Tag Archives: heath potter wasp

A glimpse of ancient history in East Devon – Woodbury Castle

The Pebblebed Heaths in East Devon constitute the largest block of lowland heath in the county.  Named for the underlying pebble-rich geology, this extensive area of heathland lies along a ridge between the Otter and Exe rivers.   Many rare creatures flourish here and numerous remnants of past lives are also dotted about. These include prehistoric burial mounds and earthworks but the archaeological jewel in the crown of this special East Devon place is the Iron Age hillfort of Woodbury Castle.  Its extensive ramparts are at least 2500 years old but remarkably well preserved and holding a history well worth uncovering, as I found when I visited on a sunny day towards the end of August.

Woodbury Castle is situated on Woodbury Common, one of the tracts of heathland making up the Pebblebed Heaths and I parked in the visitors car park, set in a clearing surrounded by trees and scrub.  Rose bay willowherb also grew there, its bright pink flowers partly replaced by white cotton wool seeds, a rather unsubtle reminder of the impending approach of autumn.  The earthworks of Woodbury Castle were a short walk from the car park, partly concealed in a grove of broad leaf trees.

It was only when I got closer to the Castle that the size and extent of the earthen ramparts became clear.   The main fortification consists of two impressive soil ridges, separated by a deep ditch, that snake their way around the perimeter of the site (see plan below). Further soil barriers and ditches provide additional protection in some parts.  In the past, visitors were able to scramble across the earthworks leading to considerable erosion.  Recent repairs have added wooden stairways to protect the ramparts and provide easier access. 

The ditch between the outer (right) and inner (left) ramparts at Woodbury Castle

I climbed the stairway over the lower ridge and paused at the bottom of the ditch to get a better view of the ramparts and to appreciate their size.   After scaling the second, higher ridge, I descended about 3 metres into a large, roughly oval, open area approximately the size of two football pitches.  This is the main enclosure protected by the fortifications. Dappled light filtered through the mature beech trees growing there creating a peaceful scene. 

The edge of the main enclosure (left) and the inner rampart (right) at Woodbury Castle

Helpful information boards with pictorial reconstructions were provided, giving some idea about contemporary life.  Large earthworks such as these were probably centres for tribal groups.  They would have required a huge effort to build and perhaps reflected the status of the community, being as much about display as defence.  Excavations have provided evidence that the enclosure contained several thatched roundhouses where people lived and a granary raised above the ground to protect the contents.  The site is interrupted by the road splitting it into two sections, making it difficult to envisage the full extent of the enclosure.  This apparent desecration of an ancient site is not, however, recent and a track is thought to have existed here for many hundreds of years.

A plan of how the Woodbury Castle hill fort is thought to have looked showing the two main ramparts and the track (now the road) that cuts through. (taken from the information board at the site).

I paused to stand in the enclosed area and tried to imagine life at the time.  I smelt woodsmoke from fires in the roundhouses and heard the chatter of people and the noises they created as they went about their work including fashioning wooden items and spinning wool.  A few were standing on the ramparts, perhaps watching for new arrivals or even invaders.  Woodbury Castle is set on the highest point on the Heaths, 185 metres above sea level, and there would have been little tree cover at that time.  Our lookouts would have enjoyed panoramic views across Woodbury Common – to the East over the Otter Valley, towards the sea at what are now Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton and to the west over the Exe Valley with views as far as Dartmoor and Exmoor on a clear day.

We know very little about what has happened at Woodbury Castle since prehistoric times but there are a few clues. In 1549 during the bloody Prayerbook Rebellion, armed forces may have camped in the earthworks before the inconclusive Battle of Woodbury Common.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the Castle was used as an army training camp and since then Woodbury Common has been exploited periodically for military preparation.  A large Royal Marines camp was built on the Common in the run up to the D-Day landings during WW2 and remains of the buildings can still be found among the heather.  To this day, parts of the Common are used regularly for training by Royal Marines from Lympstone Barracks.

Most of the time, though, Woodbury Common is quiet and a popular place for walking.  In the main, the landscape is undulating dry heathland with a low covering of gorse, bracken, heathers and a few trees but there are some small areas of wetland where the vegetation is richer.  The Common is criss-crossed by clear paths and walking is exhilarating with occasional views across Lyme Bay to the south.  Some paths are quite pebbly reflecting the underlying geology.  Many rare species including the Dartford warbler, the nightjar and the heath potter wasp can be seen on the Common and the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 2020, the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths were designated as a National Nature Reserve in recognition of their unique habitat and wildlife.

