Category Archives: Leechwell Garden

Hitch-hiking beetles and dancing bees – Lockdown Nature Walks 15

I had intended to go further afield for my next Lockdown Nature Walk but events drew me back once again to the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the centre of Totnes.  I visited several times during the second week of March and discovered a fascinating story of bees, beetles and their mutual interactions. 

After my account, I have included part of a poem, “The Spring”, by William Barnes written in the dialect of the west country county of Dorset.

Immature leaves and catkins on weeping willow

A laughing sound, the yaffle of a green woodpecker, reached our house on several days and I thought it might be coming from the Leechwell Garden.  I went to look but I didn’t find the bird.  It’s no hardship, though, to visit the Garden at this time of year when the non-human world seems to be waking up and changing rapidly.  On early spring mornings, it’s a very peaceful spot and the combination of old stone walls and sunshine creates a warm microenvironment.  Noise from nearby roads can intrude but birdsong and the rushing of water from the stream overcome this.  There are often a few children enjoying the play area, their voices blending with the song of the chaffinches flitting around the Garden. 

Most shrubs and trees are in bud now but the weeping willows seem to be in the lead, their gracefully hanging branches grazing the ground in cascades of lime green.  Close up, the green haze covering the branches is a mixture of immature spear-shaped leaves and catkins.  The catkins are small green cigar shapes at present but will turn yellow as they mature.  Towards the back of the Garden, snowy splashes of blackthorn decorate the hedges and fleshy green tongues of ramsons make their way up through the leaf litter. 

One of the small bees, a male yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes)

Below the pergola is a sloping, southeast-facing grassy bank.  When I visited, a few dandelions and daisies were pushing through the grass and the underlying soil had been exposed on part of the bank by children’s feet running excitedly towards the play area.   It was March 9th, on a sunny morning, when I first noticed a few small bees flying about above this bare soil.  Occasionally one of the insects paused on a leaf or flower to take the sun or to feed on nectar and I could then see their well-marked stripy abdomen.  They were quite small, about two thirds the size of a honeybee and over the next few days, especially when the sun shone, the numbers increased.  There were also several holes in the bare soil, some surrounded by soil spill and the bees occasionally stopped to investigate, disappearing inside the hole for a short time. 

By the middle of March, a mobile cloud of the insects, at least 100 I estimated, would fly just above the soil.  They moved back and forth and from side to side, circling, dancing, the urgency of movement increasing when the sun shone, like water simmering, threatening to boil over.   My photos of the insects highlighted the prominent creamy hair bands around the abdomen, the pale hairs that decorate the face and sides of the thorax and the haze of pale yellow hairs coating the legs, confirming that they were male Yellow-Legged Mining bees (Andrena flavipes), one of our earliest spring solitary bees.    

One day I noticed a slightly larger but otherwise similar bee pausing on a dandelion.  The size suggested this might be a female and before I could take a photo my hunch was confirmed as one of the smaller bees hopped on top of the larger bee.  They stayed clasped together for about two minutes, his legs twitching before they separated.  She stayed on the flower whereas he moved to a nearby blade of grass. If this mating was successful, the female now starts the job of nest building.  Within one of the tunnels in the bare soil she will construct a series of cells each equipped with one egg and a mixture of pollen and nectar collected from flowers. The eggs will develop into new bees.   Each mated female works alone without cooperation so that these insects are referred to as solitary bees.

One of my visits to the Garden was on a sunny Sunday morning and, after I had looked at the bees, I wandered about glancing at the flowers.  My attention was captured, though, by a large black beetle (about 2.5cm long) among a mass of ivy beneath a hawthorn tree.  I found a second similar insect close by on a separate leaf.  Both were motionless and seemed to be taking the sun.  These are unusual creatures with a small head and thorax compared to their much larger abdomen.  Wing cases were visible but they were too small to cover the abdomen, rather like a portly Victorian gentleman unable to secure his jacket across his belly.  The prominent legs and antennae of the beetles seemed to be comprised of many small segments so that they resembled tightly coiled wire. In the sunshine, their bodies, legs and antennae sparkled a beautiful iridescent dark blue.  After a bit of searching and with some kind help from John Walters, I worked out that these were female violet oil beetles (Meloe violaceus).  This was a surprise as these rare insects have not been spotted in the Leechwell Garden before.

Oil beetles have one of the most bizarre life cycles of all insects, one that is inextricably intertwined with the lives of solitary bees.  Each spring, mated female oil beetles dig shallow burrows in soil where they lay eggs in large numbers.  The eggs develop and the louse-like, early-stage larvae, called triungulins, eventually leave the burrow.  The tiny triungulins look for flowers, climb up the stems and wait in the flower for a passing solitary bee.  When an unsuspecting bee arrives looking for pollen and nectar, the triungulin clambers on board and hitches a ride to the bee’s nest.  Once there, it feeds on the pollen and nectar left by the bee for its own offspring and, after passing through several developmental stages, a new oil beetle emerges the following spring.

