We are now well into the third week of lockdown in the UK. Totnes seems to be following the rules well, there are very few people about and when I encounter someone they mostly keep two metres away. With the lack of traffic, an abnormal quiet seems to have settled across the town so that we now notice the singing of the birds.
It’s a difficult time and perhaps reflecting this, a crop of supportive messages appeared recently in chalk on houses and on the road on Kinsgbridge Hill and Maudlin Road. One of these heads this post and I have put another below.
It has been easier, at least for me, to endure the lockdown given the gentle weather we have been experiencing. Mornings have been particularly glorious as the warm light of the rising sun is softened through a thin veil of mist across the valley below our house.
I have been continuing to enjoy my Lockdown exercise walks around the town centre gardens, car parks and lanes and here are a few notable observations.
Do look at the short video at the end of this post which shows a female hairy-footed flower bee feeding in the Nursery Car Park. It illustrates her behaviour and her colouring.
We are fortunate to live on the southern edge of Totnes close to open countryside. Just a short walk from our house lies Fishchowter’s Lane, an ancient sunken lane, once thought to have been one of the principal southern routes out of Totnes towards Dartmouth. Nowadays, it is very quiet making it a pleasant walk by woods and fields with various possibilities for longer or shorter loops back to Totnes. Here are some pictures taken as we walked the lane recently. For more images of the lane through the seasons, have a look here.
Finally, back to the town centre where one unanticipated effect of the lockdown has been the lack of strimming along car park edges allowing wild flowers to prosper. This is particularly clear in the Nursery Car Park where there are now drifts of of golden dandelions and a large bank of three-cornered leek covered with its trumpet-like white flowers with their pale green stripes. The flowers are very popular with female hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes); here is a short video clip I took yesterday morning of these insects showing how they behave.
We try to make our garden welcoming for bees by growing flowers that provide pollen and nectar throughout the season. We also have some unkempt areas they might want to nest in and we don’t use any pesticides. I enjoy watching the bees foraging on the flowers as they come in to bloom and currently a large cotoneaster bush is full of small bumblebees buzzing loudly as they feed in the sunshine. It’s been very exciting this year to see bumblebees and solitary bees nesting in the dry-stone walls around the garden.
When we need new plants or compost, there is one local garden centre we use. It has a good range of healthy-looking plants and a very nice tearoom! In early spring, it’s also an excellent place to watch one of my favourite bees, the hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), whizzing about in the greenhouses full of flowers. Earlier this year, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late March, I noticed that these Anthophora had set up nests in the old brick wall of one of the garden centre’s buildings.
I wanted to find out more so I got in touch with our favourite garden centre and asked whether they were using neonicotinoid insecticides on their plants. They reassured me that they were not. So far so good. I then asked if their suppliers used neonicotinoids in the compost on the plants they sold. The reply came back “I’m afraid I can’t answer that question without phoning every supplier. Also a few companies we deal with import some of their stock from other European countries. I’m happy to ask my local nurseries when I’m speaking to them.” That’s the last I heard.
Dave Goulson got his money and went ahead with the analyses. The results of his tests have just been published and they don’t make happy reading; here is a link to his blog on the topic. He and his colleagues bought 29 pots of flowering plants from well-known garden centres around Brighton (Wyevale, Aldi, B & Q, Homebase). Many were labelled “bee-friendly” and some had the Royal Horticultural Society endorsement “Perfect for Pollinators”.
They analysed a range of pesticides in leaves and pollen from the plants and found that most of the plants contained a cocktail of insecticides and fungicides. In the leaf analysis, only 2 of the 29 plants contained no pesticides. 76% contained one or more insecticide and 38 % contained two or more. 70% of the leaf samples analysed positive for neonicotinoid insecticides, well known for their toxic effects on bees. In the pollen analysis, neonicotinoids were found at levels known to cause harm to bees. So much for “Perfect for Pollinators”.
As a result of his work, B & Q announced that from February 2018 their plants would be neonicotinoid-free. Aldi revealed that they had stopped using neonicotinoids in October 2016, a few months after Goulson’s analyses took place. Neither B & Q nor Aldi addressed the other chemicals found in the Sussex analysis.
