Leaves littered the wide pavement, skittering about in the wind like children in a playground. The man with his broom, a council employee, was trying to instil some discipline by sweeping them in to neat heaps before taking them away. But it was hard work; there were many leaves and they continued to fall even as he swept. The leaves were large, some as large as my hand, a mixture of golds, yellows, browns and greens, each leaf carrying away a fragment of our summer.
Away from the busy main streets, nobody bothers about the leaves; they are left where they drop. They fill the gutters, lie along the roadsides, clog the drains. Their autumn tints look attractive for a while, but come the rain and they turn in to an annoying, brown sludge. Cars skid on it, people slip, shoes are sullied but eventually it gets washed away. On the whole, though, it’s a small price to pay for having the pleasure of a tree-lined street in summer, the dappled light, the cool of the shadows.
Down at the river I stand on the quay and look. The tide is very low today exposing wide mud flats decorated with intricate patterns left by the receding tide. There are whole mud landscapes with shallow pools and snaking rivulets separated by mud uplands. In truth the uplands are not very “uppish” but today I notice a surprising effect. The higher contours in the mud have been picked out in shades of gold and yellow. Small leaves blown here by the wind from nearby trees seem to reach the mud uplands first and that’s where they stay. They emphasise the patterns in the mud rather like a gigantic brass rubbing. Fascinating as they are, the patterns don’t last. They dissolve with the rising tide as it distributes the leaves far and wide along the river.
The low tide is not generous to the boats moored here. They lie there unmoving, literally “stuck in the mud”, losing any semblance of elegance they previously had. By contrast, a little egret looks quite at home, prospecting for food in a shallow mud pool. Its brilliant white plumage stands out against the dark grey mud like a star in the night sky. Pottering about, it dipped its head in to the water, seemingly unaware of the nearby habitation.
While I watch the egret, two smaller birds fly fast and low over the mud, screeching in a way I interpret as fearful. Their cries reverberate off the tall concrete quays heightening the effect. I haven’t heard this cry before but the birds were too quick for me and I saw no identification cues. Later, one of these birds flies back and forth above the mud below me, shrieking again. Now I see the unmistakable electric blue back of a kingfisher in flight. When I check the Collins guide at home I learn that this screeching is normal and just the bird’s way of making its presence felt.
For the past five weeks or so I have been watching the ivy bees (Colletes hederae) as they emerged from hibernation to mate and to build and equip their nests. South Devon is something of a hot spot for these insects and from my limited observations they can be seen all along the coast, at least wherever there is plentiful flowering ivy. They are by no means rare but I still get a thrill when I see them, especially if it’s in a new location (for me). There’s also something paradoxical about their frantic activity at a time of year when most of nature is shutting down.
Occasionally, something surprising happens when I am out observing, either because of people or because of the bees and here are two recent anecdotes.
Mansands and man’s hands
Last year I came across an impressive collection of ivy bee nests in the low cliffs at Mansands, an isolated beach near Brixham on the South Devon Coast (see featured image). There was plenty to see and the large number of nests was a surprise. The bees were mostly mated females so that the day I visited (October 3rd) might have been a bit late in the bees’ life cycle.
This year I decided to visit earlier with the hope of finding a mixture of males and females. We went to Mansands for the first time on September 15th; it was sunny and mild and not particularly windy but surprisingly I saw no ivy bees around the nest area. I did see a couple of ivy bees on a clump above the coastguard cottages but no others. There is quite a bit of ivy in the cliffs surrounding Mansands and in the approaching lanes but not much of it was in flower so perhaps I was too early.
I was keen to try again but life is rather busy at present and I didn’t have a chance until September 30th; that day we had an hour to spare and made a flying visit to Mansands. It was a sunny day and the temperature mild for the time of year (~16o). At the coast, there was a surprisingly strong and variable onshore wind which buffeted us as we walked down the steep stony path to the sea; on the way we saw plenty of ivy in flower. Under a clear blue sky, the sea was a uniform turquoise but the strong wind decorated its surface with white wavelets and created trains of foamy waves nearer the shore. The view was spectacular but given that I had come to see the ivy bees and Hazel to paint with watercolours, a little less wind might have been preferable.
