Winter-active bumblebees in a Devon seaside garden

It was a sunny Sunday morning in January last year and we were walking through public gardens at Roundham Head in Paignton, South Devon. Passing a bank of flowering rosemary, we spotted a bumblebee. Surprising? Well yes, bumblebees are supposed to be hibernating in January, aren’t they?

Worker bumblebee on veronica in winter
Worker bumblebee on Hebe (January 4th 2015)

 

Fast forward 12 months to January 2015 and we are passing through these same gardens. As we enjoy the sunshine we notice another bumblebee, feeding on a very smart looking purple Hebe. This time we take a few photos before the insect flies off and we confirm that it’s a worker bumblebee with loaded pollen baskets.

I was very intrigued by these observations and felt compelled to find out more, but first I need to tell you about the gardens as they are a bit special.

Roundham Head

Roundham Head
Roundham Head from the southern side showing the Paradise Gardens above the esplanade with the red cliffs on the far right.

 

The popular seaside holiday resort of Paignton is enclosed by urban sprawl and Roundham Head is a surprising botanical oasis in this part of South Devon. To the North of the headland is Paignton harbour with its many tempting summer treats (wildlife and angling cruises, Molly Malone’s seafood stall and so on), all sadly closed at this time of year. To the South is Goodrington Sands, fine for a pleasant summer’s dip but, in winter, a dog and doggy walker’s paradise. The headland itself is surrounded by steep red cliffs and is grass-topped with a fine stand of pine trees offering Mediterranean views across the Bay to Torquay.

Pine trees at Roundham Head, Paignton
Pine trees at Roundham Head – Mediterranean view?

 

Goodrington Sands
The view from the gardens towards Goodrington Sands

 

The cliffs on the southern side are where we find the so-called Paradise Gardens. A maze of flower beds and zigzag paths ascend and descend the cliffs and there is an occasional secluded seat for those who wish to contemplate the sea or simply rest. The Gardens themselves seem to enjoy a very mild microclimate. Many of the borders are protected from the wind and for much of the day, the sun, when it is out, warms the soil. The Gardens are home to tender, sub-tropical plants and there are flowers throughout the year. The predominant colour in January is yellow from the scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina, a native of the Mediterranean ) which thrives here.

scorpion vetch
Scorpion Vetch

 

My visits to the Paradise Gardens

Five days after the most recent sighting, I am back in the gardens with my camera, looking for bumblebees and getting a few odd looks from passers-by. I had scoured the forecasts on the Met Office web site and the weather today was predicted to be sunny and mild (12oC, good for bees), although rather gusty and getting windier (not so good for bees). It is a bit of a gamble but I decide to risk a visit.

worker with pollen
Worker bumblebee on rosemary (January 9th 2015)

 

When I reach the Gardens I take the first path, half left downhill, where there is a huge bank of rosemary facing in to the sunshine, enveloping the border and the wall below. It’s a mass of small blue flowers and I immediately see a worker bumblebee on the blooms, its pollen baskets laden. It’s either a buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) or white-tailed (Bombus lucorum); the workers of both species look similar. I zigzag up and down the paths and don’t see any others until I come across a large island border just below the top of the cliffs. This is filled with flowering rosemary, some tired-looking bergenia, and more scorpion vetch. There are two or three queens here, definitely Bombus terrestris based on their buff-tails, feeding from the bergenia and rosemary flowers. They don’t use the vetch. It’s quite gusty but they are very determined and forage despite the wind. I feel sorry for them: one gets blown off a flower stem another seems to shelter for a while but she could be warming up. Eventually I give up as the wind is too strong.

Queen bumblebee in winter
Buff-tailed queen on rosemary – by comparison with my hand she is about 2.5 cm long (January 9th 2015)

 

Bumblebee queen on bergenia
Bumblebee queen on Bergenia (January 9th 2015)

 

Despite the weather, it was worth the visit but I now have many questions. How many bees and how many colonies? Are they all buff-tailed? Where are the nests? Why is there a mixture of workers and queens?