With such a complex life cycle, it’s surprising that oil beetles manage to survive, but survive they do.  They are, though, declining and part of the problem is a reduction in the number of solitary bees.  With urbanisation and the intensification of agriculture, wildflowers have disappeared from large parts of the countryside.  Solitary bees are unable to survive in such a degraded environment with obvious knock-on effects on oil beetles.

The Leechwell Garden has a good selection of flowers, both wild and cultivated, and there are several colonies of solitary bees including the Yellow-Legged Mining Bees mentioned earlier.  I hope these oil beetles will be able to continue their lives here and, as the season progresses, I shall be looking for the triungulins on flowers popular with solitary bees.

As a postscript, last Saturday morning we were walking down our street and were very surprised to find another female oil beetle.  This one was crossing the road, moving quickly, antennae flexing and moving all the time as the beetle sampled the air.  We stood nearby to prevent it from being squashed by cars or other passers-by.  I was able to get a reasonable photo and Andrew Whitehouse kindly confirmed that this was another violet oil beetle, newly emerged.  

Perhaps there are more of these insects about than I had realised?

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“The spring” by William Barnes

When wintry weather’s all a-done,
An’ brooks do sparkle in the zun,
An’ naïsy-builden rooks do vlee
Wi’ sticks toward their elem tree;
When birds do zing, an’ we can zee
Upon the boughs the buds o’ spring, –
Then I’m as happy as a king,
A-vield wi’ health an’ zunsheen.

Vor then the cowslip’s hangen flow’r
A-wetted in the zunny shower,
Do grow wi’ vi’lets, sweet o’ smell,
Bezide the wood-screened graegle’s bell;
Where drushes’ aggs, wi’ sky-blue shell,
Do lie in mossy nest among
The thorns, while they do zing their zong
At evenen in the zunsheen.

[These are the first two verses of Barnes evocation of a 19th century Dorset spring.  Most of the dialect becomes clear if read aloud but here are three translations:  Vield – filled, graegle – bluebell, drush – thrush]

One of the smaller, male yellow-legged mining bees showing the haze of yellow hairs coating his legs and catching pollen grains.
Female yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes) showing the golden pollen hairs on her back legs.

Mating pair of yellow legged mining bees.

Holes in the bare soil forming entrances to nest tunnels.

The two female violet oil beetles (Meloe violaceus) in the sunshine. The upper beetle is also shown at the head of this post.

Signs of spring? – Lockdown Nature Walks 14

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk, I wandered about a community garden and a car park in the centre of Totnes looking at how spring was progressing in these semi-urban settings.   I made my observations over the weekend of February 27/28 during the short spell of warmer weather we enjoyed towards the end that month.  I have included a poem by Wordsworth “The lesser celandine” at the end of the account followed by some photos of the species I saw.

The sun rising on February 28th 2021 to the left of the houses with remnants of the apricot dawn light

After weeks of oppressive weather, grey, wet and then quite cold, these few days of sunshine and spring-like warmth were very welcome. I felt my spirits lift and I acquired a renewed sense of purpose despite the constraints of lockdown.   Several of the days dawned to cloudless skies accompanied by fuzzy white blankets of frost.  On one of these mornings, I went out early to watch the dawn light.  With sunrise still more than half an hour away and the sky an intense dark blue, a bright apricot glow rose behind the eastern hills.  The dawn chorus echoed across the valley and it was tempting to think that the birds were singing of the impending arrival of spring.  

The absence of cloud allowed me to watch the sun as it rose above the eastern hills and I began to see how this event in itself held indications of seasonal change.  Not only was the Late February sunrise more than an hour earlier compared to the beginning of the year, but the sun now rose closer to the east compared with roughly south east in early January.  The sun will continue its eastern trajectory, rising directly from the east on March 20th, the vernal or spring equinox, the astronomical start of spring.

With these ideas of seasonal change in mind, I decided to take advantage of the short spell of warmer weather to visit some of the town centre gardens and car parks to look for signs of spring.  First stop was the Leechwell Garden, one of the community gardens in the centre of Totnes.   By the time I reached this town centre oasis, warm sunshine had dismissed the early morning frost and a peal of children’s voices rang out from the play area and sand pit.  The early flowers, the snowdrops and winter aconites, were already past their best but nearby I came across the first blackthorn blossom.  The porcelain-white flowers were not fully open but their red-tipped stamens were already on show.  Blackthorn is very popular with early solitary bees and that day I made my first sighting of the year.  A dandelion was the host and a small bee with a bright orange-brown thorax and yellow pollen hairs was feeding.  This was a female Gwynne’s Mining Bee (Andrena bicolor).  A few lesser celandines were showing around the Garden but it was a nearby car park that surprised with its impressive display of these flowers. 