When we reached Mansands, I headed for the nest area, staggering slightly in the wind as I negotiated the stony beach. There were plenty of nest holes in the pinkish crumbly cliffs and a few, but not many, ivy bees about. It was so windy that they were finding it difficult to fly and difficult to land. Some of the bees were males patrolling hopefully, looking for females; from time to time they rested on the sand and grass. Females, their back legs dressed with yellow pollen-pantaloons, also arrived sporadically and, after resting, they made their way in to nest holes. The males paid no attention to these mated females.
As I watched, camera in right hand, a male approached the area and landed on one of the fingers of that hand. The camera was secured with a safety strap making it very difficult to manoeuvre and I failed completely to get a good shot of this trusting male bee. I was able to study this bee for some time by eye but in my experience a good photo reveals much more. Later, however, a female decided to land on my left hand. She seemed happy to stay there allowing me to get some rather nice photos from several angles.
This has never happened to me before and feels like uncharacteristic behaviour for solitary bees. They usually appear disturbed by my presence so, I assume, that on this windy day in their slightly dazed state they landed wherever they could.
Should anyone watch me on one of my ivy bee investigations they will see someone gazing in a slightly bemused manner at a clump of ivy, marvelling at the behaviour of these small creatures. Many of these clumps are found along the South West Coast Path, many in the urban sections around Torbay so there are plenty of passers by. I don’t know what they think but for the most part these people ignore me.
I recently discovered some particularly generous clumps of ivy cascading down one side of a railway bridge in Hollicombe. This is a Torbay district between Paignton and Torquay with a secluded cliff-enclosed beach. I have observed at Hollicombe several times and on the last two occasions, it was a very sunny, warm day and the ivy flower odour was particularly strong and cloying. I was transfixed by the energy expressed by the bees and other insects as they flew ceaselessly around the ivy flowers, and sometimes around my head! Even in this small area there must have been thousands of ivy bees. They were a mixed population of pollen-gathering females and nectaring males.
On my most recent visit (October 2nd), I was standing by the ivy enjoying the bees and the warm sunshine when a man stopped to chat:
“Lots of wasps about today!” he began cheerily.
“They’re not wasps, they’re ivy bees” I tried to make my reply as helpful as possible.
“Horrible smell” he continued “what’s that plant with the smell?”
“It’s the ivy” I replied, again trying to be helpful.
“I hate it”, there was some anxiety in his voice, “it smells horrible”
“I find it sickly sweet but I don’t dislike it.” I replied, “Some people like the smell, some hate it. You know, like Marmite”
“What, you mean they use it to make Marmite?” he sounded shocked.
“No, no, no”, I couldn’t help sounding a little irritated, “what I meant was that people either like Marmite or they hate it and the same is true about the smell of ivy.”
“Oh,” he didn’t sound convinced.
“Would you like me to show you the ivy bees?” I offered.
“No thanks!” he said accelerating away down the path. He still thought they were wasps!
There are many species of wasp in the UK but the species known and feared by many people are usually either the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) or the germanic wasp (Vespula germanica). These are the familiar black and yellow striped insects which make such a negative impression on people. I remember in August this year, a hot midsummer’s day, when tea in an outdoor cafe was seriously disrupted by the creatures. I didn’t suffer any stings but I have in the past and it’s something you don’t forget. Many others have had similar experiences and given the passing resemblance between common wasps and ivy bees it’s possible that a really busy clump of ivy reminds people of these stinging insects.
The problem is compounded by the lack of knowledge among the general population about solitary bees. Most people don’t even know that solitary bees exist; the bees themselves are very reticent so that most humans rarely knowingly encounter them.
So, it’s no surprise that the man who accosted me mistook the ivy bees for wasps. Education is what is needed so I shall have to continue to offer to show the ivy bees to anyone who passes.
Sea, surf, sand and sunshine: this is the exotic scene a few days ago at Bantham in South Devon. Here the River Avon ends its journey from Dartmoor to the sea giving rise to South Devon’s top surfing beach. The green, rocky outcrop in the estuary is Burgh Island providing a surreal setting for its art deco hotel which has, over the years, welcomed the rich and famous as well as inspiring two of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. The views are spectacular and this is a frequently painted and frequently photographed spot.
