Tag Archives: lungwort

One of my favourite early spring bees

This year I promised myself I would try to get to know one our early solitary bees. I’d seen them in previous years but I knew there was more to learn so, from early March, I started looking carefully at the flowers in the local community garden, the Leechwell Garden. It was a bit frustrating as spring didn’t seem to know how to get started, rather like a sulky teenager on their way to school. The slow season had its effect on the flowers; there were plenty of primroses and dandelions and some rosemary but the early lungwort, a favourite of my chosen bee, was a bit short on blooms. It didn’t help my mood when a friend phoned to say she had seen one of the bees in a garden in Cornwall.
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A plumipes on rosemary 2
Male Hairy-footed Flower Bee (A.plumipes) on rosemary, showing the pale facial markings.

 

I had to wait another week after the phone call but eventually I was rewarded. Around lunchtime one sunny but cool March day, I heard a harsh buzz from the direction of some rosemary growing against one of the old stone walls. When I investigated, I saw one of my chosen bees working the disorderly blue-grey flowers, but he saw me coming and promptly flew away. Nevertheless, the spell had been broken and I began to see one or more of the bees each time I visited.
Rosemary and lungwort were their favourites and they moved deftly from bloom to bloom in search of nectar, long tongue often extended in readiness. Pausing to feed each time for a second or so, they emitted an urgent buzz as they moved, sometimes hovering briefly as if to take stock, their wings a pale blur in the sunshine. Despite the rapid staccato movements, I could see that they were roughly the size of a small bumblebee and covered in pale brown hair. Their distinctive, pale facial markings also stood out, reminding me of masked revellers at the Venice carnival.

These were male Hairy-footed Flower Bees (Anthophora plumipes), some of the earliest solitary bees to appear in the UK as winter stumbles slowly away. In this part of Devon, my first sighting was in March, around the time of the Spring Solstice, their presence providing a rather wonderful indicator of the new season. They are partial to lungwort flowers but feed from a wide variety of others. This year I have seen them feeding from banks of rosemary in a seafront garden, from aubretia cascading down an ancient wall and from three cornered leek growing in a long border near the sea. They forage at lower temperatures than many other bees making them important early season pollinators. In a rural setting, they are important pollinators for broad beans.

A.plumipes 3
Male A.plumipes showing hairy leg and foot.

 

I tried to photograph them but they were rarely still, moving very quickly, seeming to object when I got too close, hovering in the air and buzzing loudly as if to frighten me away. After some persistence I managed to get a good photo showing their hairy middle legs and feet, celebrated in their name. The photo also shows their subtly marked abdomen with its alternate pale and dark stripes.
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A. plumipes 18 04 16
Female Hairy-footed Flower bee (A.plumipes) on lungwort showing orang/tan pollen hairs.

 

By early April, the lungwort was flowering well and the pale brown males were regular visitors to these trumpet-shaped flowers. They were joined by another chunky bee, this one jet-black except for two orange-tan flashes towards their rear. Easily confused with a small bumblebee and surprisingly different from the males, this was the female Hairy-footed Flower Bee. The female bees moved around the flowers as quickly and as edgily as the males, like small mobile black bullets. The splashes of colour come from thick tufts of orange/tan hairs on their back legs. These are their pollen hairs, used for collecting as they visit different flowers. A female with her yellow-loaded pollen hairs is a fine sight at this time of year.

Longcause 2
Female A.plumipes approaching aubretia

 

Longcause 5
Female A.plumipes feeding from aubretia – is that the tongue I can see?

 

The females were just as sensitive to my presence as the males, displaying a belligerent attitude as they hover and buzz aggressively in mid air. Occasionally they would check me out, hovering and looking, darting to right or left, hovering and looking, sometimes circling right round me. Bumblebees sometimes also take a good look, circling around me, even landing on my sleeve but this is a dialogue whereas my interaction with the Hairy-footed Flower Bee felt more confrontational.

