Tag Archives: bergenia

The winter solstice – a day of sunshine – with flowers, butterflies and bumblebees

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold which is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

(from Little Gidding, the last of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets)

low midwinter sun behind pine trees at Roundham Head
Low midwinter sun behind pine trees at Roundham Head – silhouettes and shadows

 

We had a lot of grey, wet weather towards the end of last year, and very little sunshine. A few days before Christmas, however, the forecast predicted a bright, dry and relatively mild day, so I took the opportunity to get over to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what flowers and wildlife might be about. It’s a journey of about ten miles and that morning I took the bus, enjoying the long views across the surrounding countryside. Paignton is a seaside holiday resort but it looked distinctly “out of season” when I arrived, despite the sunshine and blue sky. A few people were walking along the promenade; they were well wrapped up even though it wasn’t a cold day. The little harbour was quiet; small boats bobbed on the water protected by the old stone walls and a gang of turnstones skittered like mice at the water’s edge. Molly Malones food shack was closed for the winter and the booths normally touting fishing excursions were empty.

I walked up suburban streets to get on to the northern side of Roundham Head, the flat-topped, cliff-lined, grassy promontory that protrudes into the waters of Torbay. A line of tall pine trees straddles the first part of the headland and the low sun rendered these as silhouettes casting long shadows across the grass. The path around the promontory follows the cliff edge with views to the sea below and a seal teased me by briefly raising its shiny black head above the water. Eventually I came to southern side of the Head and the gardens that were built in the 1930s partly to stabilise the cliffs. Steep zig zag paths track up and down between flower beds planted with exotic species that, between them, provide colour throughout the year. There are benches should you wish to rest or enjoy the views over Torbay and the shelter, the proximity of the sea and the south facing aspect of the gardens generate a mild microclimate.

low midwinter sun over Goodrington Sands
The low midwinter sun over Goodrington Sands

 

It was the winter solstice that day, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, the day when darkness begins to give way to light. From the southern edge of Roundham Head, above the gardens, I could see the sun hanging very low in the pale wintery-blue sky casting its light across the beach at Goodrington Sands creating a silvery mirror on the water. Even though this was midwinter, there were plenty of flowers around me in the gardens and the low sunshine created surprising effects. Its intense golden light gave a softness to the air and enhanced flower colours to an almost psychedelic extent. Banks of bergenia acquired a pink brightness worthy of late 1960s San Francisco and the scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina) that flourishes all over the gardens glowed with a lemon-yellow light.

I paused by a clump of bergenia, enjoying the warmth of this sheltered spot. A small bumblebee, ovoid and furry with black, white and yellow stripes, soon appeared, moving among the bright pink flowers looking for food. Quickly tiring of the bergenia, it flew to one of the white funnel-shaped flowers in a large clump of shrubby bindweed (Convolvulus cneorum), burying its head in the base of the bloom where it stayed, drinking nectar. Based on size and appearance this was probably a buff-tailed bumblebee worker. A drone fly also took advantage of these flowers resting near the mass of golden yellow stamens. Soon after, I got a surprise when a butterfly landed briefly on the bergenia before flying off. It circled for a while before settling on a wall to bask in the sunshine showing me that it was a painted lady, with its characteristic wing coloration of orange/buff, black and white. An insistent buzz announced the arrival of a large bumblebee, black with orange/buff coloured bands. This was a queen buff-tailed bumblebee and she proceeded to feed from the bergenia. I had two more sightings of large furry queens on these pink flowers.

Another plant that flourishes here is rosemary and extensive curtains of the herb cascade from several borders, their slate blue flowers glinting in the sunshine like diamond chips. Rosemary is in flower here for several months across winter providing pollen and nectar for insects and I saw several buff-tailed bumblebee workers moving quickly about the flowers, their pollen baskets well loaded. They were very jumpy and flew off when I got too close. For a short time, they were joined by another queen carrying a small amount of grey pollen, also a basking, but rather worn, red admiral butterfly with its bright red and white patterns on a black background.

By mid-afternoon, cloud began to bubble up to the south, and eventually a slab of grey cloud obscured the sun. The temperature dropped noticeably, the wind got up and the bees went off to shelter, bringing observations to a close. I made my way back to the bus station pondering what I had seen.

It still surprises me to see butterflies in the winter. I have seen them here before in December and January but in my mind these brightly coloured insects signify summer. Although most red admirals are thought to migrate to the UK from North Africa and continental Europe, a few are thought to be resident now that mild winters are becoming more common. These residents can be seen flying and feeding on gentle winter days. The painted lady also migrates into the UK but is thought to be unable to survive our winters, so the one I encountered is unlikely to see our spring.

What about the bees, aren’t they supposed to be in hibernation at this time of year? Well yes, most bees are, but based on my observations of buff-tailed workers collecting pollen in December, there must be winter active colonies at Roundham Head. I first saw worker bumblebees here in January about five years ago and since then I have seen them at a similar time each year, so this is a well-established phenomenon. There are presumably queens in their nests laying eggs supported by these workers. These queens would have been produced in the previous October to mate with males at emergence. Last year I did see male buff-tails here in December so perhaps these were survivors of the late autumn emergence.

