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

Brunel’s Ambitious Experiment

 

Dawlish January

The coastal railway line near Dawlish

 

For many people the railway journey west from Exeter towards Plymouth and Cornwall is one of the most beautiful in the UK. After leaving the city of Exeter and its Cathedral, the train speeds southwards keeping the river Exe on its left side with ever changing views of the estuary, its boats and the birds feeding on the mudflats. Near the river’s mouth the train turns west, now hugging the coast and its rust-red cliffs. Sometimes the tracks seem perilously close to the beach, sometimes they thread through tunnels punched in the red sandstone by Victorian engineers. On a good day there are fine views of the beach, the sun-sparkling sea and the coastal towns such as Dawlish. On a stormy high-tide day, I have seen fellow passengers drenched having opened a window just as a wave hits the sea wall.

This February, a succession of severe storms hit the south and south west of the UK causing significant damage and disruption. Part of this included the destruction of this railway line at Dawlish where the sea wall was breached and the tracks were left hanging in the air. Devon and Cornwall were no longer accessible by rail and this significantly affected the local economy and way of life.

Network Rail responded with a huge and sustained engineering effort to rebuild the line which opens again today, Friday April 4th. They have certainly pulled out all the stops and are to be congratulated on their achievement. To mark the reopening, I wrote a piece about the Atmospheric Railway, an an ambitious experiment in railway technology performed at and around Dawlish more than 150 years ago by the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The photo was taken by Hazel Strange

For global warming please read global weirding – how climate change is affecting our lives

Here is an article I wrote for the April edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

South Devon Railway sea wall breach February 2014

Storm damage at Dawlish in South Devon where the sea wall and railway line were destroyed

This winter, the UK experienced an exceptional series of storms. Heavy rain combined with strong winds and high waves lead to widespread coastal flooding and coastal damage. There was significant disruption to individuals, businesses and infrastructure and many parts of the country were affected. Transport was badly hit including the destruction of the main railway line into the south west at Dawlish.

This was indeed extreme weather and we now know that in England and Wales this was the wettest winter for almost 250 years. We are not alone, however, in experiencing extreme weather. The eastern side of the US and Canada was unusually cold this winter whereas California suffered a severe drought. Australia and Argentina experienced exceptionally high temperatures whereas Brazil received record rainfall.

The extreme weather has had the interesting effect of finally making politicians speak up about climate change. Here is what David Cameron said recently: “I believe man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world faces.” John Kerry went a step further, placing climate change alongside disease, terrorism, poverty and weapons of mass destruction as global threats.

But before we get carried away by band-wagon jumping politicians, let’s think about what is really going on. What we have been experiencing recently in the UK is extreme weather. Climate change, however, refers to long term changes in weather patterns. The UK weather is notoriously unpredictable so is there really any evidence for changes in weather patterns that would indicate a change in our climate?

A study of UK weather over the last 140 years found evidence for an increase in the intensity of winter storms hitting the southern part of the country. Instances of heavy rain have also increased in frequency, consistent with a warming planet where a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. Additionally, global warming has caused sea levels to rise by about 12 cm during the 20th century exacerbating the effects of storms at the coast. The climate in the UK is indeed changing and the recent extreme weather is part of this.

If the climate is changing then we come to the biggest and the most contentious question: why is it changing? Here we need to look at a bit of climate science. The earth is warmed by energy from the sun and as the planet heats up it radiates heat outwards. Some of this heat is retained by so-called greenhouse gases, for example water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane in the earth’s atmosphere. As a result the temperature of the earth is maintained at a level compatible with human life. This is the way it had been for many thousands of years, in fact until the industrial revolution. Since the industrial revolution, however, humans have been increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, principally in two ways: by burning fossil fuels (those laid down many years ago from decaying plants and animals) and by cutting down forests (reducing carbon dioxide removal by trees). Increased levels of carbon dioxide mean greater heat retention and the earth’s surface temperature is now nearly one degree centigrade warmer. This may not seem very much but there is also a huge reservoir of heat accumulating in the oceans. Taken together these are the processes described as global warming.