……………………….

So, two weeks later, the weather again looks possible and I am back. The temperature today is ~9oC, a mixture of sunshine and cloud with a light wind. There was frost the night before in Totnes and, although it probably didn’t frost in Paignton, I wonder how the lower temperatures will have affected the bumblebees.

Bumblebee worker on Grevillea
Bumblebee worker on Grevillea (January 23rd 2015)

 

In fact all seems to be well. I see workers with pollen on the hanging rosemary, on the hebe and on a shrub covered with unusual spiral-shaped red flowers that I identify later as Grevillea, a native of Australia. Some of these workers fly at me as if to shoo me away; perhaps they feel threatened. At the island border I see a worker and several queens feeding off the rosemary. At one point, a queen flies to the ground where she wanders about apparently looking for something. There are no bumblebees on the bergenia today but, astonishingly, I see a red admiral butterfly on this plant.

bumblebee queen on rosemary
Buff-tailed queen approaching rosemary (January 23rd 2015)

 

Red Admiral on bergenia
Red admiral (a little tattered) on Bergenia (January 23rd 2015)

 

I don’t think I learnt very much from this visit except that this is a very mild spot with plenty of bee forage even in midwinter.
………………………..

So, I decide to visit again just under two weeks later on another sunny day. In Totnes the air is very cold (~5oC) but, when I get to Roundham Head, the sun is shining directly on the Gardens, it feels quite warm and there is little or no wind. My experience today is different: I don’t make any definite sightings of queens but I do see several workers and with one exception these are all feeding on rosemary. The workers differ considerably in size but that’s a common observation. They all look in very good condition; their wings are not frayed so they are relatively young. While I stand near the Grevillea, a large bee, probably a queen, flies at me, does a few circuits around my head and then flies off. I get the impression I am being warned but perhaps I am overreacting!

Bumblebee worker on rosemary 2
Bumblebee worker approaching rosemary (February 4th 2015). If you click on the photo you should be able to see the brown band before the white tail (typical of B. terrestris)

 

Bumblebee worker on rosemary 3
Bumblebee worker on rosemary (February 4th 2015) – note the brown band before the white tail (typical of B. terrestris). I am not sure where this one found the yellow pollen?

 

Later, when I have a good look at the photos of the workers I notice that they have a narrow brown band just before the white tail. This is typical of buff-tailed bumblebees and is not seen on white-tailed workers so it is likely that the active nests are buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris).

What does it all mean?

Over a period of about four weeks in the middle of winter, I have been able to see buff-tailed bumblebee queens and workers quite easily at this location. I get the impression, however, that there are actually not very many about: perhaps four queens and eight workers?

The presence of foraging workers as early as January 4th indicates an active nest. I have no idea about the site of the nest but I assume there is a queen, tending larvae and being fed by the workers. The nest was probably established in the last few months of 2014.

At this time of year, bumblebees typically hibernate but since the 1990s there have been reports of winter-active colonies of mainly buff-tailed bumblebees, largely confined to the southern part of the UK. Speculation has been rife as to what is causing this change in behaviour. Some suggest it is linked to warmer winters associated with climate change. This can’t be the whole story as, according to Dave Goulson, bumblebees in Brittany do not exhibit the same winter activity. The magic ingredient may be the availability of winter forage in the UK linked to the British passion for gardening and planting winter-flowering shrubs.

The sub species of Bombus terrestris found in some parts of continental Europe can also have two nesting periods a year, when climate is suitable and winter forage is available. A litter is produced across spring and summer and fertilised queens find suitable places to hibernate for 2-3 months before emerging in late September to set up new colonies across the winter. The Roundham Head colonies probably arise from fertilised queens produced during summer 2014 who emerged after a few months rest to set up winter nests. The microclimate and the abundant local forage make this activity possible.

There has been speculation that the continental sub species of Bombus terrestris, imported for pollinating vegetable crops, may be escaping and establishing itself in the UK. Given that this sub species sometimes produces two generations, it is possible that these continental bumblebees could be the winter-active bumblebees seen in the UK. The Roundham Head colonies, however, have the physical characteristics of the British sub species so they cannot be foreign escapees.