Bantham enjoys a mild climate and I had come here to see what flowers were still showing and what insects were about. In Totnes, about 15 miles inland, there are few flowers left for the bees and other insects. Globe thistle has been very popular with bumblebees but is almost over, sedum is still thronged with honeybees and there is Himalayan balsam by the river but that’s about it. The huge banks of ivy dotted around the town promise food but don’t yet deliver. They may be covered with their grey-green lollipop flower heads but in Totnes these stay firmly closed.
At Bantham, I follow the coast path up the cliff where there are good views of the bay. There are a few flowers about and I notice a solitary bee and a few small flies on a tall dandelion-like plant that I think is Hawkweed. Some yellow vetch lights up the grass but few other flowers are showing.
Behind the beach there are marram grass-clothed sand dunes dotted with flowers of evening primrose and soapwort. I see a stonechat twitching its tale but I don’t see any insects. We walk cautiously here, chastened by the many signs warning us of adders. I jump when I almost tread on a slow worm but, judging from the speed of its disappearance, it also gets a fright.
Back from the dunes is a large tongue of land bordered on one side by the river Avon as it makes one final meander before meeting the sea. This is the Ham where there are huge banks of ivy and this is where I get my next surprise. The first stand of ivy that we encounter has a small but noisy cloud of insects above it showing us that at least the top of the bush is in flower. Large parts of the bush are still waiting to blossom so this must be a very recent flowering. Among the insects enjoying the ivy flower cafe, I notice many small flies and some chunky hoverflies. I also see, and this is the big surprise given that we are still early September, many large, crescent-shaped ivy bees (Colletes hederae) jostling for position on the few ivy flower heads available. The bees look very fresh, each with its black and yellow-striped abdomen, russet-haired thorax and prominent antennae. I assume these are recently emerged males, now feeding and getting ready to mate once the females appear.
Walking round the Ham we come across more ivy and more ivy bees. There must be thousands of bees here and that implies a large aggregation of nests. Although I look in all the likely places, the nests prove elusive and I can’t locate them; there are large tracts of land that I can’t access, so I assume they nest there.
I hadn’t expected to see ivy bees on September 10th; I hadn’t expected to find ivy in flower. The mild seaside climate must encourage the ivy flowers and the bees synchronise their cycle accordingly. I felt quite smug for a while having made such “early” observations of Colletes hederae but then I read a report on the BWARS Facebook page of ivy bees a few miles west of Bantham dated September 1st !
During my nest-searching, I drop down to Bantham quay by the river where there is a boat house, built in 1937 to commemorate the coronation of George VI. Two striking figureheads adorn the corners of this building; one of these is of Lady Jane Franklin, looking wistfully out to sea. Her figurehead is Victorian, coming from a ship she financed in memory of her husband, Sir John Franklin who died attempting to navigate the Northwest Passage.
With the retreat of the arctic ice cap and global climate change, the Northwest Passage will probably now become navigable for some months each year. Although this may open new trade routes it also increases the danger of damage to the pristine arctic environment.
The title of this post comes from a song, well known in the UK, here is a video clip:
A surprising picture appeared in the Guardian newspaper towards the end of June. It showed fields, near Blandford, Dorset in South West England, painted lilac with the flowers of the opium poppy. This controversial crop, associated in many people’s minds with war-torn countries like Afghanistan, is now being grown commercially in England to produce the medically-important pain killer morphine. But just how did opium poppies come to be grown across swathes of rural England?
Opium and the opium poppy
The opium poppy, or Papaver somniferum as it is more correctly called, is an imposing plant with fleshy grey-green leaves, showy pastel coloured flowers and impressive pepper pot seed heads. Standing up to a metre tall, the opium poppy brings architectural interest to the garden but it has a darker side. Within the seed head is a milky liquid containing a mixture of narcotic chemicals including morphine and codeine. If the unripe seed head is pierced, this latex seeps out and, left to dry, this is opium, prized for its extraordinary psychoactive powers.