It doesn’t stop there: increased warming leads to disturbances in weather patterns. Higher sea temperatures cause melting of ice so that sea levels rise and the effects of storm surges are greater. Reduction in the size and thickness of the Arctic ice cap is also thought by some to lead to changing weather patterns in Europe. Warmer oceans mean that when storms and hurricanes occur they are stronger. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture so that when a storm arises the rainfall is more intense. An example of these effects is provided by Typhoon Haiyan which killed at least 6000 people in the Philippines in 2013. Haiyan was the strongest tropical cyclone ever to make landfall anywhere in the world and was fuelled by warm water in the Pacific. Weather patterns are shifting and rather than talking about global warming we could speak of global weirding; in the end, however, it all comes down to climate change.

The implications of these observations for human life have led to intense debate about how much of the change in climate can be attributed to human activity. Among climate scientists, there is a strong consensus that climate change is a result of human activity (burning fossil fuels and deforestation). Last year a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognised the shift in patterns of extreme weather since 1950 and concluded that most of the rise in global temperature since the mid 20th century was due to human activity. They also warned that without substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gases, there will be further warming and damaging climate change.

The message could hardly be clearer. Human activity is causing climate change. The sort of extreme weather we have experienced lately will recur. Things can only get worse if we sit on our hands and do nothing as we have been doing so far.

We, therefore, need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and this means leaving fossil fuels in the ground rather than burning them. We urgently need a second industrial revolution that embraces and implements low carbon technologies. Governments must stimulate investment in these technologies and politicians must show vision and leadership.

Since I wrote this article, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a new report showing that climate change is already affecting life in many parts of the world and may threaten food supplies in the future.

National Pollinator Strategy – if you love your pollinators, now is the time to speak out

 bumblebee on comfrey 3

Last year the UK Government agreed to prepare a National Pollinator Strategy to address the decline in pollinators and the potential impact of this decline on growth of crops, flowers and fruit. The draft Strategy was published earlier this month and barely caused a ripple in the mainstream media. Andy Atkins of Friends of the Earth wrote about this on the Huffington Post blog and it’s worth having a look at what he says.

I think it’s very positive that the government has compiled this Strategy, it means they recognise that there is a problem. The devil is in the detail, however, and although there are some very good aspects to the Strategy there are several rather surprising proposals. Damian Carrington, writing in the Guardian, skewered some of the ideas around pesticides, especially the proposal to leave field testing to the pesticide companies. The National Allotment Society also made some good points.

The most important issue, however, is that a consultation about the draft Strategy is now open and anyone can contribute on line with a deadline of May 2nd 2014. If you love your pollinators then this is the time to have your say.

Even better, they are also holding a series of workshops related to the consultation. These are being held in London, Bristol and York during March and April. I would like to go to one of these but I can’t make the dates; perhaps others can. The workshops will be very interesting and very important sessions to attend and report on.

Lock up your hydrangeas, drug thieves about!

Hydrangea hortensis smith

Plants are rich and varied sources of chemicals that change brain function, so-called psychoactive chemicals. For example, the coca plant, a shrub indigenous to the foothills of the Andes, was used for thousands of years by the local people because of the effects of the cocaine contained in the leaves. The peyote cactus has been used for millennia by the inhabitants of Mexico and Central America to experience the psychoactive effects of mescaline. In the 19th century, many families living in the Fens in the East of England grew a stand of white poppies in a corner of their garden. These were harvested to make a “poppy-head tea” containing small amounts of opium. The tea was used as a traditional remedy for the various ailments that afflicted rural life in that part of the UK.

These are just three examples but they illustrate the ingenuity of humans for finding plants that have interesting or useful properties when consumed. For every flower or plant, someone, somewhere will have tried eating it or smoking it and, if they survived, they will have reported the effects.

Hydrangea May 2012-1

I was, therefore, more than surprised when, last month, I read a Guardian leader “In praise of hydrangeas” which not only extolled the plant for its blooms but also pointed out the recent discovery of the psychoactive properties of the flowers. According to a companion piece there had been a spate of hydrangea attacks in northern France, attributed, so the article alleged, to people wishing to smoke the dried flowers and leaves because of the hallucinogenic and euphoria-inducing effects which are similar to those of cannabis. The thieves must be after the new shoots judging from the state of a hydrangea in my garden; it has plenty of new growth but the few flowers left are dry, brown and rather mangy.

