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High on Hardown Hill

It was a luminous spring morning in early May when I trekked up Hardown Hill in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. Hardown rises steeply above Morcombelake and the surrounding countryside affording fine views of the coast and of the Marshwood Vale. Compared with its well-known cousin, Golden Cap, across the valley (see picture above), this flat-topped hill is unjustly ignored but its heathland summit boasts a rich ecology supporting several rare species and, for many years, Hardown Hill was a busy semi-industrial site where building stone was mined.

Heathland track on Hardown Hill small
Heathland track across Hardown Hill

It’s a steep climb to the top of Hardown Hill but finally the stony track flattens out and I enter a heathland landscape, rare in this part of Dorset. The summit is broad and flat and typical low-growing heathland plants such as gorse and several species of heather flourish here on the acid soil. Pale sandy tracks cut swathes across the heath but, even on a sunny morning in springtime, the feeling is sombre, dominated by dark browns and greens. A few mature birch trees and a small copse of pine trees provide relief and I come across a pond surrounded by tall clumps of pale, dried grass and a struggling sallow. This heath habitat is also the home of rare nightjars, sand lizards and Dartford warblers.

Standing on the Hardown summit is an elemental experience. Today, a moderate wind blows from the west, rising and falling like the sound of surf on the strand. The heath vegetation rustles and fidgets in response, accompanied by skylarks trilling high overhead. I watch a spirited storm tracking across Lyme Bay and prepare to shelter but, in the end, it mostly avoids the land leaving the sun to return. All of this is overlaid on the southern side by the ebb and flow of traffic noise from the busy A35 some distance below.

The heath may look uninviting and barren, but this is springtime and there are many signs of renewal. A few clumps of yellow gorse stand out above fresh grey-green growth and heathers push feathery green and red shoots upwards. Submerged in the thick heath vegetation are the small bright blue and white flowers of heath milkwort piercing the darkness like stars in the night sky. In the past, the flowers were thought to resemble small udders and this may account for the plant’s name as well as its administration to nursing mothers by medieval herbalists. Along path edges on the northern side of the heath, I find several generous clumps of a shrub with pale fleshy leaves, green with a tinge of pink. This is bilberry, covered at this time of year with delicate, almost transparent, pale red, lantern-shaped flowers looking out of place in this harsh environment but proving popular with bumblebees and hoverflies. Late summer will see the plants covered with succulent black fruits.

I encounter only one other person on the heath but it hasn’t always been such a quiet place. From medieval times, Hardown Hill would have resounded to the clash of picks and shovels wielded by men mining the landscape for building materials. Beneath the thin layer of soil that covers the summit, there are layers of clay and a yellow/brown sandy material containing substantial lumps of flint-like, hard rock, the chert cobs. A mixture of clay, stone and sand was taken for road construction and the chert cobs were used for building. Mining occurred on the southern slopes of the Hill, either in open pits or in adits (mine shafts) cut into the hillside. Nowadays there are few traces of this busy activity. The mining area has mostly been colonised by rough grass and bracken, brightened today by a haze of bluebells.  One open pit has been preserved near the top of Love’s Lane displaying the layers of rock and the chert cobs. The adits are inaccessible for safety reasons but one serves an important role as a hibernation area for the rare lesser horseshoe bat.

The chert cobs were split using a small hammer on a long handle, the Hardown hammer. Cobs were held on an iron bar with three claws and covered in damp hessian to protect the eyes of workmen who also wore wire goggles. Split cobs were used to provide a tough outer surface, silvery-blue or yellowish, on domestic and farm buildings around the Marshwood Vale. Good examples of the use of Hardown chert can also be found on the 14th century abandoned chapel at Stanton St Gabriel beneath Golden Cap and on the tiny 19th century church at Catherston Leweston.

But it is to the height of Hardown Hill that I want to return. Its prominence above the surrounding countryside gives spectacular views with new perspectives on some of west Dorset’s notable landmarks. Looking southwards, we see Golden Cap and the darkly-wooded Langdon Hill rising steeply across the valley with a backdrop of the waters of Lyme Bay (see picture at the top of this post). Towards the east, Portland floats unsettlingly as if cast adrift. To the north, especially from Hardown’s rough grassy flanks, we look across the patchwork of fields and the ring of hills that make up the Marshwood Vale with the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum cradled in its green embrace. New perspectives challenge us to think differently and the relative isolation of Hardown fosters quiet contemplation away from the cares of everyday life.

