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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?

…………………………….

“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.

………………………………………….

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)

Seaside Storms and bumblebees

By the end of October, I had begun to feel that autumn was running away from me.   Then came the announcement that a second lockdown would be imposed.  So, one afternoon at the beginning of November, I decided I needed to get outside and went to Roundham Head in Paignton, one of my favourite nearby nature haunts.  Roundham Head sits roughly in the centre of the semi-circular arc of Torbay and from the southern side of the promontory there are fine long views around to Brixham with its harbour, small boats and breakwater. 

My main reason for visiting, though, was the public garden built on the southern slopes of the headland.  Here, zig zag paths meander up and down between borders stocked with tender and unusual plants many originating in warmer climates but thriving here in the mild maritime conditions of Torbay.  Many of these plants continue to flower here in autumn and winter.

I started at the top of the public garden looking south west with the low sun creating a dazzling mirror across the wet, low-tide sand at Goodrington where dogs and their owners rushed back and forth.  There was rain about, though, and across the bay Brixham was veiled in a grey mist, its landmark lighthouse barely visible.  Fortunately for my afternoon, the storm gradually moved away, and the cloud over Paignton evaporated leaving blue sky and sunshine but with a strong blustery wind. 

Agapanthus seed heads
Yucca gloriosa with its lantern shaped flowers

I wandered about the gardens where the low sun was casting long shadows from the trees and shrubs, draining them of colour, leaving dark silhouettes.   The agapanthus had lost their blue flowers, replacing them with mop heads of chunky green seed capsules, like so many large lozenges.  A fuchsia hedge, covered in blossom last time I visited was now nearly devoid of flowers but, in compensation, yellowish-brown clumps of fungi grew beneath.  Some plants were still in bloom, though, and I was surprised to find several large clusters of creamy coloured lantern-shaped flowers with pinkish sepals, hanging like ornate chandeliers above thick clumps of spiky strap-shaped leaves.  These are yucca gloriosa, plants originating in the southern US although they seem to be very happy here.

Hoverfly (Eristalis tenax) on rosemary

Spread about the upper, sunnier parts of the garden, I also found several large banks of rosemary.  The plant grows prolifically here, covering long stretches of wall where it hangs like a pale blue curtain.  It begins to flower in late summer and continues through the winter providing important forage for insects; many of its locations here are also sheltered from the wind.   Despite recent heavy rain, the rosemary was covered in small, spiky, silvery-blue flowers and this is where I began to see pollinators.   A hoverfly, probably Eristalis tenax, the world’s most widespread hoverfly, was feeding and I managed a few photos despite its jumpiness.  Then I saw the first of several small bumblebees each with a furry, pale chestnut thorax and stripy abdomen.  They were nectaring from the rosemary, moving purposefully from flower to flower, taking away a dusting of pollen from the overarching stamens as they fed.  These were common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) and as well as feeding they occasionally basked on the stones of the wall in the sunshine.  Sometimes, two or more were present on the same patch of rosemary and there was a little joshing between the insects.

I took as many photos as the carder bees would allow in the hope of being able to see their back legs as these are a key to establishing the gender. Where I was able to see the back legs, the insects were all males and Steven Falk kindly helped confirm my identification. These males must be late survivors from the second brood. The mated females will have settled down to hibernate and the males are left to live out their short lives.

Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) feeding from rosemary. If you look at the back leg, the tibia has a rounded end so this is a male. Steven Falk also pointed out the antennal segments which are bulging rather than cylindrical, another characteristic of the males of this species.
Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) feeding from rosemary. This is another male with a round ended tibia.

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) feeding from rosemary. This was a worker carryng pollen, (I have other out of focus photos showing the pollen)

I did see one smallish buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) collecting pollen, a worker which most likely comes from one of the winter active colonies that live in these gardens.  I was surprised to see so few but perhaps the weather had put them off or there were other flowers available in the many nearby private gardens.   The surviving male common carder bees have no nest to return to for shelter which may be why they were still foraging in this threateningly damp weather.

The storm over Broadsands and the change in the light

By now, another storm had bubbled up from the south west but this time it was closer and a fine grey haze hung over the beach and countryside at Broadsands just along from Goodrington.   The blustery wind chased the autumn leaves about and hurled a few large drops of rain at me, stinging my face.  The sea took on a sinister greenish blue tone and a kestrel appeared, hovering in the wind above the gardens, eventually landing on the steep cliff face.   I decided to get back to the car before the rain set in properly. 

Cogden beach in west dorset – a late summer’s day visit

[This article appeared in the October edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine and describes a visit I made to Cogden Beach on July 30th this year. ]

I’ve driven along the coast road eastwards from Burton Bradstock many times but the view as the road levels out at the top of the first hill never fails to lift my spirits.  That first glimpse of the sea.   Those coastal hills spread out ahead as they slope gently down to the water.  That vast shingle beach with its fringe of foam, stretching into the distance.  This time I was on my way to Cogden Beach, part of the larger Chesil Beach and one of my favourite west Dorset places where I can be outside in the air, close to the sea and surrounded by nature.

