Category Archives: bees

Long-horned bees on the south Devon coast

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.     

View of part of the site looking towards Peartree Point and the east, showing the rugged inland cliffs, the flattish arable fields and the present coastline with low cliffs. The flowery coastal meadow is to the right, just out of the picture.
View of part of the site looking west to Prawle Point showing the inland cliffs and the present coastline.

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 on a dull day showing the edge of the inland cliffs and the cliff top bracken
The coastal meadow on a sunny day showing the mass of wildflowers and grasses

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. 

The rocky coastline just above the nest site showing bird’s foot trefoil and thrift

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 bees

Male Eucera longicornis on bush vetch (early June)
Male Eucera longicornis on narrow-leaved everlasting pea (late June)
Two males by the nest site in early June
Female Eucera longicornis on narrow-leaved everlasting pea showing pollen hairs on her back legs (late June)
Female Eucera longicornis approaching narrow-leaved everlasting pea flower (late June)

The state of the site across spring and summer

Herbicide damage in April (SX785360)
Strimming in June (SX785360)
Herbicide use in June (SX785360)

Cattle damage along hedge showing remains of narrow-leaved everlasting pea (July, SX785360))

The featured image at the head of this post shows a male Eucera longicornis on bird’s foot trefoil in late May.

 

 

The week the Swifts departed

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.

Swifts near our house

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.   

Swifts over Totnes seen from our kitchen window in 2020

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. 

The Exminster Marshes showing the flat watery landscape

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)

Vegetation by the side of the Exeter Canal showing yellow loosestrife and marsh woundwort. Topsham is in the background.

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. 

Female Macropis europaea showing the white and black hairs on her hind legs. Look out for the raindrops.
Male Macropis europaea showing his swollen back legs
Male Macropis europaea showing his yellow face and swollen back legs

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. 

Marsh woundwort with common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum)
Small copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas)
Hoverfly (Helophilus trivittatus)

West Dorset surprises

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.

The old railway cutting

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. 

Three short videos of the long-horned bees showing their behaviour that day can be seen on my YouTube channel  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvXWn_9QYdx0AU6guJ3iYLA

common vetch
milkwort (pink version) showing white petal
Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) in flight showing his long antennae
Female Eucera longcornis showing her pollen-collecting hairs on her back legs. The female also has antennae of a more conventional length.
mating cluster
mating cluster with male looking on
common spotted orchid

This article appeared in the August 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

A Summer’s Day at Dawlish Warren

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 damp area with yellow bartsia. Meadowsweet can be seen to the rear together with the land rising to the dune ridge

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. 

Marsh helleborine. The upper central flower shows the yellow reproductive apparatus beneath two petals and the lower left hand flower shows the complex lower lip.

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.

Evening primrose with hoverfly
Southern Marsh Orchid
Male Silvery Leafcutter Bee (Megachile leachella), note the green eyes
Male Silvery Leafcutter Bee (Megachile leachella) showing green eyes and yellow face
Female Silvery Leafcutter Bee collecting nectar from restharrow. Note the distinctive pair of white spots on terminal abdominal segment.
Female Silvery Leafcutter Bee with leaf segment approaching her nest
A tree used by leafcutter bees for cutting leaf segments

A jewel of a bee on a shingle beach

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.

The islands of vegetation on the shingle beach showing some red valerian. The wooded cliffs at the back of the beach are just visible and the sea is to the right.

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.

Red valerian in one of the islands of vegetation showing the reddish-pink flowers
Bird’s foot trefoil growing on the shingle
Rosy garlic flowers growing in one of the islands pof vegetation
Sea Kale growing on the harsher part of the shingle beach
Sea spurge showing the rope-like stems and the unusual flowers. The flowers have no petals or sepals but are held in a cup formed from two bracts. The pale green tri-symmetric structure contains one small female flower. The yellow discs are glands that secrete nectar to attract insects and near the glands are several small yellow spherical stamens containing pollen.
A gold-fringed mason bee on bird’s foot trefoil

Sunday in the orchard with butterflies

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. 

Apple blossom in the orchard

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).

Male orange-tip butterfly on cow parsley showing the mottled underwing pattern
Male orange-tip butterfly showing upper wings
Female orange-tip butterfly showing the mottled underwing pattern and upper wing with black tips and spots
Female orange-tip butterfly showing the mottled underwing pattern projecting through in the sunshine
Green-veined white butterfly
Garlic mustard showing the orange egg of the orange tip butterfly
Close up of the orange-tip butterfly egg
Flowers of the medlar tree

An otter in a tree? – Lockdown Nature Walks 16

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 otter in the tree

…………………………………..

“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.

…………………………………..

stitchwort
violet
small tortoiseshell butterfly on nettles
female hoverfly (eristalis pertinax), the eyes don’t meet in the middle of the head so this is a female
male hoverfly (eristalis pertinax), the eyes meet in the middle of the head so this is a male
white dead-nettle with common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)
yellow archangel with common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackthorn flowers showing the red-tipped stamens

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

Honeybee on lesser celandine, note the yellow pollen accumulating

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

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

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.