Perhaps that’s what Thomas Hardy meant when he wrote in his poem “Wessex Heights”:
“There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, ………….”

Marshwood Vale and the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum, from Hardown Hill
Marshwood Vale and Whitchurch Canonicorum from Hardown Hill

 

Bilberry on Hardown Hill
Bilberry on Hardown Hill

 

Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill
Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill

 

Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa)
Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa) on Hardown Hill

 

Exposed chert on Hardwon Hill
Exposed chert seam on Hardown Hill

 

Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church
Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church

This piece was originally publsihed in the July 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Nurdle hunting in west Dorset

Charmouth Beach
Charmouth beaching looking towards Golden Cap

 

You may have never knowingly encountered a nurdle but these small plastic pellets are the raw material of the plastics industry and are ferried around the world in their millions.  About the size of a small pea, nurdles come in many colours and they’re finding their way on to our beaches, killing wildlife and polluting the environment.  I wanted to find out more about these unwelcome intruders, so I joined a nurdle hunt organised by the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.

Hunting for nurdles 2
Nurdle hunters getting down to work.

 

Charmouth beach was surprisingly busy that morning but it was half term and, for mid-February, quite warm in the low sunshine.  Many people were walking by the sea, taking advantage of the mild weather, perhaps hoping to find a fossil, but an expectant crowd had also gathered by the steps to the Heritage Coast Centre.  At precisely midday, Sophie Thomas, one of the Centre wardens, walked down the steps together with local volunteer Eden Thomson and gathered us together.   Sophie began by explaining what nurdles were and how they washed up on the beach from the sea.  She emphasised the dangers these plastic pellets pose to wildlife such as birds and fish who mistake them for food.  Each of us was given a pair of disposable gloves, to guard against toxic chemicals contained in the nurdles, and an empty margarine pot for nurdle collecting.  Then off we went, about thirty of us, to hunt among debris washed up on the west bank of the river Char between the two beach car parks.

And what a fine sight we were! Young and old, locals and visitors, families and children, sitting or lying on the ground, enthusiastically scouring the debris for the plastic pellets.  It was a fascinating event, although we did get some funny looks.  Everyone found pellets in large numbers, not just on the surface but also buried a few centimetres down showing how pervasive they are.  Some were smooth, grey and cylindrical and a few were lentil shaped, white, yellow or green.  The vast majority, however, were bright blue cylindrical pellets, about 5mm in size, with fine ridges. The grand total for the group was 6650 pellets collected in 90 mins from this small section of beach, highlighting the extent of the contamination.

What do we know about nurdles and how they get into the sea to wash up on our beaches? These small plastic pellets are made from oil or natural gas to provide an easily transportable raw material for use in plastics factories all around the world.  Most of the plastic products that now dominate our lives are made from nurdles and huge numbers of the pellets are transported by ship, so there is always the potential for spills.  In October 2017, two containers of nurdles fell from a ship in the port of Durban leading to massive nurdle pollution along more than 1000km of beaches.    Closer to home, the storm-damaged container ship, Napoli was beached off Branscombe early in 2007 leading to hundreds of containers breaking free.  Two containers were filled with nurdles which washed up along many local beaches. These environmental disasters have been likened to oil spills, only worse as the nurdles do not break down.

Nurdles can also end up in the sea through careless handling at plastics factories.  The environmental charity, Surfers Against Sewage, visited several plastics companies in Cornwall and found nurdles littered around the sites.  These will inevitably be blown or washed into drains and into the sea.  Another kind of plastic pellet, wrinkly or ridged, has been found in large numbers on beaches in Cornwall by Rame Peninsula Beach Care.  These are biobeads, easily confused with nurdles but with a completely different purpose.  Some sewage works use biobeads as part of the wastewater treatment process and the pellets get into the sea through careless handling by water companies.