The road dipped down and I reached the car park above Cogden but I had never seen it this full.  Many people were taking advantage of the warm, sunny, late July day and I was lucky to find one of the last parking spaces.    The view from the car park across Chesil Beach was as familiar and fascinating as always.  The strip of pale brown shingle swept eastwards across my field of vision in a broad arc turning sharply towards Portland, its distinctive wedge shape held in a blue haze as if suspended above the water.  The sea was a uniform azure, a colour so intense in that day’s strong sun that I couldn’t stop looking. Towards Portland, though, the sun intervened, casting its light downwards across the sea, silvering the surface which shimmered in the breeze like crumpled aluminium foil. 

I left the car park and headed down hill towards the sea across the short grass that appeared to have been grazed recently, a pity as this had eliminated most of the flowers, and the insects.  Dark sloes and ripening blackberries showed in the path-side scrub, sure signs that the year was moving on.  Families passed me, some laden with colourful beach kit, others dressed for coastal walking.  Stands of intensely pink, great willowherb and sun-yellow fleabane grew in a damp area as the path approached the shingle.  A small flock of about 50 birds, probably starlings, surprised me by flying up from the scrub in a mini-murmuration.  They banked and wheeled, flying back and forth for a short time before settling back on the bushes where they chatted noisily to one another. 

I walked on to the shingle beach where, ahead of me, a small windbreak village had grown up. Some of the inhabitants were simply soaking up the sun, others were swimming or enjoying stand up paddleboards while some concentrated on their fishing.   Heat shimmered from the pea-sized pebbles but a light breeze kept the temperature pleasant.  Desultory waves made their way up the beach disturbing the shingle which retreated in a rush leaving some white water.

The wild garden of beach plants looking west

Towards the back of the shingle was the wild garden of beach plants that emerges afresh from the pebbles each spring and summer making this place so special.   I stopped to look at the sea kale that grows so profusely here.   Its thick, cabbage-like leaves were a glaucous green tinged with varying amounts of purple that seemed to come and go according to the angle of vision rather like the colours on a soap bubble.  Flowering season was long past but the memory lingered and each clump was adorned with a large fan of hundreds of spherical greenish yellow seeds    Among the clumps of sea kale were the roughly crimped leaves of yellow horned-poppy, displaying its distinctive papery yellow flowers alongside some of the very long, scimitar-like seeds pods.  The almost primeval vision created by these rare and unusual plants growing from the shingle was completed by clumps of burdock with its prickly green and purple hedgehog-like flowers.

Sea kale showing the glaucous leaves and the fan of greenish yellow seeds
Yellow horned-poppy

The coast path heads westwards along the back edge of this wild garden of beach plants and for the most part it is rough and stony.  In places, however, shallow holes have appeared exposing the sandy soil beneath.  Large black and yellow striped insects were moving about in some of these exposed holes.  Sometimes these insects would dig, rather like a dog with sand shooting out behind them.  Sometimes they encountered a small stone and lifted it away, secured between two legs.  These are beewolves (Philanthus triangulum), spectacular solitary wasps up to 17mm long that were once very rare in the UK but, since the 1980s, have expanded their range. 

I watched them for a short time before heading west on to the shingle.   I soon reached the area where there are low cliffs at the back of the beach composed of thickly packed firm sand, topped by rough grass and clumps of desiccated thrift.  These cliffs were punctuated by small holes, sometimes with a spill of sand emerging and here I found the same beewolves with their distinctive yellow and black markings. They were coming and going from the holes regularly and sometimes they would rest in a hole and look outwards. 

Male beewolf with distinctive facial markings
Female beewolf with prey

Beewolves have an interesting lifecycle.  The insects emerge from hibernation in the summer and the females begin to dig nest burrows up to a metre long in friable soil or sand with as many as 30 side burrows that act as brood chambers.   At about the same time the females choose males for mating.   Each female then hunts honeybees, paralysing them with her sting and bringing them back to place in each brood chamber where she also lays a single egg. This matures into a larva that feeds from the honeybees, hibernates over winter and emerges the following summer as a new beewolf.   Although this may seem slightly gruesome, the number of beewolves in the UK is still low and does not impact significantly on the honeybee community.  Also, adult beewolves are herbivores feeding only on pollen and nectar collected from flowers so acting as important pollinators.

I was able to witness some of this activity including a female returning with prey held beneath her to be mobbed by other beewolves and common wasps trying to steal her cargo.  For most of the time, however, these insects get on with their lives quietly, unseen by visitors.  I did notice one couple who chose a pleasant spot on the top of the low cliffs to sit and admire the view, only to find they were surrounded by beewolves.  The couple moved but in fact these beautiful insects are not predatory and pose no threat to humans.

By mid-afternoon, it was time for me to leave.  I took in one last view along the coast and headed back up the hill knowing that I would return in another season.

Cogden Beach is at the western end of Chesil Beach and can be accessed either via the South West Coast Path or from the National Trust Car Park on the coast road (B3157) between Burton Bradstock and Abbotsbury. OS grid reference SY 50401 88083, GPS coordinates 50.690271, -2.7035263.

Autumn in the Blackpool Valley

We perched on a stone wall overlooking the pebble beach and sea at Blackpool Sands to eat our sandwiches.  Across the water, the Start Point peninsula was a moody, dark bluish grey outline while mobile pools of bright light wandered about Start Bay as gashes in the cloud cover opened and closed. 

