The Christmas weather had been poor but Boxing Day (December 26th) was mild, clear and bright and the seafront at Paignton in south Devon was thronged with people promenading in the sunshine and as busy as I have ever seen. Some had also come to watch “Walk into the sea” a charity event where hardy souls, often in fancy dress, splash in the cold waters of Torbay.
It was good to see all the people enjoying the weather but I was here for a different reason. I left the crowds behind and headed past the little harbour towards Roundham Head, a promontory that protrudes into the waters of Torbay. Here I found Roundham Head Gardens, public gardens built on the sloping, south-facing side of this headland where narrow paths zig zag up and down the cliff face between borders planted with many exotic species. Some of these plants flower throughout our winter providing an unusual micro environment.
Scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina) (see picture at the head of this post), a native of the Mediterranean, is one of the plants that flourishes here and the low winter sun seemed to accentuate the lemon-yellow colour of its pea type flowers. In the same border overlooking the sea I also found some bergenia flowers, an almost psychedelic pink in this low light.
It wasn’t just the humans who had been drawn out by the mild sunny weather, there were also a number of insects about. A small furry bumblebee had discovered the scorpion vetch and was systematically visiting each flower to feed. Her black, white and brownish-yellow banding stood out like a furry bar code and she carried a yellow lump of sticky pollen on each rear leg. She was most likely a worker buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) and I watched her track across the clump of flowers.
Eventually, I had to move to the far side of the border to get a better view of the small bee, but I hadn’t noticed the large queen bumblebee feeding on the bergenia. She objected to my presence and flew away buzzing loudly after circling closely around my head. Was this a warning or was she just having a look? I only got a quick glimpse but she looked like a buff-tailed bumblebee queen, our largest bumblebee species. Later, I got a much better view of one of these huge insects basking in the sun on an old stone wall. This one was the size of the distal section of my thumb, very furry and with clear black and orange-brown bands and a brownish tail.
As I wandered about the enclosed paths, I encountered more small buff-tailed bumblebees, often feeding from the slate blue flowers of the rosemary that grows well here. Most of these were carrying pollen of different colours, white, yellow or red, so they were all workers.
This winter bumblebee activity is probably a consequence of the mild marine environment in these gardens and the profusion of flowers that grows here even in the lowest months. The worker bumblebees will be supporting nests begun by queens a few months ago, whereas the queens I saw may be preparing to set up new nests that will last across winter.
A return to the first border gave another surprise: a red admiral butterfly basking on bergenia having been tempted out by the warm sun. As I watched it flexing its wings, another floated past my shoulder before disappearing. I shared my picture of the red admiral on social media and one commenter (see below for details) pointed out that although this survivor from the summer still had bright colours, it now looked very worn and suggested that this was the Keith Richards of red admirals!
The commenter referred to above was “Noticing Nature: the British microseason project” (@Naturalcalendar). They can be found on Twitter and they have a newsletter