The Nursery Car Park is enclosed by old stone walls and the parking area is lined by wide soil borders mostly covered in rough grass.    In the past, I have seen solitary bees nesting in the grassy borders and butterflies taking advantage of the flowers growing there.  During the winter, the local council decided to cut the vegetation on the soil borders and did so very harshly.  This is probably bad news for overwintering butterflies but the early flowers seem to have responded well, perhaps owing to lack of competition from grasses.  The long border along the north side is sheltered by a tall ivy-clad stone wall and when the sun shines this is a warm sheltered spot. A few lesser celandines (Ficaria verna) had been struggling into flower here earlier in February but the warm weather triggered an outpouring of these starry golden flowers as if the area had been spattered with yellow gloss paint.

A lesser celandine flower showing the two-tone petals and the central fuzz of pollen-loaded stamens

I stood there for a while, looking, listening; one of the few benefits of lockdown is that the car park is very quiet.  Blackbirds squabbled noisily over ivy berries, a wren trilled, heard but unseen, and a large bumblebee tracked across the border.  I admired the celandine flowers with their shiny two-tone petals, mostly lemon yellow but with a darker slightly brown section near the centre of the flower.   Also, their central fuzz of bright, buttery yellow, pollen-loaded stamens surrounding a nascent green seed pod. 

There is something about these golden flowers on a bright sunny day with their petals held horizontally that speaks of their close relationship with the sun.  Part of this is the sensitivity of the flowers to light levels.  On dull days when cloud obscures the sun, the flowers will close and even on sunny days, they do not open until about 9am and are closed again by 5pm.   Then there are the stamens, thickly coated with yellow pollen.  With its colour and its richness, for me this pollen symbolises the energy of the sun.  And of course, it does contain some of the sun’s energy but it acquires this indirectly via the shiny heart-shaped green leaves that form thick mats across the border.  Photosynthesis in the leaves captures the energy of sunlight transforming it and generating among other substances, pollen and nectar, energy for insects.  It is perhaps no accident that the Celtic name for the lesser celandine is grian, the sun.

The first insect I saw taking advantage of this floral energy store during the warm spell was a honeybee.  It moved from flower to flower, its pollen baskets accumulating sticky yellow lumps of pollen to take back to the hive as food.  Several hoverflies also appeared on the flowers.  Mostly these were Common Drone Flies (Eristalis tenax) a species that overwinters as an adult and comes out on warm winter days to top up with pollen and nectar.  They bear more than a passing resemblance to male honeybees as their name suggests.   Most of the Eristalis I saw were females, characterised by eyes separated at the top of their head.  Several Bumblebees also fed from the flowers but these were very jumpy and I manged only one photo.

In the past, the lesser celandine was referred to as the “spring messenger” being one of the first woodland flowers to show each year.  Gilbert White noted that in 18th century Hampshire the flowers first appeared on average on February 21st.  This year in Devon, based on my observations, they emerged several weeks earlier.  The lesser celandine is also one of the first flowers to appear during weather warm enough to tempt out many insects.  It will continue flowering into April providing support for many species including the solitary bees that emerge as spring unfolds.

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The golden flowers have Inspired poets including William Wordsworth.  The lesser celandine was his favourite flower and he wrote three poems about them.  Here is his poem entitled “The lesser celandine”

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
“It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

“The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.”
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal’s Favourite – then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner – behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!

Blackthorn flowers showing the red-tipped stamens

Gwynne’s mining bee (Andrena bicolor) on a dandelion

Honeybee on lesser celandine, note the yellow pollen accumulating

Common drone fly (Eristalis tenax) on lesser celandine. The prominent eyes do not meet on the top of the head, characteristic of a female

Bumblebee on lesser celandine. From this picture it is impossible to determine the species but based on size and the time of year it may be a queen Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)

Back to the town centre, at last – Lockdown Nature Walks 10

Many of the lockdown restrictions imposed across the UK to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have now been removed or relaxed but life still feels very different from what we were once used to.  It does, though, seem inappropriate to continue referring to Lockdown Nature Walks and this will be my last one with that name.  So, for my tenth walk I want to come back to where I started back in March by walking round some of the town centre gardens and car parks looking at what is out and about in late August/early September.  