Why should we be concerned about nurdles and biobeads?  They are a totally unnecessary form of pollution in our seas and on our beaches and their presence shows a lack of respect for the environment.  They are now found all over the world wherever the sea meets the land: on beaches in industrialised countries or on isolated, sparsely populated islands.   Not only do they pollute our beaches, they are eaten by seabirds and fish who mistake them for food.  Once consumed, they block the digestive tract, lodge in the windpipe or fill the stomach leading to malnutrition and starvation.   For example, analysis of dead puffins on the Isle of May in Scotland, home to one of the UK’s largest breeding populations of these birds, showed they had consumed nurdles alongside their usual diet of sand eels.

Nurdles are also a source of toxic chemicals that may exacerbate their physical effects.  Freshly spilt nurdles may release chemicals such as plasticisers used in their manufacture.  Nurdles that have been in the sea longer attract toxic chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs.  These substances may have a toxic effect on seabirds and fish that consume them and have unknown effects on humans who encounter them on beaches.

What can we do about the nurdle problem? Industry needs to improve handling procedures and make sure nurdle spills are cleared completely.  Operation Clean Sweep is a plastics industry programme aimed at eliminating pellet losses but, as yet, it is only voluntary. In the longer term, we need to reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single use plastics.

Nurdle hunting can also help by raising awareness and by reducing pellet numbers in the environment.  As Sophie Thomas said to me “A nurdle collected is a nurdle out of the sea”.  Occasionally, it may be possible to infer the source of pellets based on their appearance and properties.  For example, the pellets found at Charmouth are unusual compared to those I have seen on other beaches.  Although some at Charmouth are true nurdles, the majority are the bright blue cylindrical type with fine ridges, more typical of a biobead.  If these are indeed biobeads, how are they getting on to Charmouth beach?

This article appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

It was also a pleasure to meet Sarah West and her husband John that day.  Sarah is a blogging friend and she and John had also joined the nurdle hunt.  Sarah writes the blog “Down by the Sea” and has recently been heavily involved in organising the Bridport Green Fortnight.

Hunting for nurdles
Nurdle hunters at work

 

A nurdle collected is a nurdle out of the sea
Nurdle hunter at work
One happy nurdle hunter
A happy hunter with her hoard

 

One hunter's haul
One hunter’s findings. Note the majority are bright blue with fine ridges

 

I returned to Charmouth Beach on May 1st and picked up these in about five minutes on the east side of the river Char. The bright blue pellets predominate as before, note the fine ridges characteristic of biobeads. The grey pellets are mostly smooth, characteristic of a pre-production plastic pellet or nurdle. The lentil-shaped, pale pellets are also nurdles, commonly referred to as “mermaids tears”; they acquire colour if they stay in the sea a long time. The yellow and the one pale blue pellet are nurdles

 

 

Bumblebee on veronica
Couldn’t resist including this picture of a foraging bumblebee on a veronica bush near the car park.

 

Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath

Mistaken marriages, passionate affairs, tragic deaths, richly interwoven with folklore and superstition.  This is the complex concoction contained in The Return of the Native, one of Thomas Hardy’s great novels.  Hardy set his narrative on the semi-fictional Egdon Heath, a “vast tract of unenclosed wild” that assumes a claustrophobic, controlling influence on his characters.  Hardy’s Egdon Heath has many of the features of the heath landscape that once filled the space between Dorchester and Bournemouth.  I wanted to experience Egdon so, on a warm, humid day towards the end of July, I went to Winfrith Heath one of the surviving fragments of this Dorset heathland.

Winfrith Heath 1
Looking across the heath showing the subtle colour effect of the heather flowers

 

I followed a sandy soil track on to the heath, descending gradually between borders of gorse and low trees.  As I gained distance from the road, long views opened up across the gently undulating terrain surrounding me and an eerie quiet descended, broken only by trains passing on the heath-edge line.  Apart from the occasional stunted tree and a few drifts of pale green bracken much of this part of the heath appeared featureless and barren.

Closer inspection, however, revealed some of the heath’s special wildlife.   Near the path edge, the cheerful purples, pinks and violets of the three common species of heather showed well.   These heathers flourish across the heath alongside rough grasses and gorse, and their bright pastel-coloured flowers lend a purple-pink tinge to long views at this time of year, the colour augmented by sunshine but lost in a mass of dull browns and greens when cloud covers.   Large, metallic blue and green emperor dragon flies, the size of small birds, were attracted to the ponds scattered across the heath.  They swept back and forth across the water making repeated, aerial, hairpin turns in a constant search for insect food.  Heather spikes dipped momentarily when yellow-striped bumblebees moved among the flower-bells collecting pollen and nectar.

