Tag Archives: flowers

A country walk, a clean beach and the fallacy of perpetual growth

The Christmas weather in south Devon was stormy and very wet so when we woke on December 27th to bright sunshine and clear, pale blue skies we had to get out for a walk.   We chose one combining countryside and sea, one we often walk after heavy rain as it mostly follows minor roads or paved paths.

We started at Townstal, a suburb on the edge of Dartmouth.  Townstal is noted for its leisure centre and two supermarkets but it does provide easy parking and quick access to open countryside.  Our route headed gradually southwards towards the sea along narrow roads edged by high grassy banks.   Volleys of gulls and crows rose from adjacent fields and the low sunshine created strongly contrasting areas of light and dark on the deep valleys and rolling countryside, emphasising even the slightest undulation.

Some steep ups and downs took us to Venn Cross where we turned to descend along the Blackpool Valley with its spirited stream, growing ever fuller as it gathered water from springs or from the sodden fields.  This part of the walk is tree lined and the minor road is cut into the hillside well above the stream.  Several former water mills are dotted along the valley; they are now rather grand private houses but one has installed a turbine to harness the power of the water once again.

Old Mill in the Blackpool Valley
Blackpool Mill, one of the old mills found along the Blackpool Valley. This hidden valley has changed very little over the years. Have a look at the painting below of a nearby farm to see how the area looked nearly a century ago.


Apple Blossom, Riversbridge Farm, Blackpool by Lucien Pissarro, 1921, from Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter


At this time of year, the trees are dark latticeworks of bare branches but pale brown immature catkins were showing well on some of the trees, readying themselves for the spring.  Patches of winter heliotrope spread along verges enclosing the ground with their fleshy, green, heart-shaped leaves.  Purple and white lollipop flowers struck through the leaves, broadcasting their characteristic almond odour.

Catkins and running water in the Blackpool Valley
Catkins above running water in the Blackpool Valley


Winter Heliotrope in the Blackpool Valley
Winter heliotrope in the Blackpool Valley


Eventually, we reached Blackpool Sands, a popular shingle beach and café, surrounded by pine trees and sheltered by steeply rising hills.    The low winter sun created strongly contrasting colours: the yellowish- brown shingle, the fringe of frothy white waves, the sea a rich dark blue tinged with turquoise highlights, and there were clear views across the bay to Start Point with its lighthouse.   Near the café, a hardy group of swimmers were struggling on their wet suits in readiness for a dip.  They passed me as they ventured in to the sea accompanied by audible yelps and shrieks.

View across Start Bay from Blackpool Sands to Start Point
View across Start Bay from Blackpool Sands to Start Point


Swimmers at Blackpool Sands
Swimmers at Blackpool Sands …… with friend.


I was keen to have a look at the shingle beach for two reasons.  There had been a very successful beach clean four days previously organised by Amanda Keetley of Less Plastic.  We hadn’t been able to be there owing to family commitments but there had also been storms since then and I wondered how much more plastic had washed up.  I didn’t find any, the beach was still clean which should have been good news.

To be honest, however, I was feeling disheartened about efforts to reduce the load of plastic in our seas after reading two articles in the Guardian over the Christmas period.  It seems that the US, along with financial support from Saudi Arabia, is planning a huge increase in plastic production, the driver being cheap shale gas.  If we are to reduce the amount of plastic in our seas we need to reduce the amount in circulation and this new plan runs directly counter to this.

Here are links to the two articles:

$180 billion investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge

World’s largest plastics plant rings alarm bells on Texas coast

I am not sure how this can be stopped but I am convinced that the drive for perpetual economic growth, espoused thoughtlessly by so many of our politicians, is ultimately very damaging for our planet.

If we love our beaches and our seas, we have to talk about plastic

Towards the end of October, I spent a day at Cogden Beach, just east of Burton Bradstock in west Dorset.   It’s a beautiful, natural spot, a rich concoction of sea, sky and shingle where wildlife prospers despite the sometimes harsh conditions.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult, however, to ignore the scatter of plastic pollution on the beach and the potential effects of this manmade material on marine life.

