A week ago, I went down to the south Devon coast below the village of East Prawle to find the rare long-horned bees that live there. Their main nest site is located in the low cliffs near Horseley Cove and I scrambled down the steep path to the foot of the cliffs to have a look. It was a beautiful sunny day and the area was bathed in sunshine while the sea, a deep blue in that day’s light, fussed on the jumble of large boulders that lie just off shore. The sea was calm when I visited but in the winter these boulders will defend the cliffs from the worst of the storms creating a protected microenvironment.
Tracts of reddish soft rock peppered with pencil-sized holes were evident across the cliffs and several bees, roughly honeybee-sized, were patrolling the area showing a particular interest in these cavities. They swung in and moved quickly just above the surface sashaying back and forth and from side to side like hyped-up ballroom dancers. They looked very fresh and were rather lively and It was difficult to discern details but when I focussed my attention on a single insect I could see a pale yellow face, a bright russet thorax and two extra-long antennae, for these were the male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis) I had come to see. One landed briefly and I marvelled at his magnificent antennae, each as long as the rest of his body.
Numbers varied but there were always a few about and sometimes up to six at one time, weaving around one another, creating a loud buzz. My presence didn’t seem to bother them, some flew around me and another collided with me but they carried on regardless. They are driven by procreative urges and having emerged from their nest holes in the soft rock within the last week or so, they were now waiting to catch a virgin female as she appeared. Mating had, though, already begun. On two or three occasions, a bee flew directly into a hole and didn’t reappear. Photos confirmed that these slightly chunkier bees with golden pollen brushes on their back legs were female Eucera longicornis, already mated and preparing their nests.
Eucera longicornis is rare and much declined and one of many special insect species found along this stretch of coast, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The cliff top meadow above the nests was a mosaic of wildflowers and earlier I had found a few male Eucera feeding on bird’s foot trefoil. The coast path either side of the meadow had, however, been treated with herbicide and strimmed, virtually eliminating wildflowers, seriously degrading this important site.
Here is a short piece I wrote after a visit to the Lamb Garden in Totnes on March 9th together with a poem by Thomas Hardy.
It’s that time of year when I spend more time than I should peering at patches of lungwort. The wild variety (Pulmonaria officinalis) has been flowering for several weeks here in Devon and now has a mixture of pinkish-red and purplish-blue trumpet-shaped flowers above fleshy, white-spotted green leaves. The weather has kept most insects away but this morning, there is a hint of warmth in the air and finally, I see what I have been anticipating.
It’s one of the first bees to emerge each year, and I get that first time thrill again. I don’t see it arrive but suddenly it’s there hovering by the lungwort, hanging in the air as if working out which flower to sample. As it hovers, I notice the mostly buff-haired abdomen and thorax, also the pale yellow mask-like face and is that the tongue hanging in readiness? This chunky insect might be mistaken for a bumblebee but is a very fresh male hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), usually the first solitary bee species to appear in Totnes each spring.
Having chosen a flower, he settles down to feed, pushing his head in deeply to access nectar. His legs are splayed out gripping either side of the corolla, displaying the silky hairs that decorate them, celebrated in his common name. He doesn’t stay long, darting to another flower with a brief hover in between, buzzing loudly.
Lungwort flowers start out red and acquire the blue colour as they age. Red flowers contain more nectar than blue and the Anthophora feed preferentially from these red, higher forage flowers. This colour code means they don’t waste time visiting low-nectar blooms and may visit several plants looking for high nectar flowers, increasing the chance of cross pollination.
The male then notices me and hovers, buzzing loudly and aggressively in my direction before departing in a huff. Other males appear and occasionally two find themselves together on the flowers. This also doesn’t go down well and they depart, carving circles in the air around one another.
I wanted to include a poem to go with these spring observations so here is Thomas Hardy meditating on the topic in “The Year’s Awakening” .
If, like me, you enjoy looking at flowers, then winter can be a pretty dismal time. The plants that give colour to the autumn such as asters and sedums have long since faded and there’s a gap of several weeks before the winter flowers, snowdrops, aconites and pulmonaria show their faces. It hasn’t helped this winter that the December weather, although very mild, brought many overcast days. Ceilings of thick grey cloud hung overhead, keeping light levels low and draining the landscape of colour so that I yearned for some brightness.
But there is help at hand in the form of winter flowering shrubs and plants which bring welcome colour to the gloom. These include winter honeysuckle and winter flowering heathers but my favourite is mahonia with its starbursts of lemon-yellow flowers and its spiky evergreen leaves. Mahonia works hard, flowering from November with some varieties continuing to bloom well into the New Year. A large stand of the shrub is a fine sight in winter, sometimes as much as three metres in height, covered with multiple plumes of flowers reaching upwards above sprays of spiky mid green holly-like leaves. Even on the darkest winter day, the yellow flowers light up their surroundings like banks of fluorescent tubes and should the sun shine, both flowers and leaves glow in reply. As an added bonus, stands of mahonia are often enveloped in a cloud of sweet fragrance said to resemble lily of the valley, a rare experience in these low months. If all that wasn’t enough, as the flowers mature, they produce attractive blue-black berries dusted with a white bloom.
Mahonia was first discovered during the Lewis and Clark expedition sent to explore the newly acquired north western territory of the United States during the early years of the 19th century. The shrub was found growing extensively between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean. The prominent Irish/American nurseryman Bernard McMahon based in Philadelphia was responsible for propagating the seeds and plants brought back from the expedition and mahonia was named in recognition of his work. Mahonia is also referred to as Oregon grape after the resemblance of its berries to the vine fruit and the part of the US where the shrub was first seen.
The native US shrub was imported into the UK in the 19th century and different varieties were also found in Asia at about the same time. These and their hybrids are now very popular in this country contributing architectural interest to gardens as well as winter colour. They are often planted around the edges of car parks and outside buildings where their potential size can be readily accommodated.
It’s not just humans, though, who take pleasure from mahonia in winter. Both insects and birds relish the profusion of flowers and berries on the shrub. The long arching racemes thrown upwards by mahonia are densely packed with small flowers, each shaped like an upturned bell and formed from concentric rings of petals and sepals. The flowers are rich sources of pollen and nectar providing important forage for insects on mild winter days and, as the insects feed, they contribute to pollination.
