makes a very good wholemeal loaf which he garnishes liberally with poppy seeds. As I tucked in to a sandwich made from this excellent bread, I spared a thought for the governor of London’s Brixton Prison who recently suffered the exquisite embarrassment of failing a drugs test. Routine heroin tests for several inmates at the Prison had come up positive but the prisoners protested their innocence and challenged the governor to take a test himself. Generously he did and that’s when the embarrassment occurred. Eventually, the source of the “drugs” was traced to bread laced with poppy seeds. The seeds contain morphine and other opiates which register as positive in the prison-drugs test and although this story sounds like an urban myth, poppy seeds are now banned from the prison.

Poppy seeds

poppy seeds

Poppy seeds are used in many cultures as a food ingredient, for example to garnish breads and rolls, as an ingredient in cakes or ground in sauces and pastry fillings. The seeds are harvested from the dried seed capsule of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). The opium poppy is well known as the source of the powerful painkillers and drugs of abuse, morphine and codeine (opiates). Although the seeds themselves contain only trace amounts of the opiates, they can be contaminated by poor harvesting practices or insect damage so that commercially available poppy seeds contain varying amounts of morphine.


But does it matter that poppy seeds contain opiates? The EU clearly thinks it does matter because in 2011 it commissioned a huge report on the public health risks of consuming opiates in poppy seeds. Consumption of the seeds in food varies considerably across the EU but some Central-Eastern European cultures use poppy seeds widely. The report contains a mass of data and found that, although some groups may be consuming morphine at active levels from poppy seeds, few side effects are reported. One person did, however, report morphine-like side effects after consuming a meal sprinkled with a massive 75g of contaminated poppy seeds.


poppy seed bagel


Poppy seed-opiates also matter to people undergoing drug testing and there are numerous reports of failed workplace heroin tests, and lost jobs, after consumption of food containing poppy seeds. It may seem surprising but consumption of just one poppy seed bagel can lead to urinary morphine levels of 250ng/ml after three hours. Workplace heroin testing actually assesses morphine levels so that it can be difficult to distinguish between consumption of heroin (heroin is broken down to morphine) and of poppy seeds. To try to eliminate the poppy seed-false positives, the threshold for a positive test was raised from 300 ng morphine/ml to 2000 ng/ml in US Federal Workplaces in 1998. Not all employers follow this rule so that confusion can still arise. For similar reasons, US Federal Prisons forbid prisoners to eat foods containing poppy seeds and athletes undergoing routine drug testing are advised to avoid foods containing the seeds.

A better solution would be to find a heroin-specific test. Forensic scientists identified 6-monoacetylmorphine (6-MAM) as a heroin-specific metabolite found in the urine of heroin users and absent after poppy seed ingestion. In principle, this should deal with the confusion but 6-MAM is broken down fairly quickly in the body so that it can be missed. Very recently a team from King’s College, London have reported another heroin-specific metabolite, ATM4G, that they hope might provide the basis of a better test.

Some people have taken advantage of the presence of opiates in poppy seeds by steeping the seeds in water to release the active compounds. We could call this a poppy seed tea, and it should in principle produce low level opiate effects. The problem with these brews is that because the levels of morphine in the seeds are very variable so the potencies of the teas also vary in a largely unpredictable manner. Great care should be taken and there are more than a dozen reports of deaths occurring after consuming poppy seed tea owing to morphine overdose.

The poppy seed-opiate story also exposes an interesting conundrum. If someone takes morphine or even uses poppy seed tea we would call them a drug user. If another person eats poppy seeds, we would say that it’s part of their culture, even if they experience low-level morphine effects. All I know is that I shan’t stop buying my baker’s bread or his lemon and poppy seed cake!

Bee bread, benches and a crows nest in the April garden



There is no escaping it. Wherever you look, there is pulsating growth: trees, plants, birds, insects, all swept up in an orgy of renewal. From my vantage point overlooking the Leechwell Garden, the predominant feeling is green, although there were days in the middle of the month when the sun picked out the white blaze of blossom on nearby trees. Trilling wrens and chiding blackbirds provided the soundtrack, saluting the warmer weather.

