Totnes is an ancient town with many old stone walls lining passageways, roads and the edges of gardens. In spring and summer, the wintery-dark stone of these walls erupts with clumps of green leaves followed by dense, rounded clusters of tiny flowers, usually a bright pink, so that the clusters resemble scoops of strawberry ice cream. This plant is red valerian (Centranthus ruber) and is thought to have been introduced from the Mediterranean in the late 16th century. It is now naturalised in the UK and common in England and Wales, especially in the south west where it insinuates its roots into the mortar in the old walls wherever it can get a toehold. Its colourful flowers lend a hint of the Mediterranean to some west country towns.
Despite this summer’s very dry weather, some valerian flower heads still remain attracting insects looking for late season nectar. Large furry bumblebees scramble about the colourful flowers and white butterflies perch on flower heads but the plant is a particular favourite of a spectacular day flying moth with a wingspan of about 5cm, the hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). Most years I see one of these moths but this summer I have had many more sightings especially in the last week of August and first week of September. A long spell of warm southerly winds may have brought the moths northwards from their Mediterranean strongholds.
A clump of red valerian hanging from an old stone wall in our street has been very popular with the moths. On several recent days, a hummingbird hawk moth has appeared by a flower head, as if from nowhere, and hovered, its long proboscis deftly inserted into one tiny flower collecting nectar from the base of the corolla. The moth seems to hang in the air, its greyish body with black and white chequered rear showing well. Its brown and orange wings beat so rapidly that they appear as a blur and create an audible hum. When it has finished with one flower cluster, it jinks to another.
There is something magical about these elegant creatures and I feel privileged to be able to see them. My feelings, though, are tinged with sadness as their arrival in greater numbers is a reflection of our rapidly changing climate.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Last week I made the short train journey along the Devon coast to Dawlish Warren hoping to see some of the special late summer flowers that flourish on the nature reserve. Dawlish Warren is also a very popular holiday spot in August and, as I walked from the station, I joined shoals of people making their way to the beach laden with bags and body boards. It was all very good humoured and, as I sat on the promenade drinking my coffee and dodging wasps, children played on the beach below, shrieking as they ran in and out of the water.
[For more information on Dawlish Warren look here]
It was a gentle day with sunshine and cotton wool clouds as I followed the sandy boardwalk away from the promenade across the narrow line of dunes and down to the quiet of the nature reserve. The uneven, wooden walkway meandered across swathes of rough grass where many evening primrose stood on tall reddish-green stems, their papery flowers fluttering in the breeze like clouds of lemon-yellow butterflies.
The central part of the reserve used to be a lake, Greenland Lake, long since drained but never really having lost its watery feel. There were still a few puddles remaining after recent heavy rain and the profuse flora was dominated by damp-loving plants, especially tall, thick rushy grasses. Drifts of purple loosestrife, spiky and colourful, stood above the dark green grassy understory. Fluffy lilac globes of water mint and creamy cushions of meadowsweet also shone, along with large numbers of the yellow daisy-like fleabane. Late season insects enjoyed the many food sources.
Further on, as the ground became a little drier and the grass shorter, I was surprised to see one or two spikes of marsh helleborine. They had been flowering in their hundreds when I visited about six weeks previously but I thought they would have been finished by now. These unusual flowers are members of the orchid family and each pinkish flower stem carries several white flowers with delicate pink veins and a frilly lip, backed by pink sepals. There is something unsettling about marsh helleborine when they appear in large numbers, casting their pale colours across the damp green grassland.
There’s another orchid I have seen growing here in profusion in previous years. It’s the last of the season’s orchids to appear and I had almost given up hope of finding any when, finally, I stumbled across a few. Each vertical spike is very distinctive, a slightly hairy grey-green spiral, looking as though several strands of fine rope had been wound around one other. Perhaps it’s just the name, autumn lady’s tresses, but they also remind me of the plaits the girls wove from their long hair when I was at school. The white tubular flowers emerge from this grey-green spiral to decorate the spike in a helical manner, either clockwise or counter clockwise. Bumblebees pollinate the flowers and apparently, they prefer the counter clockwise arrangement.
My next stop was the inner bay, with its views up the river Exe towards mudflats popular with wading birds. Today the water had retreated, leaving the semi-circular bay a shining sheet of dark mud, revealing many clumps of bright green glasswort (marsh samphire). Groups of glistening, jointed stems pushed up from the mud, their multiple branches resembling miniature versions of the giant cacti often seen in Western Movies. Each stem was also dotted with particles that resembled grains of sand but in fact were tiny yellow flowers.