Humans have used opium for many thousands of years and the earliest written reference to the drug comes from the Middle East around 4000BC. The ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations were also well acquainted with the properties of the drug using it enthusiastically. Although growth of Papaver somniferum is typically associated with warmer climates, the opium poppy has a history of cultivation in the UK. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many houses in the East Anglian Fens grew a stand of white opium poppies so that the dried seed capsules could be used to brew a tea containing small amounts of morphine. This infusion helped counter the aches and pains suffered by people living harsh lives in what was then, a remote, unhealthy part of the country. Use was not confined to the Fens as the Dorset-writerThomas Hardy, in The Trumpet Major, refers to poppy heads and pain relief.
By the 19th century, imported opium was freely available in the UK and was used extensively at all levels of society. Opium was supplied in many forms including laudanum, a tincture of opium in wine, popularised by the Dorset-born physician Thomas Sydenham. The drug was taken to relieve pain, to induce sleep and to treat cough and diarrhoea. Its euphoriant properties were also prized and recreational use occurred with some problems of dependence. Encouraged by the drug’s popularity, attempts were made in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to grow opium poppies commercially in the UK but these were abandoned in favour of imported Turkish opium.
From opium to morphine
Morphine was isolated from opium in the 19th century and the powerful pain killing and euphoriant properties of the pure drug were quickly recognised. These come at a price as, compared to opium, morphine has potentially dangerous side effects and is highly addictive. By the 20th century, all non-medical use was banned but, to the present day, morphine is widely prescribed to relieve moderate and severe pain especially after major surgery. Diamorphine (heroin) is also used for pain relief in the UK but we hear more about its illicit use, the problems of addiction and the associated criminal activity. All morphine used clinically is still obtained from the opium poppy, extracted either from crude opium or from the dried seed heads.
The 21st century opium fields of England
By the end of the 20th century, the morphine used for medical purposes in the UK was extracted from opium poppies grown in Tasmania and Spain. It was tacitly assumed that the climate in the UK was unsuitable for their commercial cultivation. In 1999, however, John Manners, a seed merchant from Oxfordshire questioned this doctrine. He had seen striking pictures of purple opium poppies growing commercially in Poland, and decided to have a go at growing the plants in the UK. He set up some small trial plots and grew the poppies successfully in the southern part of the country. But did they produce morphine when grown in the UK? With the help of the Scottish pharmaceutical company, Macfarlan Smith (now a division of Johnson-Matthey), he showed that indeed they did. A full field trial the following year in Oxfordshire was also a success and, by 2002, 100 hectares of opium poppies were being grown commercially in the UK, each hectare yielding about 15 kg of morphine. More farmers were persuaded to grow the crop and nowadays, early summer sees about 2500 hectares of farmland blooming with the unselfconscious lilac flowers, mostly in the counties of Dorset, Hampshire, Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire.
Although they were initially uneasy about growing opium poppies, farmers now find it to be a lucrative break crop to prepare the land for growing cereals or oil seed rape the following season. Farmers contracted to Macfarlan Smith must prepare the seed bed and sow poppy seed supplied by the company which also advises on agronomy and pest control while the opium poppies are growing. The UK climate seems to suit the poppies well and after flowering they are left to dry before the seed capsule and about 5 cm of stem are harvested. The harvest is taken to a central processing facility where the poppy seeds in the capsule are separated leaving “poppy straw”. Poppy seeds contain little or no morphine and are sold for various culinary uses such as bread making. Poppy straw is processed in Macfarlan Smith’s Edinburgh factory where the morphine is isolated by solvent extraction and purification. About half of the UK requirement of medical morphine (~60 tons/year) is now made from poppies grown in the UK, including those grown in Dorset. So when you come across these beautiful lilac-painted fields next summer, think morphine, think pain relief, and think poppy extracts ending up in medicine cabinets in hospitals and pharmacies.
The Northumbrian pipes carried the melody at first but gradually this was passed to the other instruments: a harp, a cello, an accordion, creating an unexpected sound-fusion of classical and folk music. As those first few magical notes echoed around the medieval hall, I knew this would be a special evening and we were treated to a mixture of traditional reels and hornpipes, slow airs and original compositions. Each musician made her own important contribution to the overall effect but my attention was captivated by the flame-haired woman standing at the centre of the stage. She moved gracefully and sensually with the music, driving forward with her virtuoso pipe and fiddle playing and occasionally smiling with pleasure at her fellow players. This was Kathryn Tickell with her new band, The Side, and I was in the Great Hall at Dartington recently for this memorable performance.