There is abundant evidence now from a variety of sources that colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees are active in the winter across the southern part of the UK. Two factors seem to be important: winter weather should not be too harsh and there should be plenty of flowers to support the colonies.

worker bumblebee on shrubby bindweed
A worker bumblebee on a shrubby bindweed flower

 

drone fly on shrubby bindweed
A drone fly on a shrubby bindweed flower

 

queen bumblebee on bergenia
Queen buff-tailed bumblebee on bergenia

 

painted lady butterfly
painted lady butterfly

 

painted lady butterfly on bergenia
painted lady butterfly on bergenia with wings closed

 

worker bumblebee on rosemary
Worker bumblebee with pollen on rosemary

 

red admiral butterfly
red admiral butterfly – note the damaged wings

 

The meaning of a winter bumblebee

As I drove back from Paignton, the low sun cast long shadows across the sensuous folds of the South Hams hills. But the sunshine was deceptive; the temperature outside was 7oC and in the distance, there stood Dartmoor sprinkled liberally with snow like icing sugar on a cake. It was our first taste of winter and, inspired by Mark Cocker’s recent Guardian Country Diary on “The meaning of a bumblebee”, I had been to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what insects were about on this cold day.

grevillea
Grevillea

 

There were pockets of warmth in sheltered corners of the Roundham Head Gardens but generally it felt cold in the wind and by the time I got back to the car my hands were numb. Despite the conditions, there were plenty of flowers about: yellow scorpion vetch in profusion, hanging curtains of rosemary with a few grey-blue flowers, exotic pink and white grevillea, purple spikes of hebe and the pink cup-shaped flowers of bergenia.

painted lady butterfly in winter
Painted lady butterfly on rosemary

 

What about the insects? I saw a few large black flies and one hopeful hoverfly but my biggest surprise was two smart looking painted lady butterflies enjoying the sunshine. Seeing bumblebees required patience but eventually I was rewarded by the appearance of a few buff-tailed bumblebee workers filling their pollen baskets by probing the rosemary, grevillea and bergenia. I also saw one plump and furry buff-tailed queen meticulously working the bergenia flowers before she flew off.

buff-tailed bumblebee worker 2
Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) worker on rosemary

 

 

buff-tailed bumblebee worker 3
Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) worker on bergenia. The pollen baskets are visible.

 

buff-tailed bumblebee queen1
Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) queen on bergenia

 

Mark Cocker attributes his surprise sighting of a bumblebee in Norfolk on January 1st to anthropogenic global warming and anomalous weather linked to El Nino but there must also be suitable forage for the bumblebees if they are to be active in winter and survive. The British penchant for gardening and for planting winter-flowering shrubs seems to supply this forage.

tamarisk by torbay
The view across Torbay from Roundham Head Gardens with tamarisk in the foreground

 

I visited Roundham Head Gardens on January 15th 2016

A rare dose of autumn sunshine

Not far from the quaint, walled harbour at Paignton in South Devon lies Roundham Head, a rocky headland that protrudes nose-like in to the sea. The northern part of the Head is a grassy plateau and views from here across the vast sweep of Torbay can be spectacular. Today, rust-red cliffs glow and the steel-blue sea sparkles; even the slew of white buildings scarring the Torquay hills acquires some dignity in this bright, late autumn light.

On the southern edge of the headland are the Cliff Gardens and promenade, built in the 1930s to protect the crumbly rock against sea erosion. Paved paths zigzag up and down the steep slopes between flower beds and the gentle microclimate allows many exotic plants to flourish, providing a haven for wildlife. Dotted around the Gardens are the distinctive Torbay palms and the stiff breeze rattles their leaves like an avuncular uncle ruffling the hair of his favourite nephew.

I know it is autumn but as I walk up and down the zigzag paths it seems that the plants are less sure about the season. Yes, there are swathes of cobwebby old man’s beard, mature olive-green ivy berries with their rich brown caps and the agapanthus has exchanged mauve flowers for massive green seed heads. But there are also gaudy splashes of lemon yellow scorpion vetch, hanging curtains of rosemary with their sparkling blue flowers, clumps of shrubby bindweed covered with their yellow-throated white trumpets and dense sprays of pink bergenia.

With all these flowers about and a sunny, mild day, I expect to see wildlife. Eventually my patience is rewarded by the buzzy arrival of a huge furry bumblebee queen. Despite her size she moves deftly among the plants, systematically probing the rosemary and bergenia flowers. She appears to be in very good condition, and, in the sunshine, her golden yellow stripes glow and her tail is a warm tan colour, so she must be a buff tailed (B. terrestris). Later I see several worker bumblebees collecting pollen from the rosemary so there are active nests nearby, even in mid November. It doesn’t surprise me any longer to find these bumblebees at Roundham Head; I have seen them even in January and February and I am beginning to think that they are active throughout the year. What did surprise me was to find two yellow and black wasps mating on a fleshy green bergenia leaf. They start end to end, lying back on the leaf, but eventually the larger female mounts the male. When they are finished the fertilised queen will find somewhere to pass the winter, the male will die, his job done.

From the top of the Cliff Gardens there are good views down and across Goodrington Sands. This popular holiday beach is quiet today, its cafes and beach huts closed for the winter. The sea here is more battleship grey than steely blue but I also notice tinges of yellow and green where the underlying sand shows through shallow water. The strong offshore wind creates ripple patterns on the sea and lifts crests of fine spray from the incoming waves.

Once the tide falls back, dog walkers and their canine friends appear on the beach in the sunshine. The still-wet sand is a mirror to the sun and the dogs and walkers become dark silhouettes. Elsewhere on the beach, curious low piles of sand appear in apparently random patterns, the work of local bait diggers.

Roundham Head, Paignton, November 13th 2015.

Torbay Palm and scorpion vetch
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Goodrington Sands