The Horticultural Trades Association issued a statement that I believe is both silly and cynical, basically rubbishing Goulson’s analysis. You can read Dave Goulson’s rebuttal here.
So, it really is true that when we buy plants to help bees in our gardens from garden centres, we may be unwittingly exposing the bees to harmful chemicals, despite the “bee-friendly” labels. Also, any insect that nips into a garden centre for a feed, especially early in the season when garden centres have an abundance of flowers, may be getting a hit of insecticide at the same time.
So, what do we do if we want to have a bee-friendly garden?
Dave Goulson recommends the following course of action: if you must buy plants, buy from an organic garden centre or, failing that, go to B & Q or Aldi. Better still, grow from seed or swap plants with friends and neighbours.
One point that has not been discussed so far concerns potential effects on humans of these pesticides found in garden centre plants. Earlier this year, I bought some fruit bushes from the garden centre and these now have a nice crop of plump berries. If these plants have been treated with pesticides, and of course I don’t know if they have, then the fruit will presumably also contain these pesticides. This possibility makes me very angry. I grow fruit in our garden so that we can eat chemical free, fresh, good quality produce. I don’t want to ingest insecticides and fungicides with poorly defined toxic effects on humans.
The featured image shows a hairy-footed fower bee feeding from plants in a lane adjacent to the garden centre
The signs have been there for a while. Birds singing as though someone told them it’s time to turn up the volume. Grassy banks dotted with starry yellow celandine flowers. A green haze of fresh leaves slowly creeping over previously bare branches. If only the weather would play fair it might be spring.
So, after many days of damp and grey, the sun shone, the air was warm and it was as though a transformation had taken place. It was also Friday Market Day and, as people wandered between the stalls, they smiled at one another and remarked on the weather. Two busking fiddlers played pleasing harmonies in the Market Square and, outside the Italian Café, it was not quite Tuscan weather but the beautiful people laughed and smiled in the Devon sunshine.
I wandered down to the Leechwell Garden where, soon after I arrived, my attention was grabbed by a low but insistent buzzing. On an extensive stand of rosemary growing against one of the old brick walls I saw a real sign of spring. It was a chunky bee covered in rich brown hairs but with a pale nose. Moving quickly and purposefully among the slate-blue flowers, it collected nectar, buzzing as it went. This was a male Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes), my first one of the year and seeing it lifted my spirits.
Elsewhere in town, I looked at a huge willow (Salix caprea) that has been cleverly pollarded and trained over a wall where its many slender stems drop like water over a precipice. The tree has been covered in immature, grey “pussy willow” catkins and, recently, these have been mutating into bright pollen-loaded male catkins. Last Friday in the sunshine the tree was very impressive: a mass of yellow flower heads, unruly brushes made from the long stamens, alive with honeybees and a few bumble bees and small flies. The whole tree buzzed as the sun’s energy was transformed into sound.
When the bumblebees saw me, they flew off in disgust. The honeybees, however, were drunk on pollen and nectar and either didn’t see me or didn’t care. Many of them already carried large chunks of orange-yellow pollen to take back to the hive but when they encountered a new flower head they wallowed in it, they almost swam in the stamens. If they could have expressed pleasure this would have been the occasion.
Later, a light mist crept over the hills to the east, gradually enveloping the town and shutting out the sun.
This year I promised myself I would try to get to know one our early solitary bees. I’d seen them in previous years but I knew there was more to learn so, from early March, I started looking carefully at the flowers in the local community garden, the Leechwell Garden. It was a bit frustrating as spring didn’t seem to know how to get started, rather like a sulky teenager on their way to school. The slow season had its effect on the flowers; there were plenty of primroses and dandelions and some rosemary but the early lungwort, a favourite of my chosen bee, was a bit short on blooms. It didn’t help my mood when a friend phoned to say she had seen one of the bees in a garden in Cornwall.