Cogden Beach looking towards Golden Cap
Looking west along Cogden Beach towards Golden Cap, showing the clumps of sea kale and yellow horned-poppy


It felt unseasonably warm as I walked downhill from the car park, more like a late summer’s day, although the blood-red rose hips and smoky-black sloes decorating the leafless scrub spoke of a different season. The vast shingle bank of Chesil Beach dominated the long view, a yellowish-brown convexity edged with white waves sweeping eastwards towards a mistily mysterious Isle of Portland.  The sea was calm and a steely grey except where the low sun’s rays highlighted individual wavelets whose reflections merged in to a broad, silvery band of light.

When I reached the shingle bank I found traces of the special beach plants that grow so profusely here in spring and summer.  Well weathered, blue-green and brownish-grey leaves were all that remained of the sea kale that dominates in May whereas, beneath the brown remnants of this season’s vegetation, fresh glaucous leaves were showing from the yellow horned-poppies.  Small flocks of starlings skittered about puddles at the back of the beach like children in a school playground and, in a low sandy cliff, I was surprised to find bees busily filling nests.  These were ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last of our solitary bees to emerge, the females collecting chrome-yellow pollen from nearby clumps of flowering ivy.  To the west, there were spectacular views of Burton Bradstock’s yellow cliffs and the distinctive flat top of Golden Cap.

It seemed like the perfect natural spot.  But was it?  Almost all the clumps of beach plants contained plastic waste including pieces of plastic wrap, colourful plastic rope or plastic fishing line.  On the shingle between the clumps, I saw the occasional plastic drink bottle, some were intact, some in pieces.   The prominent strandline about half way up the beach contained dark, dry seaweed and small pieces of wood mixed liberally with shards of plastic as though objects had shattered in their continual buffeting by the sea.  Plastic drink bottles or their fragments also appeared at regular intervals along the strandline.  This beach is no longer a completely natural, wild place, it has been contaminated by our throwaway plastic culture.   Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this tension was a chunk of expanded polystyrene covered with pale grey goose barnacles.

Plastic is, of course, both versatile and cheap.  It has transformed our lives but its very ubiquity and ease of use means that we don’t value it enough.  Think how much you throw away each week: plastic wrap or bags from supermarket produce, drink containers and lids, plastic trays, pots and so on.  We have embraced a “disposable” lifestyle where about half of the plastic we produce is used once and thrown away.   Some countries manage to recycle or energy-recover a large proportion of their plastic waste but the UK is not one of them.  In this country, more than 60% of plastic waste ends up in landfill where it does not break down and is effectively lost.  We are squandering resources and energy on a massive scale, an appalling indictment of our way of life.

But what about the plastic waste I found on Cogden Beach, how does it get there?  It comes from the sea and is left behind by the retreating tide.  We have turned our oceans into a “plastic soup” composed of plastic bottles and bags, plastic fragments formed by breakdown of these larger items, also microplastics (5 mm or less in size) such as industrial pellets, small fragments and very small fibres from clothing or from car tyres.  This is a huge global problem and shows no sign of abating.  A staggering 12 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. All countries contribute but a large proportion comes from several in the Far East with poor waste management systems.

The consequences for marine wildlife are alarming.  Consider, for example, the Northern Fulmar, a bird that forages exclusively at sea.  A study in the North Atlantic showed that 91% of dead Fulmars found on beaches had plastic in their gut, having mistaken the plastic for food, reducing their ability to feed and sometimes damaging their digestive tract.  At the other end of the food chain, zooplankton have been shown to ingest tiny microplastic fragments that may end up in fish and perhaps in humans.  Plastic fragments also attract toxic chemicals that may affect the creatures consuming them.  Our throwaway lifestyle is disturbing the entire global marine ecosystem. The problem is just as serious as climate change.

