Tag Archives: flowers

Have you seen the bee orchids?

There I was, standing up to my knees in the long grass trying to examine a flower, when a woman passing on the nearby path asked, “Have you seen the bee orchids?”  I turned and answered “No, but I was hoping to find them” and she continued “If you go nearly to the end of the reserve by the bridge, there’s a very nice one”.

Bird's foot trefoil
Bird’s-foot Trefoil

 

Common vetch
Common vetch

 

Aller Brook Nature Reserve in Newton Abbott is a place of contrasts.  It might reasonably be called an edgeland for it is on the edge of the town and the reserve starts where the Brunel Industrial Estate ends.  But it’s more urban than even that implies; the other main boundary of the reserve is the A380 trunk road making its presence felt through the continual loud rumble of cars and lorries speeding between Torquay and Exeter.  Between these two urban barriers is an extended triangular tongue of land with the water of Aller Brook running down the middle in a deep scrub-lined channel – this is the Nature Reserve.

Despite all the noise and light-industrial activity, this reserve is a perfect example of how nature can be coaxed in to a space if it is properly managed.  Kingfishers and otters are reported to visit the Brook and, when I was there, birdsong filled the air, at least when traffic noise allowed.  The main path along the boundary with the industrial estate was fringed with typical May flowers: red campion, cow parsley and brambles, all blooming beneath a thick tree canopy.  On the other side of the path, the Brook was occasionally visible through the scrub shield.

Further along the path, I came across several small areas of grassland managed as hay meadows.  Typical meadow plants were flourishing adding splashes of colour to the muted green grasses. Tall drifts of yellow and white ox eye daisies and unruly purple knapweed grew through the thick vegetation.  Common vetch, dotted with pink pea flowers, and buttery yellow bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the rough cover holding on wherever they could.  A few common spotted and marsh orchids added a little exoticism.  Along the edge of the brook there were stands of dog rose with their floppy, pale pink petals. With all these flowers about, bees were abundant.

The reserve ends at a bridge where the Brook empties into the estuary of the river Teign between huge swathes of tea-coloured reed beds and shiny pillows of brown mud.  The same reeds form a narrow border to the brook.  The bridge area was the part of the reserve where the Bee Orchids were supposed to be, so I looked very carefully within the grass.  They were quite easy to spot, six fine flower spikes standing about 20 cm above the ground with triple propeller-like, pinkish-violet sepals surrounding their complex flowers.

From the bridge, a path returns along the other side of Aller Brook and, at least at the beginning, the vegetation is quite similar.  Compact tracts of grassland sloped downwards to the Brook; common vetch scrambled through the grass accompanied by a few pyramidal orchids.  This side of the reserve, however, felt more contained with stands of brambles and thick tree cover attempting to mask the nearby main road.  It was still slightly unnerving to see glimpses of cars speeding past at 70 mph about 20 metres away.  Incongruously, near here I found another impressive group of Bee Orchids, five spikes in total, with two growing perilously close to the path edge.

As the reserve narrows, so does the path and for some time I walked along a green corridor beneath thick tree cover with relative shade and few flowers.  Eventually the path emerged into the light near a very busy roundabout and the car park of the Toby Carvery.  A ranger I had met earlier told me to look at the grassy area around the car park.  I had to ask a cuddling couple sitting on the edge of this area if they minded if I wandered around the grass but eventually I found thirteen flowering spikes of Bee Orchids looking very fresh, together with one pyramidal orchid.  This unlikely and rather bleak urban spot has a better population of Bee Orchids than the Nature Reserve itself!

There is something very beautiful and rather weird about the flowers of the Bee orchid when you look beyond the three pink sepals.  The most obvious part is the lower petal, the labellum, largely a rich dark red but decorated with variable, yellow horseshoe patterns.  Either side of the labellum are two spurs with a furry surface.  Above the labellum is a pale green arching structure containing two small yellow balls (pollinia) supported by fine threads so that when the wind blows these vibrate.  Above this pale green structure are two horns.

As the name of the orchid suggests, some people see a bee in the complex structure of the flowers.  They imagine the body of a chunky bee (the labellum, complete with furry extensions) with antennae (the two horns) and wings (two of the sepals).  To be honest, I don’t get this – all I see is a complex and idiosyncratic flower but perhaps I am being too literal.  I showed the pictures to Hazel, however, and she immediately saw the bee.

