Finally it felt like spring! Two warmer, sunny days in a row and we had to be out on the coast so, on Thursday, we visited Roundham Head Gardens overlooking the sea in Paignton; as we strolled along the cliff paths, heat radiated back from the south-facing slopes lending a continental feel. The abundant yellow scorpion vetch gave off a smell rather like gorse and I saw a bumble bee feeding from the buttery flowers. The sun had brought out many other bees and this is a short post showing some pictures of the species I encountered on a fairly quick walk through the gardens.
Many other flowers were in bloom, but the large banks of rosemary and their disorderly mauve flowers were the most popular haunt of the bees.
For some fascinating pictures of sleeping Melecta from Stephen Boulton follow this link.
Also, follow this link for an excellent description of Nomada detective work by Megan Shersby.
Start Point is a narrow, rocky peninsula intruding nearly a mile in to the Channel from the South Devon coast. In the past, ships frequently foundered on the rocks and since 1836 a lighthouse has protected the spot. The sinister reputation of the Start Point peninsula is enhanced by its resemblance to the scaly back of a crocodile or sea monster; perhaps in recognition of this it was long ago christened Start after the Anglo-Saxon for tail.
Earlier this week, we walked a circular route beginning from the Start Point car park and this post describes some of the highlights. It was the first sunny day for some time and the calm sea across Start Bay was a deep sky blue on a largely wind-free day. What a great pleasure it was to walk in the sunshine, by the sea and in good company!
Our first surprise came as we walked down the road towards the lighthouse. A large bumblebee appeared, as if from nowhere, and after circling a few times to inspect us, landed on Hazel’s hair, buzzing loudly. Hazel kept her cool but, before I could get to the camera, this fine red-tailed queen had flown off. We encountered another red-tailed and several buff-tailed bumblebee queens as we walked and I suppose the warm weather had tempted them out.
The coast path soon deserts the lighthouse road, heading westwards over the spine of the peninsula before dropping down to follow the meandering coastline. There are fine views of the lighthouse and the rocky promontory.
After about half a mile we came to Frenchman’s Rock and its cluster of off-shore rocks; this is one of the places where South Devon’s grey seals congregate. The tide was falling and two impressively large seals alternately hauled out on the rocks and swam about vigorously.
Between Great Mattiscombe Sands and Lannacombe there is a mile of easy walking along the cliff top. Stonechats skittered about and patches of lesser celandine glowed in the sunshine. I spotted my first solitary bee of the year enjoying the nectar from one of these starry yellow flowers; based on its black and white striped abdomen and hairy back legs this bee was Andrena flavipes, the yellow-legged mining bee.
We stopped to eat our sandwiches at Lannacombe where there was a very full stream cascading across the rocks and beach. As it hurried towards the sea, the water created mobile patterns on the sand reflecting the low February sunshine.
After Lannacombe, the path turns away from the sea up a densely-wooded, steep sided valley where we discovered what might be supporting the bumblebees. Among the bare-latticed trees there were large stands of pussy willow (Salix caprea) covered in oval yellow flowers; from a distance I could see at least one bumblebee enjoying this food source. As I concentrated on the willow trees, the call of a male tawny owl echoed across the valley.
Our route continued up and down on minor roads eventually returning to the coast at Hallsands, a village largely destroyed by storms in 1917 and damaged again earlier this year. There is a prominent block of newly converted apartments; these are mostly second homes and were deserted although I noticed two buff-tailed bumblebee queens inspecting them. Back on the coast path, a mile of gently ascending but very muddy walking returned us to the car park, rewarding us again with ever-changing views across Start Bay towards Slapton and Dartmouth.
That should have been the end of the excitement but, as we drove away from the car park, we encountered a large number of small black and white birds on the road and nearby fences. This was a flock of thirty or more pied wagtails, flittering about and, of course, wagging.
The featured image is of Start Bay, viewed from the car park, looking towards Slapton and Dartmouth. We walked on February 23rd.
This is walk 18 in “South Devon and Dartmoor Walks” published by Jarrold.
On a sunny day just over a month ago, I was watching the solitary bees (Andrena flavipes) in a soil bank by the edge of one of the town centre car parks. It was a mid-April Sunday, the car park almost empty, so I wandered along the bank to check for any other bees living there. I had looked before and found nothing but this time I was surprised to find freshly disturbed friable soil and some bees about the same size as honeybees but with prominent black and white hairs. I took as many photos as their behaviour would allow and when I looked at various bee resources I reckoned these were most likely Andrena cineraria, the Ashy Mining Bee. The name refers to the colour of the hairs on the thorax of the bees and cineraria comes from the Latin for ashes.
The Ashy Mining Bee is a very pretty solitary bee, particularly the female with her distinctive black and white hairs; the males are not so clearly marked although they do have white facial hairs. My photos don’t allow me to identify males or females with any certainty although I did see two bees that were either fighting or mating. I have not seen any females with pollen and I don’t think this is a large accumulation of nests but it does show that there are two species of solitary bee living in this unassuming soil bank in a town centre car park adjacent to the Leechwell Garden.