I hadn’t heard of the psychoactive properties of hydrangea before and didn’t know quite what to make of the story. It sounded worthy of April Fool’s Day but in fact the craze for smoking hydrangea is not new and springtime hydrangea theft has been known in Bavaria for more than 10 years. In Romania, they are so concerned that they have stopped planting the shrub in parks.

Hydrangea does not feature in my pharmacognosy textbook suggesting that if hydrangea does possess any interesting pharmacological properties, these have been overlooked. Nevertheless, the shrub does contain some unique chemicals including the coumarins, hydrangine and hydrangenol but unfortunately no psychoactive properties have been reported for these substances. Importantly, hydrangea does not contain compounds typical of cannabis such as tetrahydrocannabinol.

So what’s going on here? It doesn’t look as though there are major psychoactive chemicals in hydrangea so how does smoking the shrub produce a high? Perhaps we can get a clue from veterinary reports on the dangers of hydrangea to pets. Apparently dogs and cats can become unwell if they eat the leaves. This is attributed to chemicals found in hydrangea called cyanogenic glycosides which can break down, when metabolised, to produce the very poisonous substance, hydrogen cyanide. Cyanogenic glycosides are found in many different plants including some apricot kernels and almonds, also apple and cherry seeds.

Hydrogen cyanide is very poisonous to humans as it inhibits energy production in cells. Some of the short term effects of cyanide are headache, dizziness and confusion. Perhaps when leaves or flowers of hydrangea are smoked, small amounts of hydrogen cyanide are released. Consumption of one hydrangea joint might, therefore, provide a little cyanide and the effect, combined with a good dose of imagination could be interpreted as cannabis-like. This would also fit with the many warnings about not smoking more than one hydrangea joint because of the significant risk of cyanide poisoning.

I have not come across any reports of hydrangea smoking in the UK but I did find a report of bloom theft in Hastings and Bexhill in 2012. Apparently, the thieves were then selling the dried blooms to flower arrangers at a boot fair. At least that’s what they said!

I should like to thank Dr Ben Whalley (University of Reading) and Prof Kurt Hostettman (University of Geneva) for helpful discussions.

Pale promises and lambs tails in the late February garden

“The counterfeit gold of February sunshine, making pale promises that can never be fulfilled”

I particularly like this quote from Bob Copper’s book, “A song for every season”, where he writes lyrically about his Sussex farming family and the traditional country songs they sing. On the rare occasions we have seen sunshine this month it’s usually been misleading and rain frequently followed. Heavy showers and pale sunshine then chased one another around the valley below our house, painting the sky with huge rainbows. The clear separation of the seven bands of colour in these rainbows tells us more about the wonders of science than any school physics experiment with a prism.

From my vantage point overlooking the Leechwell Garden, I watch each day for changes. During the month, some of the trees on the edge of the Garden developed a golden sheen. By the end of the month, this sheen acquired texture as if many small brushstrokes had been applied. The brushstrokes were the plump catkins, bursting with fertility but hanging loosely like pale yellow lamb’s tails. On another tree, I noticed the upper branches acquiring a pale ruddy brown glow in the light of the rising sun. I initially imagined vestigial leaves, but in fact there must have been a change in the colour of the upper meshwork of slender branches.

Around 4 pm on better days, the Garden has been taken over by a group of about 10 young boys from the local comprehensive school. They run, jump and tumble their way about the Garden like a litter of puppies. They seem especially keen on a loosely organised game that resembles rugby but without the ball; the main aim seems to be to knock one another over and scramble about on the ground in heaps. They don’t seem to be doing any harm. It all looks great fun and they can work off energy after a day constrained in the classroom.

Feb 2

Pink lungwort

Down in the Garden, the lungwort are single-handedly putting on a valiant show. The pink clump is now covered with flowers, some turning blue. Another clump, also with spotted leaves, shows white flowers and a third clump, with narrow green unspotted leaves, sports mostly blue flowers with a few pink.

