Category Archives: conservation

Have you seen the bee orchids?

There I was, standing up to my knees in the long grass trying to examine a flower, when a woman passing on the nearby path asked, “Have you seen the bee orchids?”  I turned and answered “No, but I was hoping to find them” and she continued “If you go nearly to the end of the reserve by the bridge, there’s a very nice one”.

Bird's foot trefoil
Bird’s-foot Trefoil

 

Common vetch
Common vetch

 

Aller Brook Nature Reserve in Newton Abbott is a place of contrasts.  It might reasonably be called an edgeland for it is on the edge of the town and the reserve starts where the Brunel Industrial Estate ends.  But it’s more urban than even that implies; the other main boundary of the reserve is the A380 trunk road making its presence felt through the continual loud rumble of cars and lorries speeding between Torquay and Exeter.  Between these two urban barriers is an extended triangular tongue of land with the water of Aller Brook running down the middle in a deep scrub-lined channel – this is the Nature Reserve.

Despite all the noise and light-industrial activity, this reserve is a perfect example of how nature can be coaxed in to a space if it is properly managed.  Kingfishers and otters are reported to visit the Brook and, when I was there, birdsong filled the air, at least when traffic noise allowed.  The main path along the boundary with the industrial estate was fringed with typical May flowers: red campion, cow parsley and brambles, all blooming beneath a thick tree canopy.  On the other side of the path, the Brook was occasionally visible through the scrub shield.

Further along the path, I came across several small areas of grassland managed as hay meadows.  Typical meadow plants were flourishing adding splashes of colour to the muted green grasses. Tall drifts of yellow and white ox eye daisies and unruly purple knapweed grew through the thick vegetation.  Common vetch, dotted with pink pea flowers, and buttery yellow bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the rough cover holding on wherever they could.  A few common spotted and marsh orchids added a little exoticism.  Along the edge of the brook there were stands of dog rose with their floppy, pale pink petals. With all these flowers about, bees were abundant.

The reserve ends at a bridge where the Brook empties into the estuary of the river Teign between huge swathes of tea-coloured reed beds and shiny pillows of brown mud.  The same reeds form a narrow border to the brook.  The bridge area was the part of the reserve where the Bee Orchids were supposed to be, so I looked very carefully within the grass.  They were quite easy to spot, six fine flower spikes standing about 20 cm above the ground with triple propeller-like, pinkish-violet sepals surrounding their complex flowers.

From the bridge, a path returns along the other side of Aller Brook and, at least at the beginning, the vegetation is quite similar.  Compact tracts of grassland sloped downwards to the Brook; common vetch scrambled through the grass accompanied by a few pyramidal orchids.  This side of the reserve, however, felt more contained with stands of brambles and thick tree cover attempting to mask the nearby main road.  It was still slightly unnerving to see glimpses of cars speeding past at 70 mph about 20 metres away.  Incongruously, near here I found another impressive group of Bee Orchids, five spikes in total, with two growing perilously close to the path edge.

As the reserve narrows, so does the path and for some time I walked along a green corridor beneath thick tree cover with relative shade and few flowers.  Eventually the path emerged into the light near a very busy roundabout and the car park of the Toby Carvery.  A ranger I had met earlier told me to look at the grassy area around the car park.  I had to ask a cuddling couple sitting on the edge of this area if they minded if I wandered around the grass but eventually I found thirteen flowering spikes of Bee Orchids looking very fresh, together with one pyramidal orchid.  This unlikely and rather bleak urban spot has a better population of Bee Orchids than the Nature Reserve itself!

There is something very beautiful and rather weird about the flowers of the Bee orchid when you look beyond the three pink sepals.  The most obvious part is the lower petal, the labellum, largely a rich dark red but decorated with variable, yellow horseshoe patterns.  Either side of the labellum are two spurs with a furry surface.  Above the labellum is a pale green arching structure containing two small yellow balls (pollinia) supported by fine threads so that when the wind blows these vibrate.  Above this pale green structure are two horns.