Let’s start at the Leechwell Garden, a peaceful, green oasis in the centre of Totnes open to all.  There is always plenty to see here and it changes week by week.  Many flowers grow and I pop in regularly to look at the insects that have been attracted.   During my lockdown visits to the Garden, I have talked to many people and I came to realise what an important lifeline the Garden has been for those without green spaces of their own or for people wanting a physically distanced conversation.  The Garden has also echoed with children’s laughter and the sandpit and play area have been a much-needed diversion for families.

Here are a few highlights from my recent visits:

This drone fly (Eristalis) is feeding from the fragrant white flowers of myrtle with their yellow-tipped stamens

Three honeybees (Apis mellifera) feeding from globe thistle (Echinops)

Late summer is the time that these male common furrow bees (Lasioglossum calceatum) appear and they are often to be seen on the marjoram

A green shieldbug (Palomena prasina) on rudbeckia

It’s a short walk from the Leechwell Garden to the Nursery Car Park, one of the town centre car parks, surrounded by tall stone walls, grassy banks and soil borders.   In April and May, one of the soil borders was unexpectedly enlivened by colourful wildflowers that commandeered its scruffy surface.  Insects were attracted and in Lockdown Nature Walk 5, I described how I found beautiful orange-tip butterflies here.  As spring gave way to summer, the first flush of flowers was replaced by large clumps of spear thistle occupying the border with their architectural presence as if the triffids had taken over.  These thistles proved very popular with bees:

A leafcutter bee (probably a patchwork leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis)) feeding on the spear thistle and gathering pollen beneath her abdomen

Orange-vented mining bee (Osmia leaiana) feeding from spear thistle, her orange/red pollen brush is visible beneath her abdomen

In mid-August, the local council decided to mend the fence along the back of this border and in the process cut all the flowers and trees down to ground level.  This did seem rather drastic but most of the plants had finished flowering for the year so perhaps the damage was mostly cosmetic.  I do, though, wonder what happened to the chrysalises of the orange-tip butterflies?

The other borders were unaffected by this scorched earth policy and a large buddleia in one corner is currently covered in its purple plume-shaped flowers that perfume the air with their distinctive but slightly sickly fragrance.   In another corner, brambles still retain a few late flowers. Both are currently attracting butterflies.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) on buddleia, one of three on the bush together.

Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus) on bramble

Finally, I want to go to the Heathway Car Park, also close to the Leechwell Garden.  Along one side of the parking area there is an old stone wall covered in dark green-leaved ivy and now is the time of year that I begin to peer at stands of this climber.  It’s the developing flower heads that interest me and they currently show considerable variation: some still resemble tiny, pale green golf balls composed of a tight cluster of small spheres.  In others, slightly more mature, the individual spheres are held on extended stalks like a clutch of ice cream cones. Then on August 23rd, in the Heathway Car Park I found that some of these ice cream cones were showing yellow-tipped stamens, the ivy had flowered.  Insects come immediately to take advantage of this new canteen of nectar and pollen and a stand of ivy in full bloom and covered with insects can be an awe-inspiring sight.   So far, I have only seen wasps and hoverflies on the flowers but I hope to see some ivy bees, the last of the solitary bees to emerge each year and a sure sign of the changing season.

Wasp (Common or German) and hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) on flowering ivy

The picture at the head of this post shows a small white butterfly (Pieris rapae) on globe thistle (Echinops) in the Leechwell Garden

Lockdown Nature Walks 5

We’ve now been in Lockdown for eight weeks, although recently there has been a slight and rather confusing easing of the regulations.   I have been continuing my exercise walks and sometimes I venture into the nearby countryside but more often I keep to the town centre gardens and car parks  looking at the flowers and the wildlife.  I thought I knew the town centre area well but, even here, so close to home, I’ve made some new and surprising discoveries.  So, here is my fifth Lockdown Nature Walk.

One place I walk through regularly is the Nursery Car Park, notable for the wide grassy banks and tall, ivy-clad, stone walls that surround several sides of the parking area providing unplanned but welcome space for wildlife.  There are many flowers early in the year and with the lockdown there are very few cars and even fewer people so it’s a surprisingly peaceful place.  In my earlier Lockdown Nature Walks I saw bumblebees, butterflies and hairy-footed flower bees enjoying the flowers here.

