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Signs of spring? – Lockdown Nature Walks 14

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk, I wandered about a community garden and a car park in the centre of Totnes looking at how spring was progressing in these semi-urban settings.   I made my observations over the weekend of February 27/28 during the short spell of warmer weather we enjoyed towards the end that month.  I have included a poem by Wordsworth “The lesser celandine” at the end of the account followed by some photos of the species I saw.

The sun rising on February 28th 2021 to the left of the houses with remnants of the apricot dawn light

After weeks of oppressive weather, grey, wet and then quite cold, these few days of sunshine and spring-like warmth were very welcome. I felt my spirits lift and I acquired a renewed sense of purpose despite the constraints of lockdown.   Several of the days dawned to cloudless skies accompanied by fuzzy white blankets of frost.  On one of these mornings, I went out early to watch the dawn light.  With sunrise still more than half an hour away and the sky an intense dark blue, a bright apricot glow rose behind the eastern hills.  The dawn chorus echoed across the valley and it was tempting to think that the birds were singing of the impending arrival of spring.  

The absence of cloud allowed me to watch the sun as it rose above the eastern hills and I began to see how this event in itself held indications of seasonal change.  Not only was the Late February sunrise more than an hour earlier compared to the beginning of the year, but the sun now rose closer to the east compared with roughly south east in early January.  The sun will continue its eastern trajectory, rising directly from the east on March 20th, the vernal or spring equinox, the astronomical start of spring.

With these ideas of seasonal change in mind, I decided to take advantage of the short spell of warmer weather to visit some of the town centre gardens and car parks to look for signs of spring.  First stop was the Leechwell Garden, one of the community gardens in the centre of Totnes.   By the time I reached this town centre oasis, warm sunshine had dismissed the early morning frost and a peal of children’s voices rang out from the play area and sand pit.  The early flowers, the snowdrops and winter aconites, were already past their best but nearby I came across the first blackthorn blossom.  The porcelain-white flowers were not fully open but their red-tipped stamens were already on show.  Blackthorn is very popular with early solitary bees and that day I made my first sighting of the year.  A dandelion was the host and a small bee with a bright orange-brown thorax and yellow pollen hairs was feeding.  This was a female Gwynne’s Mining Bee (Andrena bicolor).  A few lesser celandines were showing around the Garden but it was a nearby car park that surprised with its impressive display of these flowers. 

The Nursery Car Park is enclosed by old stone walls and the parking area is lined by wide soil borders mostly covered in rough grass.    In the past, I have seen solitary bees nesting in the grassy borders and butterflies taking advantage of the flowers growing there.  During the winter, the local council decided to cut the vegetation on the soil borders and did so very harshly.  This is probably bad news for overwintering butterflies but the early flowers seem to have responded well, perhaps owing to lack of competition from grasses.  The long border along the north side is sheltered by a tall ivy-clad stone wall and when the sun shines this is a warm sheltered spot. A few lesser celandines (Ficaria verna) had been struggling into flower here earlier in February but the warm weather triggered an outpouring of these starry golden flowers as if the area had been spattered with yellow gloss paint.

A lesser celandine flower showing the two-tone petals and the central fuzz of pollen-loaded stamens

I stood there for a while, looking, listening; one of the few benefits of lockdown is that the car park is very quiet.  Blackbirds squabbled noisily over ivy berries, a wren trilled, heard but unseen, and a large bumblebee tracked across the border.  I admired the celandine flowers with their shiny two-tone petals, mostly lemon yellow but with a darker slightly brown section near the centre of the flower.   Also, their central fuzz of bright, buttery yellow, pollen-loaded stamens surrounding a nascent green seed pod. 

There is something about these golden flowers on a bright sunny day with their petals held horizontally that speaks of their close relationship with the sun.  Part of this is the sensitivity of the flowers to light levels.  On dull days when cloud obscures the sun, the flowers will close and even on sunny days, they do not open until about 9am and are closed again by 5pm.   Then there are the stamens, thickly coated with yellow pollen.  With its colour and its richness, for me this pollen symbolises the energy of the sun.  And of course, it does contain some of the sun’s energy but it acquires this indirectly via the shiny heart-shaped green leaves that form thick mats across the border.  Photosynthesis in the leaves captures the energy of sunlight transforming it and generating among other substances, pollen and nectar, energy for insects.  It is perhaps no accident that the Celtic name for the lesser celandine is grian, the sun.