As the name of the orchid suggests, some people see a bee in the complex structure of the flowers.  They imagine the body of a chunky bee (the labellum, complete with furry extensions) with antennae (the two horns) and wings (two of the sepals).  To be honest, I don’t get this – all I see is a complex and idiosyncratic flower but perhaps I am being too literal.  I showed the pictures to Hazel, however, and she immediately saw the bee.

The apparent resemblance of the flowers to bees is also linked with theories of pollination whereby a male bee sees the orchid “bee”, thinks it is a female and tries to pseudo-copulate.  As it does so, it picks up pollen from the pollinia and when it leaves, disappointed, it tries again on another flower pollinating it at the same time.  In southern Europe, the Bee Orchid is cross-pollinated by bees of the Eucera genus but to me none of these bees looks anything like the Bee orchid.  But anyway, who knows what a bee “sees” and it has been suggested that the odour of the flower is more important in attracting the male bees.  To complicate things even more, Bee Orchids in the UK self-pollinate so they manage without bees.

Visiting a place like Aller Brook I can’t help but reflect on our relationship with nature.   I really like the Aller Brook Nature Reserve, there’s something special about the grassland with its profusion of meadow flowers and the Brook with its resident kingfishers and otters.  I love the orchids.  I can’t, however, help feeling troubled by the urban noise, the proximity of traffic and light industry.  This juxtaposition of modern urban life with some of the real glories of nature highlights our dysfunctional relationship with wildlife.  Is this tiny scrap of land the best we can do?  Surely we should be giving nature a higher priority rather than endlessly building roads and houses?

As I thought about this, Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi kept coming back to me, particularly the words:

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”

I visited Aller Brook Nature Reserve on May 30th 2017

Common spotted orchid
Cut-leaved cranesbill and common spotted orchid

 

Bee orchid 1
Bee orchid

 

Bee on knapweed
Bumblebee (male B.pratorum) on knapweed

 

Bee orchid 3
Bee orchids showing pollinia

 

Aller Brook
Aller Brook

 

Toby Carvery Car Park
The car park of the Toby Carvery

 

Perfect poisons for pollinators – available from your local garden centre

We try to make our garden welcoming for bees by growing flowers that provide pollen and nectar throughout the season. We also have some unkempt areas they might want to nest in and we don’t use any pesticides. I enjoy watching the bees foraging on the flowers as they come in to bloom and currently a large cotoneaster bush is full of small bumblebees buzzing loudly as they feed in the sunshine. It’s been very exciting this year to see bumblebees and solitary bees nesting in the dry-stone walls around the garden.

When we need new plants or compost, there is one local garden centre we use. It has a good range of healthy-looking plants and a very nice tearoom! In early spring, it’s also an excellent place to watch one of my favourite bees, the hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), whizzing about in the greenhouses full of flowers. Earlier this year, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late March, I noticed that these Anthophora had set up nests in the old brick wall of one of the garden centre’s buildings.

Bee 4
A hairy-footed flower bee foraging on plants within the garden centre

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About a year ago, I saw a crowd funding request from the well-known bee-defender and researcher, Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex. He wanted the money to test whether plants sold in garden centres in the UK and labelled as “bee-friendly” actually contained bee-toxic pesticides, applied during production of the plants. I remember being quite shocked to read about this possibility – could I have been buying plants to help the bees that were in fact laced with bee-toxic chemicals?

I wanted to find out more so I got in touch with our favourite garden centre and asked whether they were using neonicotinoid insecticides on their plants. They reassured me that they were not. So far so good. I then asked if their suppliers used neonicotinoids in the compost on the plants they sold. The reply came back “I’m afraid I can’t answer that question without phoning every supplier. Also a few companies we deal with import some of their stock from other European countries. I’m happy to ask my local nurseries when I’m speaking to them.” That’s the last I heard.
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Dave Goulson got his money and went ahead with the analyses. The results of his tests have just been published and they don’t make happy reading;  here is a link to his blog on the topic. He and his colleagues bought 29 pots of flowering plants from well-known garden centres around Brighton (Wyevale, Aldi, B & Q, Homebase). Many were labelled “bee-friendly” and some had the Royal Horticultural Society endorsement “Perfect for Pollinators”.