What about the queens that I saw? Here it all becomes rather uncertain. They could be founding queens from active autumn/winter 2014 nests coming out for a feed or they could be new queens generated by these nests. Alternatively, they could be queens from summer 2014 nests emerging from hibernation on a warm day. What might happen to these summer 2014 queens is also a bit unclear. They might set up new nests if the weather stays warm. Perhaps if the weather turns cold they return to hibernation after feeding but, it is not known if this actually occurs.

So, more questions than answers, but there definitely are active winter nests at this favourable seaside spot. It’s been fascinating and great fun to observe these bees and I shall continue watching over the next few months to see what else I can learn.

I should like to thank Dave Goulson (University of Sussex) and Tom Ings (Anglia Ruskin University) for helpful comments.

Goodrington Sands
Another view over Goodrington Sands at low tide

 

Dorset’s big farming experiment

The village of Briantspuddle lies near tranquil water meadows in the valley of the River Piddle, some eight miles to the east of Dorchester in the south-west of the UK. Nowadays, Briantspuddle is all pretty cottages, thatched roofs and peace and quiet. The village was far from quiet in the first half of the 20th century when Briantspuddle became a centre of agricultural and social innovation.

River Piddle at Briantspuddle
The river Piddle near Briantspuddle (doesn’t look like a piddle to me)

 

The Bladen Estate: Ernest Debenham’s vision for a new agriculture

Ernest Debenham was an educated and practical man, an innovator, always keen to try new ideas. He was, after all, the grandson of the founder of the Debenhams drapery and department store empire. By 1900 he was in charge of the company and became very wealthy. Around this time, he decided that agriculture would benefit from being organised as a business. He developed the idea of self-sufficient farming where centralised processing and selling directly from the farm would “cut out the middle man”, reduce costs and boost rural employment. In 1914, he purchased several farms in the Piddle Valley around Briantspuddle where he intended to test these ideas. This land became the Bladen Estate, named after the old form of Blagdon or Blackdown, the hill above Briantspuddle.

Houses for workers

Cruck Cottage Briantspuddle
Cruck Cottage Briantspuddle – one of the houses present before Debenham started building. It shows the “Dorset” style he tried to emulate.

 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Briantspuddle was a sleepy hamlet of about a dozen houses. To realise his vision of self-sufficient farming, Debenham planned a substantial expansion of the village although, because of the outbreak of war, new building did not start until 1919. He believed that good housing led to good work, so his first priority was to provide new houses for the estate workers. These were built in the traditional, Arts and Crafts style with thatched roofs, designed to blend sympathetically with the local environment. The new cottages were equipped with a bathroom and inside lavatory, and with self-sufficiency in mind, a quarter acre garden and a pig pen. Debenham also encouraged tree planting as a means of harmonising the new development with the surrounding countryside.

Cottages in Briantspuddle's Bladen Valley
Some of the “new” houses built by Debenham for estate workers in Briantspuddle’s Bladen Valley

 

Scientific agriculture

Dairy Ring 2
Part of the semi-circular dairy complex, now private housing

 

The Bladen Estate was established as an experiment to test how centralised processing and the application of recent scientific discoveries in agriculture might improve food production. Many aspects of farming were examined but perhaps the most innovative development was the central dairy in Briantspuddle. This was a purpose-built facility for collecting, testing and packaging milk from Estate farms. The new buildings were intended to be functional, the semi-circular design allowing easy access for transport. They were also meant to be aesthetically pleasing, imparting a special character to the area and, of course, they had thatched roofs. A unique aspect of the dairy was a bacteriological laboratory capable of testing milk for bacteria as well as fat content. Bonuses were paid to workers from farms supplying milk with the lowest bacterial count, so encouraging cleanliness in the milking parlour. The central dairy processed 1000 gallons of milk each day in to Grade A milk, butter, cheese and pig food. Milk was transported in covered motor wagons to a depot in Parkstone where it could be on sale within an hour of leaving Briantspuddle.