The sandy path levelled out. Heathland now spread extensively on both sides and, together with the grey cloud cover, created a claustrophobic feeling.  Ahead of me was a band of trees with a gate and standing water.  The trees mark a drainage ditch feeding into the Tadnoll Brook, a chalk-stream tributary of the River Frome.  I crossed the ditch on a very solid brick bridge, and was transported to a different world, one of damp meadows and thick rushy grass.  The wet meadow, soggy underfoot, was dominated by untidy stands of shoulder-high marsh thistles with multiple, prolific, spiny stems.  Each stem was topped by a starburst of flower heads, a mixture of shaggy purple flowers and brown and white fluffy seed heads.  Between the thistles, the lemon-yellow cushion flowers of bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the undergrowth and, as I walked, pale brown grasshoppers soared in long arcs from the rough grass, seeking safety away from me.

Butterflies danced around the unruly thistle flowers like confetti caught in the breeze, pausing occasionally to take nectar.  Small tortoiseshell, marbled white and peacock resembled colourful modernist stained glass and a pair of gatekeepers performed an airborne ballet.   This enclosed wetland felt like a land of plenty, a land of unconstrained, fulsome growth.  Even in high summer, however, the meadow was wet and marshy so that after winter rain the area will become boggy and treacherous.  A group of cows lurked in a corner of the meadow watching me; they help to control growth of vegetation but create further hazards for the unwary walker.

These two very different habitats, the larger lowland heath and the smaller wet meadow make up the majority of the Winfrith reserve as we see it today but the area hasn’t always looked like this.  Until the Bronze Age, this land was covered with forest (birch, pine, hazel, elm, oak) but 3-4000 years ago trees began to be felled exposing the underlying soil.  Nutrients were gradually washed away from freely draining soils leaving behind a relatively acidic surface where heathers and gorse flourished, eventually creating the heath we see today.  This landscape was maintained and scrub encroachment prevented through a combination of grazing by cattle and ponies and by heathland practices such as furze, turf and peat cutting.

Heathland once stretched from Dorchester in the west to the Avon Valley in the east but much has been lost following changes in agricultural practices or through building; a large part of Winfrith Heath was swallowed up when the nuclear research facility was built in the 1950s and still lies behind forbidding fences.  Today, only 15% of the original heath is left but what remains is a very important and rare landscape and part of Dorset’s history.  Its importance as a special habitat supporting rare species such as the Dartford warbler and the nightjar is recognised by its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest but the heathland is still threatened directly or indirectly by development.

But did I get any sense of what Hardy’s Egdon Heath was like from my visit?  Even on a small area like Winfrith, there was a definite sense of isolation in the central part of the heath, and that feeling was only partially lifted when the sun shone and the heath took on some colour.   So, if it’s solitude you are after, then it’s a perfect place.  One person’s solitude is, however, another person’s loneliness and it’s not difficult to see how Egdon might have depressed some of Hardy’s characters.  Neither is the heath a benign environment; care is required in all seasons but in winter, it is bleak, brown and very windy with boggy areas dangerous especially after wet weather.  Having said all that, the heath does have an undeniable grandeur but its very rarity as a landscape nowadays means that we may not know how to react to it.  Perhaps like Hardy’s “survivors” we should simply accept and embrace the heath for what it is, foibles and all.

Winfrith Heath lies to the west of Gatemore Road in Winfrith Newburgh and a Dorset Wildlife Trust information board marks the entrance. 

 

Bell heather and ling with gorse on Winfrith Heath
Bell heather, ling and gorse on Winfrith Heath

 

Cross-leaved heath.
Cross-leaved heath

 

 

Emperor dragonfly on Winfrith Heath
A pond on the heath with an emperor dragonfly

 

 

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle.
Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle

 

Peacock butterfly on Winfrith Heath
Peacock butterfly on marsh thistle with bumblebee

 

Nuclear research centre Winfrith Heath
The former nuclear research facility seen through trees and behind forbidding fences on the other side of Gatemore Road.