We had walked down the Blackpool Valley starting in bright autumn sunshine on the western edge of Dartmouth where a huge housebuilding project is now underway.  Narrow country lanes took us away from the commotion into quieter places.  Hedges were punctuated periodically with flushes of flowering ivy and the sun, following heavy rain, seemed to have brought the insects out.   An elegant ichneumon wasp, largely black but with a few white markings and with reddish legs was cleaning its antennae, and nearby we spotted a mating pair of hoverflies.  Their striped thorax reminded me of mid-20th century school blazers.  A beautiful male wall butterfly basked briefly in the sunshine, its wings, the colour of paprika and cinnamon held the essence of the season changing around us.  A few pollen-loaded female ivy bees joined the show while, on the road, two all black devil’s coach horse beetles wandered past giving us their scorpion-like, tale up, warning greeting.

The ichneumon wasp cleaning its antennae. Malcolm Storey on the British Ichneumonoidea Facebook site identified this as a male Vulgichneumon saturatorius.

Mating hoverflies, most likely Helophilus pendulus

Male wall butterfly (Lasiommata megera)

Devil’s coach-horse beetle (Ocypus olens)

At Venn Cross, we turned right along Blackpool Valley Road descending between dramatic hills and following the course of a stream in the valley bottom.  Lane side hedges had avoided a vicious flailing this season; hazel and sycamore had grown prolifically together with a few sprigs of rowan and dog rose, giving the lane an enclosed feeling.  Veteran beeches and oaks grew from the hedges and when the sun played across the beech leaves it accentuated their kaleidoscopic colour range of greens, yellows and browns.  The lower trunk of one of the old beeches had become an impromptu local notice board including a carved declaration of love. 

The declaration of love carved on a beech tree. I wonder who they were?

Blackpool Valley Road

The main stream passing over a weir, well down the Blackpool Valley

The water gathered force as we headed southwards with small streams joining the main flow from surrounding hills and, eventually we came to Riversbridge Farm, one of several old water mills situated along the valley.  Altogether we counted five former mills before we reached the sea, each set in this landscape of trees, pastures and steep hillsides.   Today it was a peaceful scene but I wondered how much it had changed over the years.  The artist Lucien Pissarro worked and lived here a century ago producing a charming set of images of the valley, a record of country life in the first part of the 20th century and apart from the arrival of the motor car the landscape and buildings look very similar (see picture below).  The mills, of course, are no longer used, they are mostly private dwellings but the buildings show signs of their former activity alongside 21st century incursions such as a small water driven hydro and a hot tub. 

We left Blackpool Sands to complete the circuit back to our car.  As we stopped to look back at the beach, as many as 30 house martins circled over the cove feeding, perhaps before leaving for warmer places. 

Blackpool Farm, formerly a mill

Blackpool Valley, Lucien Pissarro,1913, probably looking north towards Dartmouth ( City of Edinburgh Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/blackpool-valley-1913-93704)

We walked down the Blackpool Valley near Dartmouth in south Devon on October 8th 2020

Ivy bee stories 2020

Even before the recent storms there were signs of the changing season.  Flushes of red berries had begun to appear in roadside hedges and subtle colour changes were permeating leaf canopies.  One sign for me, though, that always heralds the arrival of autumn is the emergence of the ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last species of solitary bee to appear in this country.  It’s the time of year when I stand in front of clumps of flowering ivy gazing at these insects feasting on this final flush of food. So, here are two stories about my recent experiences with the ivy bees. 

The first concerns a visit I made to Roundham Head, Paignton, south Devon in the second week of September:

The old stone walls at Roundham Head with their ivy covering and an intriguing gateway

Hidden away on one side of a residential street on Roundham Head is a curious area of rough grass and trees divided into rectangular spaces by old stone walls and loved nowadays by dog walkers.  This was once the kitchen garden of a nearby Victorian villa, now a care home, set in a commanding position on the edge of the promontory overlooking Torbay.   The kitchen garden is surplus to requirements but the land has not been developed and the old walls have been commandeered by ivy.  At this time of year, this normally dark green and slightly sinister climber adopts a new persona covering itself with lime green globe flower heads creating a multi-sensory experience for anyone prepared to look.

I approach one of the old stone walls bathed in sunshine, and gradually I become aware of the sickly-sweet perfume emanating from the ivy flowers to pervade the surrounding air.  This perfume attracts huge numbers of insects which move about the ivy flowers in all directions at high speed, occasionally pausing on a flower to sample the extraordinary, late-season canteen of pollen and nectar.  This profusion of insect life means that a clearly audible buzz surrounds the ivy. 

Today, I see honeybees, hoverflies, a speckled wood butterfly and a buff tailed bumblebee together with many, many ivy bees.  These insects must have emerged very recently and with their pale chestnut-haired thorax and yellow and black-hooped abdomen they look very fresh.  The slimmer, slighter males (about two thirds the size of a honeybee) outnumber the chunkier females who collect lumps of bright yellow pollen on their back legs.  The pulsating movement of so many insects implies a huge kinetic energy fuelled by the sugary nectar provided by the ivy flowers.

Wherever there is ivy and sunshine there are ivy bees on the old walls and the same is true when I walk through the nearby public gardens built on the cliffs overlooking Goodrington Sands.  The gentle microenvironment offered by this seaside garden supports succulents, palms and other tender plants and today the agapanthus are providing flashes of a bright steely blue.  Ivy has also insinuated its way into the gardens growing along old walls and railings overlooking the sea.  