This video shows Kathryn Tickell and her former band performing a traditional tune.
I was particularly taken by a tune she played on the fiddle, accompanied by the cello, entitled Yeavering. She explained that she had written this tune in response to Yeavering Bell, a distinctive, broad, double-peaked hill in her home county of Northumberland. Yeavering Bell was once an Iron Age hill fort and the tune was intended to convey some of her feelings about the shape of the hill, the views from the summit and the general impression of space. The video below is of a live performance of Yeavering played on two fiddles by Kathryn Tickell and her band. There is a bit of background noise but if you want a more pristine version click here.
Everyone will have their own personal reaction to this music but as I listened I found my mind wandering to open spaces and moorland. For me the music also speaks of mysticism, of older times and of danger when the clashing chords occur. Whatever your reaction to her tune, writing a piece of music about a place you love is a wonderful way to express your respect for nature.
A few days before the concert, we had returned from a week’s holiday in Kent. Coming as we do from damp Devon, the semi-drought in the south east was surprising and the look of the land was more early autumn than high summer. We stayed in a very comfortable converted barn surrounded by gently rolling countryside largely devoted to cereal growth. Fields here are big and hedges sparse and I noticed few flowers.
One of our walks took us across fields from the picture-perfect village of Appledore. Striking out from the village recreation ground we had expected to walk through wheat fields but instead we quickly came to large tracts of vines planted in neat rows and supported by perfectly parallel wire supports. Many of the vines had been planted quite recently and were far from cropping, but later we did see some maturing Chardonnay grapes. These are part of the Gusborne Estate, “England’s most prestigious boutique wine producer”, whatever that means.
The vines looked very healthy but the whole effect felt sterile and in many parts of the vineyard very little grew between the rows of vines, just a few hardy weeds and the occasional flower, so that we saw few if any insects. At the ends of some of the rows we were surprised to see roses with red or white flowers. Roses are more susceptible to some of the diseases that infect vines and are planted to provide an early warning system for problems in the vineyard.
As I looked along the bleak rows of vines I couldn’t help remembering that a major contributor to the declining bee populations in this country has been the 97% loss of wild flower meadows since the mid 20th century. Land clothed with a vine monoculture feels like part of this problem.
The vineyard claims, on its web site, to have a “deep respect for nature” and it wouldn’t take much land away from their vines if they planted wild flowers along the field edges. This would massively increase their green credentials, demonstrate respect for nature and it would bring back the bees and other insects. Some of these might be beneficial insects that would suppress vine pests.
It doesn’t feel like a very good time for nature and the recent decision of the UK government to reintroduce neonicotinoid insecticides, albeit on a small number of farms, has been deeply depressing. This decision was apparently taken against the advice of their scientific advisers and with some secrecy so that the presence of the agrochemical companies at these crucial meetings might be concealed. People confident of their decisions do not take them behind closed doors so this tells us a lot about the present government.
Another decision that takes little account of nature is the recent proposal to “fast-track” planning applications involving fracking when local councils appear to be acting slowly. The energy secretary, Amber Rudd has said she will “deliver shale” and this commitment has potentially profound environmental implications.
So what do we do to increase respect for nature and to give nature its rightful place alongside humans? It’s a difficult question with no easy answers but I can think of two ways forward. First, we must celebrate nature in all its glories by writing, by photographing and by generally spreading the word wherever possible. Second, we must expose and oppose policies of governments and companies that result in a loss of nature in all its different facets: wildlife, countryside, rivers, beaches etc.
Last year, I watched, fascinated, as Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis) made nests in tubes in a commercially produced Bug House situated in a local community garden, the Leechwell Garden. This Bug House is meant to be educational and so has been placed in a prominent position. This brings with it the risk that it will be subject to some attrition; indeed the removable tubes were tampered with both last summer and this spring and the Bug House was knocked off the wall twice during the winter.
I wanted to build another Bug House for the Leechwell Garden to be put in a less vulnerable place but it proved impossible to find a suitable position. I went ahead anyway and placed the new Bee House at the bottom of my garden which is about 100 metres from the Leechwell Garden (as the bee flies).