 

 

This article appeared in the September 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

The long-horned bee in Devon – and its endangered friend

South Devon coast looking towards Prawle Point
The south Devon coast looking towards Prawle Point (June 16th 2017)

 

It’s been a good summer. We’ve had some fine weather and I’ve been able to spend time on a beautiful part of the south Devon coast looking for the long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).  It’s one of my favourite insects and one of our rarest bees and there is a strong colony on the coast between Prawle Point and Start Point where low, soft-rock cliffs meander around headlands, in and out of rocky coves and along seaweed-covered beaches.  I visited this area several times between May and July but my most interesting day was on June 23rd, just after the summer solstice.

It was breezy and warm but partly cloudy when I arrived at the coast.  The sea was a uniform grey-blue although now and then the sun broke through the cloud, creating shimmering areas of white water. I started by following the coast path eastwards along the cliff top from Prawle Point.  The sea-side of the path was fringed with scrub and rough grass along the cliff edge whereas the landward side was fenced and mostly used for arable farming.  Many kinds of wild flower grew along both sides of the path including a few generous clumps of purple tufted vetch scrambling through the scrub. After about a mile of easy walking, the enclosed path reached a gate giving on to a broad, open area, not farmed for some years, as far as I know.

I was completely unprepared for the view that greeted me after I closed the gate.  Here was a meadow where thousands of the small, dandelion-like flowers of cat’s ear moved with the breezes to create a mobile yellow canopy above the grass.  Lower down were many tiny yellow globes of hop trefoil and bright pink semi-circles of common vetch.  This is a paradise for insects and I saw many red-tailed bumblebee workers moving purposefully about the chrome-yellow flower heads.

But that wasn’t all: the area along the cliff edge was a kaleidoscope of purples, yellows and pinks, mostly flowering legumes such as bush, kidney and tufted vetches, bird’s foot trefoil and meadow vetchling, restharrow and narrow-leaved everlasting pea.   The number and variety of flowers was greater than I can remember from previous years, perhaps the warm spring had suited the legumes.

The range of flowers, especially the legumes is ideal for the long-horned bee.  I had seen one or two males back along the enclosed path and now I saw several more, also nectaring on the curving, purple, tubular florets of tufted vetch.   There is something other-worldly, almost primeval about these insects with their yellow mask-like face, orange-chestnut hair (in fresh insects) and their impressively long antennae, resembling stiff black bootlaces and about the same length as rest of their bodies.  They are particularly striking in flight, antennae held so that the bee can negotiate whatever obstacle it meets;  controlling those antennae must involve some impressive micro-engineering.   There were also females about feeding on lemon yellow pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling.  Chunkier than the males, they have shorter antennae and, on their back legs, generous pollen brushes resembling golden harem pants.

I scrambled down a rough track to the main Eucera nest area, a section of reddish, soft-rock cliff, pock-marked with hundreds of pencil-sized holes.  Behind me the sea soughed rhythmically on nearby rocks and an oystercatcher sang its plangent song. Female Eucera arrived at the nest site bringing pollen and nectar to provision their nests but they were not alone and I saw several other bee species that seemed to be using the nest area.

One species I had hoped to see was the very rare Nomada, and I had nearly given up hope when the bee suddenly appeared; I was so surprised, I nearly fell backwards off the rocks.  Like others of its kind, it is wasp-like, with a yellow and black-banded abdomen and orange legs and antennae. It was the pattern of the bands, six yellow bands on a black body that told me that this was Nomada sexfasciata, the six-banded nomad bee, one of Britain’s rarest bees.  This site on the south Devon coast is the only place where it is found in the UK; it is nationally endangered so it was very exciting to see it.

It moved about the nest area furtively as if trying not to be noticed and after looking in to a few of the holes it moved on. Later that day I had more sightings of the Nomada; whether it was the same bee or several I cannot say.  As a nomad, the bee has no nest of its own but lays its eggs in the nest of another bee, in this case the long-horned bee.  The Nomada eggs develop into larvae and take over the nest, killing the host larvae and eating their pollen store.  It depends for its survival on a strong Eucera colony and this one in south Devon is one of the largest in the UK.