 

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Male orange-tip butterfly, showing the antennae, the grey-blue velevety body and the vivid orange patches on the forewings. One hindwing is slightly folded over

One morning in late April, I was walking through the Nursery Car Park and noticed a white butterfly making its way above one of the grassy banks. I don’t normally pay much attention to the white butterflies.  I think it must be engrained prejudice from childhood when “cabbage whites” used to spoil some of my father’s attempts at growing vegetables.   Something, however, made me look again and this time I saw flashes of orange as the butterfly danced briskly along.  It turned to follow another car park margin and paused, settling on one of the plants growing in the soil border below.  With its wings spread wide, I could see its blue-grey velvety body, prominent antennae and the vivid orange patches that occupy the outer halves of each forewing showing that this was an orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines), a male as the females lack the orange colour.  I approached carefully to get a better look but the insect flew off across the wall in the direction of the Leechwell Garden and was gone.  An orange-tip butterfly seemed rather exotic for this semi-urban space and I couldn’t remember having seen one here before.

When the butterfly paused, I felt as though it was urging me to take a better look at this soil border.  This was a part of the car park I had ignored until now, probably because before lockdown, parked cars made the border virtually inaccessible.  When I had a closer look, I was surprised to find that a range of native wild flowers had colonised the border and were growing prolifically, creating a mosaic of pinks, blues, whites and yellows: three species of cranesbill, pink purslane, red campion, green alkanet, cow parsley, garlic mustard, hedge mustard and buttercups. It had become a rather beautiful place, that is if you like unruly wild flowers!

I came back to the same car park border over the next few days and usually saw one or two orange-tips but other insects were also attracted to the profusion of flowers.  Here are some of the species I saw:

 

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large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

 

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Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida). The chestnut haired thorax, dark abdomen and black hairs on the hind legs are key features

This is probably an ichneumon wasp but very difficult to pin down to species from one photograph.

 

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Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus) on bluebells

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Bee fly (Bombylius major) nectaring on herb robert

 

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Male early mining bee (Bombus pratorum) on green alkanet. This was the first male of the season for me and looks very fresh with bright colours. Note the generally furry look, the yellow head and the orange-pink tail.

But there is more to say about the orange-tip butterflies as on one of my visits, I noticed a male repeatedly flying upwards and then dropping down on to some garlic mustard flowers.  When I looked more closely, I saw another butterfly on the cluster of small green and white flowers and realised that this was a female orange-tip butterfly.  The male’s behaviour probably had something to do with mating but the female was showing no interest.  The male eventually gave up and flew off but the female moved to another flower and basked in the morning sun allowing me to look.  Unlike the male with his brash colouration, she is understated but just as beautiful with a grey patch and spot on each forewing in place of the male’s orange patches.   As she flexed her wings, I was also able to see the pattern on her underwings.  This is a complex design of green and yellow veining and mottling reminiscent of the marbled end papers of an antique book or a tie-dyed fabric from the hippie era.  The male has the same underwing pattern providing both male and female orange-tips with excellent camouflage when they rest with their wings closed on a leaf or on flowers such as garlic mustard or cow parsley.

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Female orange-tip butterfly showing her grey patch and spot on the forewing, also the veined and mottled underwing pattern

Male orange-tip butterfly showing veined, mottled pattern on underwing (click picture to enlarge and see the complexity of the pattern)

 

Garlic mustard is one of the principal larval foods of the orange-tip butterfly, along with cuckooflower, so I wondered if the female had been laying eggs before the male had disturbed her.  There are two moderate clumps of garlic mustard growing along this border so I looked at the plants and found the tiny orange eggs on both clumps.  They look like ridged rugby balls about a millimetre long and the female attaches each egg, usually one per plant, to a stem just below the flower head.  They start off a pale greenish-white and as they mature, they turn bright orange.   One or two weeks later, the larva emerges from the egg, eats the egg casing and starts its journey through different instar stages, gradually consuming the plant, preferring the seed pods, as the larva develops.  After some searching, I was able to find one larva, a well camouflaged, yellowish caterpillar (about 5mm long) on one clump of garlic mustard about two weeks after I first saw the eggs.   The larva will eventually form a pupa (chrysalis), from which the adult butterfly will emerge next spring.

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Orange-tip butterfly egg attached to garlic mustard

 

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Orange-tip butterfly larva on garlic mustard

I need to keep reminding myself that all this is happening on a scruffy border along one edge of a town centre car park and that my observations are underpinned by a series of coincidences.  First, the insects I have described would not have come to the border had the flowers not grown here.  In particular, the orange-tip butterflies would not have fed here and deposited eggs had there not been the two clumps of garlic mustard.   Then there is the lockdown which emptied the car park of cars making more space for wildlife and gave me the time to wander about looking at the soil border.  I believe there are lessons to be learnt from all of this if we choose to learn them:  growing flowers, especially wildflowers, is good for insects and will support them and bring them into your garden;  also it can be very rewarding, and good for our well-being, if we take time to look at the wildlife around us.

