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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve recently been watching several patches of lungwort (Pulmonaria) in different parts of the town. It’s one of my favourite spring flowers bringing much needed early splashes of colour as well as food for the few bees out and about. I’ve found some of the common form with its pink and blue flowers and dappled green leaves. The Leechwell Garden also has three other cultivars, one with deep blue flowers, another with smaller white flowers and a large patch with coral pink flowers, some tinged with blue.
The common form of lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) grows wild over much of mainland Europe but it has been naturalised in Britain for many years. The oval, fleshy green leaves are decorated with silver grey spots and grow in a jumble near the ground. In early spring the plant launches volleys of brightly coloured trumpet-shaped flowers carried on sturdy stems. The immature flowers are a deep reddish pink fading to a paler pink as they grow and mature. The flower colour changes again as it ages, this time to a mauvish blue so a vigorous plant may carry two or three principal shades of flower. On a large clump of the plant the flowers shimmer and dance in the cool breezes that predominate at this time of year, creating a haze of strong colour.
There’s an interesting chemical story behind the flower colour change which may transport you back to school chemistry lessons and messing around with litmus paper. The flowers of common lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) contain coloured pigments (anthocyanins) that are sensitive to acidity. As the flower ages, there is a change in the pH (a measure of acidity or alkalinity) and the pigments change colour accordingly. The young flowers are acid and their colour is red or pink. As they mature the acidity drops and the flowers eventually turn blue.
But this is more than a chemical curiosity, the colour change is a signal to pollinators. The pink colour tells pollinators that the flower has plenty of nectar whereas the blue says “don’t bother”. Hence pollinators don’t waste time visiting low-nectar blooms and they may visit several plants looking for high nectar flowers increasing the chance of cross pollination. This, of course, raises the question of what happens in cultivars where the flower colour does not change.
It is widely reported that early botanists saw a resemblance between spotty lungwort leaves and diseased, ulcerated lungs. That’s how the name, lungwort and its Latin equivalent, Pulmonaria are supposed to have arisen. I would like to know more about this resemblance because I have no idea what “diseased, ulcerated” lungs look like. I tried to find pictures but that didn’t help either. I wonder which lung disease these early botanists, who were also physicians, were thinking of?
The apparent resemblance between the spotty leaves and diseased lungs also led medieval physicians to use lungwort preparations to treat respiratory conditions. Indeed lungwort has a long tradition of medicinal use and “officinalis” refers to this. In his 17th century herbal, Culpeper asserts: “It is of great use in diseases of the lungs” and to this day, herbalists use extracts of the plant to treat coughs and bronchitis.
The connection between lungwort leaves and diseased lungs did not impress everyone and the plant has a host of other common names of different provenance. Some refer to the Virgin Mary or where she lived, hence the names Our Lady’s Milk Drops, Mary Spilt the Milk and Jerusalem Cowslip. Another name is Soldiers and Sailors which makes a link between the flower colours and the red and blue uniforms of the army and the navy.
But what about those pollinators that are being lured by the siren-colours of lungwort flowers? I’ve seen honey bees and I’ve seen one small bumblebee which I guess is a worker based on its size. But what I’ve been waiting for is Anthophora plumipes or the Hairy-footed Flower Bee and I saw my first one, a male, on March 17. These are fairly large furry bees, the males who emerge first being gingery and the females black. They love lungwort and most days now when I go to see the Leechwell Garden lungwort I am rewarded by the sight of a male with his pale face and characteristic restless, staccato flight pattern. These Anthophora move quickly from flower to flower often buzzing loudly as they go and making it very difficult to take photos. Sometimes they disappear when I arrive but they also sometimes come to have a look; they hover near me, move in a straight line to another spot, hover again and repeat this behaviour around me until satisfied.
There must be plenty of these solitary bees about for me to see them so easily, unless of course it’s a few very busy bees. So far I have seen no females, but when I do, I will update this.
Update: I finally saw a black female on some primroses on April 12th. Ironically it was in our back garden, although we are quite close the the Leechwell Garden.
It’s nearly a year now since I began watching some solitary mason bees (probably Osmia bicornis) in the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the heart of Totnes. I was entranced as I watched the mated females building their nests in the removable tubes and in the holes in the wooden block of the fine Bug House attached to one of the old walls. They taught me so much about the life of a solitary bee.
The Leechwell Garden is a public space and the Bug House is meant to be educational so it is understood that there will be a certain level of attrition. Sometimes visitors disturb the removable tubes and a few have been knocked to the ground (the tubes that is!). Last summer about half of the filled tubes were taken which is a pity as the developing bees probably did not survive. Anyway, by the autumn of 2014 there were about 30 filled removable tubes still left and I began to wonder whether they would make it through the winter.