They analysed a range of pesticides in leaves and pollen from the plants and found that most of the plants contained a cocktail of insecticides and fungicides. In the leaf analysis, only 2 of the 29 plants contained no pesticides. 76% contained one or more insecticide and 38 % contained two or more. 70% of the leaf samples analysed positive for neonicotinoid insecticides, well known for their toxic effects on bees. In the pollen analysis, neonicotinoids were found at levels known to cause harm to bees. So much for “Perfect for Pollinators”.

As a result of his work, B & Q announced that from February 2018 their plants would be neonicotinoid-free. Aldi revealed that they had stopped using neonicotinoids in October 2016, a few months after Goulson’s analyses took place. Neither B & Q nor Aldi  addressed the other chemicals found in the Sussex analysis.

The Horticultural Trades Association issued a statement that I believe is both silly and cynical, basically rubbishing Goulson’s analysis. You can read Dave Goulson’s rebuttal here.
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So, it really is true that when we buy plants to help bees in our gardens from garden centres, we may be unwittingly exposing the bees to harmful chemicals, despite the “bee-friendly” labels. Also, any insect that nips into a garden centre for a feed, especially early in the season when garden centres have an abundance of flowers, may be getting a hit of insecticide at the same time.

So, what do we do if we want to have a bee-friendly garden?

Dave Goulson recommends the following course of action: if you must buy plants, buy from an organic garden centre or, failing that, go to B & Q or Aldi. Better still, grow from seed or swap plants with friends and neighbours.
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One point that has not been discussed so far concerns potential effects on humans of these pesticides found in garden centre plants. Earlier this year, I bought some fruit bushes from the garden centre and these now have a nice crop of plump berries. If these plants have been treated with pesticides, and of course I don’t know if they have, then the fruit will presumably also contain these pesticides. This possibility makes me very angry. I grow fruit in our garden so that we can eat chemical free, fresh, good quality produce. I don’t want to ingest insecticides and fungicides with poorly defined toxic effects on humans.

The featured image shows a hairy-footed fower bee feeding from plants in a lane adjacent to the garden centre

Liquid Energy – ivy bees by the sea in South Devon

Here is an account of a visit I made to Paignton about eight weeks ago, seaching for ivy bees.

Goodrington Sands
Goodrington Sands viewed from Roundham Head

 

Ice cream and chips, not together of course, but that’s what people are eating. The sun is shining, the sea an intense blue, the air gently warm and sun loungers have been dragged unexpectedly out of pastel-coloured beach huts. Couples stroll along the promenade arm in arm and one or two children shriek with delight as they run in and out of the waves washing over the long sandy beach. This is Goodrington Sands near Paignton in south Devon and it’s the end of September.

At one end of the beach, the ground rises steeply to Roundham Head, a cliff-lined, grass-topped promontory that interrupts the otherwise smooth sweep of Torbay. The south-facing side of the headland is home to the Cliff Gardens with its terraced flower beds, zigzag paths and mild microclimate supporting many tender sub-tropical plants. A colony of winter bumblebees also flourishes here, nurtured by the almost year round supply of pollen and nectar.

The flat, grassy surface of the promontory eventually gives way to residential streets but before suburbia takes over completely, there is a transitional region, a mosaic of green rectangular spaces and tall, red-brick walls. Nowadays, the area is popular with dog walkers but, in one wall, there is an intriguing, curved-top gateway, hinting at older usages. These walls, now mostly covered with ivy, are the remnants of the kitchen gardens of a nearby Victorian villa.

About a year ago, I discovered these old walls covered in full-flowering ivy with many ivy bees taking advantage of their preferred food. The ivy bee (Colletes hederae) is the last solitary bee to emerge each year and is very distinctive with its yellow and black-striped abdomen and chestnut-haired thorax. I looked for the nest area but, although I found a few small nest aggregations, I was unable to find anywhere large enough to support the number of bees I had seen.