My previous Lockdown Nature Walks can be accessed here

 

Lockdown Nature Walks 2

We are now well into the third week of lockdown in the UK. Totnes seems to be following the rules well, there are very few people about and when I encounter someone they mostly keep two metres away.  With the lack of traffic, an abnormal quiet seems to have settled across the town so that we now notice the singing of the birds. 

It’s a difficult time and perhaps reflecting this, a crop of supportive  messages appeared recently in chalk on houses and on the road on Kinsgbridge Hill and Maudlin Road. One of these heads this post and I have put another below.

 

A supportive message with a rainbow, seen on the Kingsbridge Hill in Totnes

 

It has been easier, at least for me, to endure the lockdown given the gentle weather we have been experiencing.  Mornings have been particularly glorious as the warm light of the rising sun is softened  through a thin veil of mist across the valley below our house.  

I have been continuing to enjoy my Lockdown exercise walks around the town centre gardens, car parks and lanes and here are a few notable observations.

This is a hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) I spotted on a grassy bank by the Nursery Car Park resting on a dead leaf. They are one of the earliest solitary bees to emerge each year (early March) and, for me, they signify the arrival of spring. They whizz about gardens buzzing loudly, occasionally hovering in front of flowers such as comfrey or lungwort before feeding. This is a male with his tawny body hairs and yellow face. The picture does not do justice to his signature hairy legs so I have included another photo below taken before the lockdown.

 

Another hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) male showing the silky hairs that decorate his legs. Photographed in the Leechwell Garden in mid March. The female hairy-footed flower bee, by contrast, is jet black with orange back legs.

 

Do look at the short video at the end of this post which shows a female hairy-footed flower bee feeding in the Nursery Car Park.  It illustrates her behaviour and her colouring.

 

I saw this this dark-edged bee fly (Bombylius major) along one of the walled passages behind the Leechwell Garden. With their round furry bodies they might be confused with bumblebees but at rest, unlike bumblebees, they hold their wings at right angles to the body and have a long straight proboscis. They are parasites of solitary bees, flicking their eggs into solitary bee nests where the bee fly larva takes over and consumes the supplies left for the bee larvae.

 

We are fortunate to live on the southern edge of Totnes close to  open countryside.  Just a short walk from our house lies Fishchowter’s Lane,  an ancient sunken lane, once thought to have been one of the principal southern routes out of Totnes towards Dartmouth.  Nowadays, it is very quiet making it a pleasant walk by woods and fields with various possibilities for longer or shorter loops back to Totnes.   Here are some pictures taken as we walked the lane recently.  For more images of the lane through the seasons, have a look here.

Fishchowter’s Lane is lined at this time of year by banks of ramsons with their fleshy green leaves and the merest touch will release a pungent garlicky smell. If you look down the lane in this picture you will see one of the two old stone bridges found along the track. These enabled animals to move under the lane from fields on one side to fields on the other.

 

We found a large patch of yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon) near the start of the lane. The pale flowers are popular with pollinators for early season feeding. The hooded upper lip has a fringe of hairs and the lower lip has attractive brown markings. The silvery marks on some of the leaves show that this is not the wild species, but  the garden cultivar, ssp argentatum.

 

A few of these attractive blue flowers were pushing up through banks of nettles. This is ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) a common wild flower of hedgerows and woodland.

 

There is a small paddock along the lane and this horse eyed us enigmatically

 

Finally, back to the town centre where one unanticipated effect of the lockdown has been the lack of strimming along car park edges allowing wild flowers to prosper.  This is particularly clear in the Nursery Car Park where there are now drifts of of golden dandelions and a large bank of three-cornered leek covered with its trumpet-like white flowers with their pale green stripes.  The flowers are very popular with female hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes); here is a short video clip I took yesterday morning of these insects  showing how they behave.

Lockdown Nature Walks

We’ve been in lockdown in the UK for nearly a week.  I was glad when it was announced as it was the first decisive step our government has taken during the coronavirus crisis.  We’re  supposed to stay in our homes except for essential outings (work, food or medical) and one “exercise” walk each day.  Hopefully the lockdown will reduce the spread of the coronavirus by limiting social interaction but it does require people to follow the new rules.

It has been a beautiful week for weather,  mild and spring-like with bright sunshine and blue skies, the sort of weather where the air is filled with birdsong and you can almost hear the buds swelling.  When I have been out on my exercise walks, I have been taking photographs when I see something that catches my eye.  I thought I would post these here, partly for interest as spring arrives in the west country and partly to show how much wildlife there is about us.

P1290182trimmed
This Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) was nectaring on celandine on a grassy bank not far from our house. This individual is mostly paprika coloured with dark spots and paler edges and has recently come out of hibernation. With its scalloped wings and mottled brown underside it resembles a dead leaf providing camouflage during hibernation.