At one end of the gardens is a partly concealed path leading downwards to the beach below and along one side of the path I find a long grassy bank.  The grass has not been cut this summer, a result of the pandemic, but beneath the grass cover I can see bare red soil with open holes and many more male ivy bees.  This is the main nest site for the ivy bees at Roundham Head. The males are even more excited here, dancing above the grass, flying backwards and forwards rapidly and from side to side in a tick tock movement.  They occasionally explore the holes but emerge disappointed and fly off.  Sometimes there is a little joshing between the males who seem overexcited but they are waiting for females to emerge so that they can mate. 

Today, though, I don’t witness any matings but I do see a few females returning to the nest area carrying bright yellow pollen so some couplings have occurred.  These mated females enter the nest holes and leave pollen as food for their larvae. It does feel, however, as though the main emergence of female ivy bees has not yet occurred here.  The males will go on waiting by the nest site for that chance to mate, visiting the ivy occasionally for a top up of sugary nectar.

Male ivy bees

Female ivy bee with pollen

The grassy bank with the nest area overlooking Goodrington Sands

Male ivy bees at the nest site

Female ivy bee with pollen returning to her nest

…………………….

My second story comes from a visit we made to West Sussex in the third week of September to deliver our daughter to University.  We had a few days walking in the county including this visit to the coast:

A view along West Wittering beach with East Head on the right stretching into the distance and a storm behind. A man is painting, looking towards the sea and it was a mystery as to how he kept the canvas on the easel in the wind. (photo courtesy of Hazel Strange)

Autumn had arrived with a vengeance in West Sussex, the temperature had dropped by nearly ten degrees overnight and there were heavy squally showers at West Wittering where we had planned to walk.   Rain fell as we made our way along quiet lanes between houses to access the track along the water’s edge leading to East Head a huge sand spit projecting into Chichester Harbour.  Long views across the flat watery surroundings made approaching storms easy to spot adding an elemental feel to the day.    East Head is coated in marram grass which must help to stabilise its structure but, as we walked along the beach, there were signs of erosion at the sides of the spit and much of it is cordoned off to prevent further damage.  Near the tip, it was possible to look at plants growing away from the edge such as sea holly, its prickly blue flowers faded to grey, sea rocket with its pale violet flowers and sea spurge its grey green leaf-covered stems tipped with greenish yellow complex flowers.

Banks of ivy overhanging the stony beach above Chichester Harbour with East Head in the distance

Behind East Head is a lagoon with salt marshes and the path along this side eventually curves round to meet shingle beaches on the edge of the harbour.  Oaks grew along the edge and a few generous clumps of ivy overhung the beach.  Much was in flower and here I saw the first ivy bees of the day, all males with clear yellow and black hoops moving backwards and forwards with high speed despite the lack of sun. 

This kind of watery environment with extensive salt marshes should also favour the close relative of the ivy bee, the rare Colletes halophilus which Steven Falk refers to as the sea aster bee owing to its preference for the flower. I looked around for sea aster and found some, rather pale and faded but I saw no insects on the flowers.  Then we came to a grassy open area by the side of the water.  Large stands of gorse were growing by the edge and one of these was smothered by Russian vine, an invasive scrambling climber with many racemes of small white flowers.  I have seen this used by ivy bees in Devon, even when flowering ivy is abundant and the same was true here, or so I thought.  Insects that looked like ivy bee males were moving about the flowers rapidly, barely resting to feed but I managed a few photos as it was otherwise difficult to see the details of the insects.  In the photos, to my surprise, all of the bees I captured on camera had black and white hoops. 

The sea aster bee looks very similar to the ivy bee only its hoops are white compared to the ivy bee’s yellow hoops.  So, could I have seen the rare sea aster bee here?  The environment is certainly right for the insect and it has been recorded at this site before but it is impossible to draw a firm conclusion based on colouration. Male ivy bees can fade, losing their yellow colour and microscopic analysis of the mouth parts is required to distinguish males of the two species unequivocally but that is beyond my capability.

Females are easier to distinguish from photographs as there are yellow furry patches, like epaulettes, at the top of the abdomen of the ivy bee that are lacking in the sea aster bee.  You can see these furry patches in the picture of the ivy bee at the end of this post.  Unfortunately, I saw no females that day but it provides a good reason to return to this fascinating place with its mosaic of environments.

Male ivy bee at West Wittering

Russian vine with possible sea aster bee.

Russian vine with possible sea aster bee

Female ivy bee showing furry patch at the top of the abdomen (between left wing and left back leg on this picture).

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

Rewilding a flower-rich meadow – Lockdown Nature WalkS 9

Flower-rich hay meadows were once a major feature of our countryside but from the mid-20th century onwards a tidal wave of agricultural intensification swept across farmland taking away 97% of the hay meadows along with the colourful flowers that once grew there.  Together with increased use of chemicals and pesticides, the effect on wildlife has been devastating with farmland birds such as the linnet and the yellowhammer declining by more than 50% since the 1970s.  It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, when Hazel recently returned from one of her solo walks to tell me she had discovered a flowery meadow on the outskirts of the town with many interesting insects.  So, for my ninth Lockdown Nature Walk I want to take you to this hidden, rather magical place. (For my previous Lockdown Nature Walks, click here).