When I visited, the heathers were in flower lending the heath a subtle purple tinge.  Bell heather was beginning to turn but the ling (heather) was in full purplish-pink flower.  Cross leaved heath with its pink bells also showed well in places.   Whenever I stopped to look at the heather flowers, there was a background low buzz from the many honeybees foraging; local beekeepers were clearly doing well.  On one occasion, though, I had left the main path and walked a little way on to the heath to examine the heathers when a voice boomed out behind me: “There are quite a few adders about!  Just warning you!” I hadn’t seen any adders but I thanked the owner of the voice and retreated quickly back on to the path to continue my walk.  A good number of butterflies were on the wing in the sunshine including small tortoiseshell and gatekeeper but the highlight was several brimstone butterflies dancing about above the heath like fragments of bright greenish sunshine. 

Brimstone butterfly on bell heather showing how the butterfly might be mistaken for a leaf.
View across the heathland on Woodbury Common
Ling (purplish-pink) and bell heather (reddish-purple) flowering on Woodbury Common
Cross-leaved heath on Woodbury Common

This article also appeared in the October 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Clay pots, flowery gravestones and iron age hill forts – ivy bee stories 2019

A large stand of flowering ivy in the early autumn sunshine is an impressive sight.  The many pale green globe flower heads give off their distinctive sickly-sweet smell and insects throng to the flowers to take advantage of the sudden abundance of pollen and nectar.  Movement is constant and the entire bush buzzes audibly.  Among the insects gorging themselves, there may be red admiral butterflies, plump stripy bumblebees, also good numbers of honeybees and wasps.  Sometimes, especially near the sea in the south of the UK, these are outnumbered by beautiful honeybee-sized insects with a distinctive yellow and black banded abdomen and russet coloured thorax.  These are ivy bees, the last of our solitary bees to emerge and it’s a delight to watch them each year in September and October.

Ivy bees are relative newcomers to the UK having arrived from mainland Europe eighteen years ago.  Since then, they have prospered, spreading across the entire southern half of England and northwards as far as Cumbria    As their name suggests, the species prefers pollen and nectar collected from flowering ivy and part of their success must reflect the large amounts of this climber that grow around the UK.

Each year I look out for the ivy bees; for me they signify the changing season, the movement of the year.  September 2019 began very mild and dry where I live but, by the fourth week, temperatures dipped and intermittent wet and sometimes very wet weather set in and stayed with us during October and into November.  In spite of the weather, I saw ivy bees in several places and here are some highlights of my 2019 observations:

A grassy bank in Sussex

In late September we spent a few days holiday in Sussex, a county in the south east of the UK.  We had delivered our daughter to the University of Sussex to begin her degree and were keen to do some country walking.  The weather was less than cooperative but on the 25th, our last day, we decided to walk up to the massive iron age hill fort at Cissbury Ring, high on the South Downs. We parked in the village of Findon not far from the 15th century pub, the Gun Inn, and as we passed the traditional butcher’s shop the butcher himself was standing outside wearing his blue and white striped apron.

We left the car and walked up through the village past some private houses where my attention was taken by movement in a grassy bank alongside one of the driveways. I was delighted to realise that this was a large colony of ivy bees.  I hope the owner of the house is equally delighted, and I hope they know these are not wasps.  Many male ivy bees were dancing about just above the surface of the grassy bank waiting for females to emerge.  They occasionally coalesced into a mating cluster when a newly emerged female appeared and after a short time the cluster dissolved and the female and her chosen suitor were left alone.  The incessant movement of the colony even on a dull day was very impressive.  Here are two short videos which capture this movement.

 

Ivy bee mating pair
mating pair of ivy bees on grassy bank

We left the ivy bees and continued uphill to reach Cissbury Ring.  Today this was an elemental place:  clouds scudded about driven by the strong blustery wind that was now also peppering us with raindrops and, when the clouds parted, the sun broke through leaving transient pools of light on the surrounding countryside.  We kept to the eastern rampart to afford protection from the wind and from the highest point we saw the sea to the south and a second hill fort, Chanctonbury Ring to the north across rolling tea-coloured fields.  A few hardy bees were braving the conditions to take advantage of the scattering of wild flowers across the chalk hillside.

