Lockdown Nature Walks 3

In this third post on Nature Walks during the Lockdown, I want to take you on a very short stroll, only a few steps in fact, into our front garden.  It’s a small garden but it’s south facing and sheltered and it comes to life in the spring, especially on a sunny day.

I stand in the garden and listen.  Today is cooler and breezier than it has been for some days and, across the street, the wind wanders through the developing leaf canopy on the tall sycamore creating a low rushing sound.  A buzzard mews as it circles overhead, a few gulls gossip on the roof tops and a greenfinch wheezes nearby.

But there is one sound I have become accustomed to that I can’t hear today.  This is the continuous low buzz that has been coming from the front hedge on warmer, sunnier days.  The hedge is a Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica) and for several weeks has been covered in small fleshy green leaves and bright orange-red, cup-shaped flowers filled with yellow stamens (see picture at the head of this post).  The flame-coloured flowers flare brightly in the spring sunshine, but they tend to be partly buried by green foliage tempering their overall impact.  Once the flowers fade this will be just another green hedge but, in the autumn, when the leaves fall, they reveal attractive pale green fleshy fruits that seem to have appeared from nowhere.  For now, though, the flowers celebrate the spring by being a magnet for all kinds of bee.  Unlike many flowers, there seem to be no preferences and I have seen honeybees, several species of bumblebee and several species of solitary bee, many loaded with yellow pollen; the almost continuous presence of bees working the flowers produces this spring buzz.  I have tried to get pictures of the different bees feeding from the flowers but this has been unusually difficult. It feels as though when the bees see me, they move quickly to flowers deeper in the hedge although I did manage a couple of photos.

A solitary bee resting on the quince leaves. This is probably a mining bee but it is impossible from the photo to determine the species.

 

Another solitary bee, this time feeding from the quince flowers. She is carrying plenty of pollen and when I first saw her I thought she was probably a furrow bee (Lasioglossum sp.).

 

Spring has, however, recently moved up a gear.  There are two small bee houses attached to the front of our house and, a year ago, these were occupied by red mason bees who filled some of the holes, topping them off with reddish mud.  Just over a week ago, two of the mud plugs were broken and out came two red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) males.  There are now at least six and they spend their time flying frantically about the bee houses dancing in the air, sometimes stopping to look in one of the holes, sometimes resting on the wall in the sun and sometimes feeding from nearby flowers.  They are brimming with sexual energy, waiting for females to emerge from the bee houses, desperate to mate and their pent up excitement sometimes leads to mistaken male on male mating attempts.  Male red mason bees are very attractive insects and it’s worth pausing to look.  They are about two thirds the size of a honeybee, and notable for their long antennae, pale facial hair and striking bands of orange hair across the abdomen that sparkle in the sun.

A male red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) resting on the bee house in the sunshine

 

It’s always an exciting time when the mason bees appear and busy themselves around the bee house.  It’s a sign to me that spring has really arrived and summer will follow and I am reassured that nature is still following its plan.

As if to serenade the emergence of the mason bees, the cherry tree near the hedge also burst into flower this week.  I had been watching the tree and thought there would be plenty of blossom and it is now covered in sprays of small white flower buds each clasped by five green sepals.  Many of the buds have opened revealing five pure white petals on each flower, the sepals having bent backwards.  Within the flower there is more to see, a mass of stamens each topped with a yellow anther, also a single thicker pale green pistil.  Our tree is a Morello cherry, a cooking variety and self-fertile but pollination depends on insects to transfer pollen between anther and pistil.  As if to underline this point, as more flowers have opened, I have noticed a stream of insects coming to feed from the flowers including hoverflies, solitary bees and even some of the mason bees from the bee houses.  Some of the solitary bees went systematically from flower to flower so pollination should be fine and, providing the birds are kept at bay, we should enjoy a good crop of fruit in the late summer.