Among the insects visiting mahonia in winter, bumblebees are regular foragers in the south of the UK and I have seen both workers and queens even in late December, sometimes liberally dusted with yellow pollen. Honeybees and hoverflies will also venture out to feed on milder winter days and they may occasionally be joined by red admiral butterflies. It’s fascinating to watch bumblebees working the flowers, moving systematically along a raceme, dislodging yellow petals which fall to decorate nearby leaves and create a yellow “snow” on pavements below. Birds such as blackcaps and blue tits also take sugar-rich nectar from mahonia flowers. When they visit, they may pick up pollen on their beaks contributing to pollination.
The flowers have a special mechanism for increasing the efficiency of pollination by visiting insects and birds. In each flower, the pollen-loaded stamens are arranged in a ring just inside the petals. Stimulating the flower, as would happen if a pollinator visits, causes the stamens to move inwards increasing the likelihood that the pollinator will pick up pollen to transfer to the next flower. Pollination leads to formation of the berries, each about the size of a blackcurrant which start green and mature to blue-black with a white bloom. The berries provide winter food for birds later in the season and blackcaps, blackbirds and song thrushes may be seen feeding.
Although mahonia was a new discovery for colonists in the US in the early 19th century, the native American tribes of the north west were already familiar with its properties. Some ate the berries, either raw or cooked and some used preparations of the shrub for medicinal purposes. Yellow dyes derived from the plant were also used by the tribes for colouring fabrics and basketry. Preparations of mahonia have been employed in traditional Chinese medicine over many years and are used by some contemporary herbalists but rigorous scientific studies of their effects have not been performed.
It is interesting to reflect on how mahonia, a shrub native to parts of the US and Asia, has successfully travelled to the UK where not only does it brighten our winters but it also supports wildlife across this low season.
One of my favourite parts of the coast path in south Devon is the section between Prawle Point and Start Point. Between these two imposing coastal landmarks the path follows the meandering line of the low cliffs and, unusually for this part of Devon, there are few hills and walking is easy. The area inland of the coast path is notable for the line of steep rocky cliffs that, many years ago, formed the coastline when sea levels were higher. Between these inland cliffs and the present coastline is a flattish area, about a field’s width across, mostly used for pasture and arable farming. One section, a long curving coastal meadow (above Horseley Cove), is left uncultivated and many wild flowers grow here and, to a lesser extent, along the edges of other parts of the coast path. With the rocky coastline and rugged inland cliffs, the area retains a wildness and I come here to be close to the sea and to immerse myself in nature in all its fullness.
The stretch of coastline between Start Point and Prawle Point is a nationally important site for rare invertebrates and was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1986. For some years now, I have been coming here in early summer to watch the rare long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis) (see here as well) that use the soft rock cliffs for nest sites and forage from the wild peas and vetches that flourish in this environment. The area is also a stronghold for the cirl bunting and I often see and hear these rare birds when I visit. If I am lucky, I may also see seals swimming nearby or basking on the rocks at Peartree Point .
Earlier this year, in April, I walked along this section of the coast path and was alarmed at what I found. The long curving coastal meadow, filled with wildflowers later in the year, was intact but outside of this area there was considerable evidence of herbicide use. Some fields to the east of the meadow and the paths around them had been drenched with herbicide prior to planting new crops. The chemicals had reached the hedges that line the sides of the coast path and the area looked barren and dried out (picture below). To the west, where the coast path runs between the cliff edge and arable fields, there had been spot spraying of “weeds”. It looked as though attempts were being made to eliminate wildflowers alongside areas where crops are grown.
Wildflowers are very important for supporting the insects and, indirectly, the birds that flourish here and I was concerned by this apparent degradation of the site. I decided to make several visits across the summer to see how the site recovered and how the insects fared.
My first visit was in late May and I found good numbers of male long-horned bees in the coastal meadow, foraging mainly on bush vetch. This flower scrambles through the bracken that lines the cliff edge of the meadow. With its slightly untidy looking flowers that start a deep purple but open to pale lilac petals, bush vetch provides excellent early forage (picture below). The long-horned males looked very fresh with their yellow face, bright russet thorax, shiny black abdomen, legs coated with fine hairs and their trademark very long, shiny, black antennae. They are such iconic, beautiful creatures and it was a pleasure to see them moving swiftly about the site between flowers. I also went to look at the nest area in the soft rock cliffs below the meadow where the vertical, reddish surface is peppered with pencil-sized holes. Males appeared here regularly looking about the site for females. They arrived and performed a meandering flight across the nest area, sometimes repeating this before flying off. There was some play-fighting and a few overexcited males got tired of waiting and tried to mate with their male cousins.
The coastal meadow looked glorious. A dense coating of knee-high grasses grew across the site lending it a sheen of pale browns, greens and muted reds. Many flowers grew among the grasses in addition to the bush vetch, including buttercup, catsear, common vetch, speedwell, hop trefoil, wild carrot and along the cliff edge to the western end, bird’s foot trefoil, thrift and bloody cranesbill, a rich kaleidoscope of colours . For the most part, herbicide-treated areas outside the meadow had grown back although some flowers had been eliminated.
Female Eucera longicornis appeared in June and by the third week of the month they outnumbered males. One hot spot for females was a hedge along the sea side of the coast path where it skirted a field just to the east of the flowery meadow. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea grew here in moderate amounts, its bright pink flowers proving very attractive to the females. I watched them feeding from the flowers; they looked rather different from the males, their antennae were a more conventional length and they appeared chunkier with striking golden plumes of pollen-collecting hair on their back legs. When they arrived, they landed on the lip of the flower pushing the large sail-like upper petal backwards to access nectar. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea also grew through the cliff edge bracken in the coastal meadow and female long-horned bees were foraging there too. Although many other flowers were growing here including several large patches of the yellow scrambling meadow vetchling, the females showed an absolute preference for the wild pea. I also spent some time by the nest area watching a regular stream of females returning to their nest, some carrying large lumps of sticky pollen on their back legs. A few males hung about the nest site and others foraged from bush vetch in the meadow but they paid little attention to the females, all mated by now.