There was quite a bit of woody, reedy debris on the beach although very little plastic at this time of year. I found a suitable log and sat down to have my sandwiches. Boats puttered across the river between Starcross and Exmouth and a few seabirds moved about the mud. Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, a cloud of small grey birds appeared above the bay. There were perhaps as many as two hundred, moving as a group backwards and forwards above the water but continually changing formation, the outer members of the group visibly accelerating before a turn. It felt like a deliberate performance and, as they banked and changed direction, the sun caught their wings transforming them momentarily into mobile shards of silver. Suddenly it was all over and without warning they landed on the beach to my right, disappearing from view as they merged with the mud. Some passing birders told me they were mostly dunlin with a few sanderling.
After lunch I pressed on past the inner bay to the fist-shaped end of the sand spit, Warren Point, that nearly reaches the east bank of the Exe at Exmouth, but doesn’t quite make it. This part of the peninsula is fringed by sloping sandy beaches and marram grass-coated dunes but the central area is quite different. Here the land is covered with rough grass and vast mats of the tiny succulent, white stonecrop, a mass of white flowers six weeks ago but now just fleshy green growth. The dry sandy ground also supports unruly clumps of brambles and many shafts of evening primrose topped with yellow flowers. Large blue-green dragonflies swooped backwards and forwards in search of prey.
I have to admit that my visit to this part of Warren Point was not entirely unprompted. Before I left, I had read about a very rare flower appearing here and, as I passed the information centre, I asked for guidance as to where they might be found. I followed the directions and on a small rise surrounded by rough brambles I found them, several clumps of brilliant white flowers above thick strap-like leaves. These are sea daffodils, found all around the Mediterranean often on sandy beaches but very rare in this country. There are only three sites where these plants flower in the UK and Dawlish Warren is one.
In groups, the flowers look very spiky and disorganised but closer examination reveals the true beauty of the blooms. Each flower has a very large white corona, trumpet-like with a deeply serrated edge, containing six prominent yellow pollen-loaded stamens around a long white style. Behind the corona are six narrow sepals arranged symmetrically like a white star. As I stood examining the flowers a light breeze wafted their sweet fragrance up to me. I was so entranced that I failed to notice a rabbit hole and nearly fell over; it’s not called Dawlish Warren for nothing.
Sea daffodils clearly do resemble the flowers that are such potent symbols of spring in this country, but it is the late summer flowering of the sea daffodil that is so disconcerting. They are also plants of very hot climates. The Dawlish Warren specimens failed to flower last year and there has been some speculation that with this year’s long, hot, dry summer the plants felt more at home.
I walk through our local community garden (The Leechwell Garden) most days in summer just to have a look at the flowers and insects but I know that, if I am there late morning, the sound of children playing will brighten the air. The older children, sometimes along with mum or dad reliving their youth, will be enjoying the fine new play area with its exciting slide. The younger ones may be messing about on the watery edge of the stream that passes through the garden but it is the sand pit that really hits the spot. Children love playing in the sand and I often see several family groups clustered about the sand pit; the only thing that seems to deter the children is heavy rain. It’s a real tribute to the vision of the garden committee that they created something so popular.
The flowers I come to see are across the other side of the garden and, for the past few weeks, I have been loitering near the old stone wall where there’s a large patch of the plant Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina). It covers the ground with a jumble of silvery-green, velvety leaves and sends up stout, silvery stems bearing clutches of smaller leaves and understated pink-purple flowers. It’s a pleasant, restful sort of plant creating an old-style, cottage garden feeling but what goes on around these Lamb’s Ears in midsummer is far from restful.
From the middle of June, a dark, chunky bee can be seen patrolling the patch of silvery-green leaves and I spend more time than I should watching him. Whereas most bees are gentle creatures keeping themselves to themselves, this one is a bit of a thug, oozing anger and aggression. He is the male wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), mostly black but with yellow markings along the sides of his abdomen, head and legs, reminiscent of the warpaint worn by native American tribes. He is about the same length as a honeybee but much broader making him quite imposing as he moves quickly about the patch of Lamb’s Ear. His movement is distinctive, he hovers then moves rapidly to a new spot, hovers, moves, all the time buzzing noisily. It feels like he is looking for something. And that’s exactly what he is doing, looking. Should he spot another male wool-carder bee or a different insect on his patch, he will chase it away by flying directly at it. I have seen him attack a bumblebee at least twice his size and knock it to the ground. But, not only is he aggressive, he is armed; the rear of his abdomen sports five stout spines which he will use to injure or kill the intruding insects and there are reports of male wool-carder bees disabling honeybees who dared to feed from their patch.