For a few weeks, I saw a mixture of males and females feeding on flowers and it’s surprising how common they are. Occasionally they performed an aerial dance, circling around one another. Sometimes the males were more aggressive, hovering a few centimetres behind a feeding female, buzzing loudly and then pouncing, knocking the female off the flower. Given that the females have usually already mated, this behaviour is counter-productive and wastes valuable female foraging time. Perhaps the males are just hard-wired to behave in this manner as it ensures mating success.
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Female A plumipes 2
Female A.plumipes feeding from rosemary

 

By the third week of April I saw mostly the jet-black females, working hard, busily collecting for their nests, visiting a wide range of flowers. It takes each female about a day to provision one cell with pollen and nectar for the developing egg. Nests tend to be in sunny vertical surfaces such as cliffs, soil banks or holes in soft walls but although there are many old walls in Totnes with loose mortar I haven’t located a nest yet. John Walters wrote a nice description of A. plumipes nests in a soft cob wall near a Devon church. The cob wall offers good nesting conditions so the bees tend to nest in aggregations even though they are solitary bees.

The few males about looked faded and discoloured and noticeably slower than earlier in the season. They play an essential role in the survival of the species but they have mated with the females and are not needed anymore.

My last sighting of these bees was on May 15th. This seemed a little early and I can’t be sure if it reflected the lifetime of the bees or the bees foraging elsewhere. We won’t see the bees again for nine or ten months and the action now switches to the nests where eggs develop in to larvae eventually producing the new bees that will emerge next spring.

Loitering by Lungwort, peering at Pulmonaria

Common lungwort
Common lungwort in a neighbour’s garden

 

I’ve recently been watching several patches of lungwort (Pulmonaria) in different parts of the town. It’s one of my favourite spring flowers bringing much needed early splashes of colour as well as food for the few bees out and about. I’ve found some of the common form with its pink and blue flowers and dappled green leaves. The Leechwell Garden also has three other cultivars, one with deep blue flowers, another with smaller white flowers and a large patch with coral pink flowers, some tinged with blue.

Blue lungwort
Blue lungwort in the Leechwell Garden, note the unspotted leaves and the pinker immature flowers.

 

White lungwort in Leechwell Garden
White lungwort in the Leechwell Garden.

 

Pink lungwort in Leechwell Garden
Pink lungwort in the Leechwell Garden.

 

The common form of lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) grows wild over much of mainland Europe but it has been naturalised in Britain for many years. The oval, fleshy green leaves are decorated with silver grey spots and grow in a jumble near the ground. In early spring the plant launches volleys of brightly coloured trumpet-shaped flowers carried on sturdy stems. The immature flowers are a deep reddish pink fading to a paler pink as they grow and mature. The flower colour changes again as it ages, this time to a mauvish blue so a vigorous plant may carry two or three principal shades of flower.  On a large clump of the plant the flowers shimmer and dance in the cool breezes that predominate at this time of year, creating a haze of strong colour.

Common lungwort2
Common lungwort showing the colour variation.

 

There’s an interesting chemical story behind the flower colour change which may transport you back to school chemistry lessons and messing around with litmus paper. The flowers of common lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) contain coloured pigments (anthocyanins) that are sensitive to acidity. As the flower ages, there is a change in the pH (a measure of acidity or alkalinity) and the pigments change colour accordingly. The young flowers are acid and their colour is red or pink. As they mature the acidity drops and the flowers eventually turn blue.

But this is more than a chemical curiosity, the colour change is a signal to pollinators. The pink colour tells pollinators that the flower has plenty of nectar whereas the blue says “don’t bother”. Hence pollinators don’t waste time visiting low-nectar blooms and they may visit several plants looking for high nectar flowers increasing the chance of cross pollination. This, of course, raises the question of what happens in cultivars where the flower colour does not change.

It is widely reported that early botanists saw a resemblance between spotty lungwort leaves and diseased, ulcerated lungs. That’s how the name, lungwort and its Latin equivalent, Pulmonaria are supposed to have arisen. I would like to know more about this resemblance because I have no idea what “diseased, ulcerated” lungs look like. I tried to find pictures but that didn’t help either. I wonder which lung disease these early botanists, who were also physicians, were thinking of?

The apparent resemblance between the spotty leaves and diseased lungs also led medieval physicians to use lungwort preparations to treat respiratory conditions. Indeed lungwort has a long tradition of medicinal use and “officinalis” refers to this. In his 17th century herbal, Culpeper asserts: “It is of great use in diseases of the lungs” and to this day, herbalists use extracts of the plant to treat coughs and bronchitis.

The connection between lungwort leaves and diseased lungs did not impress everyone and the plant has a host of other common names of different provenance. Some refer to the Virgin Mary or where she lived, hence the names Our Lady’s Milk Drops, Mary Spilt the Milk and Jerusalem Cowslip. Another name is Soldiers and Sailors which makes a link between the flower colours and the red and blue uniforms of the army and the navy.