The apparent resemblance of the flowers to bees is also linked with theories of pollination whereby a male bee sees the orchid “bee”, thinks it is a female and tries to pseudo-copulate.  As it does so, it picks up pollen from the pollinia and when it leaves, disappointed, it tries again on another flower pollinating it at the same time.  In southern Europe, the Bee Orchid is cross-pollinated by bees of the Eucera genus but to me none of these bees looks anything like the Bee orchid.  But anyway, who knows what a bee “sees” and it has been suggested that the odour of the flower is more important in attracting the male bees.  To complicate things even more, Bee Orchids in the UK self-pollinate so they manage without bees.

Visiting a place like Aller Brook I can’t help but reflect on our relationship with nature.   I really like the Aller Brook Nature Reserve, there’s something special about the grassland with its profusion of meadow flowers and the Brook with its resident kingfishers and otters.  I love the orchids.  I can’t, however, help feeling troubled by the urban noise, the proximity of traffic and light industry.  This juxtaposition of modern urban life with some of the real glories of nature highlights our dysfunctional relationship with wildlife.  Is this tiny scrap of land the best we can do?  Surely we should be giving nature a higher priority rather than endlessly building roads and houses?

As I thought about this, Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi kept coming back to me, particularly the words:

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”

I visited Aller Brook Nature Reserve on May 30th 2017

Common spotted orchid
Cut-leaved cranesbill and common spotted orchid

 

Bee orchid 1
Bee orchid

 

Bee on knapweed
Bumblebee (male B.pratorum) on knapweed

 

Bee orchid 3
Bee orchids showing pollinia

 

Aller Brook
Aller Brook

 

Toby Carvery Car Park
The car park of the Toby Carvery

 

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.

Bee 4
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.

P1080627
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.

gallery 1
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.

gallery 3
Two of the bee pictures (actual size of each picture is A4)
gallery 7
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.

Soundart
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

The Seafront Gardens in Lyme Regis

Mature trees, richly planted borders, gently curving paths, a place to look and a space to think – the Seafront Gardens in Lyme Regis provide both an oasis of calm for humans and a safe haven for wildlife.  Not only that, some of the town’s best views may be savoured from this green space.  Looking ahead, the Cobb can be seen stretching its protective, rocky arm around the harbour whereas, across Lyme Bay, the west Dorset coast rises and falls like a gigantic wave sweeping eastwards over Stonebarrow and Golden Cap reaching, on a clear day, that louring sea monster that is the Isle of Portland. 

West Dorset coast viewed from the woodland boardwalk
West Dorset coast viewed from the woodland boardwalk; the distinctive shape of Golden Cap is framed by the trees

 

History of the Seafront Gardens

Just over a century ago, the Langmoor Gardens were opened to the public on the slopes above Marine Parade in Lyme Regis.  The land was bought through a bequest to the town from Joseph Moly of Langmoor Manor, Charmouth and the gardens were named in honour of the donation.  The slopes were known to be unstable and concrete buttresses had been built to prevent movement.  Despite this, there were periodic slippages of mud on to Marine Parade and throughout the 20th century the Gardens continued to move causing distortion to paths and eventually rendering the lower part of the gardens unusable.  In 1962, land to the west of these gardens suffered a catastrophic landslip following a misguided attempt at development and several houses were destroyed.  This land was eventually taken over by the town becoming the Lister Gardens, named after Lord Lister of Lyme Regis, pioneer of antiseptic surgery.  The Langmoor and Lister Gardens now form one large continuous public space above Marine Parade.

Rebuilding the Seafront Gardens

The Lyme Regis Environmental Improvements carried out early in the 21st century provided an opportunity to deal with the unstable geology of the Gardens.  Between 2005 and 2007, major civil engineering works were carried out to stabilise the Langmoor and Lister Gardens which were completely remodelled.  The new design included many planted areas and grassy spaces, gently curving paths that seem to reflect the convexity of the Cobb, and a woodland boardwalk with outstanding views across the harbour and bay.  Facilities for mini-golf, putting and table tennis were also built.

Supporting wildlife was deemed important so before work started, bat nesting sites were sealed to prevent them returning, 2000 slow-worms were caught and rehoused and a 15cm barrier erected to prevent others entering.  The gardens were replanted with salt tolerant, sub-tropical and rare plants as well as native species, taking account of the needs of bats, birds and insects.  Now, a decade later, the Gardens have a mature look and nesting boxes for birds and bats are flourishing.  Visitors love the open space and the new design was recognised with an important national award.

The Seafront Gardens in winter

Mid-winter is typically a low time when weather is poor, plants are dormant and wildlife scarce but when I visited the Gardens in December and January I found surprising activity.  Flowering cherry trees at the rear of the Gardens were covered in frothy pink flowers and close by, two fragrant shrubs were also showing well: winter honeysuckle with its white trumpet flowers filled with yellow-tipped stamens; sweet box, covered with tiny white starburst flowers, dark green fleshy leaves and shiny black berries.  As I was admiring the flowers, several bumblebees flew past, stopping briefly to feed from the cherry blossom.