Our starting point is Harper’s Hill, the old road to Plymouth and the West (see Lockdown Nature Walk 7), that heads steeply upwards away from the town and the main Kingsbridge road.  The walk I shall describe was done on an overcast morning in mid-July. 

After crossing the busy Kingsbridge road, we trudged slowly up the steep hill, soon entering the tree-enclosed part of the track that felt dark, damp and cool that morning.  As we passed a small open area on the right of the track, though, the sun broke through the cloud for a short time, illuminating a large patch of brambles.  Many small brown butterflies flitted about the flowers in the warm sunshine together with bumblebees and one beautiful demoiselle. 

In time, the lane levelled out and along the damp, shaded banks on the left were several patches of an unusual plant with large elongated heart-shaped leaves and bright red candle-shaped flowers.  This is red bistort, probably a garden escapee as my wildflower books don’t consider it suitable to include.  Several black and yellow wasps were nectaring from the flowers that morning.

Red bistort with nectaring wasp

At Tristford Cross, we turned right along the old road above Broomborough Down.  As befits a ridgeway road, there were fine views across countryside towards Dartmoor, and this part of the walk felt bright, breezy and fresh, a perfect antidote to the gloomy national news.  Although the verges were dominated by thuggish swathes of nettles, there were plenty of other flowers.  Common red soldier beetles, popularly referred to as hogweed bonking beetles, were performing on the white, tea plate-sized flowers of their favoured plant whilst honeybees wallowed in frothy, creamy clumps of meadowsweet.

Hogweed with mating pair of common red soldier beetles (Rhagonycha fulva)

We soon reached a clutch of caravans and outbuildings by the roadside, marking the start of a stony track descending downhill, away from the ridgeway road.  The man who lives here keeps chickens and cultivates vegetables and below his neat and tidy settlement there was a large stand of brambles with several white butterflies feeding. 

This stony track is a continuation of Jackman’s Lane (another section was featured in Lockdown Nature Walk 7), a typical green lane with woodland on the left and high Devon hedges on the right.  When I walked here about two weeks previously, the hogweed had just come into flower attracting many black and yellow long-horned beetles.  Since then the vegetation had increased making the lane feel more enclosed.  The hogweed was also past its best but wasps, hoverflies and more soldier beetles were enjoying what remained of the flowers. 

Despite the increased vegetation and the variable cloud cover, plenty of light reached the lane but this changed when tall trees began to enclose the track.  Some way into this darker section we passed an enclosed compound on the right-hand side of the lane, surrounded by sturdy metal fences; this is the Permaculture Centre based around an old concrete water reservoir. 

Hazel carried on down Jackman’s Lane for a longer walk while I located a makeshift path through the line of trees away from the lane, just beyond the Permaculture Centre.  This path is like a portal between two worlds and it transported me from a mostly monochrome green lane into an open grassy meadow set on a steeply sloping hillside and full of colourful flowers and insects.   A bench has been installed at the top of the hill so that people can sit and enjoy the meadow and the views across the town of Totnes and to the hills of Dartmoor.  Follaton Oak, a recent housing development,  lies at the bottom of the meadow.

View from the meadow to the recent housing development and beyond to the Follaton Arboretum and the town of Totnes

I walked slowly downhill, passing a copious clump of brambles where a few bumblebees were feeding from the pinkish flowers.  At first, yellow was the dominant flower colour in the meadow with large amounts of bird’s foot trefoil growing across most of the area.  Although bird’s foot trefoil grows widely in the UK, I don’t remember having seen so much of the plant growing in one place. There were also some yellow heads of a dandelion-family flower bobbing in the breeze (cat’s ear or hawkbit perhaps); a few clumps of thick rushy grass suggested underlying dampness.  Purple began to compete with yellow further down the slope where large stands of thistle and knapweed flourished.  White clover dominated some areas. 

A section of the meadow with bird’s foot trefoil and knapweed

Now and then, the sun broke through the cloud and the mosaic of meadow flowers sparkled in the bright sunlight as though many small, coloured lights had suddenly been switched on. With all these flowers, I expected to find many insects and I wasn’t disappointed.  Red-tailed bumblebees fed from the knapweed and thistles, and crickets and grasshoppers scattered in sudden leaps to avoid me as I walked. The stars of the insect show were, however, the distinctive black and red burnet moths (Zygaena).   These medium-sized, day-flying moths have a wingspan of about 3cm and are unmistakeable.  With their shiny black forewings decorated with red spots, they look as though they have put on smart black jackets with bright red buttons.   Their black, club-shaped antennae are another notable feature. (See pictures at the end of this post)

I came across the burnet moths all over the site, often when they were feeding on knapweed or thistles and occasionally on bird’s foot trefoil.  From my photos and counting the spots on their forewings, they seem to be a mixture of five-spot and six-spot burnets.  When they find a good flower to feed from, they stay there for some time but I did see a few flying about the site.  They fly slowly, almost hovering, exposing their black abdomen and bright red hind wings.  The selection of flowers here is ideal for these moths: bird’s foot trefoil is the preferred food plant of the caterpillar and knapweed and thistles are liked by the adults for nectaring.

The burnet moths were not having it all to themselves, though, as there were butterflies enjoying the meadow as well. A tortoiseshell and a ringlet were flying and on two occasions an orange-brown small skipper butterfly and a burnet moth quietly coexisted on the same knapweed flower head (see picture at the top of this post). 