Long-horned bees and their Nomada used to be found widely across the southern part of Britain in the early 20th century.  They favour a range of habitats such as coastal soft rock cliffs, hay meadows and woodland rides for nest sites and require unimproved flowery grassland for feeding, being especially dependent on flowering legumes for their pollen sources.  With agricultural intensification leading to a loss of habitat, especially flowers, these bees have been squeezed out and are now confined to a very few sites.

It’s not difficult to see how they could be supported.  At the south Devon site, all that is required is to ensure a consistent source of flowering legumes along the coast, the soft rock cliffs already provide the nest sites.    I recently met Catherine Mitson who is working with Buglife on a project to support the south Devon colony of Eucera longicornis and Nomada sexfasciata  by increasing the number of flowers.  Catherine is very enthusiastic and I have great hopes now for the survival of both the long-horned bee and its nomad.

Yellow meadow Prawle Devon
The yellow meadow

 

Male long-horned bee on meadow vetchling
Male long-horned bee on meadow vetchling (June 16th 2017)

 

Male long-horned bee
Male long-horned bee on tufted vetch (June 23rd 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee
Female long-horned bee on meadow vetchling (June 23rd 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee by nest
Female long-horned bee at the nest site (June 16th 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee 2
Female long-horned bee with pollen on tufted vetch (July 2nd 2017)

 

Nomada sexfasciata
Nomada sexfasciata by Eucera nests (June 23rd 2017)

 

Nomada sexfasciata 2
Nomada sexfasciata by Eucera nests (June 23rd 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee
Very worn female long-horned bee on tufted vetch (July 23rd 2017)

 

The featured image at the top of this  post is a male long-horned bee on bird’s foot trefoil   (May 23rd 2017)

 

 

Flower-rich hay meadows on the Golden Cap Estate in west Dorset

For hundreds of years, colourful, flower-rich hay meadows were a defining feature of the British countryside and its way of life.  The 20th century saw a tidal wave of agricultural intensification sweep through the countryside accompanied by increased use of herbicides and pesticides.  The flower-rich hay meadows were a major casualty of this change and 97% of those present in the 1930s disappeared.  Dorset still has some traditionally managed meadows and, at the beginning of May, I went to Westhay Farm below Stonebarrow Hill on the Golden Cap Estate in west Dorset where the National Trust maintains this age-old agricultural system.

Westhay Farm Meadows
Westhay Farm hidden away in the Golden Cap Estate

 

I followed the narrow lane as it rose steeply between houses and through woodland along the course of the old ridgeway road towards Stonebarrow Hill.  Red campion, cow parsley, stitchwort and bluebells grew thickly along the grassy verges and bright sunlight filtered through the trees giving an unexpected transparency to overhanging leaves.  Emerging from the tree cover, the lane levelled out and, to the right, the land fell away steeply in a patchwork of fields, hedges and trees towards a calm sea with just a light surface stippling.

Hidden away in this landscape is Westhay Farm, with its long, mellow-stone farmhouse set in a lush garden and surrounded by hay meadows.  At this time of year, the meadows are richly carpeted with knee-high, yellow buttercups and tall, rough grass with prominent flaky seed heads.  When breezes meander across the valley towards the meadows, the grasses and flowers respond, moving together in waves, like the swell on the sea below.

Partly concealed within the rough grass were tight clusters of lemon yellow flowers above thick reddish green stems.  This is yellow rattle, a traditional meadowland plant, with its tubular flowers open at one end where the upper petal widens to a smooth, cowl-like structure above protruding purple stamens.   A black and yellow-striped bumblebee systematically visited each flower pushing the two petals apart so that its long tongue could reach the nectar at the base.   When it left with its sugary reward it also took away a dusting of pollen from the overhanging stamens to pass on to the next flower.

Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasite; although it can use sunlight energy itself by the process of photosynthesis, it does better when it also establishes physical connections to the roots of other plants in the meadow such as grasses.  The yellow rattle siphons off nutrients from the grasses, suppressing their vigour and creating space for other plants to thrive.  This is very important for establishing a meadow with a wide range of species.