My aim was that this experimental Bee House should be made from recycled materials so that it could be replicated by others at minimal cost. I looked around for suitable materials and one day as I was passing the Totnes shop of Riverford Organic, our local organic grower, I saw some vegetable boxes in the window. These looked ideal to make the body of the Bee House so I contacted them and they kindly gave me two boxes. The boxes were not fully sealed, needing insulation and rain protection, so I went to CarpetRight in Newton Abbot and they kindly gave me some samples of vinyl floor covering. I used these to insulate the sides of the new Bee House and to give it a roof. I found some logs, stones and bricks to provide ballast and stability as well as providing potential homes for insects. I sited the new Bee House so that it caught the early morning sun.
I wanted to provide tubes for the bees to nest in and had hoped to use inexpensive bamboo canes from the garden shop. Although I was able to cut up the canes, I found they were filled with soft material and unusable. I, therefore, had to buy solitary bee tubes from Wildlife World, my only outlay.
The tubes were organised in to cassettes. Each cassette was based on an old mineral water bottle cut down below its spout but long enough to protect the tubes. About 20 tubes were placed in to each cassette and these were secured using a cable-tie. I put out two cassettes in March, each containing four tubes with nests from last spring in order to give the new Bee House a start. A third cassette went out on May 28th when I thought the bees needed extra capacity but only two tubes were filled.
After I had made the cassettes I read that plastic is a poor choice because it is not breathable but by that time it was too late to change design. Despite this, the new Bee House seemed to have functioned well and many of the tubes were filled by hard-working female bees during spring 2015. This is described in the previous post.
As we humans continue our lives and perhaps savour the prospect of settled warm weather and holidays, the busy part of the year is already over for the solitary Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis). These important pollinators began their activity in early spring and have now built their nests and laid their eggs.
Last year I was fascinated to watch some of these bees in a Bug House in the local community garden (The Leechwell Garden). This year I kept a closer eye on this colony to try to understand their behaviour. I also built an Experimental Bee House at the bottom of my South Devon garden and watched the bees build nests. [I realise not everyone is interested in constructing new bee houses so I have described this in the next post.]
This week is Pollinator Awareness Week so it is especially important that we think about how to protect and encourage these pollinating insects.
The males emerge and misbehave
Both Bee houses contained mason bee nests (in removable tubes or in wooden blocks) constructed a year ago. The removable tube nests overwintered in my garden shed and were put out again on March 6; twenty four filled tubes and some empty ones went in the Leechwell Bug House and eight were put in the new Bee House. The wooden block nests stayed out all winter as they are an integral part of the Leechwell Bug House; they may have suffered damage when the Bug House was dislodged from the wall.
I watched the tubes carefully from mid March and was very pleased to get the first hint that a male had emerged when, on April 16th, I noticed that one of the mud seals had been broken. The day before had been very warm so perhaps that encouraged the bees. Over the next week, I began to see males flying about near the two Bee Houses. Fresh males are very beautiful: about two thirds the size of a honeybee and with long antennae, they have vivid orange abdominal hairs, a fringe of beige hair around the thorax and a very distinctive pale “moustache”. Some look a bit different: they have few abdominal hairs and look rather shiny.
The numbers gradually increased over the next two weeks and on sunny days there would be a cloud of male bees near the Leechwell Bug House (perhaps as many as 30) behaving in a very characteristic way. They would fly about, swinging from side to side rather like a metronome, sometimes stopping to look in to a tube, sometimes flying off to feed on nectar. They would also “bomb” one another, especially another male that had stopped to rest or to warm up. I saw one male try to pull another out of a tube and, once his friend was out, he tried, rather unhelpfully, to mate. The cloud of bees would work themselves in to a frenzy when it was very sunny or when a male/female mating pair was present, perhaps they could they smell other females.
All this activity would stop when the temperature fell to 11oC or lower. The males would retire to the tubes in the Bee House, sometimes two or more in one tube where they would look outwards waiting until the conditions improved. Other bees such as the Hairy Footed Flower Bee continued to forage at this temperature and the disparity may have something to do with size, the larger insect being able to tolerate the lower temperature.