This is an extensive area of meadow grassland on this hillside above the recent Follaton Oak housing development and I was intrigued to know how it came to be here. The original proposal for the development shows pictures of the area as rough pasture before it was developed but indicates that it should become “ecological grassland”, as it clearly has. The proposal also suggests the planting of fruit trees on the site and there are several apple trees now bearing fruit. 

I wanted to know how the site was maintained so I spoke to Carol Owen of the Follaton Oak Residents Group.  She told me that the meadow is being left to be as wild as possible, mowed and cleared just twice each year.  Docks are becoming rather too prevalent so the residents try to cut these where possible. For the most part, though, no additional seeding had taken place so the many flowers we see now are those that have grown naturally.  Insects have colonised the area showing how easy it can be to achieve a form of rewilding.  The result is this wonderful natural area on the edge of the town.  

From the meadow, there is a precipitous stony path descending between the houses with some good stands of ragwort growing nearby.  Go straight ahead from here to access a path leading to the Follaton Arboretum or walk along the roads between the houses to reach the Plymouth Road for a return to the town centre.

Six-spot burnet moth ( Zygaena filipendulae) feeding on bird’s foot trefoil, note the proboscis probing the flower

Five-spot burnet moth (Zygaena trifoli or lonicerae) feeding on knapweed
Six-spot burnet moth in flight
Meadow grasshopper (Chorthippus parallelus)
Based on its long antennae this is a bush cricket but from the photo, I cant tie this down to a species.
Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)

A floral paradise – Lockdown Nature Walks 8

The Lockdown may be easing but with coronavirus still circulating and with little sensible guidance coming from central government, life is far from normal.  So, I am continuing my Lockdown Exercise Walks and avoiding large gatherings where possible.  In this eighth Walk, I want to take you to one of my favourite parts of the south Devon coast near Prawle Point, Devon’s southernmost headland. 

The forecast for the coast was good so, towards the end of the third week of June, we headed off across the rolling hills of the South Hams towards Kingsbridge.  The weather, though, seemed to be unaware of the forecast.   Great slabs of grey cloud loomed ahead and there were clear signs of recent rain.  I began to wonder if this trip were such a good idea but we pressed on, knowing how quixotic the Devon weather can be.  At Kingsbridge we picked up the coast road turning right at the village of Frogmore across a watery inlet to follow four miles of narrow, winding lanes. 

Not only are the lanes narrow here, they are enclosed by Devon hedges, creating a narrow corridor with steep banks. At this time of year, the banks are smothered with lush vegetation, mostly green but enlivened by splashes of white cow parsley, yellowing Alexanders and bright pink foxglove remnants.  In just one spot, a large patch of rosebay willowherb coloured the bank coral pink as if paint had been spilt and when we stopped to let an oncoming car pass, a few spikes of purple tufted vetch cried out to be seen.

As we approached the village of East Prawle we passed the duckpond with its large clumps of chrome yellow monkey flower and parked by the village green.  Hazel wanted a longer walk, whereas I wanted to spend time looking at flowers, so we agreed to meet later.  I began by heading towards the coast down a steep road edged by rough stone walls.  Fulsome clumps of red valerian clung to the stone, rain-remnant drops of water hanging from the flowers like tiny glass globes.  The sun began to break through the cloud that had brought the rain, the water droplets sparkled like fairy lights and butterflies flickered among the flowers.  Now and then, I glimpsed the coast spread out below and the sea, a uniform misty blue.

Near a row of coastguard cottages, I entered a narrow lane lined by green hedges coloured by more valerian, also honeysuckle and bramble.  The lane turned sharp left to descend more steeply across slippery exposed bedrock and through scrub and woodland.  A chiff chaff called and I stopped to gaze at the flowers and insects on a bank of bramble caught in the morning sunshine.  Suddenly a woman appeared down a nearby path that joined the lane looking surprised to find me standing there. 

“Are you alright?” she asked

“I’m just looking at the flowers” I replied, trying to reassure her.

“Yes, there are lots of flowers about.  Have you seen the pink sweet peas on the coast, they don’t smell like the garden variety?” she continued.

“That’s narrow- leaved everlasting pea, a perennial wild form of the garden variety and coincidentally its pink flowers are part of the reason I’m here today, some rare bees feed from them” I replied.

“It’s so difficult to identify wild flowers from books” she worried.

“Yes, I sometimes leaf through the entire book to identify something I have seen.”

I told her I could wait if she wanted to go ahead down the lane so that we maintained physical distancing but she said there was no need as she was taking another path to the right and promptly disappeared.

The coastline below East Prawle looking eastwards towards Peartree Point. The coastal barley fields are in the middle of the picture with the steep inland cliffs with rocky outcrops to the left. The cliff edge scrub with the narrow-leaved everlasting pea is the darker green fringe above the pale sand.

Leaving the woodland, I passed between arable fields along another enclosed path with the sea now ahead of me.  These fields occupy a gently sloping coastal plain stretching between steep inland cliffs with rocky outcrops and the present low cliffs above the sea.  The steep inland cliffs give the area an enclosed, almost claustrophobic feeling whilst creating a gentle microclimate.  Barley grows in these fields, spring sown so that its seed and stubble can be left after autumn harvest to provide winter food for the rare cirl buntings that now flourish here.  As I walked, the distinctive rattle of one of the birds echoed around the inland cliffs.  The barley was a soft, uniformly yellowish-green carpet so I assumed it had been well sprayed with herbicide.