Old dairy buildings Briantspuddle
Some buildings I found at the back of the dairy complex, now private housing but looking like they once had an important function on the farm.

 

Animal husbandry was also approached systematically and scientifically. For each cow, detailed records were kept of weight, health, food consumed etc. Twice a year, the estate Veterinary Service examined animals for tuberculosis; cows testing positive were vaccinated. Similar intensive approaches were tried in relation to sheep, pigs and poultry and there were 70 bee colonies. Livestock were fed arable crops grown on the Estate; also balanced rations supplied by a company established by Debenham. The Estate had dedicated power and water supplies and its own transport depot, contributing to self sufficiency.


The end of the experiment

At its peak in 1929, the Bladen Estate farmed 10,000 acres of land in and around the Piddle Valley, including many individual farms, providing employment for 600 people. These were difficult times for business, especially for farming and the Estate required continual financial input to stay afloat. Eventually the funds required to subsidise the venture ran out, the Estate went in to decline and the individual farms were sold.

Ford over the river Piddle at Turner's Puddle
One of the constituent farms of the Estate at Turner’s Puddle, seen across the ford on the river Piddle

 

Despite the apparent failure of his experiment, Debenham should be seen as one of agriculture’s pioneers. His ideas for self-sufficient farming were ahead of his time. Many “modern” farming practices were tested on the Bladen Estate but at the time the tools to make them work were unavailable e.g. antibiotics to control disease under intensive conditions. Debenham was, sadly, wrong in one of his beliefs: increased production and centralisation have not allowed more people to live on the land; in fact the opposite has proven to be true.

21st century Briantspuddle

The contemporary visitor to Briantspuddle will encounter an attractive village with a remarkably consistent architectural style, a legacy of Ernest Debenham’s experiment and vision. The best place to experience this is the Bladen Valley, a small coombe populated by substantial, white-washed, thatched cottages originally built for estate workers, most still retaining their original look.

Bladen Valley 2
Cottages in the Bladen Valley, Briantspuddle – originally built for estate workers from 1919 onwards

 

At the foot of this valley lies the unusual War Memorial commissioned by Debenham to commemorate seven local men who died in the Great War (six names of WW2 fatalities have since been added). The memorial, sculpted in Portland Stone by the controversial artist Eric Gill, was dedicated in 1918, one day after the armistice had been signed.

War Memorial Briantspuddle 2
War Memorial

 

Detail from War Memorial Briantspuddle 2
Madonna and child on War Memorial

 

Detail from War Memorial Briantspuddle
Commemorating the names of the WW1 dead

 

In the main part of the village, there is the semicircular former dairy complex, now private housing, and the fine thatched Village Hall based on a converted 18th century barn which, together with the Social Club, provides a focus for village activities. Next to the Hall is the Village Shop and Post Office. This was once a granary but in 2002 became a community shop run by volunteers, “by the village, for the village”. It seems that in Briantspuddle, social experiments continue to the present day.

Dairy Ring 1
Another view of the semi-circular former dairy complex

 

Village Hall and shop Briantspuddle
The Village Hall (left) and Community Shop (right) in Briantspuddle

 

This article appeared in the February 2015 edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine.

 

When I visited the area, I came across the now-disused church at Turner’s Puddle a little way along the Piddle from Briantspuddle and was surprised to see snowdrops in profusion at this time of year (January 13th).