Feb 1

White lungwort

Feb 4

Blue lungwort

One of the Garden volunteers told me that lungwort is a favourite of the Hairy-footed Flower Bee, a solitary bee that likes to nest in old walls and in mortar, of which there is plenty in the Garden. She had also just seen a grey wagtail by the running water. I shall have to keep a careful watch for these bees and birds.

Feb 5

A clump of primroses and the Three Guardians sculpture

Elsewhere in the Garden, there are a few snowdrops and celandine in flower and several clumps of primroses, a sure sign that the year is moving on. I have a soft spot for primroses and I remember their pale yellow flowers and delicate stems when, as a child, I picked them from railway embankments of the old Somerset and Dorset Railway. Primroses also grow well in this part of Devon and in the mid 20th century, local Paper Mills sent primrose-posies to their customers to give them “a breath of Devon air”. Children collected the flowers in return for pocket money and vast numbers were picked. The practice was frowned upon by conservation-minded people so in 1977, the paper manufacturers enlisted the help of ecologists from Plymouth Polytechnic to find out if the yearly primrose harvest was damaging the wild primrose. They came to the conclusion that the harvest was an important community event and was organised in a way that was unlikely to affect survival of wild primroses. Despite this, the practice was discontinued a few years later as public attitudes hardened against wild-flower picking.

Feb 3

Some still water – look for the new frogspawn on the right and tadpoles on the left

The frogspawn I mentioned last month disappeared and I thought that was the end for the frogs. My pessimism was misplaced as not only have the frogs been busy laying more spawn but there are now quite a few tadpoles happily swimming about in the still pools of water in the Garden. There’s no sign of legs yet but it’s early days. How many will survive I don’t know but its good to see some hatched.

Towards the end of the month, there have been several days with sunshine and perhaps it’s something about the light but there was a distinct whiff of spring in the air. We shall see!

The photographs were taken on February 24th by Hazel Strange

Bees and Trees seen in Devon

On a sunny day last week, we walked around Salcombe and the nearby coast path. We enjoyed wonderful views over the sea and the coast in this part of Devon. This is not a catalogue of the walk; rather I wanted to highlight two interesting encounters.

red tailed feb 2014

red-tailed bumblebee

Between Salcombe’s North and South Sands beaches we came across a grassy bank in full sunshine. There were many purple flowers, violets and periwinkle, with quite a few bees enjoying the forage and sunshine. One of them was, I think, a beautiful red-tailed bumblebee. (There is a good discussion of identification issues here).

Magnolias at Overbecks

Magnolia campbelli at Overbeck’s

Later on as we descended the coast path from Bolt Tail towards Salcombe, we walked along the boundary wall of the National Trust property of Overbeck’s. This has a beautiful garden built alongside and above the Salcombe estuary. Conditions here are very mild and they can grow a number of tender plants including bananas. Overbeck’s is renowned for its magnolias and over the wall we were able to glimpse the Magnolia campbelli covered in their huge bright pink flowers, looking all the more surprising in the absence of other colour. Originally from the Himalayas, M. campbelli is known for flowering early and for the size of its flowers (at least 20cm across). One of the Overbeck’s Magnolia campbelli was planted in 1901 and a second daughter tree was grown from seed in the 1950s. The early flowering makes the tree vulnerable to frost and in some years the flowers are damaged by a sudden drop in temperature.

The picture doesn’t do justice to the flowers but further down the road we came across two more Magnolia campbelli growing in a private garden.

magnolia at South Sands

Magnolia campbelli in private garden

Although these were not as advanced as those at Overbeck’s itself, they show rather well the mature olive green flower buds and the bright pink flowers. I saw these two trees for the first time three years ago just after they had been frosted. Some petals were still hanging on the tree and some lay on the ground. These thick pink petals the size of pocket handkerchiefs reminded me of the flags used at music festivals such as WOMAD.

WOMAD Festival Reading 2003

With the exception of the WOMAD picture, which comes from Wikipedia, the pictures were taken by Hazel Strange on February 26th 2014.