On the terraced borders above Marine Parade, extensive banks of rosemary were covered in mauvish-purple flowers.  These were proving very popular with bumblebees and even in mid-winter, I saw queens and workers foraging busily, collecting sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen from the flowers.  The queens were large and furry with two prominent buff/yellow stripes and a grey or pale brown tail, the workers similar but smaller and more brightly coloured.   These are buff-tailed bumblebees and their relationship with the flowers is far from one-sided.  The flowers consist of two petals enclosing pollen-loaded anthers that beckon seductively at passing insects.  The lower petals contain darker markings highly visible to bees helping to draw them in. Each bee that feeds collects additionally a dusting of pollen from the overhanging anthers which they transfer to the next flower they visit ensuring cross fertilisation.

But shouldn’t bumblebees be hibernating at this time of year?  That’s what all the books say, but the presence of worker bumblebees collecting pollen suggests that somewhere in the Gardens or nearby there are active nests.  Winter active colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees have also been described in South Devon and in Cornwall as well as other locations in the southern half of the UK.  It isn’t clear why this is happening but perhaps these bees are taking advantage of the British penchant for planting winter-flowering plants and shrubs.  The Langmoor and Lister Gardens with their huge banks of flowering rosemary provide this winter forage for the west Dorset bumblebees.

Support your local bumblebees and they will support you.

Although buff-tailed bumblebees seem to be doing well in west Dorset, many other species of bumblebee in the UK have declined over the past 50 years.  This is bad news because these insects are important pollinators of fruit trees, vegetables and flowers.  The decline is largely a result of the agricultural intensification that has changed the look of our countryside leading to the loss of bee habitat, loss of wild flower forage and the use of pesticides.

We can’t reverse this intensification, but we can all help bumblebees by planting flowers in our gardens and by never using insecticides.  It’s important to choose a range of flowers that provide food for bees throughout the season:  the University of Sussex has a useful guide to bee-friendly flowers.   If we provide flowers, the bumblebees and other kinds of bee will return the compliment, visiting our gardens, pollinating our fruits and vegetables and improving their quantity and quality.

When I returned to the Gardens in early April, I found the rosemary still flowering profusely, showing what an important source of insect food it is.  Other plants were also starting to contribute to the forage, and spring insect species were emerging such as the beautiful early bumblebee and red-tailed bumblebee and the grey-patched mining bee.

Lyme Regis Gardens and west Dorset coastline
Seafront Gardens

 

Lyme Regis Gardens
Seafront Gardens

 

Lyme Regis ammonite lamppost and seagull
One of the Lyme Regis ammonite lamposts with “friend”

 

Buff-tailed bumblebee on rosemary
Buff-tailed bumblebee worker feeding from rosemary, photographed on December 26th 2016

 

Andrena nitida
Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida) photographed on April 2nd 2017 in the seafront gardens.

 

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

One sunny day does not make a Spring

The sun greets the spring

And the blossom the bee,

The grass the blea hill

And the leaf the bare tree

From “Love and Memory” by John Clare

 

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.

A plumipes
Hairy-footed flower bee on rosemary

 

willow
The willow waterfall

 

honeybee 2
Honeybee on willow catkin

 

honeybee 1
Honeybee with pollen on willow catkin

 

B hypnorum
Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) on willow catkin

Fragrant flower or invasive thug?

We’d been walking for twenty minutes or so with plenty to see: a wooded garden with a drift of early snowdrops scattered across the grass like confetti, the winter sunshine percolating through the trees creating mosaics of light and shade, running water a constant companion. Then suddenly, something new captured my attention but I couldn’t immediately identify what it was. You know how it is when you hear a fragment of a well-known piece of music but can’t place it; only this wasn’t music. Gradually, though, I became conscious of a low-level odour permeating the air by the path. I am sure there had been other smells as we walked, such as rotting leaves and wet mud, but this was entirely unexpected: a sweet, fragrant odour that stopped me in my tracks.

It was the day after Christmas and we decided to walk the riverside path linking the village of Uplyme in the far east of Devon to the seaside town of Lyme Regis just across the border in Dorset. This was the most rural section of the walk. One side of the path was bordered by skeletal trees and a damp, woodland bank. Hart’s tongue ferns grew prolifically, their leaves spilling out across the soil, octopus-like. On the other side of the path, the ground fell away steeply to the river Lym.

