A mid-June visit to Dawlish Warren – with bee orchids and bees

I wasn’t sure what to expect.  May had been a dry month and the first two weeks of June very wet, with temperatures lower than normal for the time of year.  How might the changeable weather have affected wildlife?  As I waited at the station for my train, the staccato spits of rain made me wonder if it was even worth making this trip.  But perhaps I was being too negative.  The journey along the river estuary and by the sea was as glorious as ever and, when I stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, there was bright sunshine and a palpable warmth.

I left the station, headed past the funfair, past the shops selling garish beach clothing, past the pub and cafes and on to the nature reserve.  Evening primrose with their papery lemon-yellow flowers grew on the dry, sandy soil either side of the descending path and when the track levelled out, small areas of standing water were an unwelcome reminder of our recent weather.

A short walk eastwards took me on to a long green meadow.  This part of the reserve is known as Greenland Lake because in the 19th century it was a watery inlet where fishing vessels sheltered over winter before heading back to Greenland.  The area was reclaimed in the mid-20th century but is still damp so that lush grasses flourish alongside a range of plants that relish the humid conditions.  Today, flowers of yellow rattle and yellow bartsia formed a colourful sheen across the meadow, interspersed with many spikes of southern marsh orchids; some were a pale lilac and others a deep reddish purple, like colourful flames flaring from the meadow floor.  Towards the edge of Greenland Lake, the ground rises, becoming drier and sandier, populated by more evening primrose, their tall stems trembling in the keen west wind that blew across the reserve keeping the temperature down.

I thought I remembered where the bee orchids grew but memory is a tricky thing and the look of the reserve changes each year.  Eventually I found them, surrounded by enclosures to protect against trampling; there were several spikes in each enclosure, each spike with three or more of the complex flowers, each enclosure neatly labelled.   Calling the flowers complex, however, doesn’t really do them justice.  Three pinkish-lilac sepals form a propeller-like backdrop; each sepal is semi-transparent with narrow green veins.   The main part of the flower contains three petals including one that forms the dominant, downward-projecting labellum, a very unusual affair, engorged and bulbous with impressively furry edges and a central maroon area with yellow horseshoe patterns.  This is the part of the flower in which early botanists imagined a bee and gave the flower its name.

bee orchid
Bee orchid

 

With their vivid colours and pristine petals, the flowers looked as though they had emerged very recently and some features such as the horns and the arching yellow pollinia had not yet developed.  I gazed at all of this, marvelling at the complexity of nature but pondering whether the flowers really were beautiful or were they just plain weird.  I couldn’t decide but I doubt if it matters, they are what they are.

It’s reassuring to find that others feel ambivalent about the flowers and here are a few lines taken from “Bee orchid at Hodbarrrow” by the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson where he hints at their contradictions:

See the bee orchid –
Neither plant nor animal,
A metaphysical
Conceit of a flower

I left the bee orchids and wandered about the dry sandy paths bordered by flowering brambles and rough, greenish-brown marram grass.   The wardens try hard to maintain the reserve and that includes controlling scrub, especially brambles, which would otherwise take over.  Sometimes they treat the scrub with herbicides and cordon off the treated area. It makes me uneasy to see this happen but it’s probably the only way to preserve the present rich populations of flowers and insects.  I was, therefore, surprised to see three men festooned with cameras some with phallic lenses entering one of the treated areas and walking about noisily.  It seemed as though they were looking for something but they ignored me and eventually moved on.

Then I came across the bees.  They were moving about just above the dry surface of a rising sandy path, darting back and forth in straight lines but often pausing on the sand to preen and perhaps take in the warmth.  Sometimes when stationary they moved their abdomen up and down repetitively, a manoeuvre that encourages gas exchange after a period of activity, not unlike human panting.

To begin with, only a few of these insects were in evidence but when the sun came out more seemed to appear and everything got busier.  They were slightly smaller than a honeybee and to the naked eye they appeared golden.  Photographs showed bands of golden hair around the abdomen and thorax, a pale moustache and strikingly beautiful green eyes.  These are male silvery leafcutter bees (Megachile leachella) and must have emerged very recently to retain the golden look which quite soon fades to a silver, hence the name.

These males were all rather excited, bombing one another and even trying to mate and frequently looking into holes in the sand that I hadn’t seen.  Then I noticed a more protracted coupling between two of the bees which confused me for a while as I hadn’t knowingly seen any females.  Again, photographs came to the rescue showing me that a female was involved. The diagnostic feature is a symmetrical pair of small white hair patches on the terminal segment on her abdomen.  Mated females will go on to construct nests in the vegetated sand using leaf segments they cut to line the cavity but that didn’t seem to have got going yet.