Today, I park in a street bordering the old kitchen garden. Ivy cascades over the wall by the car, its many pale green flower heads scenting the air with their sickly-sweet smell. Insects move about the ivy constantly, flying to and fro, ignoring me to the extent that we sometimes collide. I see hoverflies, wasps, one or two bumblebees and honey bees, and hundreds of ivy bees. The male ivy bees fly about edgily, sometimes stopping to feed, sometimes pausing on a leaf to preen and rest. The females, noticeably larger than the males, carry chunks of chrome yellow pollen on their back legs and abdominal hairs but continue feeding. Sometimes a hopeful male disturbs them, attempting to mate, but they show no interest in their new suitors. Movement is constant, there is an insistent low buzz and this liquid energy steps up in the sunshine. The same liquid energy abounds wherever the ivy is in flower on these old walls. There is a lot of ivy here and that means many ivy bees.

But where are the nests? Last year I found one small nest area in some exposed red soil along the cliff-side path descending from Roundham Head to Goodrington so that’s where I begin today. Sure enough there are still holes in the cliff face together with crumbly soil suggesting active nests. Around these holes there are hundreds of ivy bee males performing what my friend Susan Taylor has christened the “sun dance”. They fly about incessantly, swinging from side to side, occasionally stopping to look into one of the holes but emerging unsuccessfully. It’s an impressive sight along a two metre stretch but what is lacking are any females and anyway it doesn’t feel like a big enough area to account for all the bees on the ivy so I decide to walk down to Goodrington to look at the sea.

As I stand by the beach, I see someone walking down another steep path from Roundham Head. I hadn’t noticed this paved path before: it runs parallel to the cliff-side path but about three metres inland and is partly hidden behind a low hedge. I decide to take a look. The path is bordered on one side by a low bank covered in short, rough grass and hundreds of ivy bee males fly about, skimming the surface, “sun dancing”. When I get closer, I see that the red soil in the bank is peppered with many holes and crumbly soil is spilling out showing that the bank contains active nests.

The males here seem particularly edgy, they constantly investigate the burrows, presumably looking for females and sometimes they even try to mate with one another, not a clever move. On several occasions I notice the males suddenly congregating to form a rough ball. Other males soon join the melee rather like rugby players in a ruck. Somewhere in the middle there must be a female who has just emerged from one of the burrows. The males are trying frantically to mate with her but only one will be successful and I see one copulating couple fly off together, still attached.

There is also a slow but steady stream of females returning to the nest area loaded with yellow pollen. They have come to deposit food in their burrow for their larvae, but finding their nest looks a bit hit and miss. Some approach the area and fly around for a short time before landing and making their way on foot. Others seem to crash land and then pull themselves together after a short rest. The males show no interest in these already-mated females.

The aggregation covers an area about ten metres by half a metre and there must be hundreds of nests. This is a large, very active, nest site and looks big enough to support a huge number of ivy bees. I can’t say whether there are other nest aggregations in the area but this one goes some way to explaining the large number of ivy bees seen at Roundham Head.

I am completely absorbed watching these creatures go about their lives; it’s like being allowed through a door into another world. But then I look up and see, no more than 20 metres below me, an ice cream kiosk with people enjoying their Devon Farmhouse ice cream. Dogs dash along the hard sand splashing in the water. A steam train struggles up the bank hauling vintage chocolate and cream coaches towards Kingswear.

Roundham Court
One of the old walls and the Victorian Villa overlooking Torbay.

 

Red brick wall plus archway
An intriguing, curved-top gateway covered with ivy.

 

Male ivy bee
A male ivy bee

 

Red soil cliff bank Paignton
Some of the “sun dancing” males by the cliff nests. Some are flying, some are investigating the holes.

 

Soil bank above Goodrington
The grassy bank by the path descending from Roundham Head to Goodrington, with the ice cream kiosk by the beach.