Bumblebee on blue lungwort
A bumblebee on blue lungwort in the Leechwell garden.

 

But what about those pollinators that are being lured by the siren-colours of lungwort flowers? I’ve seen honey bees and I’ve seen one small bumblebee which I guess is a worker based on its size. But what I’ve been waiting for is Anthophora plumipes or the Hairy-footed Flower Bee and I saw my first one, a male, on March 17. These are fairly large furry bees, the males who emerge first being gingery and the females black. They love lungwort and most days now when I go to see the Leechwell Garden lungwort I am rewarded by the sight of a male with his pale face and characteristic restless, staccato flight pattern. These Anthophora move quickly from flower to flower often buzzing loudly as they go and making it very difficult to take photos. Sometimes they disappear when I arrive but they also sometimes come to have a look; they hover near me, move in a straight line to another spot, hover again and repeat this behaviour around me until satisfied.

Hairy footed flower bee on lungwort 2
A Hairy-footed Flower Bee feeding from pink lungwort in the Leechwell Garden, note the pale face.

 

Hairy footed flower bee on lungwort 5
Another Hairy-footed Flower Bee.

 

There must be plenty of these solitary bees about for me to see them so easily, unless of course it’s a few very busy bees. So far I have seen no females, but when I do, I will update this.

Hairy footed flower bee on lungwort 3
Yet another Hairy-footed Flower Bee.

 

Update:  I finally saw a black female on some primroses on April 12th.   Ironically it was in our back garden, although we are quite close the the Leechwell Garden.

Please don’t put your foot on our Bug House

crocus March 15

It’s nearly a year now since I began watching some solitary mason bees (probably Osmia bicornis) in the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the heart of Totnes. I was entranced as I watched the mated females building their nests in the removable tubes and in the holes in the wooden block of the fine Bug House attached to one of the old walls. They taught me so much about the life of a solitary bee.

 

Bug House Oct 14
The Bug House in October 2014 showing the removable tubes above and the wooden block nests below.

The Leechwell Garden is a public space and the Bug House is meant to be educational so it is understood that there will be a certain level of attrition. Sometimes visitors disturb the removable tubes and a few have been knocked to the ground (the tubes that is!). Last summer about half of the filled tubes were taken which is a pity as the developing bees probably did not survive. Anyway, by the autumn of 2014 there were about 30 filled removable tubes still left and I began to wonder whether they would make it through the winter.

P5120001
The removable tubes with one of last year’s mason bees and a friend. A newly filled tube can also be seen with its fresh mud seal.

 

I thought long and hard about what to do and decided it would be better to store the tubes somewhere safer. They need to stay cool all winter so I put them in our shed which is not attached to the house. I carefully noted which was the front end of the tubes and stored them in a cardboard box with holes to allow air to circulate. I waited until October 15th last year to do this so that the bees had entered the pupal stage and would not be damaged by moving. The nests in the wooden block, of course, stayed with the Bug House in the Garden.

I can’t say I felt comfortable about doing this, it felt as though I was tampering with nature but I convinced myself it was for the best. The way things turned out, it was just as well I had put the tubes somewhere safe.

Around Christmas time, the Bug House was knocked off the wall, probably by someone using it as a step to scale the wall out of hours. It was put back, only to be knocked off again, this time early in February. With the help of Susan Taylor and of David Martin, who in fact did all the drilling and screwing, the Bug House was put up again but this time at a place I judged to be safer, higher up and away from potential scrambling routes in and out of the Garden. The Bug House has survived two falls showing it is quite tough, but I am concerned about the effect on the bees in the wooden blocks where several mud seals have been lost (see photos below); time will tell if the bees have survived.

Bug House Feb 15
Back on the wall again!

 

Tubes March 15
The removable tubes after the winter.

 

With the winter nearly over and warmer weather in prospect, it was time to put the removable tubes back in their rightful place. Although I don’t expect to see the bees hatch until April, all the advice is to get the tubes in place by early March so that they can acclimatise and warm up slowly with the weather. So, on March 6th I opened up the box and put most of the tubes back in the Bug House. I was careful to put them back in the correct orientation so that the males can make their way out first. I saved a small number to put in an experimental Bee Hotel that I’ll describe in another post.