There was so much sexual tension among the male bees as they waited for females to emerge that feeding seemed to be taking a low priority.  It was only later when I walked back towards the railway station taking a detour via a dry meadow at the back of the reserve that I found some bees feeding.  The meadow was covered in lush grass and flowers including diffuse globes of white clover and the slipper-like yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil.  Silvery leafcutter males were feeding here pushing the two parts of the yellow flower apart to access the nectar.

While I was watching this, the three men with cameras reappeared.  Seeing me they came across:

“We’re looking for butterflies, have you seen any?”

“Yes, I have, I can show you some pictures if you like?”

I showed them the picture I took earlier of a female common blue butterfly and they agreed sulkily with my identification, adding: “Well, we haven’t seen many, there don’t seem to be many about”

I tried to engage them in conversation about bees but they weren’t interested.

 

yellow bartsia
Yellow bartsia

 

 

southern marsh orchids
Southern Marsh Orchids

 

male silvery leafcutter
male silvery leafcutter bee

 

mating pair
mating pair

 

female silvery leafcutter
Female silvery leafcutter bee, note the paired white patches of hair on the terminal abdominal segment

 

male feeding
Male silvery leafcutter bee feeding on bird’s foot trefoil

 

female common blue butterfly
Female common blue butterfly. Defintion is poor because of zoom and the age of the specimen.

 

12 thoughts on “A mid-June visit to Dawlish Warren – with bee orchids and bees”

  1. Amusing about the three men – obviously only butterflies would do!

    How do you feel about the concept of rewilding, letting nature do what it wants and trusting in the consequences? I sometimes feel uncomfortable about all this human intervention too. I’ve been on ‘nature conservation’ days where we cleared away vegetation and I was left wondering whether that was really better for wildlife.

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    1. Thanks Emily. You asked about rewilding. I have some sympathy with the concept. The closest I have come to this was the reintroduction of beavers in East Devon which seems to be a great success so far. I have also read about the Knepp Castle experience which seems to be very positive with huge benefits to biodiversity but they have needed to cull some animals in the absence of wolves and lynxes. A little low level rewilding in conventional farming would be good as otherwise we will continue to see these huge areas of monoculture, mostly devoid of insects and birds.
      As for human intervention at places like Dawlish Warren, it is difficult to know what to think and I dont really know enough about how dynamic the habitats are there I am certainly uneasy about the use of chemicals to control scrub and in the past few years they have brought in Dartmoor ponies over winter to reduce scrub.

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  2. I’m surprised that the gentlemen weren’t interested in the bees, Philip! I love butterflies, but I’d love to learn more about the bees, as you’re so skilled at identifying them! They missed an opportunity I would like to have. 🙂 The Bee Orchids are just spectacular! I can’t even imagine finding them in their natural habitat. They look like they should be in a protected botanical garden hot house. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Debra. It surprised me that the men weren’t interested in other species on the nature reserve but its not the first time this has happened to me. I remember some years ago meeting some moth enthusiasts but these moth men weren’t in the least bit interested in the bees that coexisted with their favourite insects!
      I am pleased you liked the bee orchids, It’s the first time I have seen any protection of these unusual plants and this time they also specifically asked people not to pick them.

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  3. Beautiful Pictures! How lucky to have found a nesting site! I think they are such beautiful bees. I am particularly fond of bees with green eyes. I have not seen as many Megachile here this year and have none nesting in my bee boxes. I do not know why. This year, conversely, we have had masses of wild orchids and I saw several I had never seen before. Friends had orchids coming up in their gardens for the first time ever although they had been living there for a long time. Amelia

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  4. Thanks Philip, you take us on such an interesting walk and always describe so beautifully, the flowers and creatures you come across. After the changeable weather we had I’m glad you found some bee life happening but wonder if the butterflies (that couldn’t be found by the three) will recover and whether Martins, Swallows and Swifts will manage with the insects population having been affected. There do seem to be fewer around this year.

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    1. Thanks Sue. Despite the weather, it seems to have been a good year overall for butterflies and there has been a recent influx of painted ladies. I am not sure about martins and swallows but in Totnes the swift population reached about 20 before they left which isn’t too bad.

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  5. It must have been a wonderful sight to see the bee orchid. I am currently in the middle of reading Orchid Summer (searching for orchids in the British Isles.) I too are always amazed by your knowledge of bees those men didn’t realise what they missed not learning something from you! Sarah x

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    1. Thanks Sarah. The bee orchids were a wonderful sight and they are part of a seasonal succession of different orchids at Dawlish Warren. We were there yesterday and the autumn ladies tresses were showing well once we found them.

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