Tag Archives: heather

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.

 

P1270266
view northwards from Cissbury Ring with the group of trees at Chanctonbury Ring on the horizon

 

P1270259trimmed
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/

 

 

 

 

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