When I reached the coast, I headed westwards along the coast path between the cliff edge and the barley field.  The cliff edge was fringed with bracken and blackthorn, the latter providing good nest areas for the cirl buntings.  Tall stems of hemp agrimony grew here along with a profusion of narrow-leaved everlasting pea scrambling through the bracken and the scrub, grabbing on with fine tendrils.   Large, mostly pink, pea-type flowers (see picture at the head of this post) were scattered about the plants, not in large numbers but frequently enough to make an impact.   The large upper petals, like bright pink sails decorated with fine green striations, stand out above the smaller lower petals that resemble miniature boxing gloves, with an unusual bluish-pink hue.

Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) nectaring from narrow-leaved everlasting pea. Note the long antennae and the silvery hairs, this male has been around for several weeks.

Silvery bees patrolled the area around the flowers weaving their way deftly and quickly among the vegetation and I wondered how they were able to navigate so easily.  Sometimes they stopped to take nectar and from their very long black bootlace antennae I recognised these as male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis).   This part of the south Devon coast contains the largest UK colony of these very rare and very distinctive bees.  The sun had now come out making it feel quite warm and I stayed by the flowers for a while.  A few female long-horned bees soon appeared carrying large chunks of pollen so I presume they were coming to collect nectar.  They share only a passing resemblance to their male counterparts:  they have short antennae and are covered in thick pale hairs.  They hang below the pink flowers holding their body in a tightly curved crescent as they feed and the flowers of narrow-leaved everlasting pea seem to be a very important pollen source for the insects.

Female long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) feeding from narrow-leaved everlasting pea.
Female long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) feeding from narrow-leaved everlasting pea. Note the lump of pollen on her back legs

I moved on through two latch gates to enter a narrow but long coastal meadow stretching between cliff tops fringed with bracken and scrub and the inland cliffs that tower above.  The meadow hadn’t been cultivated or grazed and was thick with knee-length grasses and wild flowers.  Grasshoppers rose as I walked and small brownish butterflies danced around me.  This is a floral paradise, a mosaic of colour and form.

Sea carrot growing prolifically in the coastal meadow

The predominant flowers at the beginning of the meadow were the white hemispheres of sea carrot rising like so many large mushrooms through the  thick grass to dominate the landscape.  There were also some of the nodding yellow heads of cat’s ear, popular with red-tailed bumblebees, and the pinkish-purple flowers of common vetch.  Partially buried in the grass I noticed the small, bright pink flowers of centaury with their prominent yellow stamens.  Narrow-leaved everlasting pea climbed through the cliff-edge bracken attracting more long-horned bees to its pink flowers, so I stopped to watch. 

Rose chafer (Cetonis aurata) on sea carrot showing how the white flower is actually tinged with pink

I dragged myself away and further on, a rough path took me down the low cliff to an area of soft rock riddled with small pencil-sized holes, thought to be the principal nest site of the long-horned bees.  As I waited to see the insects returning to their nests, I was conscious of the sea grumbling around the rocks behind me and the patchwork of colours it held.  The water was mostly a shimmering deep blue but with darker areas hiding submerged rocks and tinged green where it washed over shallow sand.  My reverie was interrupted when the woman I met earlier appeared on the rocks around the cliff corner.   She seemed keen to talk and I learnt that she lived in London but had come down to stay in her cottage when the lockdown was imposed.

I scrambled back up to the coast path and as I walked westwards in the direction of Prawle Point, the floral mix in the meadow changed. Cat’s ear now dominated lending the meadow a yellow cast.  Along the cliff edge, the bracken had been replaced by tracts of yellow bird’s foot trefoil and purple tufted vetch. I also noticed lady’s bedstraw and hedge bedstraw and the bright reddish-purple flowers of bloody cranesbill. This kaleidoscope of colour brought more bumblebees and solitary bees although I thought the vetches looked past their best, perhaps a result of the dry spring.

Hazel appeared, having finished her walk and we made our way back up to East Prawle starting along a field-edge wall where brambles and other wildflowers grew.  Cirl buntings sang and, in the sunshine, a male long-horned bee fed from one of the flowers, butterflies danced together and a fine mason wasp collected nectar.

Marbled white butterfly (Melanargia galathea) on bramble
Spiny mason wasp (Odynerus spinipes) on bramble. The female of this species digs burrows in vertical banks of hard soil, sand or clay, finishing with a “chimney” that curves over the opening

Conceptual Art in a Devon Country Lane – Lockdown Nature Walks 7

In this seventh Lockdown Nature Walk, I want to take you along more of the ancient lanes that crisscross the countryside around Totnes rather like the lines on the palm of my hand. The walk I describe was done in the last week of May on a sunny, warm day when there was a distinct feeling that the seasons were changing.

I begin at the foot of Harper’s Hill on the western side of town where an ancient trackway strikes steeply upwards in a south-westerly direction into trees and away from the busy Kingsbridge Road.  This is hard walking especially on the uneven surface and quite soon the lane becomes deeply sunken, bordered on both sides by steep banks, up to four metres in height.   Ferns and pennywort grow along these banks and a jungle-like tree canopy cuts out most of the light so that even on a sunny day the lane has a gloomy, slightly sinister feeling.  Today, small insects are caught, dancing like dust motes in the few shafts of light that make it through the canopy.  Earlier this year, fleshy green ramsons carpeted the pathside banks but their leaves are now yellowish and a vague garlicky odour hangs in the air as they decay.