Turner's Puddle church with snowdrops
The disused church at Turner’s Puddle – to the left of the steps you may be able to see snowdrops in flower in January

 

Short on colour, high on drama – the garden at the turn of the year

How quickly time passes! It’s already a year since I wrote my first post about the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the heart of Totnes. Each month I’ve written about the plants and the wildlife and it’s been fascinating to watch the Garden change with the seasons.   I’ve learnt so much and also met some wonderful people both here in Totnes and in the blogosphere.  (here is a quick link to these articles)

sage
A sage bush on a rare sunny day

 

I visited the Garden several times at the end of December 2014 and at the beginning of January 2015. I was particularly interested to see how the present state of the Garden compared with what I saw a year ago. I found, just like last year, an overall look that was monochrome, especially on dull days. The trees were mostly bare skeletal branches and there were very few flowers at this low time of year.

rose hips
The shrivelled black rose hips

 

It wasn’t exactly the same, though. A year ago, I found more colour. Last year, yellow crab apples were still gracing their tree in late December. This year the fruit disappeared several weeks earlier, partly because of the attention of the birds. Last year I was taken by the mass of bright red rose hips on the pergola. This year these are almost uniformly black and shrivelled. Perhaps this is due to the mostly mild, mostly damp weather.

holly
Holly

 

olive tree
The olive tree

 

Looking around for more winter interest this year, I found a variegated holly with its leaves shining in the sunshine. The olive tree looked very healthy but I doubt we shall be seeing single estate Leechwell Garden Olive Oil anytime soon. A nearby sage bush also stood out. Near the water I found several mahonia with their frothy lemon yellow flowers and for a short time I watched a visiting insect which I think was a hoverfly.

Hoverfly on mahonia
Mahonia with insect

 

bug house
The bug house. The wooden block mason bee nests are visible towards the bottom of the picture

 

The Leechwell Garden is normally a quiet place but towards the end of December there was drama. The Bug House was found to be damaged and had to be removed for repair! Apparently, someone had tried to climb in to the Garden when the gate was locked. They probably steadied themselves by standing on the Bug House which gave way under their weight. But all is now fine; the Bug House has been mended and returned to its rightful place. Fortunately, the removable tubes containing mason bee nests had been put somewhere for safe keeping over the winter and the wooden block nests seem to be undamaged. The new bees should be flying in a few months.

What we don’t know, of course, is what happened to the intruder.

lungwort
Lungwort with buds

 

Early January does feel like a low time of year and some of this feeling may be due to expectations raised but ultimately unfulfilled by our over-commercialised Christmas. The Garden does not reflect these feelings and if you look around, there are hopeful signs of the new growing season everywhere. Several trees are now veiled in a haze of small catkins getting ready to spread their pollen when the wind and the time are right. The clumps of the bee-friendly plant lungwort may not look particularly attractive at this time of year but they are already showing several stems with large buds. There will be flowers in a few weeks. I even found a few yellow flowers on a clump of primroses.

primrose
Primroses

 

Some of the most striking signs of the new season can be seen on the crab apple tree. From a distance its smooth branches have seemingly been invaded by regular short spiky outgrowths. These will be transformed in a few month’s time by blossom and leaves. Close up, we can see the intricate but beautiful textures of these buds and their rich, reddish-brown colour.

crab apple buds
Buds on crab apple

 

Postscript:  I can’t keep up with Nature! I  wrote most of this post earlier in the week and should have hit the publish button then.  On a quick walk through the Garden this morning I saw several pink flowers on the lungwort and the first frogspawn in the watery area.

frogspawn
I did not have my camera with me on the 16th when I first saw the frogspawn. Here is a picture of the frogspawn taken on January 18th when there was much more compared with two days earlier.

 

A Christmas Coast Path Walk

This is the view we had yesterday from the South Devon Coast Path near Bantham on an unseasonably mild and sunny Christmas Day.  The River Avon meets the sea here creating one of South Devon’s best surfing beaches.  If you look carefully you can see many surfers enjoying a Christmas Day wave.  The other landmark here is Burgh Island with its art deco hotel sitting like a white wedding cake on a plate.

The cliffs were decorated with a few struggling sea pinks and irregular splashes of yellow gorse.  Here and there we saw stonechats flying from bush to bush, their russet waistcoats glowing in the sunshine.  On the beaches, small flocks of rock pipits moved among the seaweed sometimes accompanied by pied wagtails.

Here are two images from our walk:

Snails in wall Thurlestone
Snails sheltering in a dry stone wall at Thurlestone in South Devon. On the right, some wall pennywort.