Although the coastal meadow was still looking outstanding with its rich fabric of grasses embroidered by so many wildflowers, the situation elsewhere on the site was not as encouraging. Wilting plants in several locations indicated more herbicide usage and the path along the coastal hedge mentioned earlier had been strimmed on the sea side and treated with herbicide again on the field side (more wilting plants, pictures below). To cap all of this, when I visited in the second week of July, cattle had been allowed into this area trashing the hedge and eating all the narrow leaved everlasting pea growing there. In previous years, this hedge and the wild pea that grows here have been critical for the survival of the female long-horned bees so this could have been catastrophic. Fortunately, this year large amounts of the wild pea with its bright pink flowers had grown up in the coastal meadow and many females were foraging there instead.
So, based simply on this year’s observations and the numbers I saw, the long-horned bees seem to be doing well at this south Devon site. The colony is moderate in size and numbers seem to be holding compared with observations made in previous years.
There has, though, been significant degradation of the local environment this year with loss of wildflowers following herbicide use and cattle damage to an extent I had not seen before. In order to support these rare bees and perhaps to increase the size and extent of the colony of long-horned bees, the numbers of wild flowers should be increasing along the length of the coast path rather than being restricted to the coastal meadow as currently seems to be happening. This degradation of the site surely runs counter to the legal protections associated with an SSSI?
Another concern at this site is the fate of the six banded nomad bee (Nomada sexfasciata), the UK’s rarest bee. This bee is a parasite of Eucera longicornis and in the UK is only known at this south Devon site. I last saw it in 2017 when I made several sightings. Since then, it has been seen by others on only one occasion each subsequent year so it is very rare. This year, I saw several Nomada species by the nest area in late June. One stayed for a short time but was definitely not Nomada sexfasciata and the others disappeared too quickly for verification. I believe there have been no other sightings this year.
The south Devon site needs support to protect the unique flora and fauna present there, especially the rare bees and other insects that live in this special habitat. Buglife and the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are developing a project termed Life on the Edge which aims to protect the site and increase the number of wildflowers. It is currently seeking funding so we have to hope it gets that support.
The state of the site across spring and summer
The featured image at the head of this post shows a male Eucera longicornis on bird’s foot trefoil in late May.
It’s become something of a ritual. Each year in the first week of August, we scan the sky nervously. We’re looking for birds but anticipating an absence. It’s not that we want the swifts to go but we know they must. The next part of their life is lived in Africa where they spend the months of September to April after their long migration. When they leave us, it’s a sign that the year has moved on and summer is gradually giving way to autumn.
This year the swifts arrived at the beginning of May. We had been watching out for them for several days and then finally we noticed a few birds swooping around in the sky above our house. With that dark crossbow silhouette and those rapid bursts of wing beats interspersed with smooth glides, we were relieved and pleased to see that the swifts had returned. Messages circulated on our local WhatsApp group celebrating their arrival and it was clear that our neighbours were just as interested as us. Gradually their numbers built up as more birds arrived from Africa. Numbers varied and, on some days, we saw none but at their peak this year up to 30 swifts were swooping and screaming across the valley below our house. The valley contains a community garden with flowers and trees and most likely the swifts come to feed on the insects that breed there.
Throughout late spring and summer we watched them flying backwards and forwards at high speed, changing direction as they banked and turned, sometimes going into steep dives pulling out at what seemed like the last minute, screaming as they went. Sometimes a group flew about together, individual birds adjusting their relative positions before splitting into smaller groups like rockets at a firework display. Sometimes the birds flew towards our terrace of houses, turning finally to avoid the brickwork or deftly navigating the gap between this and the next terrace.
The position of our house gave us a very privileged view of the birds. It is one of a terrace of five houses built on a ridge on the southern edge of Totnes overlooking the valley and community garden so that our kitchen window is level with the tops of the trees below. Sometimes, when the birds were flying about near the houses, they passed at speed very close to our kitchen window giving us views worthy of a nature documentary programme. Sometimes, when we sat outside on the patio, the birds passed directly overhead screaming as they went, a joyous and very visceral experience.
Sitting outside, we could also see some of the birds swooping up to the eaves of two houses in adjacent terraces where they made nests. They also nested in the roof space of one of the houses in this terrace and, for the first time, they occupied a wooden bird box fixed near the eaves on another house. The box was put up several years ago by a neighbour. It was occupied by sparrows one year and tree bumblebees in another but this year the swifts used it. Swifts tend to return to the same places to nest each year so we have high hopes of seeing them in this box in the future.
The second week of August arrived and the birds were still about. Although we expected them to go any day, they still had the ability to surprise. On the 10th just before 9 o’clock with the sun setting, I was standing outside looking across the valley, watching the light fade and the colours changing. I hadn’t seen swifts that day and wondered if they had left. The western sky was still bright, a luminous pale blue, and light cloud in the northern sky gathered pinkish-orange tinges from the setting sun. Suddenly, above the general hum of human activity I heard the familiar screaming sound announcing the arrival of a volley of swifts. About ten birds in groups of two or three were heading straight towards me just above head height. At the last minute, though, they changed course to fly through the gap between the terraces.
If all this wasn’t exciting enough, I had a second fascinating close encounter with the non-human world in the same week, this time with a very different species and some distance away from Totnes.
The second story began when, in the first week of August, Tim Worfolk, a local bird illustrator and naturalist, reported on social media that he had seen some rare and unusual bees on a nature reserve south of Exeter. This was the first report of this species in Devon and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go to have a look. So, on August 9th I made the 40-minute drive to the Exminster Marshes, part of the river Exe floodplain and a wetland nature reserve managed by the RSPB. I had driven through a shower on my way over and rain threatened later but it was my only free day that week. I parked in the reserve car park and made my way down a lane towards the Exeter Canal and the river Exe. Signs of water were never far away. Although the lane was enclosed by hawthorn bushes and other scrub, reeds grew through the vegetation and a ditch half full of water ran alongside the lane. Late summer flowers grew in the hedges including bright yellow fleabane, the lemon-yellow snap dragon-like flowers of common toadflax and the pink cushions of hemp agrimony.