I don’t expect the flowers to last very long so it’s important sometimes to stop, stand back and admire the tree in its spring guise covered with pure white flowers, and remember the poem “Loveliest of Trees” where A E Housman saw his cherry “hung with snow”.

A spray of cherry buds each clasped by green sepals.

 

Mature flowers on the cherry tree showing the five pure white petals. The yellow-tipped stamens and the thicker pale green pistil can be seen more easily if the picture is enlarged by clicking.

 

A hoverfly feeding from the cherry flowers and hopefully pollinating them. This may be a Tapered Drone Fly (Eristalis pertinax).

 

21 thoughts on “Lockdown Nature Walks 3”

    1. Hi Julian, glad you found the piece interesting. I am afraid I know nothing about the cultivar, it was in the garden when we moved here but has delighted us each year. It gets pruned hard to shape at least twice a year.

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      1. Thanks Philip….worth an ask – I’ve found in other plant groups that different cultivars can have widely differing appeals to insects – Sedum spectabile ( as was) being a case in point. Maybe it grows from cuttings? Or even from seed – though less likely to come true I guess – perhaps we could do a swap in the autumn for something from here that’s great for insects!
        Best wishes
        Julian

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      2. Sorry to be slow Julian. I would be happy to send you cuttings. It’s putting on lots of new growth at present and I read that cuttings do work. You mentioned the autumn so is that preferable. I have little experience in these matters so will be guided by you. Let me know what you think.

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      3. Somehow I’ve managed to lose your comment about my fall… For one year I lived at Herne Lodge, a Sidney graduate Lodge on St Eligius street off Panton Street off Lensfield road. Valeries Vaz, MP, who I heard from the H.O.P. yesterday morning on R 4, lived just across the corridor for that , my fourth year. I think much of central Cambridge has probably changed now and is pedestrianised/one wayed, but I tended to cycle out to Madingley Road from there.
        Thanks for the reminder about Sally and Harry the film – will have to dig it out and watch again,
        best wishes
        Julian

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      4. So were you at Sidney? Perhaps you told me before but I have forgotten. The Panton Arms was a good pub for lunch when I was a PhD student at the Chem Labs.

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      5. Yes Philip – I was at Sidney, and did indeed tell you in the past – I think you gave me details about Cromwell’s buried head in the chapel…But don’t worry, I forget things all the time – Fiona’s long term memory of this time is much better than mine though I’ve just asked Fiona, who’s still in bed behind me as I type, that Herne Lodge was where I proposed…. “Yes. Such a romantic place!” was her reasonable reply.
        Don’t think I ever made it into the Panton Arms though I
        do remember granary bread from Fitzbillies bakery on Trumpington street which we used to buy for sunny punting lunches heading South out of the city… largely carefree days! Though actually lock down here isn’t too bad…

        Best wishes
        Julian

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  1. I have a cherry tree too, but am unsure how to identify the species. It is a tall one, so I cannot get close to the petals or leaves. The wood pigeons like eating it!

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  2. Thanks Emily. Some things you might check are: are the flowers double or single, are they white or pink? What are the fruit like, colour size? Sometimes the fruits are distinctive enough to tell the variety but I am no expert.

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  3. It is a lovely time of year when everything is blossoming. I was interested that you had your Osmia bicornis. Last year I had fewer and this year I have seen none in my nesting boxes. Amelia

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    1. Thanks, Amelia. I was surprised at how many Osmia bicornis appeared this year. I also find their numbers wax and wane and I think it has something to do with parasites getting into the tubes and killing the larvae.

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  4. We have a well-established cherry. I had to give a wry chuckle you at you asking Emily what the fruit looks like on hers. We rarely ever get to see the fruit, and have never tasted it. The other snackers in the garden always beat us to it…

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    1. Ah, yes. What I didn’t say was that I keep our tree small by heavy pruning and then cover all fruit with fleece when it starts ripening. That way I stop most of the snackers

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