It’s nearly a year now since I began watching some solitary mason bees (probably Osmia bicornis) in the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the heart of Totnes. I was entranced as I watched the mated females building their nests in the removable tubes and in the holes in the wooden block of the fine Bug House attached to one of the old walls. They taught me so much about the life of a solitary bee.
The Leechwell Garden is a public space and the Bug House is meant to be educational so it is understood that there will be a certain level of attrition. Sometimes visitors disturb the removable tubes and a few have been knocked to the ground (the tubes that is!). Last summer about half of the filled tubes were taken which is a pity as the developing bees probably did not survive. Anyway, by the autumn of 2014 there were about 30 filled removable tubes still left and I began to wonder whether they would make it through the winter.
I thought long and hard about what to do and decided it would be better to store the tubes somewhere safer. They need to stay cool all winter so I put them in our shed which is not attached to the house. I carefully noted which was the front end of the tubes and stored them in a cardboard box with holes to allow air to circulate. I waited until October 15th last year to do this so that the bees had entered the pupal stage and would not be damaged by moving. The nests in the wooden block, of course, stayed with the Bug House in the Garden.
I can’t say I felt comfortable about doing this, it felt as though I was tampering with nature but I convinced myself it was for the best. The way things turned out, it was just as well I had put the tubes somewhere safe.
Around Christmas time, the Bug House was knocked off the wall, probably by someone using it as a step to scale the wall out of hours. It was put back, only to be knocked off again, this time early in February. With the help of Susan Taylor and of David Martin, who in fact did all the drilling and screwing, the Bug House was put up again but this time at a place I judged to be safer, higher up and away from potential scrambling routes in and out of the Garden. The Bug House has survived two falls showing it is quite tough, but I am concerned about the effect on the bees in the wooden blocks where several mud seals have been lost (see photos below); time will tell if the bees have survived.
With the winter nearly over and warmer weather in prospect, it was time to put the removable tubes back in their rightful place. Although I don’t expect to see the bees hatch until April, all the advice is to get the tubes in place by early March so that they can acclimatise and warm up slowly with the weather. So, on March 6th I opened up the box and put most of the tubes back in the Bug House. I was careful to put them back in the correct orientation so that the males can make their way out first. I saved a small number to put in an experimental Bee Hotel that I’ll describe in another post.
With the tubes safely back in the Bug House I began to look around for potential bee forage. At present there are a few flowers in the Leechwell Garden, a little rosemary, some crocuses and several clumps of pulmonaria and I have seen honeybees enjoying the rosemary on sunny days. Also in one of the adjacent car parks there are some grassy banks populated with dandelions and celandines. The dandelions are very popular with honeybees. Also one of our neighbours has a striking deep pink, ornamental plum (Prunus mume beni-chidori ) which is currently in flower and when the sun shines there is a gentle, sweet fragrance and the bees flock to it; I have seen honeybees and one bumblebee.
It still feels quite early in the year and the weather seems stuck in a cool phase, but there is some forage about and on a sunny day the bees know how to find it. By the time the Osmia hatch out, which should be mid April, there will be plenty more forage about to keep all the bees happy.
It is clear: to restrict global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade we need to leave most of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We must stop using oil, coal and gas and, instead, we must use renewable, zero-carbon energy sources.
And yet, politicians sit on their hands and do very little to encourage both reduced use of fossil fuels and increased use of renewables.
The Guardian Newspaper has decided to increase their coverage of these issues, giving them a much higher priority and starting with a series of articles on its front page. With the Guardian’s global on-line reach this is a step change in both thinking and action on this topic.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.