 

Red soil in bank
Crumbly red soil and nests in the grassy bank

 

Mating ball of ivy bees
Male ivy bees forming a mating ball, somewhere in the middle is a female.

 

Mating pair ivy bees
Ivy bee mating pair

 

Female returning to nest
Female ivy bee returning to her nest loaded with pollen

The surprising story of oil in Dorset.

A few months ago, I visited Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset in the south west of the UK.  I went  to look at the oil well on the cliffs above the beach and wrote about my experience.  The Kimmeridge oil reserve is quite small but further east there are huge additional reserves of oil extending for several kilometres under Poole Harbour and Poole Bay.  I wanted to write about these much larger deposits and the environmental effects of extraction: my article, which also takes another look at some of the Kimmeridge story, appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine. Here is the article:

It’s difficult to believe but one of the most beautiful parts of Dorset in the south west of the UK is home to the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe. And yet the day to day impact on most residents and on the local environment is minimal. Perhaps the Dorset oil experience can help us predict the potential environmental effects of shale gas extraction by fracking in other parts of the UK? Let’s look at the story of oil in Dorset and see what we can learn.

“Kimmeridge Coal”

Medieval times were harsh for most people but if you lived near Kimmeridge Bay in the Isle of Purbeck, you had one thing going for you; some of the rocks exposed in the cliffs would burn so you had a ready-made fuel for heating and cooking. The locals called it “Kimmeridge Coal” and it didn’t matter that it smelt awful, it was available and it was free. The same logic drove Sir William Clavell in the 17th century to set up alum works at Kimmeridge using the fuel. His efforts came to nothing because of patent restrictions so he turned to making salt by boiling sea water and subsequently he set up a glass works, but neither enterprise prospered.

“Kimmeridge Coal” is found in bands of bituminous shale in the cliffs around Kimmeridge Bay but further exploitation of the material had to wait until the 19th century when it was realised that useful hydrocarbons might be extractable. Processing plants were set up at Weymouth and at Wareham making varnish, grease, pitch, naphtha, paraffin and paraffin wax and in 1848 the street lights of Wareham were lit by 130 lamps powered by gas derived from the shale. The industry never prospered, possibly because the high sulphur content made the gas unsuitable for domestic use.

Kimmeridge oil shale is a useful material but it is not a source of conventional crude oil. Ironically, the first discovery of crude oil in Dorset also occurred at Kimmeridge Bay but it comes from rocks lying well below the shale deposits.

The Kimmeridge “nodding donkey”

Oil pump
The Kimmeridge nodding donkey

The search for oil in Dorset began in the 1930s but it was not until 1959 that the first well producing oil and gas was discovered below Kimmeridge Bay. The well is extracted by a single beam “nodding donkey” pump on the cliffs above the Bay that has worked continuously for more than 50 years; it is the oldest working oil well in the UK and the “nodding donkey” is now part of the local scenery. The Kimmeridge well produced 350 barrels of oil a day at its peak but this has now declined to a fifth of that level. Although the Kimmeridge reservoir is not large, the discovery prompted the search for other oil deposits in Dorset.

The largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe – hidden near Poole Harbour

The energy crises of the 1970s led to further exploration in Dorset and in 1974, oil and gas were discovered by the Gas Council at Wytch Farm on the southern side of Poole Harbour. Production started in 1979 and nowadays the Anglo-French company Perenco owns the majority stake in the oil field. There are three large reservoirs of oil 1-2 km below the sea, extending up to 10 km under Poole Harbour, Brownsea Island, Sandbanks and to the south of Bournemouth. Peak production was in 1997 at 110,000 barrels of oil per day; current levels are about 18,000 barrels per day. The field also produces natural gas (for domestic use) and liquid petroleum gas.

nodding donkeys Wytch Farm
Some of the Wytch Farm nodding donkeys (photo courtesy of Perenco)

 

Furzey Island
Furzey Island in Poole Harbour showing the “hidden” oil wells (photo courtesy of Perenco)

 

There are 12 well sites distributed around Wytch Farm, the Goathorn Peninsula and Furzey island from which more than 100 wells have been drilled. There is also a gathering station where the products of the wells are collected, processed and distributed. This is a large industrial enterprise, the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe and the second largest consumer of electricity in the South of England (after Heathrow Airport).