I had to wait another week after the phone call but eventually I was rewarded. Around lunchtime one sunny but cool March day, I heard a harsh buzz from the direction of some rosemary growing against one of the old stone walls. When I investigated, I saw one of my chosen bees working the disorderly blue-grey flowers, but he saw me coming and promptly flew away. Nevertheless, the spell had been broken and I began to see one or more of the bees each time I visited.
Rosemary and lungwort were their favourites and they moved deftly from bloom to bloom in search of nectar, long tongue often extended in readiness. Pausing to feed each time for a second or so, they emitted an urgent buzz as they moved, sometimes hovering briefly as if to take stock, their wings a pale blur in the sunshine. Despite the rapid staccato movements, I could see that they were roughly the size of a small bumblebee and covered in pale brown hair. Their distinctive, pale facial markings also stood out, reminding me of masked revellers at the Venice carnival.
These were male Hairy-footed Flower Bees (Anthophora plumipes), some of the earliest solitary bees to appear in the UK as winter stumbles slowly away. In this part of Devon, my first sighting was in March, around the time of the Spring Solstice, their presence providing a rather wonderful indicator of the new season. They are partial to lungwort flowers but feed from a wide variety of others. This year I have seen them feeding from banks of rosemary in a seafront garden, from aubretia cascading down an ancient wall and from three cornered leek growing in a long border near the sea. They forage at lower temperatures than many other bees making them important early season pollinators. In a rural setting, they are important pollinators for broad beans.
I tried to photograph them but they were rarely still, moving very quickly, seeming to object when I got too close, hovering in the air and buzzing loudly as if to frighten me away. After some persistence I managed to get a good photo showing their hairy middle legs and feet, celebrated in their name. The photo also shows their subtly marked abdomen with its alternate pale and dark stripes.
By early April, the lungwort was flowering well and the pale brown males were regular visitors to these trumpet-shaped flowers. They were joined by another chunky bee, this one jet-black except for two orange-tan flashes towards their rear. Easily confused with a small bumblebee and surprisingly different from the males, this was the female Hairy-footed Flower Bee. The female bees moved around the flowers as quickly and as edgily as the males, like small mobile black bullets. The splashes of colour come from thick tufts of orange/tan hairs on their back legs. These are their pollen hairs, used for collecting as they visit different flowers. A female with her yellow-loaded pollen hairs is a fine sight at this time of year.
The females were just as sensitive to my presence as the males, displaying a belligerent attitude as they hover and buzz aggressively in mid air. Occasionally they would check me out, hovering and looking, darting to right or left, hovering and looking, sometimes circling right round me. Bumblebees sometimes also take a good look, circling around me, even landing on my sleeve but this is a dialogue whereas my interaction with the Hairy-footed Flower Bee felt more confrontational.
For a few weeks, I saw a mixture of males and females feeding on flowers and it’s surprising how common they are. Occasionally they performed an aerial dance, circling around one another. Sometimes the males were more aggressive, hovering a few centimetres behind a feeding female, buzzing loudly and then pouncing, knocking the female off the flower. Given that the females have usually already mated, this behaviour is counter-productive and wastes valuable female foraging time. Perhaps the males are just hard-wired to behave in this manner as it ensures mating success.
By the third week of April I saw mostly the jet-black females, working hard, busily collecting for their nests, visiting a wide range of flowers. It takes each female about a day to provision one cell with pollen and nectar for the developing egg. Nests tend to be in sunny vertical surfaces such as cliffs, soil banks or holes in soft walls but although there are many old walls in Totnes with loose mortar I haven’t located a nest yet. John Walters wrote a nice description of A. plumipes nests in a soft cob wall near a Devon church. The cob wall offers good nesting conditions so the bees tend to nest in aggregations even though they are solitary bees.
The few males about looked faded and discoloured and noticeably slower than earlier in the season. They play an essential role in the survival of the species but they have mated with the females and are not needed anymore.
My last sighting of these bees was on May 15th. This seemed a little early and I can’t be sure if it reflected the lifetime of the bees or the bees foraging elsewhere. We won’t see the bees again for nine or ten months and the action now switches to the nests where eggs develop in to larvae eventually producing the new bees that will emerge next spring.