 

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view northwards from Cissbury Ring with the group of trees at Chanctonbury Ring on the horizon

 

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Bee resting in this small dandelion-type flower – the BWARS experts tell me that this is a furrow bee (Lasioglossum sp.)

 

On our way back down the hill we passed banks of ivy in flower where, despite the intermittent drizzle, ivy bees were collecting nectar and pollen to take back to their nests.

Heath potter wasps, no – ivy bees, yes

Bovey Heathfield is a nature reserve, about half an hour’s drive from where I live with several claims to fame.  It is a surviving scrap of lowland heath, a fragment of the large area of heathland that once covered this part of Devon. Even though it is small, the heath provides a unique environment with unique wildlife and in August and September it bursts into life as the heather blooms covering the land with a pinkish purple sheen.  It’s also the site of one of the more important battles of the English Civil War, The Battle of Bovey Heath 1646 and on the reserve, there are memorials to the conflict.

I went to Bovey Heathfield on a windy Saturday afternoon (September 28th) under partly cloudy skies to meet John Walters, a local naturalist and wildlife expert.  John knows more than anyone else about a species of solitary wasp that frequents sandy heaths.  This is the heath potter wasp and the plan was for John to show me these insects.  Unfortunately, the weather was not sunny enough to tempt the wasps out but he did show me one of the pots constructed from muddy clay by mated females that give them their name.  They attach these pots to stalks of heather and gorse and then lay their eggs in the pot, equipping it with caterpillars as food before sealing.  These are mini-marvels of engineering and John has some wonderful video showing the wasps constructing clay pots (see here).

Heath potter wasp pot
a double pot constructed by a heath potter wasp

 

 

In the absence of these insects, John showed me the large colony of ivy bees that has built nests in the south facing sandy paths on the heath.  The ivy bees were not deterred by the cool conditions; the males were very active and a number of newly emerged females were mobbed by them.  I saw one mating cluster develop around a female resting on a heather stalk and wondered how they all clung on.

Ivy bee mating cluster
mating cluster of ivy bees attached to a heather stalk

 

 

Ivy bees in a local cemetery

Ivy bee male
male ivy bee

The river Dart drives a picturesque, watery wedge through the town of Totnes dividing it into two unequal parts.  The eastern part, across the river, goes by the name of Bridgetown, a mixture of old and mostly new houses.  Buried in the old part, behind the early nineteenth century St John’s Church is the cemetery.  I rather like the cemetery, it is slightly unkempt with rough grass, trees, flowers and several large clumps of ivy.  Most of the graves date from the 19th and 20th centuries and the place has a peaceful calm atmosphere.  Last year I found ivy bees here for the first time, it was also the first time I had seen the species in Totnes.  This year the ivy in the cemetery was late in flowering but finally on the last day of September some ivy bees appeared on a few of the open flowers. I saw males and pollen-carrying females, but not many of either gender. I wondered if they might be nesting in the cemetery but was unable to find any evidence.  Somewhere nearby there must a nest aggregation.

Ivy bee female with pollen
female ivy bee

 

As I was poking about looking for ivy bee nests, one grave stone, for Edwin Jordain, caught my attention.  It was late Victorian, dating from 1893 and had fine carvings of flowers along the top edge unlike most of the other graves.  I wondered whether the flowers were symbolic or just decorative and did a little research.

Gravestone in Bridgetown Cemetery
Gravestone in Bridgetown Cemetery with flower decoration. One of the stands of ivy can be seen at the rear on the left.

 

The flowers on the left side are most likely blue passion flowers.  I learnt that these were very popular adornments to Victorian graves, representing the suffering of Christ.  I feel less comfortable about my identification of the flowers on the right but I think they are lilies, linked with purity and innocence by the Victorians, especially after death.   Many of the flowers depicted are open, apparently symbolising the prime of life; Mr Jordain was only 36 when he died.  His epitaph perhaps sums this up: “Brief life is here our portion”.

The picture at the head of the article shows a female ivy bee I saw at Paignton on October 8th.  Here is a link to an article I wrote about the ivy bees at Paignton in south Devon that has recently been published on The Clearing:  https://www.littletoller.co.uk/the-clearing/ivy-bees-by-philip-strange/