The first insect I saw taking advantage of this floral energy store during the warm spell was a honeybee.  It moved from flower to flower, its pollen baskets accumulating sticky yellow lumps of pollen to take back to the hive as food.  Several hoverflies also appeared on the flowers.  Mostly these were Common Drone Flies (Eristalis tenax) a species that overwinters as an adult and comes out on warm winter days to top up with pollen and nectar.  They bear more than a passing resemblance to male honeybees as their name suggests.   Most of the Eristalis I saw were females, characterised by eyes separated at the top of their head.  Several Bumblebees also fed from the flowers but these were very jumpy and I manged only one photo.

In the past, the lesser celandine was referred to as the “spring messenger” being one of the first woodland flowers to show each year.  Gilbert White noted that in 18th century Hampshire the flowers first appeared on average on February 21st.  This year in Devon, based on my observations, they emerged several weeks earlier.  The lesser celandine is also one of the first flowers to appear during weather warm enough to tempt out many insects.  It will continue flowering into April providing support for many species including the solitary bees that emerge as spring unfolds.

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The golden flowers have Inspired poets including William Wordsworth.  The lesser celandine was his favourite flower and he wrote three poems about them.  Here is his poem entitled “The lesser celandine”

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
“It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

“The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.”
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal’s Favourite – then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner – behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!

Blackthorn flowers showing the red-tipped stamens

Gwynne’s mining bee (Andrena bicolor) on a dandelion

Honeybee on lesser celandine, note the yellow pollen accumulating

Common drone fly (Eristalis tenax) on lesser celandine. The prominent eyes do not meet on the top of the head, characteristic of a female

Bumblebee on lesser celandine. From this picture it is impossible to determine the species but based on size and the time of year it may be a queen Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)

Back to the town centre, at last – Lockdown Nature Walks 10

Many of the lockdown restrictions imposed across the UK to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have now been removed or relaxed but life still feels very different from what we were once used to.  It does, though, seem inappropriate to continue referring to Lockdown Nature Walks and this will be my last one with that name.  So, for my tenth walk I want to come back to where I started back in March by walking round some of the town centre gardens and car parks looking at what is out and about in late August/early September.  

Let’s start at the Leechwell Garden, a peaceful, green oasis in the centre of Totnes open to all.  There is always plenty to see here and it changes week by week.  Many flowers grow and I pop in regularly to look at the insects that have been attracted.   During my lockdown visits to the Garden, I have talked to many people and I came to realise what an important lifeline the Garden has been for those without green spaces of their own or for people wanting a physically distanced conversation.  The Garden has also echoed with children’s laughter and the sandpit and play area have been a much-needed diversion for families.

Here are a few highlights from my recent visits:

This drone fly (Eristalis) is feeding from the fragrant white flowers of myrtle with their yellow-tipped stamens

Three honeybees (Apis mellifera) feeding from globe thistle (Echinops)

Late summer is the time that these male common furrow bees (Lasioglossum calceatum) appear and they are often to be seen on the marjoram

A green shieldbug (Palomena prasina) on rudbeckia

It’s a short walk from the Leechwell Garden to the Nursery Car Park, one of the town centre car parks, surrounded by tall stone walls, grassy banks and soil borders.   In April and May, one of the soil borders was unexpectedly enlivened by colourful wildflowers that commandeered its scruffy surface.  Insects were attracted and in Lockdown Nature Walk 5, I described how I found beautiful orange-tip butterflies here.  As spring gave way to summer, the first flush of flowers was replaced by large clumps of spear thistle occupying the border with their architectural presence as if the triffids had taken over.  These thistles proved very popular with bees:

A leafcutter bee (probably a patchwork leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis)) feeding on the spear thistle and gathering pollen beneath her abdomen

Orange-vented mining bee (Osmia leaiana) feeding from spear thistle, her orange/red pollen brush is visible beneath her abdomen

In mid-August, the local council decided to mend the fence along the back of this border and in the process cut all the flowers and trees down to ground level.  This did seem rather drastic but most of the plants had finished flowering for the year so perhaps the damage was mostly cosmetic.  I do, though, wonder what happened to the chrysalises of the orange-tip butterflies?