Tubes March 15 2
The removable tubes back in the Bug House; the majority are filled, a few empty ones have been added.

 

Block Feb 15
The wooden block nests in February 2015 showing that several had lost their mud seals, probably as a result of the disturbance. Compare with the picture below from October 2014.

 

Block Oct 14
The wooden block nests in October 2014 showing the neat mud seals.

 

With the tubes safely back in the Bug House I began to look around for potential bee forage. At present there are a few flowers in the Leechwell Garden, a little rosemary, some crocuses and several clumps of pulmonaria and I have seen honeybees enjoying the rosemary on sunny days. Also in one of the adjacent car parks there are some grassy banks populated with dandelions and celandines. The dandelions are very popular with honeybees. Also one of our neighbours has a striking deep pink, ornamental plum (Prunus mume beni-chidori ) which is currently in flower and when the sun shines there is a gentle, sweet fragrance and the bees flock to it; I have seen honeybees and one bumblebee.

Honeybee on rosemary
Honeybee on rosemary

 

Honeybee on dandelion
Honeybee on dandelion

 

It still feels quite early in the year and the weather seems stuck in a cool phase, but there is some forage about and on a sunny day the bees know how to find it. By the time the Osmia hatch out, which should be mid April, there will be plenty more forage about to keep all the bees happy.

Honeybee on prunus 1
Honeybee on prunus

Short on colour, high on drama – the garden at the turn of the year

How quickly time passes! It’s already a year since I wrote my first post about the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the heart of Totnes. Each month I’ve written about the plants and the wildlife and it’s been fascinating to watch the Garden change with the seasons.   I’ve learnt so much and also met some wonderful people both here in Totnes and in the blogosphere.  (here is a quick link to these articles)

sage
A sage bush on a rare sunny day

 

I visited the Garden several times at the end of December 2014 and at the beginning of January 2015. I was particularly interested to see how the present state of the Garden compared with what I saw a year ago. I found, just like last year, an overall look that was monochrome, especially on dull days. The trees were mostly bare skeletal branches and there were very few flowers at this low time of year.

rose hips
The shrivelled black rose hips

 

It wasn’t exactly the same, though. A year ago, I found more colour. Last year, yellow crab apples were still gracing their tree in late December. This year the fruit disappeared several weeks earlier, partly because of the attention of the birds. Last year I was taken by the mass of bright red rose hips on the pergola. This year these are almost uniformly black and shrivelled. Perhaps this is due to the mostly mild, mostly damp weather.

holly
Holly

 

olive tree
The olive tree

 

Looking around for more winter interest this year, I found a variegated holly with its leaves shining in the sunshine. The olive tree looked very healthy but I doubt we shall be seeing single estate Leechwell Garden Olive Oil anytime soon. A nearby sage bush also stood out. Near the water I found several mahonia with their frothy lemon yellow flowers and for a short time I watched a visiting insect which I think was a hoverfly.

Hoverfly on mahonia
Mahonia with insect

 

bug house
The bug house. The wooden block mason bee nests are visible towards the bottom of the picture

 

The Leechwell Garden is normally a quiet place but towards the end of December there was drama. The Bug House was found to be damaged and had to be removed for repair! Apparently, someone had tried to climb in to the Garden when the gate was locked. They probably steadied themselves by standing on the Bug House which gave way under their weight. But all is now fine; the Bug House has been mended and returned to its rightful place. Fortunately, the removable tubes containing mason bee nests had been put somewhere for safe keeping over the winter and the wooden block nests seem to be undamaged. The new bees should be flying in a few months.

What we don’t know, of course, is what happened to the intruder.

lungwort
Lungwort with buds

 

Early January does feel like a low time of year and some of this feeling may be due to expectations raised but ultimately unfulfilled by our over-commercialised Christmas. The Garden does not reflect these feelings and if you look around, there are hopeful signs of the new growing season everywhere. Several trees are now veiled in a haze of small catkins getting ready to spread their pollen when the wind and the time are right. The clumps of the bee-friendly plant lungwort may not look particularly attractive at this time of year but they are already showing several stems with large buds. There will be flowers in a few weeks. I even found a few yellow flowers on a clump of primroses.

primrose
Primroses

 

Some of the most striking signs of the new season can be seen on the crab apple tree. From a distance its smooth branches have seemingly been invaded by regular short spiky outgrowths. These will be transformed in a few month’s time by blossom and leaves. Close up, we can see the intricate but beautiful textures of these buds and their rich, reddish-brown colour.

crab apple buds
Buds on crab apple

 

Postscript:  I can’t keep up with Nature! I  wrote most of this post earlier in the week and should have hit the publish button then.  On a quick walk through the Garden this morning I saw several pink flowers on the lungwort and the first frogspawn in the watery area.

frogspawn
I did not have my camera with me on the 16th when I first saw the frogspawn. Here is a picture of the frogspawn taken on January 18th when there was much more compared with two days earlier.