I left the lane to cross open grassland criss-crossed by ditches with rough stony bridges. Clumps of tussocky grass grew across the marshy land along with stands of creeping thistle that attracted small copper and small tortoiseshell butterflies and some chunky hoverflies. Cows grazed nearby and this would have been a peaceful spot had it not been for the M5 motorway bridge crossing the marshes towards the north creating a continuous background hum of traffic noise.
At the end of the field path, I crossed the cycle track and scrambled up to the towpath at the edge of the Exeter Canal. The pleasant town of Topsham with its Dutch-gabled buildings lay across the river Exe on the far side of the canal. The towpath was quiet, most likely because of the weather, but a few walkers passed and two stand-up paddleboarders drifted lazily past on the canal. A little drizzle was now falling and I began to wonder if any bees would be about but I decided to press on. Banks of reeds lined the towpath and flowers grew up through the vegetation. I noticed the pink flowers of marsh woundwort with their intricately decorated lip and a few tall spikes of purple loosestrife. Then, as I walked southward, thick clumps of yellow flowers appeared in the canal-side greenery. This was yellow loosestrife, a plant that grows in wet places and, with its copious sprays of bright yellow cup-shaped flowers produced in late summer, it shone like a beacon of light on this gloomy day. Each flower contained large amounts of grainy yellow pollen and the plant grew in many places along the canal up to the lock where the canal and river merge. (The picture at the top of this post shows some the yellow loosestrife flowers)
Light drizzle continued to fall and I had almost given up on finding bees when I spotted a medium-sized dark insect in one of the yellow loosestrife flowers. Visually, I couldn’t see much to distinguish this insect except some white hairs on the hind legs. Photographs also showed the prominent white hairs on the back legs along with some black as well. These characteristics together with the association of the insect with the yellow loosestrife flowers showed that this was a female Macropis europaea, the yellow loosestrife bee, one of the bees I had come to find. The photographs also showed a few small drops of rain on the insect which was sheltering on this damp day and essentially immobile, making it easier for me to take pictures. Further along the canal, I came across another dark insect also resting in a yellow flower and in this case, photos revealed its swollen hind legs and its prominent yellow face, characteristic of a male of the same species.
These are the bees reported by Tim Worfolk but why was I so interested in seeing them? They are rare which is of course one reason. They also have some very unusual characteristics being the only UK species of bee that collects floral oils and they find these oils in the flowers of yellow loosestrife.
Within the flowers there are tiny glands that secrete floral oils. The glands, termed trichome elaiosomes, are found towards the lower part of the inside surface of the petals and along the stamen tubes and the oils collect near the glands. The female Macropis bees have specialised brushes of hair on their front and middle legs that they use to collect these oils which are then transferred to the hairs on their back legs, sometimes mixed with pollen also collected from the flowers. The female bees use the oils for two purposes, to waterproof the inside of the nest chambers they construct in wet places and, mixed with pollen, to provide food for their larvae.
When I visited, the damp conditions prevented the females from flying so I was unable to observe them collecting pollen or oils. Local naturalist John Walters has a nice video of the female bees collecting pollen where the bees look like they are wearing bright yellow pollen pantaloons.
I was glad to have made the trip to Exminster Marshes, despite my doubts about the weather. Seeing these oil-collecting bees and understanding the close and reciprocal relationship they have with the yellow loosestrife flowers was an unexpected gift.
But what about the swifts? August 13th was the last day we saw the birds near our house so we assume they are now on their long migratory journey. Their presence has not only entertained us but has enriched our lives this year, bringing us closer to the non-human world. It has been an excellent year for the birds in terms of numbers and it was good to see them reproducing so well, especially in this time of environmental crisis.
The minor road that climbs past the Spyway Inn near Askerswell was quiet that day, a welcome relief from the seemingly endless traffic clogging the A35. Eventually, though, Eggardon Hill came into view, the road levelled out and our attention was captured by the stunning panorama laid out to the west. Below, the land unfolded in a mosaic of fields, trees and hedges with different colours and textures, backed by the hills of west Dorset rising mysteriously in the slight haze that softened the air. To the south west, the sea and the familiar ups and downs of the Jurassic Coast completed the image. [The picture at the top of this post shows the view in a slightly spread out panoramic form] We drove on and, just before the road dipped under the old railway bridge, turned into the car park at the Powerstock Common Nature Reserve.
Trees surrounded the car park and bright early June sunshine filtered through the leaf cover casting dappled light across the parking area. Birdsong echoed around us and the rippling sound of running water emerged from the nearby woodland. Common vetch scrambled through the fences along the car park edge and its purplish-pink pea-type flowers were proving popular with plump, furry, pale brown bumblebees.
We set out along the woodland path taking a right fork to stay on the northern edge of the reserve. The track felt enclosed but wildflowers grew along the margins including the inconspicuous bright blue speedwell and the purplish-blue spikes of bugle. In time, the woodland melted away leaving the path to run between broad sloping banks topped by trees and scrub. This is the Witherstone cutting, once the path of the Bridport branch railway as it ran between Powerstock and Toller stations.
This branch Line opened in 1857 linking Bridport to Maiden Newton and the main line. The coming of the railway to West Dorset revolutionised social and commercial life in the area which, at the time, was poorly served by roads. People could travel more widely and I tried to imagine trains passing through the cutting, drawn in a haze of smoke and noise by the small steam engines of the Great Western Railway. I pictured people on the trains, travelling for work or for leisure or moving about during the two world wars. The line was also important for the transport of milk, watercress and the net and twine produced in Bridport. As motor transport came to dominate, traffic on the railway declined resulting in its closure in 1975. Although the tracks were lifted, there are still signs of the old railway, notably the rusty fence posts that line the track. The remains of an old brickworks can also be found in the nearby wood. This was set up near the railway to take advantage of the clay that remained when the cutting was excavated.