 

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The Leechwell Garden, the town centre community garden, is a short walk from our house. I found this plum tree in the Garden, covered in pure white flowers each with a mass of yellow-tipped stamens. The hoverfly is hopefully providing pollination.

 

On Wednesday, when I visited the Leechwell Garden, I was surprised to see many small bees flying close to the surface of a grassy bank bathed in warm sunshine. The picture shows one of the bees, a female yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes), and I think you can see why she gets her name. They dig holes in the underlying soil for their nests.

 

P1290200trimmed
Behind the Leechwell Garden is the Nursery Car Park, very quiet this week. Along one edge of the Nursery Car Park there is a grassy bank with many celandine and dandelion currently in flower. This small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) was nectaring on celandine. The wings are mainly bright orange with black and yellow spots but along the back edges are patterns of small blue shields. When I was growing up I used to see clouds of these butterflies but that doesnt happen any longer.

 

B.hypnorum
This Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) was feeding from a dandelion in the Nursery Car Park. Tree Bumblebees have the annoying habit of taking over nest boxes intended for small birds

 

The picture at the head of this post is of some Anemone blanda growing among leaf litter in the Leechwell Garden. These blue flowers are native to southeastern Europe but seem to do well here.

 

A thug on the Lamb’s Ears

I walk through our local community garden (The Leechwell Garden) most days in summer just to have a look at the flowers and insects but I know that, if I am there late morning, the sound of children playing will brighten the air.  The older children, sometimes along with mum or dad reliving their youth, will be enjoying the fine new play area with its exciting slide.  The younger ones may be messing about on the watery edge of the stream that passes through the garden but it is the sand pit that really hits the spot.   Children love playing in the sand and I often see several family groups clustered about the sand pit; the only thing that seems to deter the children is heavy rain.  It’s a real tribute to the vision of the garden committee that they created something so popular.

Pair of wool carder bees
Male (left) and female wool-carder bees having a rest. One leaf has been well “carded”.

 

The flowers I come to see are across the other side of the garden and, for the past few weeks, I have been loitering near the old stone wall where there’s a large patch of the plant Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina).  It covers the ground with a jumble of silvery-green, velvety leaves and sends up stout, silvery stems bearing clutches of smaller leaves and understated pink-purple flowers.  It’s a pleasant, restful sort of plant creating an old-style, cottage garden feeling but what goes on around these Lamb’s Ears in midsummer is far from restful.

From the middle of June, a dark, chunky bee can be seen patrolling the patch of silvery-green leaves and I spend more time than I should watching him.  Whereas most bees are gentle creatures keeping themselves to themselves, this one is a bit of a thug, oozing anger and aggression.  He is the male wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), mostly black but with yellow markings along the sides of his abdomen, head and legs, reminiscent of the warpaint worn by native American tribes.  He is about the same length as a honeybee but much broader making him quite imposing as he moves quickly about the patch of Lamb’s Ear.  His movement is distinctive, he hovers then moves rapidly to a new spot, hovers, moves, all the time buzzing noisily.  It feels like he is looking for something.  And that’s exactly what he is doing, looking.  Should he spot another male wool-carder bee or a different insect on his patch, he will chase it away by flying directly at it.  I have seen him attack a bumblebee at least twice his size and knock it to the ground.  But, not only is he aggressive, he is armed; the rear of his abdomen sports five stout spines which he will use to injure or kill the intruding insects and there are reports of male wool-carder bees disabling honeybees who dared to feed from their patch.

All this aggressive energy is directed towards protecting the patch of Lamb’s Ear for himself and his harem, for now and then a female wool-carder bee will appear.  She looks very like the male, only a bit smaller; the wool-carder bee is one of the only species in this country where the male bee is larger than the female.  When the male sees her feeding from the flowers he will pounce and, without any preliminaries, mating will ensue. This is a vigorous but brief activity sometimes causing the flower stem to vibrate before the two disengage and go about their business again.  Unlike most solitary bees, where females mate once, wool-carder females undergo multiple matings so that, after a short time, our male will mate with the same female again and should a different female appear he will attempt to mate with her.  One valiant observer went to the trouble of watching an individual male wool-carder in his garden and reported that the bee mated sixteen times in one day.