I thought long and hard about what to do and decided it would be better to store the tubes somewhere safer. They need to stay cool all winter so I put them in our shed which is not attached to the house. I carefully noted which was the front end of the tubes and stored them in a cardboard box with holes to allow air to circulate. I waited until October 15th last year to do this so that the bees had entered the pupal stage and would not be damaged by moving. The nests in the wooden block, of course, stayed with the Bug House in the Garden.
I can’t say I felt comfortable about doing this, it felt as though I was tampering with nature but I convinced myself it was for the best. The way things turned out, it was just as well I had put the tubes somewhere safe.
Around Christmas time, the Bug House was knocked off the wall, probably by someone using it as a step to scale the wall out of hours. It was put back, only to be knocked off again, this time early in February. With the help of Susan Taylor and of David Martin, who in fact did all the drilling and screwing, the Bug House was put up again but this time at a place I judged to be safer, higher up and away from potential scrambling routes in and out of the Garden. The Bug House has survived two falls showing it is quite tough, but I am concerned about the effect on the bees in the wooden blocks where several mud seals have been lost (see photos below); time will tell if the bees have survived.
With the winter nearly over and warmer weather in prospect, it was time to put the removable tubes back in their rightful place. Although I don’t expect to see the bees hatch until April, all the advice is to get the tubes in place by early March so that they can acclimatise and warm up slowly with the weather. So, on March 6th I opened up the box and put most of the tubes back in the Bug House. I was careful to put them back in the correct orientation so that the males can make their way out first. I saved a small number to put in an experimental Bee Hotel that I’ll describe in another post.
With the tubes safely back in the Bug House I began to look around for potential bee forage. At present there are a few flowers in the Leechwell Garden, a little rosemary, some crocuses and several clumps of pulmonaria and I have seen honeybees enjoying the rosemary on sunny days. Also in one of the adjacent car parks there are some grassy banks populated with dandelions and celandines. The dandelions are very popular with honeybees. Also one of our neighbours has a striking deep pink, ornamental plum (Prunus mume beni-chidori ) which is currently in flower and when the sun shines there is a gentle, sweet fragrance and the bees flock to it; I have seen honeybees and one bumblebee.
It still feels quite early in the year and the weather seems stuck in a cool phase, but there is some forage about and on a sunny day the bees know how to find it. By the time the Osmia hatch out, which should be mid April, there will be plenty more forage about to keep all the bees happy.
How quickly time passes! It’s already a year since I wrote my first post about the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the heart of Totnes. Each month I’ve written about the plants and the wildlife and it’s been fascinating to watch the Garden change with the seasons. I’ve learnt so much and also met some wonderful people both here in Totnes and in the blogosphere. (here is a quick link to these articles)
I visited the Garden several times at the end of December 2014 and at the beginning of January 2015. I was particularly interested to see how the present state of the Garden compared with what I saw a year ago. I found, just like last year, an overall look that was monochrome, especially on dull days. The trees were mostly bare skeletal branches and there were very few flowers at this low time of year.
It wasn’t exactly the same, though. A year ago, I found more colour. Last year, yellow crab apples were still gracing their tree in late December. This year the fruit disappeared several weeks earlier, partly because of the attention of the birds. Last year I was taken by the mass of bright red rose hips on the pergola. This year these are almost uniformly black and shrivelled. Perhaps this is due to the mostly mild, mostly damp weather.
Looking around for more winter interest this year, I found a variegated holly with its leaves shining in the sunshine. The olive tree looked very healthy but I doubt we shall be seeing single estate Leechwell Garden Olive Oil anytime soon. A nearby sage bush also stood out. Near the water I found several mahonia with their frothy lemon yellow flowers and for a short time I watched a visiting insect which I think was a hoverfly.
The Leechwell Garden is normally a quiet place but towards the end of December there was drama. The Bug House was found to be damaged and had to be removed for repair! Apparently, someone had tried to climb in to the Garden when the gate was locked. They probably steadied themselves by standing on the Bug House which gave way under their weight. But all is now fine; the Bug House has been mended and returned to its rightful place. Fortunately, the removable tubes containing mason bee nests had been put somewhere for safe keeping over the winter and the wooden block nests seem to be undamaged. The new bees should be flying in a few months.
What we don’t know, of course, is what happened to the intruder.