What can be done?  First, we must reduce the amount of plastic in circulation by moving away from single-use items such as plastic bottles, takeaway cups, plastic cutlery, plastic wrap and plastic packaging.  The introduction of the 5p charge on plastic bags led to an 85% reduction in use, so a levy on single-use takeaway cups and plastic cutlery may also be effective.    Second, we need to encourage a “circular economy” where as much plastic as possible is recovered and recycled and none goes to landfill.  A deposit return scheme for plastic drink bottles would increase recovery but greater recycling of other plastic containers must also be achieved.   It is encouraging that some government ministers are now talking about the problems of plastic waste, but their words must be translated into actions.

Individual decisions can also bring about change.  We can refuse to use plastic cutlery.  We can choose to drink only from reusable cups.  We can use and reuse our own shopping bag.  We can recycle all plastic bottles and containers. We can pressurise local businesses to reduce plastic waste.  We can participate in beach cleans.  If we love our beaches and our seas we must do this.


Plastic Bottle and Sea Kale, Cogden Beach
Plastic bottle and sea kale on Cogden Beach


Well travelled bottle fragment on Cogden Beach
A well-travelled plastic bottle remnant on Cogden Beach


Bottle and Yellow Horned-Poppy, Cogden Beach
New growth on yellow horned-poppy, with plastic bottle


Plastic on Cogden Beach
Plastic waste on Cogden Beach


Goose Barnacles on expanded polystyrene, Cogden Beach
Goose barnacles on expanded polystyrene


low cliff at Cogden
Low cliffs at Cogden Beach with ivy bee nests


Ivy Bee at Cogden Beach 2
Female Ivy bee (Colletes hederae) returning to her sandy burrow with pollen, at Cogden Beach


This article appeared in the January 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Plastic waste and Portuguese Men O’War on a Devon beach

Last week, on a very windy day well before storm Ophelia arrived, we visited Leas Foot Sands, one of the small coves clustered around Thurlestone Bay in South Devon.  Thurlestone Rock, a stone arch or “thirled stone” is a prominent local landmark located in the Bay.  As well as being a popular attraction for canoeists and wild swimmers, the Rock gives the village of Thurlestone its name.

Leas Foot Sands
Leas Foot Sands

When we reached Leas Foot Sands, we stood and gazed across the water at the elemental scene.  A gusty, gale force wind blew from the sea, a powerful natural force affecting everything in its path. It had been hard enough to walk there, buffeted as we were from side to side and, now, above the beach and just about able to stand, we felt specks of sand flick across our faces.  The sea was a uniform grey under the overcast sky, but the wind created many white horses offshore and a sense of agitated movement.  Chunky waves continually attacked the curving apron of yellowish-brown sand, each one finishing in a foaming mass of white water that mingled with the wind giving the air a moist, salty essence.

At the southern side of the beach, the sand and rocks were coated with a slightly unsavoury looking, brownish foam.  I remember being alarmed, some years ago, when I first saw this spume on a beach in Cornwall and feared effects of detergents. I now know that it is a mostly natural phenomenon, caused by a high wind interacting with organic matter from marine phytoplankton.

A few hardy plants grew at the back of the beach beyond the strandline, bringing welcome colour on this mostly monochrome day.  Brash yellow and white daisy-like flowers of sea mayweed bobbed in the wind and pale lilac blooms of sea rocket kept safely close to the sand along with their fleshy green leaves.  A few pink lollipop flowers of thrift struggled on exposed cliff edges.

Further down the beach, bands of dark seaweed stretched in broad arcs parallel to the shore.   The thickest band of seaweed was the result of the morning’s high tide; here the seaweed sparkled, seawater dripping off dark fronds as the tide receded.  Mixed with the seaweed were various colourful examples of plastic waste, mostly bits and pieces of fishing tackle or rope, but I also saw an old plastic yoghurt container, a bright green plastic straw and several smaller shards of plastic.  A bright pink balloon-like object clung to a flat stone nestling among the damp seaweed.  I wondered if this was some kind of joke as it vaguely resembled an inflated condom but I abandoned that idea when, further along, I came across several similar objects.  Hazel put me right, telling me that these were Portuguese Men O’War, very colourful but dangerously stinging organisms that float on the sea surface trailing long tentacles, until driven in by high winds.  There have been reports of swarms of these colourful creatures on several beaches along the south coast and warnings that the number will increase with storm Ophelia.