While I was watching these bees, another large insect about the size of a medium bumblebee appeared and patrolled the nest area. With its smart coat of russet hairs and its long proboscis clearly visible, this was a bee fly, most likely Bombylius major. These are parasites of A. cineraria and flick their eggs in to the soil nests where they develop and take over.
Later, I also noticed a smaller insect with a prominent yellow banded abdomen. In the photograph it is digging in the soil upside down. This is probably a nomad bee but, from this photo, I cannot say which species. A few days later I saw two Nomada flying about; these could be Nomada lathburiana known to parasitise nests of A. cineraria by laying eggs which develop and kill the bee egg or early larva.
The young woman sitting in her car rolled the window down and enquired: “Would you mind telling me what you are doing?” I was in one of the town centre car parks adjacent to the Leechwell Garden and had been peering at a bank covered with scrappy grass and flowers, occasionally taking photographs. She continued hesitantly, asking if perhaps I was interested in the wild flowers. She was right, of course, but that was only part of the story.
The car park is called the Nursery, its incongruous name purloining a bit of local history. Difficult as it is to believe, until the early 1980s this part of central Totnes housed several fine commercial market gardens. All kinds of vegetables were produced in season and sold through shops in the town. The land that now forms the Nursery car park used to be covered with greenhouses growing tomatoes, lettuces and out of season chrysanthemums.
I find it sad that these very productive market gardens were tarmacked over to provide car parking but that is what happened. Narrow banks of soil were left around the parking area, perhaps to leaven the bleakness. Some of these banks are now covered with brambles, others with grass. The bank I have been watching is about ten feet wide and south facing. It is mostly covered with grass although there are a few exposed areas of friable soil; at this time of year there is a good population of flowering dandelions and celandines. Behind the bank is a high wall clad in ivy and on sunny days, the area gets quite warm attracting many insects.
Last year, my friend Susan Taylor told me about some solitary mining bees living in this bank. I had a look, but didn’t study them properly, mostly owing to my ignorance. This year I decided to try to identify the inhabitants and occasionally popped in to the car park to see if anything was happening. It wasn’t until the third week of March that I was rewarded with my first sighting of the solitary bees. On a warm, sunny day I found a cloud of small, slender bees, each about two thirds the size of a honeybee. They were flying about in an excited, staccato manner about twelve inches above the ground repeatedly changing direction, occasionally bumping in to one another, occasionally stopping to feed from dandelions. Susan Taylor describes this behaviour as their “Sun Dance” and they do seem to fly only when it is warm and sunny. From my photographs, I could see their black abdomen with prominent white stripes and their thorax and face decorated with pale brown hairs.
The “Sun Dance” continued on warm days and then about two weeks after I first saw the small bees I came across an area of friable soil in the bank with some prominent holes which I assume are the nests. Here I saw a few larger bees that were otherwise quite similar in appearance to the “Sun Dancers”. There was one clear difference apart from size and that was the orange-yellow hair on their upper back legs. They were also behaving quite differently, crawling around near the holes but rarely entering. I didn’t see any evidence of mating but a few days later I began to see some of these larger bees returning to the holes loaded with chrome-yellow pollen and quickly disappearing inside to equip their nests. On good days, the smaller bees were still evident but in gradually decreasing numbers. The larger bees have continued to collect pollen; the dandelions are declining but many local fruit trees are now blossom-covered so there is no shortage.
So, what have I been seeing? I have compared photographs of my car park-bees with pictures in bee books and with the many photographs of solitary bees on the internet. It is very difficult to make a firm identification, but I will offer a suggestion. The smaller bees are likely to be males and the larger bees the females of the same species. What we have called the “Sun Dance” is a crowd of males waiting for the females and getting over-excited, rather like sulky adolescent boys. I did not witness mating but collection of pollen and nest building are performed only by mated females. Their early emergence, their nest location, the complete white bands and the orange-yellow leg-hairs on females but not males suggest Andrena flavipes, the Yellow-legged Mining Bee. These are common mining bees that build nests in tunnels in soil banks. They are found in the southern UK and may have a second brood in mid-summer; I shall have to keep watch.
It would be interesting to hear what others think about this tentative identification.
But why am I interested in these bees if they are not rare? Why am I taking the trouble to watch them and take photographs?
I believe it is important to document these creatures, to get to know their life cycles and spread the word. Their emergence and nest-building each spring is one of nature’s amazing phenomena and I feel privileged to watch. These bees are also important pollinators; it’s good to know they are around and we should aim to support them.
I find it fascinating that these small lives are being lived in a busy town centre car park, literally under our noses. Perhaps realising that there is life in the soil banks makes up in part for the loss of the market gardens?
I explained some of this to the young woman in the car and she seemed interested, if a little bemused. It’s not every day you stop in a car park and get an enthusiastic lecture on solitary bees!