 

Pale promises and lambs tails in the late February garden

“The counterfeit gold of February sunshine, making pale promises that can never be fulfilled”

I particularly like this quote from Bob Copper’s book, “A song for every season”, where he writes lyrically about his Sussex farming family and the traditional country songs they sing. On the rare occasions we have seen sunshine this month it’s usually been misleading and rain frequently followed. Heavy showers and pale sunshine then chased one another around the valley below our house, painting the sky with huge rainbows. The clear separation of the seven bands of colour in these rainbows tells us more about the wonders of science than any school physics experiment with a prism.

From my vantage point overlooking the Leechwell Garden, I watch each day for changes. During the month, some of the trees on the edge of the Garden developed a golden sheen. By the end of the month, this sheen acquired texture as if many small brushstrokes had been applied. The brushstrokes were the plump catkins, bursting with fertility but hanging loosely like pale yellow lamb’s tails. On another tree, I noticed the upper branches acquiring a pale ruddy brown glow in the light of the rising sun. I initially imagined vestigial leaves, but in fact there must have been a change in the colour of the upper meshwork of slender branches.

Around 4 pm on better days, the Garden has been taken over by a group of about 10 young boys from the local comprehensive school. They run, jump and tumble their way about the Garden like a litter of puppies. They seem especially keen on a loosely organised game that resembles rugby but without the ball; the main aim seems to be to knock one another over and scramble about on the ground in heaps. They don’t seem to be doing any harm. It all looks great fun and they can work off energy after a day constrained in the classroom.

Feb 2
Pink lungwort

Down in the Garden, the lungwort are single-handedly putting on a valiant show. The pink clump is now covered with flowers, some turning blue. Another clump, also with spotted leaves, shows white flowers and a third clump, with narrow green unspotted leaves, sports mostly blue flowers with a few pink.

Feb 1
White lungwort

Feb 4
Blue lungwort

One of the Garden volunteers told me that lungwort is a favourite of the Hairy-footed Flower Bee, a solitary bee that likes to nest in old walls and in mortar, of which there is plenty in the Garden. She had also just seen a grey wagtail by the running water. I shall have to keep a careful watch for these bees and birds.

Feb 5
A clump of primroses and the Three Guardians sculpture

Elsewhere in the Garden, there are a few snowdrops and celandine in flower and several clumps of primroses, a sure sign that the year is moving on. I have a soft spot for primroses and I remember their pale yellow flowers and delicate stems when, as a child, I picked them from railway embankments of the old Somerset and Dorset Railway. Primroses also grow well in this part of Devon and in the mid 20th century, local Paper Mills sent primrose-posies to their customers to give them “a breath of Devon air”. Children collected the flowers in return for pocket money and vast numbers were picked. The practice was frowned upon by conservation-minded people so in 1977, the paper manufacturers enlisted the help of ecologists from Plymouth Polytechnic to find out if the yearly primrose harvest was damaging the wild primrose. They came to the conclusion that the harvest was an important community event and was organised in a way that was unlikely to affect survival of wild primroses. Despite this, the practice was discontinued a few years later as public attitudes hardened against wild-flower picking.

Feb 3
Some still water – look for the new frogspawn on the right and tadpoles on the left

The frogspawn I mentioned last month disappeared and I thought that was the end for the frogs. My pessimism was misplaced as not only have the frogs been busy laying more spawn but there are now quite a few tadpoles happily swimming about in the still pools of water in the Garden. There’s no sign of legs yet but it’s early days. How many will survive I don’t know but its good to see some hatched.

Towards the end of the month, there have been several days with sunshine and perhaps it’s something about the light but there was a distinct whiff of spring in the air. We shall see!

The photographs were taken on February 24th by Hazel Strange