 

South Milton Ley
The reed beds at South Milton Ley.

 

 

The photos were taken by Hazel Strange

 

The charm of goldfinches

Sometimes goldfinches one by one will drop
From low hung branches; little space they stop;
But sip, and twitter, and their feathers sleek;
Then off at once, as in a wanton freak:
Or perhaps, to show their black, and golden wings
Pausing upon their yellow flutterings.

From I stood tip-toe upon a little hill by John Keats (1817)

I suppose it’s the time of year. Our neighbours have taken to decorating their garden trees. But don’t think Christmas lights, think bird feeders. Every imaginable variety of feeder swings merrily on the breeze offering an avian cafeteria that no right-thinking bird can resist. There are peanuts, fat balls, fat-filled coconut halves and several kinds of seed and don’t the birds know it. The feeder array is as busy as a city-centre fast-food joint with the main customers being house sparrows, blue tits and great tits. A few blackbirds and coal tits also muscle in occasionally only to be overtaken by opportunistic starlings and crows.

But the birds that have surprised and delighted me most are the goldfinches. They patronise one particular feeder containing black seed (nyjer seed) and the two perches are busy until the light begins to fade. Frequently one or more hopefuls will also be waiting above the feeder and when they try to supplant the incumbent this results in much twittering and “yellow fluttering”. They are not restful birds; while they are feeding, goldfinches continually look around checking for threats. Sometimes something spooks them and they all fly off to apparent safety. A pair of crows occasionally blunders their way on to one of the nearby peanut feeders and these swaggering adolescents invariably empty the tree of all other birds.

I thought I had a rough idea of what a goldfinch looked like but having an almost captive supply of the birds has been a revelation. I knew about the blood-red “face”, the black and white head and the signature lemon-yellow wing flash but I hadn’t realised how intricately patterned the birds were. Their eyes appear to be surrounded by black “goggles” making them look like jaunty bank robbers. The tan-coloured feathers on their backs contrast with white feathers on the chest and underparts although some tan colouration extends in hand-like protrusions on to the chest. Just as interesting, when the bird turns away, are the patterns of the folded wings. Above the yellow flash, each jet- black upper wing exhibits a regular geometric pattern of small white spots resembling quotation marks. And then there is the song. I watch through a window so I can’t hear their song but I can recommend a recording on the RSPB web site or Mark Cocker’s description: “a filigree music grained with joy”.

But I am still not sure why they are here? We don’t normally see many goldfinches in the gardens and I don’t think it’s because I haven’t previously been looking. I suspect it’s because of the availability of a popular food (nyjer seed) combined with a reduction in weed seed in the countryside, partly seasonal and partly because of agricultural intensification. Whatever the explanation, I must have a word with our neighbours and encourage them to keep putting out the seed.

Goldfinches frequently appear in literature and in painting. Here is an excellent article on goldfinch-associated symbolism.

Picture credits: “Carduelis carduelis close up” by Francis Franklin – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carduelis_carduelis_close_up.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Carduelis_carduelis_close_up.jpg

500 dead bumblebees – the chemical blitz of modern farming

In September I wrote about the mysterious death of 500 bumblebees. New information has emerged about this incident so I have rewritten the post:

Earlier this year, Sheila Horne was walking at Hacton Parkway, a public park and conservation area in Havering, East London. April is normally a good time to see insects in their prime so she was very surprised to find many dead and dying bees near the path. She alerted local naturalist, Tony Gunton who identified the insects as bumblebee queens from three species, red-tailed, buff-tailed and common carder. This was not a minor incident, there were as many as 500 bees affected.

Chemical analysis of the dead bees

Natural England was appointed to investigate the insect deaths and samples of dead bees were sent to FERA in York for analysis. The results were released in August and showed that the bees were contaminated with the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid and two fungicides, flusilazole and epoxiconazole. Imidacloprid can be very poisonous to bees and bumblebees are more susceptible to this chemical than honeybees. Imidacloprid is currently subject to a two year partial ban for some agricultural uses in the EU. Neither fungicide on its own is especially toxic to bees although flusilazole was phased out this October because of its high toxicity to fish and because of other potential toxic effects.