All this aggressive energy is directed towards protecting the patch of Lamb’s Ear for himself and his harem, for now and then a female wool-carder bee will appear. She looks very like the male, only a bit smaller; the wool-carder bee is one of the only species in this country where the male bee is larger than the female. When the male sees her feeding from the flowers he will pounce and, without any preliminaries, mating will ensue. This is a vigorous but brief activity sometimes causing the flower stem to vibrate before the two disengage and go about their business again. Unlike most solitary bees, where females mate once, wool-carder females undergo multiple matings so that, after a short time, our male will mate with the same female again and should a different female appear he will attempt to mate with her. One valiant observer went to the trouble of watching an individual male wool-carder in his garden and reported that the bee mated sixteen times in one day.
This focus on the aggressive behaviour of the male wool-carder bee tends to obscure the fact that it is the female that does all the hard work of nest building and egg laying. The wool-carder bee is a solitary species so that individual mated females build their nests alone, unlike the more familiar social honeybees and bumblebees. Nesting occurs in preformed aerial cavities in dead wood, in walls or in hollow stems, including the tubes found in bee hotels. Once she has identified a suitable site, the female strips or “cards” woolly fibrous material from plant leaves with her mandibles (hence the name wool-carder) and takes it back to her nest to line and plug the cavity (see the pictures below). Lamb’s Ear leaves are a popular choice for “carding” but Great Mullein or Yarrow can also be used. If you look carefully at the leaves of these plants you can sometimes see bare areas where she has been actively collecting fibres. Within the nest, she lays eggs and equips them with a mixture of nectar and pollen. The eggs develop in the nest where they stay until new bees emerge next summer and the whole cycle begins again.
So, if you have a patch of Lamb’s Ear in your garden take a look, there’s a good chance that wool-carder bees will be using it and you too can be enthralled by their antics.
Here, I have been inspired by Emily Heath’s post on her Adventuresinbeeland’s blog. Emily posted some pictures of bees foraging in Elthorne Park, west London and asked “What flowers are out near you? Are you seeing plenty of wild bees out and about?”
Accordingly, I have taken some pictures of bees foraging in our south Devon garden and in locations nearby.
One of the favourites of bees all summer has been a patch of Comfrey which grows at the bottom of our garden. I have the impression that it is favoured by bumblebees and here is a recent picture of a Common Carder Bee (?).
Another long term favourite, but this time apparently preferred by the honey bees (although not exclusively), has been the hardy geranium (probably Wargrave Pink) that occurs in patches in our garden.
The striking orange Montbretia are currently in flower and here is a bumblebee (buff tailed?) foraging.
Lavender, when it is still in flower, continues to be popular especially with honeybees.
I also found bumblees enjoying Bergamot growing in a local community garden.
The current star-turn, however, is a patch of of Purple-loosestrife growing by our pond. This is a native wild flower of the UK and grows at the margins of streams, ponds and rivers.
The plants shown here are about six feet tall and, whenever the weather allows, are covered with honey bees.
In the UK, preserving the plant is seen as an important part of conserving wetland habitats. Exactly the opposite view is taken in the US where the plant is viewed as an agressive invader and referred to in the same terms as the triffids in John Wyndham’s novel. Purple-loosestrife was brought to the US by settlers early in the 19th century. It rapidly colonised rivers overgrowing native species and destroying wetland habitats.
Let’s finish with an artistic depiction of the plant. Millais, the 19th century pre-Raphaelite artist, painted a notable picture of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
If you look carefully on the right of the picture you can see the tall stems of Purple-loosestrife. It seems that Millais chose to include these flowers because “long purples” was a traditional name for this plant and because of Shakespeare’s apparent use of this name in describing Ophelia’s death garland:
….. long purples,
That liberal shepherds do give a grosser name,
but our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica suggests that Shakespeare was more likely referring to Early Purple Orchids and the “grosser name” was “dog-stones” meaning “dog’s testicles”. This was all a bit too strong for Victorian sensibilities so Millais chose the seemlier interpretation.
Another of my bee-related articles can be read here.