Bumblebees and honeybees share diseases and the outcome is not a good one.

lyme regis february 2014

Bumblebee on Rosemary on Lyme Regis sea front (February 22nd 2014) (photo by Hazel Strange)

I recently read Dave Goulson’s excellent book “A Sting in the Tale” and learnt a lot about bumblebees. Although I was aware of the global trade in honeybees, I hadn’t realised that there was an equivalent trade in bumblebees. Some crops such as tomatoes and peppers require buzz-pollination, the rapid vibration of the flower. Bumblebees do this very well and are now used extensively by commercial growers of tomatoes and other crops. To supply the demand for these useful insects there are at least thirty factories producing bumblebees for shipping all over the world. The numbers are staggering with European factories producing up to a million nests per year. This is big business with huge financial rewards but keeping so many insects together in one place risks the rapid spread of disease unless stringent hygiene precautions are observed. To complicate matters, commercially-reared bumblebees are fed pollen from honeybees so that they are potentially exposed to all the diseases that affect honeybees.

But what about wild bumblebees? What happens when a wild bumblebee forages at a flower that has already been visited by a honeybee? Are the bumblebees exposed to honeybee diseases and what might the consequences be?

scan0001

 

Last week’s Nature magazine carried an article addressing this issue. The team who carried out the work were from Royal Holloway London, Queen’s University Belfast and Exeter University. They showed that some honeybee diseases are indeed a problem for wild bumblebees and could be causing a decline in these wild pollinators. They studied two diseases: the fungal parasite Nosema which weakens honeybee colonies, and Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) which causes abnormalities in the wings and abdomen of infected honeybees as well as severely curtailing their lifespan.

The starting point for the work was to test whether these honeybee diseases could actually infect bumblebees. The researchers inoculated bumblebees (B.terrestris) with DWV or Nosema, and found that bumblebees were indeed susceptible to infection by both diseases. In the case of DWV, infection led to reduced survival of B.terrestris workers. For Nosema, although it could infect bumblebees, this did not reduce their lifespan.

Having established that the two honeybee diseases could infect bumblebees, the researchers examined the incidence of the two diseases. They performed a large scale study on the prevalence of DWV and Nosema in honeybees and bumblebees across 26 sites in Great Britain and the Isle of Man. DWV was found in 36% of honeybees tested and in 11% of bumblebees tested. For many of the infected bumblebees, the virus was active showing that the bumblebees were not simply acting as carriers. Nosema was less prevalent being found in 9% of honeybees and 7% of bumblebees. When the geographical distribution was analysed, there was some evidence for clustering, indicating disease hotspots. Hotspots for DWV were found in the south west and east of Great Britain and for Nosema in the south east. By analysing the distribution of the two diseases they were also able to show that the prevalence of DWV in honeybees influenced the prevalence of DWV in bumblebees, implying local transmission between the two insects. Local transmission was confirmed by analysing the form (nucleotide sequence) of the virus present in the two types of bee collected from the same site.

Honeybees have a high prevalence of DWV, a consequence of infestation of colonies by Varroa mites. The most obvious conclusion from this new work is that honeybee DWV is spreading to wild bumblebees. This probably occurs when the two types of bee forage in the same environment. Because DWV infection of bumblebees reduces their lifespan, the spread of this pathogen could be contributing to the decline in bumblebee numbers.

Both honeybees and bumblebees are important pollinators and need to be maintained. Their loss would have immense financial implications. This research shows that disease control in honeybee populations, for example through the efforts of beekeepers, has important implications for the health of other pollinators as well.

Gold and frankincense in the late January garden

Although the days are getting longer, signs of winter are still all around. Orion with his three-star belt dominates the southern sky each night. The weather is dismal and although it’s mild, it surely couldn’t be wetter. The trees are dark latticeworks of leafless branches and there are few flowers to add colour to this landscape of greens and browns. But there are things to see if we take time to look.

Jan 4

The three silver birches

So, each morning as I peer through the kitchen window, my gaze is taken by three silver birch trees in the Leechwell Garden. They seem impossibly tall and vulnerable and on several occasions I expected to find them felled by high winds. But they are still there, standing close together, and with their brown and white dappled bark I have come to imagine them as a family of giraffes, two adults and a calf.