A nearby field of oil seed rape as the source of the chemicals?

The chemical analysis raises two questions. Where did the bumblebees pick up these chemicals? Were these chemicals responsible for the bee deaths?

Neither question can be answered definitively but as so many dying bees were found together in one place, it seems likely that the source of the poisoning was close by. Hacton Parkway lies alongside arable farmland and at the time of the poisoning some of the land was planted with flowering oil seed rape, so it is a reasonable conclusion that the bees had been feeding there. Because of the chemical analysis, it was initially assumed that the crop had been planted using seed treated with imidacloprid ahead of the ban and that the imidacloprid had killed the bees. Natural England have recently concluded their investigation and found that in fact the seed used to plant the crop had been treated with another neonicotinoid, thiamethoxam. Neither imidacloprid nor epoxiconazole had been used on the crop and the last spraying with flusilazole was in November 2013. Analysis of the dead bees for thiamethoxam failed to detect any of the chemical but this could have been due to losses before the analysis.

What killed the bees?

So, why did these bees die? Because there are so many unanswered questions we cannot be sure. The dead bees were contaminated with imidacloprid but the oil seed rape crop was not the source. We can only assume that the bees fed elsewhere on imidacloprid-treated crops and were flying with this chemical in their systems. It is known that at typical field concentrations, imidacloprid does not kill bumblebees.

There is also the question of how the bees were exposed to the two fungicides if the oil seed rape had not been sprayed with these chemicals during the flowering season. As with the imidacloprid, we have to assume that the bees were exposed elsewhere. It is possible that the fungicides weakened the bees or made them more susceptible to the neonicotinoids. There is some evidence for such interactions for other insecticide/fungicide pairings.

Because the bees died close to the treated crop, the focus of lethality has to be on the thiamethoxam, now known to have been used on the oil seed rape. Although thiamethoxam is indeed an insecticide, there is evidence from one lab-based study and another field study (albeit lacking controls) that, at field-realistic concentrations, thiamethoxam is not lethal to bumblebees. I find it unlikely, therefore, that thiamethoxam alone killed the bees, providing the farmer followed safety guidelines.

We shall never know what actually happened at Hacton Parkway but my best guess is that these bees were flying with the three chemicals in their system and encountered the thiamethoxam-treated oil seed rape. When they fed from it, they picked up the additional neonicotinoid. Two neonicotinoids, with perhaps synergistic effects of the fungicides, were too much and they died.

The investigation is now closed!

The investigation is now closed and it will be impossible to resolve the many questions raised by this incident, which is a pity. Despite this uncertainty, the results of the chemical analysis stand. These bees died with three chemicals in their bodies: one neonicotinoid and two fungicides. They were also exposed to a second neonicotinoid. This was no laboratory experiment; this reflects what is happening around us when these chemicals are used. Have a look at this report to see more evidence of the widespread use of chemicals in UK farming. Our agricultural practices have led to this chemical blitz and the result is the deaths of important pollinators. How often is this occurring on a lower level but not being noticed or reported?

I should like to thank Tony Gunton (local naturalist) and Helen Duggan (Press Officer, Health and Safety Executive) for sharing information about this incident.

A blackbird, some old apple trees and a deserted bench – the garden in November

It’s coming on Christmas,
They’re cutting down trees.
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace

From River by Joni Mitchell

It’s only a week or so until the shortest day and, in the town, the Christmas lights have been twinkling merrily since late November. Shop windows struggle under the weight of gifts and expectation and there has been an outbreak of Christmas Fayres in local schools and nearby villages. Totnes will soon host its own festive late-night shopping events. Perhaps all this brashness and brightness is an antidote to the greyness handed out by the recent weather.