This focus on the aggressive behaviour of the male wool-carder bee tends to obscure the fact that it is the female that does all the hard work of nest building and egg laying.  The wool-carder bee is a solitary species so that individual mated females build their nests alone, unlike the more familiar social honeybees and bumblebees.  Nesting occurs in preformed aerial cavities in dead wood, in walls or in hollow stems, including the tubes found in bee hotels.  Once she has identified a suitable site, the female strips or “cards” woolly fibrous material from plant leaves with her mandibles (hence the name wool-carder) and takes it back to her nest to line and plug the cavity (see the pictures below).  Lamb’s Ear leaves are a popular choice for “carding” but Great Mullein or Yarrow can also be used.  If you look carefully at the leaves of these plants you can sometimes see bare areas where she has been actively collecting fibres.  Within the nest, she lays eggs and equips them with a mixture of nectar and pollen.  The eggs develop in the nest where they stay until new bees emerge next summer and the whole cycle begins again.

So, if you have a patch of Lamb’s Ear in your garden take a look, there’s a good chance that wool-carder bees will be using it and you too can be enthralled by their antics.

Male wool carder bee
Male wool-carder bee – look at his spines.

 

Male wool carder bee in flight
Male wool-carder bee in flight

 

Anthidium manicatum mating pair
Wool-carder bee – mating pair

 

Wool carder bee collecting fibres
Female wool-carder bee collecting fibres

 

Wool carder bee gathering fibres together
Leaning back gathering fibres together

 

Wool carder bee flying off with fibres
Female wool-carder bee in flight with ball of fibres

 

Possible female anthidium
Female wool-carder bee

 

Male wool carder bee showing spines
Male wool-carder bee

 

Bumblebee on Lamb's Ear
A brave bumblebee feeding from the lamb’s ears

 

When the “beast from the east” met Storm Emma

Here are a few photos to record yesterday’s exceptional weather when the cold air from Russia (nicknamed the Beast from the East) met Atlantic Storm Emma and large amounts of snow were dumped on the south west of the UK. Here in Totnes we experienced blizzard conditions for most of  the day, many roads were impassable and a support centre had to be set up to help people stranded in the town.

I have concentrated on some of the birds I saw feeding during the blizzard.  The photos convey the feel of the blizzard; the white-out is also shown very well in the featured image at the top of this post.

 

great tit
great tit

 

Blackbird 2
This blackbird wants to feed but can’t work out how to approach

 

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Here the blackbird has a go but isn’t very successful

 

long-tailed tits and pigeon
two long-tailed tits feeding, watched by a pigeon

 

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snow collecting in our neighbour’s front garden

 

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the view this morning after the snow stopped falling

One sunny day does not make a Spring

The sun greets the spring

And the blossom the bee,

The grass the blea hill

And the leaf the bare tree

From “Love and Memory” by John Clare

 

The signs have been there for a while.  Birds singing as though someone told them it’s time to turn up the volume.  Grassy banks dotted with starry yellow celandine flowers.  A green haze of fresh leaves slowly creeping over previously bare branches.  If only the weather would play fair it might be spring.

So, after many days of damp and grey, the sun shone, the air was warm and it was as though a transformation had taken place.  It was also Friday Market Day and, as people wandered between the stalls, they smiled at one another and remarked on the weather.  Two busking fiddlers played pleasing harmonies in the Market Square and, outside the Italian Café, it was not quite Tuscan weather but the beautiful people laughed and smiled in the Devon sunshine.

I wandered down to the Leechwell Garden where, soon after I arrived, my attention was grabbed by a low but insistent buzzing.  On an extensive stand of rosemary growing against one of the old brick walls I saw a real sign of spring. It was a chunky bee covered in rich brown hairs but with a pale nose.  Moving quickly and purposefully among the slate-blue flowers, it collected nectar, buzzing as it went.  This was a male Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes), my first one of the year and seeing it lifted my spirits.

Elsewhere in town, I looked at a huge willow (Salix caprea) that has been cleverly pollarded and trained over a wall where its many slender stems drop like water over a precipice.  The tree has been covered in immature, grey “pussy willow” catkins and, recently, these have been mutating into bright pollen-loaded male catkins. Last Friday in the sunshine the tree was very impressive: a mass of yellow flower heads, unruly brushes made from the long stamens, alive with honeybees and a few bumble bees and small flies.  The whole tree buzzed as the sun’s energy was transformed into sound.

When the bumblebees saw me, they flew off in disgust.  The honeybees, however, were drunk on pollen and nectar and either didn’t see me or didn’t care.    Many of them already carried large chunks of orange-yellow pollen to take back to the hive but when they encountered a new flower head they wallowed in it, they almost swam in the stamens.  If they could have expressed pleasure this would have been the occasion.

Later, a light mist crept over the hills to the east, gradually enveloping the town and shutting out the sun.

A plumipes
Hairy-footed flower bee on rosemary

 

willow
The willow waterfall

 

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Honeybee on willow catkin

 

honeybee 1
Honeybee with pollen on willow catkin

 

B hypnorum
Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) on willow catkin

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.