On the day of our visit, the sloping banks on either side of the path were mostly clad in short rough grass although there were some areas of exposed grey soil, perhaps a result of slippage. The former railway cutting felt very sheltered and the bright yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil grew across the grassy areas. We also found many small flowers of milkwort, almost hidden in the grass. Milkwort is a common plant on rough grassland and the flowers exist in several colours. Pink and purplish-blue flowers grew at Powerstock Common but each flower also had one white petal divided into finger-like lobes giving it a passing resemblance to a miniature cow’s udder. This may account for the name of the flower and its use in the past for increasing milk production. We also found one common spotted orchid with beautiful purple markings but more will have appeared, along with many other flowers, as the season advanced.
The abundance of flowers attracted insects and several common blue butterflies flew past or around us displaying their sky-blue upper wings and intricately patterned lower wings. Two yellow butterflies also passed by, dancing around one another in the air. I hoped they would land so that I could identify the species but they did not oblige. Bumblebees moved lazily among the flowers but we made our most exciting observation on a slightly raised area of rough grass with some exposed grey soil not far from the main path.
Here we found bees flying about at high speed, backwards and forwards and from side to side, just above the ground, accompanied by a clearly audible buzz. There were perhaps a hundred or more of the insects, and with their incessant movement this was an impressive sight. It was difficult to identify them at first owing to their frantic activity but they were honeybee-sized and I thought I could see shiny black abdomens. Very occasionally, one would pause to feed from the bird’s foot trefoil revealing a yellow face, a pale brown-haired thorax and two very long antennae, each as long as the rest of their body. Such long antennae, resembling shiny black bootlaces, are seen only on one UK species of bee, the male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).
The obvious excitement of these male bees arose because they were anticipating the emergence of females and wanted to try to mate. Indeed, on several occasions some left their frantic flying to coalesce into a small mobile cluster. Others tried to join in, some left the melee. This was a mating cluster and formed when a virgin female emerged from her nest chamber. Many males then pounced upon her hoping to mate but only one was successful. Once mated, females get on with nest building and laying of eggs to secure the population of next year’s long-horned bees.
The long-horned bee was once a common sight in May and June across the southern half of the UK, unmistakeable from the long antennae of the males. Agricultural intensification led to destruction of habitat used by these bees along with a loss of their favoured flowers such as wild vetches and peas. As a result, the species is now quite rare being restricted to twenty or so UK sites many of which are along the southern coast. The Powerstock colony is large and seems to be prospering; it was a treat to see it that day.
Powerstock Common is a rich and varied nature reserve and we glimpsed only a small part during our visit. Even so, we enjoyed the peace and the floral beauty of the old railway cutting and discovered a fascinating mixture of natural and industrial history.
At the beginning of July, Natural England announced that the combined land at Powerstock Common and nearby Kingcombe Meadows, both managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, would become a National Nature Reserve recognising the unique character of these west Dorset sites and the rare wildlife they contain.
As the train drew in to Dawlish Warren station, I realised that I hadn’t made this journey by rail for nearly two years because of the pandemic. Seeing the familiar landmarks at the station and, in particular, the river Exe, a pale blue ribbon of water stretching ahead parallel to the railway, was like visiting the house of an old friend. I had decided to travel by train to try to inject some sense of normality into my life. Being “double-jabbed”, I felt the risk was low.
The journey had gone well, the vast majority of passengers wore masks and were being careful and respectful of others. The railway line between Newton Abbot and Exeter runs close to water all the way, providing one of the great railway journeys in the UK and I was enthralled, as always, by the close-up views of the Teign estuary and of the sea between Teignmouth and Dawlish Warren. It was by no means a “normal” experience, though, as everywhere there were signs urging people to take care.
Leaving the station, I walked through the commercial area which had a distinct holiday atmosphere. Racks of colourful plastic buckets and spades vied for attention with row upon row of beach shoes and there were quite a few people about. Some were enjoying the funfair, some the busy cafes and pub while others were simply promenading.
When I reached the seafront, I sat on one of the benches for a short time to take in the view. Thin cloud hung overhead but milky sunshine kept the temperature pleasant. Visibility was good and there were clear views across the water to the red cliffs of East Devon. The tide was low and the sea a silvery-blue mirror tempting children and parents into the water for a swim or splash about.
A fenced boardwalk took me down into the nature reserve passing between sandy areas covered in rough grass where the papery, lemon-yellow flowers of evening primrose showed well. Some small birds were moving about here perching above the scrubby bushes. I was unable to see them clearly enough to identify by eye but their distinctive rattling call told me they were cirl buntings, rare birds that frequent this part of south Devon.
The middle part of the reserve is a large area of damp grassland and ponds surrounded by sand dunes. A dense population of scrambling plants grew across the damp areas with colourful flowers decorating the thick green matrix (see picture at the top of this post). Meadowsweet with its frothy, creamy blooms was perhaps the dominant flower but there were also many spikes of yellow bartsia, a root hemiparasite that takes nutrients from grasses and suppresses their growth. Purple tufted vetch scrambled through the lush canopy and the tall stems of purple loosestrife were just coming into flower. The southern marsh orchids that had illuminated the area a month ago were now mostly over although a few flowers remained.
Further on I began to see one of Dawlish Warren’s summer specialities, marsh helleborine. Clusters and then large drifts of this beautiful but unusual orchid were coming up through the short, damp grassland lending it a pinkish veneer. I made the error of kneeling down to look more carefully at the flowers only to realise just how damp the area was. The flowers are complex with three pink sepals and two upper petals, white with pink striations, covering the yellow reproductive apparatus. The large lower lip is even more complex with its upper section decorated with pink striations and its lower, mostly white frilly-edged section. This lip also has a strange appendage, rather like a pocket with egg yolk splodges.
The land then rose steadily towards the dune ridge in a network of soft sandy paths separating patches of rough vegetation. The sounds of the sea were always present and as I walked about, it seemed that wherever there was loose sand, a few small stripy bees were resting near the path edge. Photographs showed that these had striking green eyes. Some had yellowish brown hair around the thorax and looked very fresh whereas in others this had turned silvery an indication of their age. The green eyes and the preference for a sandy environment are characteristic of male silvery leafcutter bees (Megachile leachella). This species is found in large numbers at Dawlish Warren.