But the ferns did not have it all their own way and a small section of the bank was occupied instead by heart-shaped, bright green, fleshy leaves. Floating above the leaves, on thick stems, were the flowers, daisy-like brushes of pale petals gathered together and swept upwards. Each slightly hairy stem carried several of these chunky flower heads. This was winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans).

I bent down to smell the flowers and was greeted by a sweet, cloying fragrance that spoke to me of almonds and resurrected distant memories of amaretto liqueur; this was the source of my arresting sensory experience. Although I smelt almonds, it turns out that there is some disagreement about the exact odour of winter heliotrope. Perhaps it is the complexity of the smell; there was indeed an additional hard edge to the `fragrance that I couldn’t place, and some say the flowers smell of almonds, others vanilla, some even licorice and I began to doubt my response.

Back home, I looked for another patch of the plant to test my nose. Finding the plant wasn’t a problem; there is a lot of winter heliotrope about at present in south Devon. Much of it, however, grows by busy roads and it took me a while to find some that I could smell safely. I finally struck lucky by the coast path above the beach at South Milton Sands. Here I found drifts of winter heliotrope, some in shade and some in sunshine on the cliff top. The flower heads trembled in the breeze and the late afternoon sun highlighted the delicate colours of the flowers, some pale lilac, others tinged dark pink. Sometimes, the sea breeze carried traces of that low level woodland odour.

But what was the smell of the flowers in this seaside location? I took first sniff and smelt almonds again so my earlier response had been correct. Next Hazel tried without knowing my experience and she said lilac. It would be interesting to know what others sense when they smell winter heliotrope.

Many people, however, have an entirely different reaction to winter heliotrope, they hate it! They regard the plant as an introduced, invasive thug, taking over landscapes and eliminating native plants like a triffid destroying everything in its path. I share these concerns, but I have to admit to having a soft spot for winter heliotrope. It brightens up the sparse winter landscape and provides welcome forage for early insects. South Devon, with its mild climate, supports colonies of winter bumblebees and they need forage throughout the season. Winter heliotrope provides some of that food and this morning I watched winter bumblebees foraging on the flowers above the sea in Torquay.

 

winter heliotrope close up
Close up view of winter heliotrope flower head showing an individual flower with five petals and a central stamen and anther with pollen.

 

Cliff top South Milton Sands with winter heliotrope
Drift of winter heliotrope on the cliffs above South Milton Sands showing Thurlestone Arch

 

 

Winter heliotrope and bumblebee queen
Bumblebee Queen on winter heliotrope.
Winter heliotrope and bumblebee worker
Bumblebee worker ( B. terrestris) and pollen on winter heliotrope.

An autumn sunshine walk in South Devon – Salcombe to Gara Rock

East Portlemouth Ferry
The ferry arrives at East Portlemouth from Salcombe

 

Steep steps descend from a narrow passageway off Salcombe’s Fore Street.   At water level there is a stone jetty, the Ferry Pier, and above and to the right the Ferry Inn enjoys almost perfect views across the estuary.   A clinker-built motor boat, with the skipper standing up, is already making its way across the water to pick up the few waiting passengers.  Once we are all safely on board, he backs out and turns before heading across the estuary to East Portlemouth; it’s a calm day so this is an easy crossing.   The view from the boat always impresses me, low in the water, a cormorant’s perspective.  Looking towards the mouth of the estuary, the sea is a dark blue but, in the light breeze, ripples caught in the low sunshine cast a dancing light across the water.

The journey takes only a few minutes but it’s transformative.   Salcombe is all cafes and posh clothing shops but across the water we find peaceful long beaches with fine sand.  The tide is very low so we follow the strandline, leaving a record of our footsteps in the soft sand.  Beachside houses cast long shadows in the low sunshine but, where the sun reaches the beach, it creates pale blues and greens in the seawater, shallow over golden sand, and I imagine the Mediterranean.

Eventually, we reach Mill Bay, a football pitch-sized expanse of undulating, pale sand stretching from the sea to the coast road.  Very popular for family holidays in summer, today it is all but deserted.  On one side of the beach, the low tide has exposed a long, green, seaweed-covered slipway with prominent metal rails and stone teeth.  This was built in 1943 by the US navy to support landing craft during the Normandy landings.  It’s hard to imagine the beaches and the estuary filled with ships awaiting the assault on occupied France.