Jan 3

I also see the three Portland stone columns of the Garden sculpture. On a dull day, the stone appears pale grey, but in sunshine it takes on a light honey tone as well as texture from shadows given by neighbouring trees. When I go down to the Garden and stand by the sculpture, the stone seems whiter and I can see the detail that the artist, Rosie Musgrave, has incorporated. Each column is about two metres tall and has its own character expressed in the design carved along its length and in its distinctive head. The sculpture is named the Three Guardians and the columns represent the three water sources of the Leechwell and their local names, the Toad, the Snake and the Long Crippler (slow worm).

Jan 10

Three Guardians

Not far from the sculpture are the remains of an old tree. Its wood is saturated and very dark and, lying on the ground, the gigantic trunk looks sad, out of place, like a beached whale. At least the tree-remnant is serving a purpose, as a children’s play area. Along the trunk I notice repeated lines of grey and yellow as if it had been spray-painted. This is in fact a spectacular display of fungus encouraged by the mild damp weather. Row upon row of small, semicircular, feathery brackets cover large sections of the old tree. Some are superficially grey but a closer look reveals concentric rings with different shades of grey and white. On another part of the wood the fungus is a bright yellow/orange.

jan 9

In the herb garden there are green leaves in many shades but few flowers. One exception is a lungwort which seems to have chosen to come in to flower early, perhaps to salute the mild weather; it will not fare well if the weather turns cold. Among the oval, dark green, white-spotted leaves, one flower stem was standing carrying two lipstick-pink flowers; many buds were also waiting to take their turn. The name, lungwort, arose because the spotted leaves were once thought to resemble diseased lungs and the plant came to be used in folk medicine for treating respiratory problems.

jan 8

Lungwort

I‘m rather fond of lungwort as it’s very popular with bees later in the year so I spent some time looking and didn’t immediately notice the small tree behind me. Its leafless branches were covered with spidery eruptions of fine sulphur-yellow petals. These resemble the outpourings of small fireworks only the petals look slightly crumpled as though they are made from paper. This striking tree is witch hazel (hamamelis), a native of North America, known for its sweet spicy fragrance and very early flowering. The famous early 20th century gardener E A Bowles nicknamed it the Epiphany flower as it is usually out by then (January 6) with flowers of gold, and scent of frankincense. Some of the flowers will produce seed capsules which mature during the following growth season to expel their seeds explosively several metres away.

jan 7

Witch Hazel

Water from the Leechwell cascades through the Garden under a bridge and through a pool before descending under some new houses. Mostly, the water flows rather briskly but there are a few places where it is still. It was very early in the year so I was surprised to find several thick clumps of frogspawn here, for the most part under the water. As I watched, the clumps of jelly moved rhythmically backwards and forwards following the breeze and the gentle flow of the water as if the clump were alive. But of course it is alive; despite appearing superficially amorphous and colourless the frogspawn contains thousands of individual jelly compartments each with a black dot. This is the growing embryo that has the potential to become a tadpole and then a frog. The frogspawn also reminds me that a male frog has been here with a female. In the frog mating embrace, or amplexus, the male straddles the female, gripping behind her front legs. She lays thousands of eggs and he fertilises them as they emerge.

Jan

Frogspawn

Perhaps we should learn from the frogs. It may feel to us like a low time of year with little sunshine and record rainfall. The frogs show us that nature doesn’t stop, it’s always in flux. The new season will come and there will be renewal.

All photos were taken on January 25th with the exception of the the Three Silver Birches which was taken on February 1st.

Leechwell Garden posted some photos on February 5th (see here if you do Facebook) and the progress the Lungwort has made is surprising, I suppose it’s the mild weather)

Bumblebee tales and insecticide issues.

Here is an article I wrote for the February 2014 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Late December is a low time of year for wild life, so I was surprised to see several fat, stripy bumblebees out foraging in both Dorset and in Devon when the weather allowed. According to the textbooks they should have been hibernating but I was interested to learn that one of our native bumblebees, the buff-tailed, sometimes keeps colonies going during the winter. Winter-flowering plants like mahonia and heather provide the pollen and nectar they need.