The pink and white pea-type flowers of restharrow grew alongside one rising sandy path and a stream of black and white stripy bees, (slightly larger and pointier than the male leafcutters) were arriving to forage. They landed on the white lower part of the flower and then rocked backwards and forwards as they accessed the nectar. These are female silvery leafcutter bees collecting nectar for their nests. There were also males about but they showed no interest in the females, mating having, I presume, happened already.
Not far away was a different habitat again where the soft paths ran between small vertical areas of sand held together by rough grass and with poorly defined but visible cavities. Male leafcutters were loitering about here but then I saw a female arrive carrying a segment of green leaf under her abdomen. She landed in front of one of the holes and gradually eased forward eventually disappearing with her leaf segment. The piece of leaf will be used to construct her nest in the cavity in the sand.
But where was she cutting her leaf segments? I wandered about the area near her nest looking at the vegetation and eventually came across a tree where the leaves had many small semi-circular holes. Some of the leaves had been so well cut that there was little leaf left. This may be the source of the leaf segments but without seeing one of the bees cutting I can’t be sure as there is another species of leafcutter resident at Dawlish Warren. No bees turned up to answer my question and by now the weather had changed becoming cooler and windy and it felt as though the bees had decided to take the afternoon off.
Last year, I did find silvery leafcutter bee females cutting leaf segments at Dawlish Warren but from a different tree and here is a short video:
With the change in the weather, I decided to go home and made my way to the railway station. It had been a good visit and I was pleased to have taken my first train journey after such a long time. Ironically, that evening, the Prime Minister announced that from July 19th all COVID restrictions on behaviour would be abandoned. This has not been met with universal acclaim and I would urge you to read this deeply felt critique. For myself, I am not sure I would feel comfortable to travel by train again unless the railway companies make mask wearing compulsory.
It felt like an unexpected gift, a warm, dry and mostly sunny day after so much dull, wet weather. I had been feeling very constrained and was determined to get out to enjoy this different day and it looked as though the non-human world felt the same. The wisteria at the front of our house caught the morning sun, wafting its distinctive sweet fragrance on to the air and bees were busily foraging from the greyish-mauve flowers. Bumblebees, honeybees and two red mason bees (Osmia bicornis males) were among the insects working the blossom. The Osmia came from one of the nearby bee houses and it was good to see them about after the spell of poor weather.
Hazel had a meeting in Kingsbridge that afternoon, so I dropped her off and took the opportunity to make a quick trip to the coast. It took me about 20 minutes, passing through several small villages, to reach Torcross and the sea. The sun shone optimistically as I then began the two and a half mile drive from Torcross along what is known locally as the Slapton Line. The geography here is very unusual with the road running northwards in a straight line along a narrow bank bordered on both sides by water. On one side of the road a shingle beach slopes down to the sea and on the inland side a narrow area of rough grass and vegetation separates the road from an extensive lagoon, Slapton Ley. The situation of the road makes it very vulnerable to storms, high tides and rising sea levels and, in 2018 it had to be closed and rebuilt after damage by Storm Emma.
That day, though, the sea was calm, a deep blue shading to a darker steely blue. Sunlight sparkled on the surface of the lagoon and generous clumps of thrift decorated the edges of the road as if splashed with pink paint. When the road turned inland to climb away from the water, I located the car park that gives access to the northern part of Slapton Sands, as it is known locally.
The beach here is a broad flat plateau of fine, pale brown shingle that eventually slopes down to the sea from a low ridge. The landward side is backed by densely wooded cliffs giving the beach an enclosed feel and providing some shelter from winds. This can be an elemental place especially when a westerly gale blows and fierce waves attack the beach. That afternoon, though, there was just a light breeze from the west and spells of sunshine warmed the air. A few clouds were moving about overhead and as they shifted, mobile pools of light and shade tracked across the shingle. I paused to stand on the beach for a short time and looked across the water towards Start Point and its lighthouse listening to the sound of the water lapping on the beach and the occasional cry of a passing gull.
Shingle beaches are rare environments and this one is unlike any other I have encountered, not only for its size but for the special selection of plants that grows here. The section of beach near the land featured many small islands of vegetation, a green archipelago in a sea of pale shingle. Often, these islands contained a clump of red valerian, a plant introduced into the UK in the 16th century and now widely naturalised in the west. Each island also contained a variety of other plants including sea campion, bird’s foot trefoil, forget me not and hawksbeard. One contained a colony of rosy garlic with its charming pale pink flowers, others supported small shrubs. The red valerian flowers looked very fresh and many were not yet open. In a few weeks, though, huge numbers will be in flower casting a distinctive reddish-pink sheen across the beach.
Towards the sea, the green flowery islands petered out leaving a sparsely vegetated zone of shingle populated by plants capable of coping with harsher conditions. Sea spray and some large waves reach this part of the beach and only specially adapted plants can grow here. These often have leaves with waxy coatings to prevent water loss and long roots to reach fresh water deep below the shingle. Sea kale is one of these and imposing clumps of this plant grew towards the shingle ridge. The clumps were several feet across with fleshy, dark green, cabbage-type leaves tinged with pink, and overlaid with copious sprays of white flowers. Sea kale is an impressively architectural plant that dominates this part of the beach and perhaps it encourages people to build the beach sculptures with flat stones that I saw nearby.
Rosettes of furry, pale grey-green leaves were also emerging from the shingle in this zone. These are from yellow-horned poppy, yet to flower. Later in the year, these plants will light up the beach with their papery, lemon-yellow flowers and enormously long scimitar-shaped seed pods. Also struggling through the shingle were many long ropes of a plant with fleshy, green, spade-shaped leaves arranged geometrically around a central stem with a slight helical twist. This is sea spurge another of the plants that frequents these salty, harsh environments. It has very unusual flowers (see pictures below).
I spent the rest of the time wandering about the beach looking at the flowers, hoping I might see some interesting insects given all the floral resource about. I concentrated on the bird’s foot trefoil, a bee-favourite that grew well in several of the island clumps. A few bumblebees were foraging from these bright yellow cushiony flowers and then suddenly another very different bee appeared, feeding from the bird’s foot trefoil, moving purposefully from flower to flower. It was quite small, about two thirds the size of a honeybee and a striking ruby red colour with prominent golden bands of hair around and across its abdomen (see picture at the head of this post and below).