Some of the meadows contained drifts of the glittering, brightly coloured flowers of green-winged orchids, standing defiantly in the grass on thick green stems.  Many of the orchids were purple, some were magenta, some violet and a few were white or pink, lending a mosaic of contrasting colour to the meadow.  Each flower was composed of several florets arranged around the stem like jewels on a bracelet.  The most visible and exquisite part of each orchid floret was the broad, apron-like, lower petal with its central white stripe contained within a coloured halo.  This white region was decorated with a pattern of eight or more irregular darker spots, the pattern unique to each floret and perhaps decoded by visiting pollinators.  Green-winged orchids are a speciality of these meadows and their name refers to the green-veined sepals that protect each developing floret, now thrown back like wings.

The Westhay meadows were a fine sight in early May with their colourful flowers and seemingly unfettered growth.  As the seasons progress, the meadows will mature, the yellow rattle and orchids will disappear, their place taken by other flowers.  By July the grasses will be dry and cheerful newcomers such as purple knapweed and buttery-yellow bird’s foot trefoil will bring their colours to the mosaic.  In late July, the hay will be cut, this joyous, abundant growth converted into winter animal feed.

Flower-rich hay meadows such as these were a feature of the British countryside in the spring and summer for centuries.  Cultivation followed the rhythm of the seasons.  Grasses and flowers grew in the warmth and wet of spring and early summer and a unique species-rich environment developed.   Hay was cut in late summer and removed for winter animal feed, after the flowers had set seed.  Animals grazed the fields in autumn taking advantage of the late-summer grass growth, the aftermath. No chemicals were used and the only fertiliser came from the autumn-grazing animals. The following spring, plants grew, seeds germinated and the cycle began again.  This was a carefully managed land cultivation system, in tune with the seasons and their weather.

Haymaking was an important part of the rural calendar, a natural part of each year’s cycle, celebrated in literature and art.  Here is part of William Barnes’ poem Haymeaken depicting a 19th century rural Dorset scene:

‘Tis merry ov a zummer’s day,

Where vo’k be out a-meaken hay ;

Where men an’ women, in a string,

Do ted or turn the grass, an’ zing,

Wi’ cheemen vaices, merry zongs,

A-tossen o’ their sheenen prongs

Wi’ earms a-zwangen left an’ right,

In colour’d gowns an’ shirtsleeves white

All this was set to change in the 20th century.  Fears for food security during the two world wars led to agricultural intensification and an increased dependence on artificial fertilisers.  Flower-rich hay meadows all but disappeared, a way of life evaporated and the look of the countryside changed.

It wasn’t just the look that changed.  Adoption of new methods coupled with increased use of herbicides and pesticides significantly affected wildlife in the countryside.  Loss of farmland birds and pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, flies and beetles has been severe.

This article appeared in the July 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Meadow with orchids 4

Yellow rattle 2
Yellow rattle

 

Gree-winged orchid (magenta)
Green-winged orchid, magenta form, showing pattern of spots on lower petal.

 

Gree-winged orchid (violet)
Green-winged orchid, violet form.

 

Gree-winged orchid (white)
Green-winged orchid, white form, showing green veins

 

Meadow with orchids 7 reduced

Perfect poisons for pollinators – available from your local garden centre

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.

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A hairy-footed flower bee foraging on plants within the garden centre

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About a year ago, I saw a crowd funding request from the well-known bee-defender and researcher, Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex. He wanted the money to test whether plants sold in garden centres in the UK and labelled as “bee-friendly” actually contained bee-toxic pesticides, applied during production of the plants. I remember being quite shocked to read about this possibility – could I have been buying plants to help the bees that were in fact laced with bee-toxic chemicals?

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.
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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.
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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.
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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

Bees in a landscape

I’ve always loved visiting galleries, discovering what an artist has created, but in the first week of May, the tables were turned.  For the first time, I was on the other side presenting a joint exhibition with my artist wife, Hazel.   We called the exhibition, “Bees in a Landscape”, and it was based around Hazel’s semi-abstract paintings of memorable views from the South West of the UK depicting the local landscape in all its glories.  Alongside the paintings, I showed photographs of some of the bees I have encountered in these same locations.   We hoped that the exhibition would raise awareness of the variety, beauty and importance of these beneficial insects as well as showing how we can all support them.