Behind the wet strandline was a sparser band of dry, black seaweed, presumably resulting from sporadic higher tides.  I started looking around this sector digging up the sand with a garden trowel to see what I could find.  This was too much for a woman who had recently arrived on the beach with her child and friend.

“What are you looking for?” she asked me.

“I’m trying to find plastic nurdles, have you heard of them? “ I replied

“Do you mean those small bits of industrial plastic?”

“That’s right, but I can’t find any here” I continued.

“I suppose that’s good” she suggested.

I carried on looking but was unsuccessful.  Hazel, however, found six of the lentil-sized plastic pellets, a mixture of grey and blue, on the other side of the beach.  Earlier in the year, someone had reported collecting hundreds of plastic nurdles from this beach; perhaps we were unlucky or perhaps conditions had changed.


Marine plastic pollution is one of the major environmental challenges of our time and something I want to return to in future posts.


Sea Mayweed at Leas Foot Sands
Sea Mayweed



Sea Rocket at Leas Foot Sands
Sea Rocket


Plastic beach waste at Leas Foot Sands 1
Plastic waste



Plastic beach waste at Leas Foot Sands 2
Plastic fragments



Portuguese Man O'War on Leas Foot Sands
Portuguese Man O’War with fragments of dark blue tentacles


Plastic nurdles collected at Leas Foot Sands 11 10 17


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)



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


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.

Dave Goulson got his money and went ahead with the analyses. The results of his tests have just been published and they don’t make happy reading;  here is a link to his blog on the topic. He and his colleagues bought 29 pots of flowering plants from well-known garden centres around Brighton (Wyevale, Aldi, B & Q, Homebase). Many were labelled “bee-friendly” and some had the Royal Horticultural Society endorsement “Perfect for Pollinators”.

They analysed a range of pesticides in leaves and pollen from the plants and found that most of the plants contained a cocktail of insecticides and fungicides. In the leaf analysis, only 2 of the 29 plants contained no pesticides. 76% contained one or more insecticide and 38 % contained two or more. 70% of the leaf samples analysed positive for neonicotinoid insecticides, well known for their toxic effects on bees. In the pollen analysis, neonicotinoids were found at levels known to cause harm to bees. So much for “Perfect for Pollinators”.

As a result of his work, B & Q announced that from February 2018 their plants would be neonicotinoid-free. Aldi revealed that they had stopped using neonicotinoids in October 2016, a few months after Goulson’s analyses took place. Neither B & Q nor Aldi  addressed the other chemicals found in the Sussex analysis.

The Horticultural Trades Association issued a statement that I believe is both silly and cynical, basically rubbishing Goulson’s analysis. You can read Dave Goulson’s rebuttal here.

So, it really is true that when we buy plants to help bees in our gardens from garden centres, we may be unwittingly exposing the bees to harmful chemicals, despite the “bee-friendly” labels. Also, any insect that nips into a garden centre for a feed, especially early in the season when garden centres have an abundance of flowers, may be getting a hit of insecticide at the same time.

So, what do we do if we want to have a bee-friendly garden?

Dave Goulson recommends the following course of action: if you must buy plants, buy from an organic garden centre or, failing that, go to B & Q or Aldi. Better still, grow from seed or swap plants with friends and neighbours.

One point that has not been discussed so far concerns potential effects on humans of these pesticides found in garden centre plants. Earlier this year, I bought some fruit bushes from the garden centre and these now have a nice crop of plump berries. If these plants have been treated with pesticides, and of course I don’t know if they have, then the fruit will presumably also contain these pesticides. This possibility makes me very angry. I grow fruit in our garden so that we can eat chemical free, fresh, good quality produce. I don’t want to ingest insecticides and fungicides with poorly defined toxic effects on humans.

The featured image shows a hairy-footed fower bee feeding from plants in a lane adjacent to the garden centre