It’s a favourite time of year for me, I like the feeling of everything starting afresh and alive. Shakespeare gets it right for me in Sonnet 98
When proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,

Others, however, see April as a time of hopes and aspirations that can never be fulfilled. TS Eliot began his poem The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month” and, in Spring Edna St Vincent Millay wrote “To what purpose, April, do you return again?”

I don’t share their pessimism; I know autumn will come and these new leaves will wither and fall, but I also know that there will be another season of growth next year.

Down in the Garden, there has been much to see. Three new rustic benches have been installed making it even better for people to visit and spend time here. On the pergola, the clematis continue to entertain.


Clematis Francis Rivis

The tear-like buds of the Francis Rivis that I admired last month have now opened showing delicate mauve outer petals and white inner petals.




Clematis Montana

Another clematis, a Montana, has been covered with round pinkish buds resembling small grapes.




Golden Marjoram

In the herb garden, a burgeoning patch of golden marjoram comes alight when the sun shines.




Sweet Cicely

A clump of sweet cicely shows frothy white flowers above the fern-like, green foliage; the leaves of this plant are edible and have a mild aniseed-like flavour with sugary overtones.





Several spikes of borage seem to have appeared from nowhere as if called to stand to attention. Bees love borage; the plant is sometimes called Bee Bread so they will be eagerly awaiting the full opening of the flowers.





Wild Garlic

The far side of the Garden has a much wilder feel. A small bank of wild garlic (Ramsons) shows starry flowers beginning to appear above the fleshy leaves. Wild garlic is very abundant in the Devon countryside and the spring-smell of a woodland path lined with the plant is unmistakable. The leaves now find favour with celebrity chefs as a gentle garlic substitute.




Hidcote-blue Comfrey

In a hidden corner, I found some beautiful comfrey, another bee favourite. Its buds are a deep red and, once opened, there are clusters of bell-like flowers; that part of the flower nearest the plant is pale blue with the remainder being white. This unusual variety is Hidcote-blue comfrey.




Garlic Mustard

Near the comfrey was an upstanding plant with copious green, heart-shaped leaves and small white flowers. This is garlic mustard or Jack-by-the-Hedge; when bruised or chopped, its leaves emit a mild garlic smell.


The bees are out and about and I have seen a common carder and a hairy footed flower bee on the white lungwort.


Common carder bee on white lungwort


On April 20th I noticed a bird glide gracefully down between the trees to land on the grass. It was quite large, predominantly dark but with pale patches on its wings and my first reaction was that it was a buzzard. It stalked about the Garden, occasionally stopping to eat and with its long tale and dark plumage it reminded me of the proprietor of a posh French restaurant eyeing up his staff and clientele while keeping his hands clasped firmly behind his back. The more I looked the more I realised this was no buzzard and most likely it was a very large crow with a few pale feathers. The bird kept returning to the Garden and I found this puzzling until one day I saw it land on a nearby tree. On the tree was another crow sitting on a nest made of twigs balanced between two branches. Both birds are occasionally on the nest together; there will be a new crow-family before too long.

This is the fifth of my monthly reflections on the Leechwell Garden in Totnes. To see what I wrote in earlier months, follow the links at the end of this post or put “leechwell” in the search window.

Thanks to Hazel Strange for improving the photos I took on April 19, 26 and 27.

Tightrope walkers and a Geisha Girl in the March garden

“March comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb”

Or so the traditional proverb tells us, but that’s not what happened this year, in fact it was almost the reverse. March gambolled in like a young lamb brimming with dry weather and sunshine. As the temperature went up, so people’s spirits rose and you could almost imagine it was spring.

A mid-month sunny Sunday stays in my memory: bright and clear, blue skies, one of the warmest days so far this year and lacking the mistiness of sunny days earlier in the month. From my vantage point overlooking the Leechwell Garden, I saw several families arriving with blankets and picnic lunches, probably bought at the bustling Food Market held that day in the civic square. Children played in the marrow-chilling water and probably frightened the tadpoles. Fathers exposed too much white flesh.