Hengistbury Head looking west
Poole Bay viewed from Hengistbury Head – oil reservoirs and long distance drills extend under the sea 1-2 km below the surface (from Wikipedia).
The paradox is that this industrial complex operates in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so the site has been developed with this is mind. Buildings are on sites that have been excavated to reduce height and are screened by trees. Facilities are painted a dull brown and the number of well sites has been minimised by drilling long distances horizontally away from the well site in to the oil deposits; until 2008 Wytch Farm held the world record for the longest drill extending 10.1 km under Poole Bay. In consequence, this large industrial complex has minimal impact on the surrounding countryside and most people are unaware of the activity.

Goathorn Peninsula
An oil rig on the Goathorn Peninsula used for long distance directional drilling (Photo from Wikipedia, taken in 2006) .

 

Lessons from Dorset oil

Wytch Farm is a great success story, both in terms of the oil and gas produced and the minimal environmental impact. Some have used the Wytch Farm experience to suggest that fracking (hydraulic fracturing for shale gas) in other parts of the UK will also have a minimal environmental impact, even suggesting, incorrectly, that fracking has already occurred at Wytch Farm.

Although similar drilling technology is used to extract crude oil and to release shale gas, fracking uses large volumes of high pressure liquid (mostly water) to create fissures in low permeability rock and this has not been carried out at Wytch Farm. Also each potential fracking site is likely to be unique and different from Wytch Farm in terms of the density of wells required, the density of population and the nature of the countryside. Dorset oil has been managed to minimise environmental impact but it would be wrong to use the Dorset oil experience to predict the general environmental impact of fracking elsewhere.

There is, of course, one important issue I have not considered here:  should we continue to extract and use oil given the need to prevent global climate change?  Take a look at the complementary article for my views on that.

The music of place, the place of nature

Great Hall - with tapestries representing the original departments hanging
The Great Hall at Dartington (image from the web site)

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.

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Wheat field in Kent (photo by Hazel Strange)

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.

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The Gusborne Vineyard (photo by Hazel Strange)

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.

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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.

An experimental Bee House

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).

Experimental Bee House beginning of season
The Experimental Bee House at the beginning of the season (March 2015). I hope you can see the two vegetable boxes with the sides of the top one insulated with recycled vinyl floor covering, also the protective roof. Two cassettes with tubes are in place in the insulated top box . The garden still looks dormant although a few daffodils are visible.

 

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.

Experimental Bee House Cassette
One of the cassettes holding the bee tubes. The tubes are organised in to an old mineral water bottle and secured with a cable -tie. Four of the tubes contained mason bee nests from last year.

 

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.

Experimental Bee House end of season
The end of season view. In two cassettes most of the tubes have been filled, in one cassette put out later two tubes were filled. Some tubes where the seal was broken have not been refilled.

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.

Successes and failures with this year’s Red Mason Bees

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

male Osmia
Male Red Mason Bee

 

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.

Osmia on Bug House
Male Red Mason Bee resting

 

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.

Osmia shiny type
Shiny type

 

Osmia feeding from Forget me Not
Male Red Mason Bee feeding on forget me nots

 

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.

Osmia looking out
It’s too cold for me ……

 

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

mating pair April 28 15 2
Mating pair with mites

 

Mating pair with other bees May 7 15
The stillness of the mating pair and the frenzy of the other males.

 

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

worn out bees

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

yellow pollen
The first pollen-loaded female.

 

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.

Female Osmia bicornis
Female red mason bee. The horns are just about visible.  Her colour has faded and a better view of a fresh female with her orange hair is seen in the mating pictures.

 

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.

Problems

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.

Osmia housekeeping
Housekeeping

 

End of season view
End of season for the tubes in the Leechwell Garden Bug House. Many are filled, a few have not been reused and a few have not been used at all.

 

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.