The other borders were unaffected by this scorched earth policy and a large buddleia in one corner is currently covered in its purple plume-shaped flowers that perfume the air with their distinctive but slightly sickly fragrance.   In another corner, brambles still retain a few late flowers. Both are currently attracting butterflies.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) on buddleia, one of three on the bush together.

Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus) on bramble

Finally, I want to go to the Heathway Car Park, also close to the Leechwell Garden.  Along one side of the parking area there is an old stone wall covered in dark green-leaved ivy and now is the time of year that I begin to peer at stands of this climber.  It’s the developing flower heads that interest me and they currently show considerable variation: some still resemble tiny, pale green golf balls composed of a tight cluster of small spheres.  In others, slightly more mature, the individual spheres are held on extended stalks like a clutch of ice cream cones. Then on August 23rd, in the Heathway Car Park I found that some of these ice cream cones were showing yellow-tipped stamens, the ivy had flowered.  Insects come immediately to take advantage of this new canteen of nectar and pollen and a stand of ivy in full bloom and covered with insects can be an awe-inspiring sight.   So far, I have only seen wasps and hoverflies on the flowers but I hope to see some ivy bees, the last of the solitary bees to emerge each year and a sure sign of the changing season.

Wasp (Common or German) and hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) on flowering ivy

The picture at the head of this post shows a small white butterfly (Pieris rapae) on globe thistle (Echinops) in the Leechwell Garden

A thug on the Lamb’s Ears

I walk through our local community garden (The Leechwell Garden) most days in summer just to have a look at the flowers and insects but I know that, if I am there late morning, the sound of children playing will brighten the air.  The older children, sometimes along with mum or dad reliving their youth, will be enjoying the fine new play area with its exciting slide.  The younger ones may be messing about on the watery edge of the stream that passes through the garden but it is the sand pit that really hits the spot.   Children love playing in the sand and I often see several family groups clustered about the sand pit; the only thing that seems to deter the children is heavy rain.  It’s a real tribute to the vision of the garden committee that they created something so popular.

Pair of wool carder bees
Male (left) and female wool-carder bees having a rest. One leaf has been well “carded”.

 

The flowers I come to see are across the other side of the garden and, for the past few weeks, I have been loitering near the old stone wall where there’s a large patch of the plant Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina).  It covers the ground with a jumble of silvery-green, velvety leaves and sends up stout, silvery stems bearing clutches of smaller leaves and understated pink-purple flowers.  It’s a pleasant, restful sort of plant creating an old-style, cottage garden feeling but what goes on around these Lamb’s Ears in midsummer is far from restful.

From the middle of June, a dark, chunky bee can be seen patrolling the patch of silvery-green leaves and I spend more time than I should watching him.  Whereas most bees are gentle creatures keeping themselves to themselves, this one is a bit of a thug, oozing anger and aggression.  He is the male wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), mostly black but with yellow markings along the sides of his abdomen, head and legs, reminiscent of the warpaint worn by native American tribes.  He is about the same length as a honeybee but much broader making him quite imposing as he moves quickly about the patch of Lamb’s Ear.  His movement is distinctive, he hovers then moves rapidly to a new spot, hovers, moves, all the time buzzing noisily.  It feels like he is looking for something.  And that’s exactly what he is doing, looking.  Should he spot another male wool-carder bee or a different insect on his patch, he will chase it away by flying directly at it.  I have seen him attack a bumblebee at least twice his size and knock it to the ground.  But, not only is he aggressive, he is armed; the rear of his abdomen sports five stout spines which he will use to injure or kill the intruding insects and there are reports of male wool-carder bees disabling honeybees who dared to feed from their patch.