Poster for Birdwood & P.V
The Exhibition Poster

It was more than a year and a half ago that we agreed to put on the exhibition and throughout 2016 I photographed bees and Hazel worked hard on her paintings.  I didn’t spend hours looking for rare examples, I just photographed the bees that I saw, often in local gardens or when Hazel and I were out walking together by the coast.  It has certainly made me look more carefully at insects and flowers when we go out.

As the week of the exhibition approached there were many things to arrange: had we done enough publicity, did we have enough wine for the Private View, had we sent out all the invitations, would enough people come? Fortunately Hazel has a lot of experience in putting on exhibitions.  When we spoke to people in the run up to the exhibition, we detected a genuine interest in the topic of bees and the landscape which was very reassuring.

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Hanging the Exhibition finally finished!

The most stressful time was “hanging” the exhibition.  All the paintings and photos were ready but we couldn’t get in to the gallery until 1730, the evening before the exhibition opened on the Sunday.  There were a few distractions, and it took longer than we expected to decide how to place the work around the gallery and to mount it on the walls, and we had to come back on Sunday morning to complete the job.  In the end, we finished with just enough time to nip home to change and be back to welcome guests for the Private View.

Totnes women's choir, Viva
Roz Walker and Totnes Women’s Choir Viva singing at the Private View

The Private View is one of those special artists’ events that goes with an exhibition.   It’s a chance to invite friends, other artists, and people with a special interest to share a glass of wine before the exhibition is open to the public.  Many people came and everyone seemed genuinely interested and impressed by the work.  We were also very fortunate that, during the Private View, Totnes women’s choir Viva, sang for us creating a magical atmosphere with their beautiful harmonies.  Led by Roz Walker, and dressed in yellow and black, they sang songs about bees based on poems by Rudyard Kipling, Carol Ann Duffy, Vita Sackville-West and one based on the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala.   We were so grateful that they gave their time to come and sing for us.

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Hazel stewarding in the gallery

The Exhibition was open that afternoon and then daily until the following Saturday.  Hazel and I split the stewarding duties which meant we each did a morning or an afternoon in the gallery.  Totnes is a busy place and the gallery is in the centre of town so up to 100 people came in each day.  We both had many interesting and unexpected conversations with visitors and I was very surprised at the warmth and interest shown by people who came to look at the pictures, both landscapes and bees.  On many occasions, I heard the comment:  ” I didn’t realise how many kinds of bee there were in this country and how beautiful they are!”  Hazel found that her paintings evoked memories for visitors: of childhood picnics, happy holidays and even a honeymoon.  The greetings cards featuring images from the Exhibition were also very popular.

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Two of the bee pictures (actual size of each picture is A4)
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Hazel’s painting of “Bantham – the promise of summer” (two canvases each measuring 60X50 cm)

On the Tuesday, I took a small group on a Bee Tour of the public gardens dotted around the centre of Totnes.  It wasn’t a very sunny day but we had wide-ranging discussions and were able to see some interesting bees foraging on large patches of comfrey and cerinthe including female Hairy-footed flower bees, early and tree bumblebee workers and a garden bumblebee queen.

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My debut on Soundart Radio

Our exhibition was featured on Soundart, a local community radio station.  One of the presenters interviewed Hazel in the gallery and I went to the studio to talk about bees.  This was an interesting experience, if not altogether satisfactory.  After Hazel’s interview had been played, the presenters asked me about the exhibition and about bees which was fine.  When we got on to neonicotinoids, however, the discussion was hijacked by one presenter.  He challenged the possibility of obtaining “evidence” in scientific investigations of complex systems like bees and after his intervention, the bee discussion petered out which was a shame as there were many other aspects we could have covered.

Hazel and I were extremely pleased with the exhibition.  Many people came to look and we had some fascinating conversations.  Several people made special journeys to visit and talk to us.  People went away knowing more about bees.  What more could you we have asked for!?

For more about Hazel’s paintings click here.  The featured image at the top of this post  is Hazel’s painting “Seal Bay (Brixham from Churston Cove)”.

Birdwood House Gallery  web site can be viewed here