I had seen several of these insects here two years ago; they are gold-fringed mason bees (Osmia aurulenta) and this one was a female. Not only are they very beautiful insects with their sparkling, jewel-like colouration but their life cycle sets them apart as they are one of the three UK bee species that nests in empty snail shells. The female constructs cells within the abandoned snail shell using leaf mastic and provisions each cell with pollen and nectar before laying one egg. Even more bizarrely, they decorate the outside of the filled shell with more leaf mastic. Vegetated shingle is one of their favoured habitats and there were empty snail shells scattered sparsely across the beach. Try as I might, though, I have yet to find one of these insects working on a snail shell!
I visited Slapton Sands on May 19th on a warm dry day but on May 20th, the cold, wet weather returned. After a week, however, something meteorological shifted and, thankfully, summer finally arrived. Many female red mason bees are now busily building nests in the bee houses.
It was still early when I looked out of the back window. I had expected a clear morning but, instead, a veil of grey mist lay across the eastern hills. The line of mist seemed to follow the course of the river Dart hidden beneath the lower town, softening and lending an air of mystery to the view. A hazy orange glow emerged above the line of mist gradually shading into a clear, translucent blue sky. This orange dawn light reminded me of one of the species of the butterfly about at this time of year. The French call these butterflies “l’aurore”, (the dawn) and the Germans refer to them as “Aurorafalter”, (the dawn butterfly). We English settle for the name “orange-tip butterfly” (from the bright orange wing tips of the male).
Last year, during the first lockdown I found orange-tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines) in the Nursery Car Park, one of the town centre car parks. The butterflies laid eggs on the garlic mustard growing along one of the borders, caterpillars developed and I presume they left chrysalises on vegetation in the car park. Unfortunately, last December, the council carried out a “tidiness” raid on the Nursery Car Park cutting down most of the trees and all the plants and other vegetation, presumably destroying the chrysalises. Some early spring flowers did grow but in the third week of April the “tidiness brigade” returned and strimmed the borders again. This included destroying a bank of flowering three-cornered garlic that was popular with female hairy-footed flower bees last year. I don’t bother to look in the Nursery Car Park now.
The male orange-tip butterfly is one of the clear signs that the new season has arrived and, at this time of year, they can be seen meandering about the countryside searching for females. In flight, they mostly appear white making them awkward to distinguish from other “white” butterflies although hints of the orange wing tips can sometimes be seen. This year, I had seen several of the males in different places around the town despite the markedly cool weather. I had only seen one female so, last Sunday afternoon, with sunshine forecast, I decided to have another attempt at finding orange-tip females, this time in an orchard on the western side of Totnes.
Colwell Wood is owned by the Woodland Trust and located a short distance up Harper’s Hill. It occupies a sloping site with good views towards Dartmoor and was planted nearly 25 years ago. Now there is an area of woodland with a good selection of broadleaf native trees and an orchard stocked with heritage fruit trees: apple, plum, pear, cherry, medlar and mulberry.
A mature horse chestnut tree greeted me when I walked through the wooden gate off Harper’s Hill into Colwell Wood. The tree was covered in floppy lime-green leaves and there were plenty of white candle-like flowers flecked with pink. The woodland area is a short distance away and, with the trees now fairly mature, this a lovely spot. A path took me through the rows of mature trunks, sunlight percolated through the partially leafed trees and above me a chiff chaff sang among branches that chattered as the breeze made them tremble. The lesser celandine that had given the woodland floor a yellow sheen a few weeks ago were on their way out, the colour being replaced by a fulsome green growth with ferns unfurling and hogweed leaves spreading.
The woodland ended and I walked a little way down the slope into the orchard, now a mass of flowers with most of the trees in blossom. Apple predominated with its pink and white flowers and a steady stream of pollinators were visiting. I saw bumblebees, honeybees and hoverflies and above the trees a few St Mark’s flies.
I also began to see an intermittent passage of white butterflies across the orchard in the sunshine. With their undulating, slightly uncertain flight these insects often remind me of fragments of paper blowing in the wind but here a better comparison would be with the pale petals of apple trees. These were blowing about in the breeze and on more than one occasion I jumped thinking that a butterfly had passed me only to find it was just a fragment of apple blossom.
Several species of butterfly appear white in flight, so it’s important to look carefully at individual characteristics to identify the species. Most of the “white” butterflies passing through the orchard that afternoon, though, were elusive and accelerated away when they saw me. Then two appeared dancing around one another in the air. I watched, thinking this might have been a mating pair but one flew off leaving the other to land on some cow parsley. I got a quick glimpse of orange as the butterfly landed so I knew this was a male orange-tip. He tolerated me approaching and looking, even when I knelt down and inadvertently sat on a stinging nettle. His wings were closed for most of the time, revealing the beautiful green and yellow mottled underwing patterns (see picture at the top of this post and also below). Slight traces of orange bled into the pattern but the dominant mottling blended well with the colours of the cow parsley. When he had finished feeding, he flew off giving me another quick flash of brash colour.
Then another “white” butterfly appeared and landed on one of the pear trees. This insect fed with wings half open, also exhibiting the mottled underwing pattern characteristic of orange-tip butterflies. It lacked the orange upper wing markings but in their place were black wing tips and spots showing this to be a female of the species. I was able to watch for a while before she flew off.
My third close encounter with a “white” butterfly that afternoon occurred as one landed on apple blossom and rested with its wings closed. The underwings of this individual were mostly yellowish green with a beautiful pattern of darker, radiating veins rather like the branches of a tree. This was a green-veined white butterfly (Pieris napi).
The weather changed, cloud covered the sun and the temperature fell a little. The butterflies took this as a signal and I saw no more that afternoon but I returned a few days later on a sunny but rather windy day. Walking through the woodland section, I came across several clumps of garlic mustard, the larval food plant of the orange-tip butterfly (and also the green-veined white). I examined each plant carefully and very gently and was pleased to find one tiny, orange, ovoid structure attached just under the flower head on one flower stem (see pictures below). This “mini rugby ball” was the egg of an orange-tip butterfly. It has a much better chance of producing a new butterfly next year in this environment compared to those I saw last year in the Nursery Car Park.