In a quieter corner of the Garden, I noticed a young woman sitting peacefully with her hands turned upwards enjoying the sunshine. I initially thought she was meditating but when she stood up and performed a series of deliberate, sculpted and fluid movements, I decided it was more likely yoga.
The Garden was doing its job by acting as a pleasant and welcoming community space.

Later in the month, March did leave like a lion but it was a bedraggled, shivering and slouching lion: the weather had turned cooler and wetter with some spirited hail storms.

April 6

Despite the recent mixed weather, change still continues and a green haze of new leaves now covers several of the trees in the Garden.

April 5

I was surprised to see new leaves also appearing on one of the installations in the children’s play area – I hadn’t realised it was a living willow sculpture.

April 7

Elsewhere, a young fruit tree, I think it’s a plum, was, for a while, covered with white blossom, as if there had been a sudden blizzard. The snowy white petals on each flower were arranged in five fold symmetry around delicate yellow-tipped stamens. It’s a beautiful tree but I am concerned for its welfare: Garden visitors are giving it a bit of a battering and I wonder if it needs some sort of protection.

April 4

On the pergola, the climbers have cloaked themselves in green leaves but my attention was taken by the striking flower buds of an early clematis (Francis Rivis). The buds stand out against the green-leaved background as if someone had cried massive purple/blue teardrops which have been caught by the lush new matrix of leaves.


April 2

Against one of the old walls I found several flowering quince (Chaenomeles Geisha Girl) with their papery, double, salmon-pink flowers and buttercup-yellow stamens. A bumblebee shared my admiration and fed from the flowers.

Early in the month, Susan Taylor, one of the Garden volunteers came to see me with the exciting news that she had spotted a Hairy Footed Flower Bee in the sunshine on some rosemary growing against one of the old walls. The following day, I also saw one on a patch of lungwort in another part of town near the river. I noticed the staccato flight pattern and the loud buzz. Both bees were gingery coloured males who emerge first after the winter. The black females emerge about a fortnight later to mate with the waiting males before setting up a nest.

In the middle of the month, Susan told me about some different insects she had seen in one of the town centre car parks, not far from the Garden. I went to investigate and found a south facing sunny bank covered with flowering dandelions and celandine and sure enough there was also a host of small insects, between half and two thirds the size of honeybees. They were flying around in a purposeful manner, occasionally landing and occasionally feeding from the dandelion flowers. The underlying soil in the bank was fairly crumbly and I thought I could see some holes so I wondered if these were mining bees but I don’t think I can rule out the possibility that they are hoverflies. Here are some photos; any help in identifying these would be most welcome.

April 8

April 9

I did see two of the insects get together and form what I can only describe as a ball. A third came to join in but was seen off. I assume the two were mating and I wonder if they are solitary bees (Collletes), known for forming a mating ball. When these two had finished, one flew off immediately but the other stayed for a while, shaking legs and wings and putting everything in order, as though it was adjusting clothing rumpled in an embrace.

One sad story. Last month I described some trees covered with catkins growing near the edge of the Garden. The day after I posted the story, one of the local residents cut most of these down. The trunks have been left and I suppose they will grow back but it will take time. I can’t really see why they did this but I suspect it’s to do with wanting order. There is now much less for the birds and insects, nature likes a little untidiness.

I don’t want to end on a low note so I shall tell you about the tightrope walkers. These are two young women who come to the Garden to practise their art and they appeared on a recent sunny day. They have a plastic ribbon which they attach between two sturdy trees. The ribbon is about the width of a human foot and is suspended less than a metre above the ground. They hop deftly on to the ribbon, walk along it, they jump hoping to land on the ribbon again, they use only their outstretched arms to provide balance. At one point, they both got on to the ribbon at the same time but at different ends. They then advanced towards the middle before falling off in fits of laughter.

The photos were taken on March 19th 2014