All this aggressive energy is directed towards protecting the patch of Lamb’s Ear for himself and his harem, for now and then a female wool-carder bee will appear.  She looks very like the male, only a bit smaller; the wool-carder bee is one of the only species in this country where the male bee is larger than the female.  When the male sees her feeding from the flowers he will pounce and, without any preliminaries, mating will ensue. This is a vigorous but brief activity sometimes causing the flower stem to vibrate before the two disengage and go about their business again.  Unlike most solitary bees, where females mate once, wool-carder females undergo multiple matings so that, after a short time, our male will mate with the same female again and should a different female appear he will attempt to mate with her.  One valiant observer went to the trouble of watching an individual male wool-carder in his garden and reported that the bee mated sixteen times in one day.

This focus on the aggressive behaviour of the male wool-carder bee tends to obscure the fact that it is the female that does all the hard work of nest building and egg laying.  The wool-carder bee is a solitary species so that individual mated females build their nests alone, unlike the more familiar social honeybees and bumblebees.  Nesting occurs in preformed aerial cavities in dead wood, in walls or in hollow stems, including the tubes found in bee hotels.  Once she has identified a suitable site, the female strips or “cards” woolly fibrous material from plant leaves with her mandibles (hence the name wool-carder) and takes it back to her nest to line and plug the cavity (see the pictures below).  Lamb’s Ear leaves are a popular choice for “carding” but Great Mullein or Yarrow can also be used.  If you look carefully at the leaves of these plants you can sometimes see bare areas where she has been actively collecting fibres.  Within the nest, she lays eggs and equips them with a mixture of nectar and pollen.  The eggs develop in the nest where they stay until new bees emerge next summer and the whole cycle begins again.

So, if you have a patch of Lamb’s Ear in your garden take a look, there’s a good chance that wool-carder bees will be using it and you too can be enthralled by their antics.

Male wool carder bee
Male wool-carder bee – look at his spines.

 

Male wool carder bee in flight
Male wool-carder bee in flight

 

Anthidium manicatum mating pair
Wool-carder bee – mating pair

 

Wool carder bee collecting fibres
Female wool-carder bee collecting fibres

 

Wool carder bee gathering fibres together
Leaning back gathering fibres together

 

Wool carder bee flying off with fibres
Female wool-carder bee in flight with ball of fibres

 

Possible female anthidium
Female wool-carder bee

 

Male wool carder bee showing spines
Male wool-carder bee

 

Bumblebee on Lamb's Ear
A brave bumblebee feeding from the lamb’s ears

 

Bumblebees and honeybees share diseases and the outcome is not a good one.

lyme regis february 2014
Bumblebee on Rosemary on Lyme Regis sea front (February 22nd 2014) (photo by Hazel Strange)

I recently read Dave Goulson’s excellent book “A Sting in the Tale” and learnt a lot about bumblebees. Although I was aware of the global trade in honeybees, I hadn’t realised that there was an equivalent trade in bumblebees. Some crops such as tomatoes and peppers require buzz-pollination, the rapid vibration of the flower. Bumblebees do this very well and are now used extensively by commercial growers of tomatoes and other crops. To supply the demand for these useful insects there are at least thirty factories producing bumblebees for shipping all over the world. The numbers are staggering with European factories producing up to a million nests per year. This is big business with huge financial rewards but keeping so many insects together in one place risks the rapid spread of disease unless stringent hygiene precautions are observed. To complicate matters, commercially-reared bumblebees are fed pollen from honeybees so that they are potentially exposed to all the diseases that affect honeybees.

But what about wild bumblebees? What happens when a wild bumblebee forages at a flower that has already been visited by a honeybee? Are the bumblebees exposed to honeybee diseases and what might the consequences be?

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Last week’s Nature magazine carried an article addressing this issue. The team who carried out the work were from Royal Holloway London, Queen’s University Belfast and Exeter University. They showed that some honeybee diseases are indeed a problem for wild bumblebees and could be causing a decline in these wild pollinators. They studied two diseases: the fungal parasite Nosema which weakens honeybee colonies, and Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) which causes abnormalities in the wings and abdomen of infected honeybees as well as severely curtailing their lifespan.

The starting point for the work was to test whether these honeybee diseases could actually infect bumblebees. The researchers inoculated bumblebees (B.terrestris) with DWV or Nosema, and found that bumblebees were indeed susceptible to infection by both diseases. In the case of DWV, infection led to reduced survival of B.terrestris workers. For Nosema, although it could infect bumblebees, this did not reduce their lifespan.