Early January does feel like a low time of year and some of this feeling may be due to expectations raised but ultimately unfulfilled by our over-commercialised Christmas. The Garden does not reflect these feelings and if you look around, there are hopeful signs of the new growing season everywhere. Several trees are now veiled in a haze of small catkins getting ready to spread their pollen when the wind and the time are right. The clumps of the bee-friendly plant lungwort may not look particularly attractive at this time of year but they are already showing several stems with large buds. There will be flowers in a few weeks. I even found a few yellow flowers on a clump of primroses.
Some of the most striking signs of the new season can be seen on the crab apple tree. From a distance its smooth branches have seemingly been invaded by regular short spiky outgrowths. These will be transformed in a few month’s time by blossom and leaves. Close up, we can see the intricate but beautiful textures of these buds and their rich, reddish-brown colour.
Postscript: I can’t keep up with Nature! I wrote most of this post earlier in the week and should have hit the publish button then. On a quick walk through the Garden this morning I saw several pink flowers on the lungwort and the first frogspawn in the watery area.
It’s coming on Christmas,
They’re cutting down trees.
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
From River by Joni Mitchell
It’s only a week or so until the shortest day and, in the town, the Christmas lights have been twinkling merrily since late November. Shop windows struggle under the weight of gifts and expectation and there has been an outbreak of Christmas Fayres in local schools and nearby villages. Totnes will soon host its own festive late-night shopping events. Perhaps all this brashness and brightness is an antidote to the greyness handed out by the recent weather.
My overriding impression this November was a lack of sunshine although there must have been some to produce the rainbow captured in the photograph. We also had our first frosts, waking up to white roofs, and on other days we were buffeted by heavy rain and strong winds which finally disposed of the leaves. The view from my kitchen window changed during the month to one dominated by bare branches.
Down in the Leechwell Garden, November was a time of seeds and fruits. I remarked a month or so ago on the “almost perfect green spheres tinged subtly with red”, the crab apples. I wondered how these would mature and I now have my answer. By November they were looking distinctly worse for wear and the “green tinged with red” had transmuted to a sickly yellow-orange. Some fruits had fallen off altogether and some were rotting, having been attacked by predators. I discovered the identity of one of the predators as I stood under the tree with my camera. A blackbird landed above me, took a casual peck at one of the fruit and flew off in disgust.
The blackbird may also have been responsible for damage to some chunky overripe rose hips nearby. The same bird will probably be back, when the time is right, to sample the berries offered by a cotoneaster. The shrub already seemed to be spreading its arms to make the berries more accessible.
Beneath one of the flowering quinces I found three golden fruit lying on the ground near the old stone wall. Whether they were just overripe or whether the blackbird had been at them, I don’t know. They looked very tempting but I am told that to humans the fruit are unpalatably bitter unless cooked. I deliberately left the bottle in the picture as it highlights one of the problems faced by a public garden. Whereas most people enjoy and respect the Leechwell Garden, a few people see nothing wrong in lobbing a bottle over the wall as a means of convenient disposal.
Perhaps I am being too hard on the blackbird. It has to get its food somewhere and there is an interesting biological chain beginning with sunlight falling on leaves, this energy leading via photosynthesis to tree growth and eventually to fruit which are eaten by the blackbird. Pollinators have a role in there as well. These chains and their relationships feature strongly in the nature writing of Mark Cocker, recently compiled in a new book (Claxton – Field notes from a small planet). Cocker sees the calls of swifts and swallows as a transmutation of “insect protein converted through the birds’ digestive system into the music”. Should I see the chiding call of the blackbird as a transmutation of the photosynthetic activity in the leaves of the crab apple tree?
Down in the shadier part of the Garden, the spindle tree continued to light the way. In September, I commented on the shocking pink fruits. By early November, these fruits had opened to reveal bright orange seeds and more gaudiness. By the end of the month, only the pink seed casings remained, looking like tiny ornate lampshades. Another splash of temporary colour came from the ginkgo tree which glowed briefly as though a switch had been flicked and then promptly lost all its leaves.
Even this late in the year a few plants seem determined to try to give us colour. Among these survivors were the mullein, still painted in splashes of yellow, some rosemary showing new mauvish-blue blossom and a bloody cranesbill with its small magenta flowers . A borage also had a few blue flowers but they didn’t look properly formed.
The Leechwell Garden was, for many years, an orchard so it seemed fitting that three apple trees were planted late in the month. Two dessert varieties popular in the 19th century, Laxton’s Superb and Ribston Pippin were planted together with a James Grieve, “the classic Scottish cooking apple” but, in my experience, very good eaten raw. The three varieties seem to have been chosen partly to allow cross pollination but they will need the insects, especially the mason bees from the bug house, to do their bit in the spring.