It’s difficult to believe that for hundreds of years, until the inception of the turnpikes, Harper’s Hill was the main route out of Totnes towards Plymouth and the west.  As I trudge up the steep hill, I imagine the countless others who walked this way with heavy loads, or animals or rickety carts.  It’s as though I am “slipping back out of this modern world” (after W H Hudson).

Eventually, though. the lane levels out.  A gateway on the right offers a brief window through the curtain of vegetation and I see the land falling away steeply into a deep valley and Dartmoor lurking in the distance.   I continue along the track as it becomes more open between tall trees and a few caravans used for housing to reach Tristford Cross.

In the past, those who had laboured up Harper’s Hill bound for Plymouth and the west would have turned right at Tristford Cross on to the old ridgeway road along the brow of Broomborough Down.  But I go straight ahead at this crossroads along a paved lane avoiding the occasional car to reach Cholwell Cross where another track, Jackman’s Lane, crosses at right angles.  Signs announce that this is an unmetalled road and it is indeed a deeply rutted, reddish soil track used by farm vehicles and muddy after rain but today bone dry and hard as concrete.

The start of Jackman’s Lane

I turn right along one section of Jackman’s Lane.  Superficially, this appears to be just another country track but from the first time I came here, I realised that this was a place with its own particular character and charm.  Unlike so many local lanes, it is flat, light and airy and surrounded by rolling countryside stretching into the distance.  Although it is bordered by Devon Hedges, these seem to have been maintained, restricting their height and allowing light to reach both sides of the track especially when the sun shines as it does today.  Many flowers grow along the lane, bees, butterflies and hoverflies dart about and there is a general buzz in the air.

Here are a few of the insect species I saw:

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo)

lace wing

Speckled yellow moth (Pseudopanthera macularia)

A Nomad bee (Nomada species) on hogweed. This photo does not show enough detail to assign this bee to a species but it is one of the many cuckoo bees that parasitise the nests of solitary mining bees.

As I enter the lane, I notice thick rope-like skeins of a scrambling plant in the right-hand hedge with dark green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves that look as though they have been coated with shiny paint.  This is black bryony and its pale yellow insignificant flowers are now showing.  Insignificant they may be but they will give rise to trailing strings of plump, shiny red berries in the autumn.  Several tree species are present in the hedges including elder, hazel, holly, rowan and sycamore, suggesting that this is a very old hedge.  In several places, foxgloves grow from the top of the bank in large groups (see picture at the head of this post) creating a vivid pink display against the clear blue sky, reminiscent of the colourful banners displayed at music festivals.  Large buzzy bumblebees systematically work the individual foxglove flowers.

Black bryony with its glossy leaves and small yellow flowers

Banks of cow parsley along Jackman’s Lane

Banks of lacy white cow parsley line the lane in places but the insects seem to ignore this umbellifer.  The same is not true for hogweed and one or two tall stands of this robust plant with its white pompom flowers are proving irresistible for hoverflies and solitary bees.  Then I come to the toilet!  Someone has dumped an old toilet in the right-hand hedge and scrawled “R Mutt” on it in black letters.  This may be fly-tipping but I also think it is an “hommage” to Marcel Duchamp, and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the value of this piece of conceptual art.

no caption required!

A gateway into a field appears on the left so I stop to take in the view.  I work out that I am looking roughly south west and an image unspools ahead of me of fields and hedges, a few cows, repeating into the distance, disappearing into a blue haze.  For a short time, I am transfixed by this view, it’s so unusual for this part of Devon to encounter a landscape free from hills and valleys.  It feels as though the sea should lie somewhere in the distant blue haze but that’s beyond what I can see.

In the middle section of the lane, I find flowers that speak more of summer than of spring so despite the limbo imposed on human lives by the lockdown, seasonal change carries on regardless.   Foxgloves are part of this seasonal shift but I also see large amounts of a yellowish plant that grows almost horizontally from the side of the hedges.  It has greenish-yellow, hairy leaves arranged symmetrically in whorls of four with clusters of small fragrant yellow flowers at the bases of the leaves.  I initially thought this was lady’s bedstraw but it is in fact crosswort, a relative.  Vetches are also showing.  Bush vetch with its untidy mauve flowers has been about for a while but I also find the yellow, pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling.  Both vetches attract bees but another favourite of these insects is hedge woundwort.  This plant has just come into flower in the lane displaying its burgundy red flowers decorated with fine white hieroglyphics.

Crosswort

Meadow vetchling with a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Hedge woundwort with a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Further on, nettles begin to dominate the hedges and a few tall trees appear before the lane reaches the old ridgeway road.  The section of Jackman’s Lane that I have described is quite short, barely half a mile in length, but it has a very particular character.  It is also very rich in wildlife and unexpectedly, it contains an interesting piece of conceptual art.

There are various ways to complete a circular walk from here but perhaps the most interesting is to turn left until a stony track leaves the ridgeway road to bear right, downhill.  This is another section of Jackman’s Lane which eventually reaches the Plymouth Road at Follaton for an easy return to the town.

To see my previous Lockdown Nature Walks please look here