The rear of the beach is fringed with sand dunes bound together with scrubby grass.  One exposed vertical face is peppered with holes, burrows for insects, and several black and yellow striped wasps are moving about the nest area in a proprietorial manner.  Longer and sleeker than the better known common wasp, these are field digger wasps, solitary insects that dig tunnels in the sand and provision them with dead flies as food for their larvae.  A large buff-tailed bumblebee queen is scrabbling in the sand wall as if she is trying to burrow.  She looks in good condition but behaves as if something is wrong.

The path leaves the beach to head gently upwards through coastal woodland in the direction of the estuary mouth.  The autumn leaf-strewn track meanders through the woods with tantalising views of beaches below.  In today’s light, the colours of the sand and water glimpsed through the trees look more southern European than south Devon.  We emerge from woodland cover into brilliant sunshine and spectacular but slightly hazy views across the mouth of the estuary to the vast green headland of Bolt Head and the sandy beach at South Sands with its boutique hotels.  A red, yellow and blue boat passes by purposefully; it may look like a toy, but it is the Ferry that links South Sands with Salcombe town.

The path turns gradually eastwards seemingly cut into the hillside so that we walk with the land falling away to the sea below us and, on the landward side, rising steeply to rocky outcrops.  There is much bracken in evidence, already showing the effects of autumn; bright sparks of yellow gorse shoot upwards.  We pass a single spike of mullein, a few yellow toadflax and clumps of sheep’s bit with their unruly mops of blue petals.  Several stonechats entertain us, fluttering up and down, tail flicking, chatting.

The sea is calm today. From this vantage point, it is a deep blue but where it meets the rocky coastline, the surface shatters into bright fragments in the sunshine.  I scan the coastal waters for seals but get a surprise when I see what looks like a person standing on a rock just above the sea.  A closer look reveals a large cormorant, sunning itself.   Further away, sailing boats take advantage of the good weather and a fishing boat moors close enough for us to read its name through our binoculars.

Eventually, ahead of us we see a curious, white-painted, cylindrical hut, topped with a thatched roof and perched high above the path upon one of the rocky outcrops.  Far below the hut is a secluded stretch of sandy beach and in the distance lies another headland, Gammon Head.  The thatched hut is the former coastguard lookout at Gara Rock and we leave the coast path to head up to investigate.   Behind the lookout there is a new resort/hotel/apartment complex with people sitting in the sunshine enjoying a drink.  A row of coastguard cottages was built here in the 19th century and converted into a popular hotel early in the 20th century.  Laurence Olivier, John Betjeman and Margaret Rutherford are said to have stayed here, not necessarily at the same time.  The old building was knocked down in the last ten years and rebuilt as the new complex.

The old coastguard lookout has glorious views across the sea and coast and it is surrounded by huge banks of ivy.  Much of the ivy is in full flower, filling the air with its distinctive sickly-sweet smell.  Perhaps it is something to do with the light today but the flower heads on these clumps of ivy appear as almost perfect globes.  Multiple pale green lollipops extend from the centre of each flower head in perfect symmetry, like pins in a pin cushion.  Each lollipop is decorated with a frieze of pale yellow-headed stamens, creating, from a distance, a sunny halo around the green globe.  The ivy flowers attract many insects including more field digger wasps but it is the ivy bees that I am looking for and I am not disappointed.  Many of the elegant yellow and black striped-females move quickly about the flowers together with a few hopeful males.  The females are carrying large amounts of bright yellow pollen but still feeding.

We drag ourselves away from this extraordinary spot and head back down the inland valley to Mill Bay following an ancient, slightly sunken green lane with farmland either side.  This is a green tunnel with muted light, formed by overhanging trees including a long stretch of very old lime trees with dark, gnarled bark and multiple branching trunks.  When we reach Mill Bay, we take the coast road back to the jetty.  Many of the houses here are closed up; more than 40% of the houses in the Salcombe area are second homes.  The chimney of one of these homes is swarming with bees, probably honeybees.  The owner will be in for a shock when they next visit!

For a map and further information on this walk click here.

 

Mill Bay
Mill Bay

 

US Navy slipway, Mill Bay
The old US Navy slipway

 

 

Field Digger wasp
Field digger wasp (Mellinus arvensis)

 

South Sands Ferry
South Sands Ferry

 

Coast Path
The coast path and view across to Bolt Head

 

Sheep's Bit
Sheep’s Bit

 

Coastguard lookout Gara Rock
Coastguard lookout at Gara Rock

 

Inspecting the ivy
Inspecting the ivy at Gara Rock

 

Ivy with ivy bee
Female ivy bee (Colletes hederae) with ivy

 

View from Gara Rock lookout
View from the lookout

 

 

Ancient limes
Ancient Lime Trees

 

Bees in the chimney
Bees in the chimney