Having established that the two honeybee diseases could infect bumblebees, the researchers examined the incidence of the two diseases. They performed a large scale study on the prevalence of DWV and Nosema in honeybees and bumblebees across 26 sites in Great Britain and the Isle of Man. DWV was found in 36% of honeybees tested and in 11% of bumblebees tested. For many of the infected bumblebees, the virus was active showing that the bumblebees were not simply acting as carriers. Nosema was less prevalent being found in 9% of honeybees and 7% of bumblebees. When the geographical distribution was analysed, there was some evidence for clustering, indicating disease hotspots. Hotspots for DWV were found in the south west and east of Great Britain and for Nosema in the south east. By analysing the distribution of the two diseases they were also able to show that the prevalence of DWV in honeybees influenced the prevalence of DWV in bumblebees, implying local transmission between the two insects. Local transmission was confirmed by analysing the form (nucleotide sequence) of the virus present in the two types of bee collected from the same site.

Honeybees have a high prevalence of DWV, a consequence of infestation of colonies by Varroa mites. The most obvious conclusion from this new work is that honeybee DWV is spreading to wild bumblebees. This probably occurs when the two types of bee forage in the same environment. Because DWV infection of bumblebees reduces their lifespan, the spread of this pathogen could be contributing to the decline in bumblebee numbers.

Both honeybees and bumblebees are important pollinators and need to be maintained. Their loss would have immense financial implications. This research shows that disease control in honeybee populations, for example through the efforts of beekeepers, has important implications for the health of other pollinators as well.

The flowers and the bees

Here, I have been inspired by Emily Heath’s post on her Adventuresinbeeland’s blog.  Emily posted some pictures of bees foraging in Elthorne Park, west London and asked “What flowers are out near you?  Are you seeing plenty of wild bees out and about?”

Accordingly, I have taken some pictures of bees foraging in our south Devon garden and in locations nearby.

One of the favourites of bees all summer has been a patch of Comfrey which grows at the bottom of our garden.  I have the impression that it is favoured by bumblebees and here is a recent picture of a Common Carder Bee (?).

Common Carder Bumblebee on Comfrey

Another long term favourite, but this time apparently preferred by the honey bees (although not exclusively), has been the hardy geranium (probably Wargrave Pink) that occurs in patches in our garden.

Honeybee on Hardy Geranium

The striking orange Montbretia are currently in flower and here is a bumblebee (buff tailed?) foraging.

Bumblebee on Montbretia

Lavender, when it is still in flower, continues to be popular especially with honeybees.

Honeybees and Lavender

I also found bumblees enjoying Bergamot growing in a local community garden.

Bumblebee on Bergamot

The current star-turn, however, is a patch of of Purple-loosestrife growing by our pond.  This is a native wild flower of the UK and grows at the margins of streams, ponds and rivers.

Purple-loosestrife

The plants shown here are about six feet tall and, whenever the weather allows, are covered with honey bees.

Honeybees on Purple-loosestrife

In the UK, preserving the plant is seen as an important part of conserving wetland habitats.  Exactly the opposite view is taken in the US where the plant is viewed as an agressive invader and referred to in the same terms as the triffids in John Wyndham’s novel.  Purple-loosestrife was brought to the US by settlers early in the 19th century.  It rapidly colonised rivers overgrowing native species and destroying wetland habitats.

Let’s finish with an artistic depiction of the plant.  Millais, the 19th century pre-Raphaelite artist, painted a notable picture of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Ophelia by Millais

If you look carefully on the right of the picture you can see the tall stems of Purple-loosestrife.  It seems that Millais chose to include these flowers because “long purples” was a traditional name for this plant and because of Shakespeare’s apparent use of this name in describing Ophelia’s death garland:

….. long purples,

That liberal shepherds do give a grosser name,

but our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.

Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica suggests that Shakespeare was more likely referring to Early Purple Orchids and the “grosser name” was “dog-stones” meaning “dog’s testicles”.  This was all a bit too strong for Victorian sensibilities so Millais chose the seemlier interpretation.

Another of my bee-related articles can be read here.