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.
I’ve recently been watching several patches of lungwort (Pulmonaria) in different parts of the town. It’s one of my favourite spring flowers bringing much needed early splashes of colour as well as food for the few bees out and about. I’ve found some of the common form with its pink and blue flowers and dappled green leaves. The Leechwell Garden also has three other cultivars, one with deep blue flowers, another with smaller white flowers and a large patch with coral pink flowers, some tinged with blue.
The common form of lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) grows wild over much of mainland Europe but it has been naturalised in Britain for many years. The oval, fleshy green leaves are decorated with silver grey spots and grow in a jumble near the ground. In early spring the plant launches volleys of brightly coloured trumpet-shaped flowers carried on sturdy stems. The immature flowers are a deep reddish pink fading to a paler pink as they grow and mature. The flower colour changes again as it ages, this time to a mauvish blue so a vigorous plant may carry two or three principal shades of flower. On a large clump of the plant the flowers shimmer and dance in the cool breezes that predominate at this time of year, creating a haze of strong colour.
There’s an interesting chemical story behind the flower colour change which may transport you back to school chemistry lessons and messing around with litmus paper. The flowers of common lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) contain coloured pigments (anthocyanins) that are sensitive to acidity. As the flower ages, there is a change in the pH (a measure of acidity or alkalinity) and the pigments change colour accordingly. The young flowers are acid and their colour is red or pink. As they mature the acidity drops and the flowers eventually turn blue.
But this is more than a chemical curiosity, the colour change is a signal to pollinators. The pink colour tells pollinators that the flower has plenty of nectar whereas the blue says “don’t bother”. Hence pollinators don’t waste time visiting low-nectar blooms and they may visit several plants looking for high nectar flowers increasing the chance of cross pollination. This, of course, raises the question of what happens in cultivars where the flower colour does not change.
It is widely reported that early botanists saw a resemblance between spotty lungwort leaves and diseased, ulcerated lungs. That’s how the name, lungwort and its Latin equivalent, Pulmonaria are supposed to have arisen. I would like to know more about this resemblance because I have no idea what “diseased, ulcerated” lungs look like. I tried to find pictures but that didn’t help either. I wonder which lung disease these early botanists, who were also physicians, were thinking of?
The apparent resemblance between the spotty leaves and diseased lungs also led medieval physicians to use lungwort preparations to treat respiratory conditions. Indeed lungwort has a long tradition of medicinal use and “officinalis” refers to this. In his 17th century herbal, Culpeper asserts: “It is of great use in diseases of the lungs” and to this day, herbalists use extracts of the plant to treat coughs and bronchitis.
The connection between lungwort leaves and diseased lungs did not impress everyone and the plant has a host of other common names of different provenance. Some refer to the Virgin Mary or where she lived, hence the names Our Lady’s Milk Drops, Mary Spilt the Milk and Jerusalem Cowslip. Another name is Soldiers and Sailors which makes a link between the flower colours and the red and blue uniforms of the army and the navy.
But what about those pollinators that are being lured by the siren-colours of lungwort flowers? I’ve seen honey bees and I’ve seen one small bumblebee which I guess is a worker based on its size. But what I’ve been waiting for is Anthophora plumipes or the Hairy-footed Flower Bee and I saw my first one, a male, on March 17. These are fairly large furry bees, the males who emerge first being gingery and the females black. They love lungwort and most days now when I go to see the Leechwell Garden lungwort I am rewarded by the sight of a male with his pale face and characteristic restless, staccato flight pattern. These Anthophora move quickly from flower to flower often buzzing loudly as they go and making it very difficult to take photos. Sometimes they disappear when I arrive but they also sometimes come to have a look; they hover near me, move in a straight line to another spot, hover again and repeat this behaviour around me until satisfied.
There must be plenty of these solitary bees about for me to see them so easily, unless of course it’s a few very busy bees. So far I have seen no females, but when I do, I will update this.
Update: I finally saw a black female on some primroses on April 12th. Ironically it was in our back garden, although we are quite close the the Leechwell Garden.