Rainbow over Totnes
A rainbow over Totnes church with the Leechwell Garden in the foreground (November 3rd 2014)

 

My overriding impression this November was a lack of sunshine although there must have been some to produce the rainbow captured in the photograph. We also had our first frosts, waking up to white roofs, and on other days we were buffeted by heavy rain and strong winds which finally disposed of the leaves. The view from my kitchen window changed during the month to one dominated by bare branches.

Crab apple
A detached crab apple and “friend”

 

Decaying crab apple
A mouldy crab apple

 

Blackbird on crab apple tree
The predator

 

Down in the Leechwell Garden, November was a time of seeds and fruits. I remarked a month or so ago on the “almost perfect green spheres tinged subtly with red”, the crab apples. I wondered how these would mature and I now have my answer. By November they were looking distinctly worse for wear and the “green tinged with red” had transmuted to a sickly yellow-orange. Some fruits had fallen off altogether and some were rotting, having been attacked by predators. I discovered the identity of one of the predators as I stood under the tree with my camera. A blackbird landed above me, took a casual peck at one of the fruit and flew off in disgust.

Rosehips
Rosehips

 

Cotoneaster
Cotoneaster

 

The blackbird may also have been responsible for damage to some chunky overripe rose hips nearby. The same bird will probably be back, when the time is right, to sample the berries offered by a cotoneaster. The shrub already seemed to be spreading its arms to make the berries more accessible.

Chaenomeles fruit and bottle
Fruit of flowering quince, and bottle.

 

Beneath one of the flowering quinces I found three golden fruit lying on the ground near the old stone wall. Whether they were just overripe or whether the blackbird had been at them, I don’t know. They looked very tempting but I am told that to humans the fruit are unpalatably bitter unless cooked. I deliberately left the bottle in the picture as it highlights one of the problems faced by a public garden. Whereas most people enjoy and respect the Leechwell Garden, a few people see nothing wrong in lobbing a bottle over the wall as a means of convenient disposal.

Perhaps I am being too hard on the blackbird. It has to get its food somewhere and there is an interesting biological chain beginning with sunlight falling on leaves, this energy leading via photosynthesis to tree growth and eventually to fruit which are eaten by the blackbird. Pollinators have a role in there as well. These chains and their relationships feature strongly in the nature writing of Mark Cocker, recently compiled in a new book (Claxton – Field notes from a small planet). Cocker sees the calls of swifts and swallows as a transmutation of “insect protein converted through the birds’ digestive system into the music”. Should I see the chiding call of the blackbird as a transmutation of the photosynthetic activity in the leaves of the crab apple tree?

Fruit on spindle tree
Fruit of spindle tree

 

Ginkgo tree
Ginkgo glowing

 

Down in the shadier part of the Garden, the spindle tree continued to light the way. In September, I commented on the shocking pink fruits. By early November, these fruits had opened to reveal bright orange seeds and more gaudiness. By the end of the month, only the pink seed casings remained, looking like tiny ornate lampshades. Another splash of temporary colour came from the ginkgo tree which glowed briefly as though a switch had been flicked and then promptly lost all its leaves.

Mullein
Mullein flower and hover fly

 

Rosemary
Rosemary

 

Bloody cranesbill
Bloody cranesbill

 

Borage
Borage

 

Even this late in the year a few plants seem determined to try to give us colour. Among these survivors were the mullein, still painted in splashes of yellow, some rosemary showing new mauvish-blue blossom and a bloody cranesbill with its small magenta flowers . A borage also had a few blue flowers but they didn’t look properly formed.

Leechwell Bug House

The Leechwell Garden was, for many years, an orchard so it seemed fitting that three apple trees were planted late in the month. Two dessert varieties popular in the 19th century, Laxton’s Superb and Ribston Pippin were planted together with a James Grieve, “the classic Scottish cooking apple” but, in my experience, very good eaten raw. The three varieties seem to have been chosen partly to allow cross pollination but they will need the insects, especially the mason bees from the bug house, to do their bit in the spring.

Deserted bench
The deserted bench. The cup etc surely tell a story ……

 

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