Thanks to Dr Claudia Garrido who identified the medlar tree for me (see picture below).
With Lockdown easing in the UK, this is the last Lockdown Nature Walk of this series. I wanted to see how spring was progressing along a typical Devon country lane. So, on a mild day with intermittent sunshine and a light wind, I walked up Harper’s Hill on the western side of Totnes (as in Lockdown Nature Walk 7) to reach Jackman’s Lane and the ridgeway road. It was an interesting walk but not always in the way I had anticipated. After the account of my walk, I have included a relevant poem, “The Trees” by Philip Larkin
The prominent sign at the start of Jackman’s Lane proclaimed “Unmetalled Road” and the hard-packed, rutted, reddish soil base of the track showed evidence of regular use by farm vehicles and horses. I made slow progress along the lane, examining the soil banks lining the track, occasionally pausing to enjoy the views across rolling countryside with fields and trees. Skylarks sang their endlessly inventive songs overhead, plump queen bumblebees buzzed along the hedges and the wind carried the sound of a tractor. Spring flowers decorated the soil banks including primroses, celandine, violets and stitchwort. Nettles grew in a profusion of green together with thuggish hogweed leaves while the heavily flailed woody stems along the hedge tops were only just shooting.
Then on a narrow ledge surrounded and almost hidden by grasses, my attention was captured by a flash of a different green, a silvery green. When I looked carefully, I saw a fine lizard curled up neatly and basking in a shaft of warm sunshine (see picture at the head of this post). The reptile was about 12cm long, a common lizard (Zootoca vivipara) with a complex pattern of black swirls and dots along its body. The colours of common lizards vary and local expert, John Walters told me that the green colour probably helps the creature to avoid predators in this grassy environment.
As I watched the lizard, I saw it eyeing me warily, so I left it in peace and carried on down the lane. Butterflies occasionally surprised me by erupting from the track where they had been basking, rising too quickly to identify. Then two of these insects materialised above me, dancing in the air, turning circles around each other before one fell to the ground just behind the left-hand bank. I scrambled up and recognised it as a small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) with its brilliant orange, yellow and black markings. It seemed to be fluttering its wings repeatedly as it danced above some young nettle leaves. Was this a form of courtship behaviour?
I continued to see or hear bumblebees as I walked and then towards the end of the lane, hoverflies began to appear. Some were flying about but most were quietly basking on exposed leaves in the sunshine. The hoverflies that I saw that day were all of the same species, the tapered drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), a mixture of males and females. The more I look at hoverflies, the more I appreciate the beauty of these creatures and I hope the photos posted below show this. Look, for example, at their wings which resemble panes of crazed glass and the neat bands of hair decorating their thorax and abdomen.
As I was watching the hoverflies, I heard a familiar but not entirely welcome sound. Turning to look back down the lane, I glimpsed a galloping horse and rider approaching at speed. I moved to the edge of the track to make way but the horse slowed down and walked past me. I thanked the rider but she said nothing. I may have spoiled her planned gallop along this unpaved country track!
Jackman’s Lane ended and I turned right along the ridgeway road in the direction of Totnes. Views to the north across the valley below were hazy and Dartmoor lay invisible in the mist that enveloped the distant hills. A farmer was treating the nearby fields with chemical fertiliser while ploughing the upper surface of the red Devon soil. A plume of dust accompanied his tractor, so I walked on quickly.
The ridgeway road runs roughly eastward so that the soil bank on one side is south facing, getting the benefit of the sun when it shines and encouraging growth. Many flowers will appear here later in spring and even that day, I saw more here than along Jackman’s Lane including three members of the dead-nettle family.
White dead-nettle was one of these with its hooded, slightly hairy flowers spreading splashes of snowy white among the lush greenery covering the bank. A few red dead-nettle flowers had just pushed through the grasses and there were drifts of yellow archangel, a member of the family that has the look of a yellow dead-nettle. Two kinds of yellow archangel grew on the soil bank, the wild flower with its all-green leaves and the garden throw out (argentatum) with silvery green leaves. The garden variety blooms earlier and spreads more aggressively than its wild counterpart and it had formed a large yellow mat along one edge of the ridgeway road.
The flowers of members of the dead-nettle family are similar with a wide lower lip like a landing pad to attract pollinators, sometimes marked with abstract patterns. Above the lip is a hood concealing stamens that close over the inquisitive insect so that, when it leaves, it takes away some pollen to fertilise the next flower it visits. Several common carder bee queens (Bombus pascuorum), some of the first I had seen this year, were taking advantage of the flowers.
While I was watching the bees, I became aware of a motor scooter that had slowed down and turned on the road behind me. The scooter drew up at my side, stopped and the rider, an older man, swathed in coats and a large crash helmet, asked:
“Are you going towards Bowden?”
I thought he wanted directions and replied “Sort of”.
“Have you seen the otter in the tree?” he asked.
“What! An otter in a tree, it must be dead?” I replied in surprise.
“No, no”, he must have thought I was stupid, “it’s part of the tree, its uncanny how it looks like an otter, I am surprised more fuss hasn’t been made about it”.
He told me in some detail how to find it and I agreed to look.
As he was getting ready to go, he looked at me oddly and asked “What’s a farmer’s favourite sport?”
“I have no idea. What is farmer’s favourite sport”, this was becoming surreal.
He revved up, looked fixedly at me again and, as he accelerated away, blurted out “fencing!”.
I walked on and near the junction with the Ashprington road I could see the tree and the arboreal otter. It was indeed an uncanny likeness.
It was only then that I remembered it was April 1st but I haven’t made this story up, all this really did happen.
“The Trees” by Philip Larkin
The trees are coming into leaf Like something almost being said; The recent buds relax and spread, Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again And we grow old? No, they die too. Their yearly trick of looking new Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh In fullgrown thickness every May. Last year is dead, they seem to say, Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.