Having unexpectedly seen these insects going about their business, I was all the more saddened to read a report from the US about the mass killing of bumblebees in an Oregon supermarket car park. During the summer, the lime trees in the car park were colonised by aphids and these dropped sticky material, honeydew, on to parked cars. To deal with this tiresome problem, some enterprising individual decided to kill the aphids by spraying the lime trees with insecticide. What they failed to notice was that the trees were in flower, making them very attractive to bumblebees. The result of this unfortunate set of circumstances was that as many as 50,000 bumblebees ended up dead on the tarmac, the largest ever recorded loss of bumblebees.

bumblebee on comfrey

The insecticide used to perpetrate this mass bee killing is one of a group of chemicals collectively known as neonicotinoids. These are relatively modern insecticides used very extensively in agriculture and in gardening for control of insect pests. For example, much of the oil seed rape grown in this country uses seed treated with these insecticides and many popular garden bug-killers are neonicotinoid-based. The neonicotinoids have the advantage that once applied to a crop, they are taken up systemically by the plant which then becomes poisonous to insects. There is concern that the poison will also be picked up by bees when they forage but the manufacturers say that the risk is low if the insecticides are used correctly. This includes not spraying crops when they are in flower and if bees are present.

Bees are very important for pollinating many of our crops and flowers. There had been worries for some time about a general decline in bee populations and although several contributory factors had been identified, including loss of habitat, pathogens and climate change, insecticides were also thought to be involved. Concerns about the effects of the neonicotinoids on bees intensified in 2012 when the results of field studies were released showing that at levels that did not directly kill bees, these insecticides impaired the survival of bee colonies and so could be contributing to the decline. These findings made the European Food Safety Authority take another look at the neonicotinoids and they came to the conclusion that safety testing on bees was incomplete for some of these chemicals. As a result, they recommended a two year moratorium on several agricultural uses of three of these insecticides. The prominent food retailer, Waitrose, took a wider view and asked all their suppliers of fruit, vegetables and flowers to phase out the three insecticides because of concerns about effects on bees, butterflies and other important pollinators.

Despite a groundswell of opinion against the insecticides in environmental groups, the UK government strongly opposed the ban on neonicotinoids, although it eventually had to follow the EU directive which came in to force in December 2013. The makers of the chemicals, Bayer and Syngenta, far from being contrite about the situation, have taken the European Commission to court over the decision and the National Farmers Union has backed the move. To be fair to the government, it has recognised that there is a problem for pollinators in the UK and is developing a National Pollinator Strategy to be implemented in 2014.

In the meantime there have been further indications of problems with these insecticides. Scientists in Japan had shown that the neonicotinoids might affect brain development in animals. Based on this and other work, the European Food Safety Authority decided that there was cause for concern and recommended that acceptable human exposure levels for some of these insecticides be reduced.

Studies in the Netherlands have shown that, following extensive use of the neonicotinoid insecticides in agriculture, they are contaminating ground water. The levels are high enough to kill invertebrates in ditches and in streams. Similarly, in Saskatchewan, prairie wetlands have been contaminated with the insecticides which may be killing midges and mosquitoes. The loss of these invertebrate species could have knock-on effects on birds that depend on them for food. The problem may be exacerbated by the persistence of the insecticides in soil. These are worrying observations and suggest that these chemicals are disturbing natural eco systems.

So, evidence is mounting that the neonicotinoids are endangering wildlife and particularly beneficial insects such as bees. Two opposing camps have emerged in this conservation battle. On one side is a wide range of environmental groups and campaign organisations who oppose the use of these insecticides. One the other side are the agrochemical companies and the farmers who want to see continued use.

What should we do? We should be aware of the effects of these chemicals on our environment and the effects they may have on pollinators. We should understand the arguments both in favour and against the use of these chemicals in agriculture. We should ask ourselves whether we really need to use these insecticides in our gardens especially if this results in the death of beneficial insects. Several prominent cities including Paris, Portland (Oregon), Seattle, Tokyo and Toronto have massively reduced pesticide use without any detrimental effects. Wouldn’t it be better if our gardens were insecticide-free and filled with bee-friendly flowers and bees?