Some females and some mating
I didn’t witness any females emerging from their nests but I knew that had happened when I saw mating pairs on April 28th and May 7th in the Leechwell Garden. This was an exciting moment as it was a first for me. I was amused to see the female in the first pair decide to go walkabout; the poor male had no option but to sit there even when dragged in to a hole smaller than comfortable for two bees. My excitement was tempered by noticing many mites on the first mating pair which I suspect is not good news for the bees. The latter mating pair did not have the mites as far as I could tell.
Males near the end
Some of the males continued to patrol the Bee houses up to a month after emerging, ever hopeful of finding a receptive female. By this time they were wizened and black and didn’t look like red mason bees any more apart from their white facial hairs. Perhaps we would also look sickly if we fed on sugar alone. They disappeared altogether by the end of May.
Hard working females
May 12th was another exciting day as I saw chrome yellow pollen on the floor of the Bee House at the bottom of my garden for the first time: I now knew that the females were busy building nests. The females are also distinctive and very beautiful, about the same size as a honeybee and larger than the male with, on their head, two horns which they use for tamping down mud. They lack the pale “moustache” but like the males, their abdomen is clothed in vivid orange hairs when freshly emerged.
I watched the females returning after foraging, buzzing loudly and entering tubes head first. After a short time they reverse out, turn round and back in to the tube. I am not sure what is happening here but I witnessed the behaviour many times. Once this elaborate manoeuvre was complete they flew off for more. I also saw one female building a mud partition. She added mud to the inner surface of the tube and gradually, over several trips to collect mud, built the partition inwards keeping it symmetrical and circular before sealing it off.
Throughout the season, there seemed to be plenty of forage about and no shortage of mud for nest building. For both Bee Houses I saw females continuing to fill tubes in to the third week of June.
In both locations, the number of females seemed very low, especially as there were plenty of males. Last year most of the tubes and wooden block holes in the Leechwell Bug House were reused by females who cleaned out the mess before re-provisioning them. This year the females did reuse old tubes but seemed to prefer fresh tubes when available. In the Leechwell Bug House I saw only two females but they filled more than twenty tubes. Males emerged from the wooden block nests but none of these was reused. At the bottom of my garden there were at least four females and they filled twenty four tubes. In both locations, the mud seal on some of the tubes remained intact and neither males nor females appeared.
I don’t know why this year has been less successful but I wonder if the tubes were tampered with at a critical time. I know that some were stolen last summer so I presume that, at that time, many of the tubes were disturbed. I also suspect that the tubes in the Leechwell Garden were tampered with again in March this year. Perhaps this double interference damaged the developing females. The Bug House also fell to the ground twice and perhaps the wooden block nests were damaged. Another possibility is that mated females were produced but decided to go elsewhere.
A third possible explanation would be that the old tubes had been infected with another organism that damaged the developing bees.
I opened up the wooden block nests to see if I could glean any information about these problems. None of these had been refilled this year, whereas last year they were all reused. The wooden blocks were very messy: I could see the individual cells made by the bees but there were no intact dead bees. The nests were filled with a brown dust although within this dust I could see dead larvae. It was also clear that in many cases the mud partitions between cells were still intact. There had clearly been a major problem with these nests and I suspect that they may have been infected. The bees avoided these nests so they seemed to know that something wasn’t right.
I am beginning to think that new tubes should be supplied each year to make life easier for the bees and to avoid build-up of contamination.
Now it’s important to leave this season’s nests so that the eggs can develop and grow in to larvae. I need to wait until late autumn before moving them.
Overview of the year
It’s been another fascinating season of Mason Bee watching and as before I have been enormously impressed by the hard work and ingenuity of these bees, especially the females. The males have only one purpose but they seem to do it well.
Watching these bees is not only a fascinating experience, it also makes you aware of the interconnectedness of the natural world. The bees depend on flowers and the flowers depend on bees. We mess with these relationships at our peril and perhaps we understand our own place in the world by realising this. The highlight of season for me was seeing the chrome yellow pollen for the first time. It signified that everything was working; females had mated and were visiting flowers to continue their species. Fresh yellow pollen has a colour like no other, it seems to glow with the energy of sunlight and signifies the unfolding spring.