Tag Archives: Mansands

Signs of spring?

Dull, wet and mild has been the prevailing story for the winter weather so far this year in the south west of the UK.  Much needed winter sunshine has been in short supply and we’ve woken up to frost on only a handful of days. And then the storms:  in February alone, two consecutive weekends of severe weather brought heavy rain and gale force winds but very mild temperatures.   Local roads were blocked by water but flooding in other parts of the UK was much worse.

Even before the storms, walking in the rain-saturated countryside was particularly difficult but we managed to get out, although this sometimes meant paddling through mud and water.

Westcombe Beach

One of these walks was on a sunny February 1st when we took the opportunity to walk to Westcombe Beach near Kingston in south Devon.  This is an isolated sandy cove bisected by a sprightly stream and enclosed by some impressively jagged shiny grey rock formations.  The beach was largely clear of plastic waste, a rare find nowadays, but on one side I came across several unusual pale blue and pink inflated objects.  Although these might look as though they are made from plastic, they are in fact living creatures, Portuguese Men o’ War, driven on to the beach by south westerly winds.   They normally float on the surface of the sea, trailing dark blue tentacles with the capacity to deliver a very nasty sting, their pink sail catching the wind.

Portuguese Man o’War (some of the features of these organisms are lost when they are beached)

During our walk to and from Westcombe Beach we came across several flowers usually associated with the spring including primroses, violets and celandine.  As we were near the coast, the dark green fleshy leaves of Alexanders also flourished along the path sides but I was surprised to see one plant already in flower.

The flowers of Alexanders with a fly (probably a Yellow Dungfly)

Then as we walked back along the cliff tops in the low, late afternoon sunshine, we encountered a large caterpillar crossing the coast path.  It was very furry with orange-brown hairs along the top and darker grey-brown hairs below.  This is a larva of the fox moth and on sunny winter days they come out of hibernation to bask.

Fox moth caterpillar

Just under a week later, on February 6th, a day of sunny intervals, we walked to Mansands near Brixham.  Mansands is another isolated cove but with a stony beach and backed by a substantial body of water that attracts both waterfowl and bird watchers.  The land rises steeply either side of the beach with cliffs and there had been some falls of the soft rock on the eastern side over the winter which may have affected the solitary bees that nest there. [The picture at the head of this post shows the eastern side of Mansands beach and cliffs.]

Our biggest surprise of the day was finding a pair of toads (male and female) on the path along Mansands Lane as it descended towards the beach.  Hazel spotted the pair and had to take quick evasive action to avoid squashing them.  They were most likely on their way to the water below the path to spawn.  The males are opportunists and hitch a lift on the back of the larger females when they pass.  Once the female arrives at the water, more males will jump on her, competing for her attention.  Eventually, she will choose one male to fertilise her eggs as she deposits strings of them in the water.  We managed to persuade the pair to move to the path edge where they were more likely to avoid the danger of passing human feet.

Male and female toads

There were more surprises in store as we walked up the very steep Southdown Cliff away from Mansands where we saw several flowers often associated with spring.

Blackthorn flowers on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

 

Greater stitchwort on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

I hadn’t expected to see these flowers so early in the year but perhaps the generally warm weather has encouraged them.  There have also been reports of solitary bees emerging earlier than expected and I have seen queens of the bumblebee Bombus pratorum in two places in Devon, on January 15th and 20th so both very early.

Bombus pratorum queen (January 20th 2020)

A simple explanation for these findings is that our climate is changing.  Warmer, wetter winters with unstable weather are becoming more likely as a result of global temperature increases with corresponding effects on the flora and fauna.  But one person’s observations in one year don’t go beyond the anecdotal and we need much more comprehensive data to draw conclusions.

For this, I went to Nature’s Calendar, a citizen science project that records first flowerings, first sightings etc for many species across the UK.   When I looked at their report for 2019, I was surprised to see that blackthorn, to take one example, flowered 27 days earlier in the UK than it did in 2001.  In fact in 2019 all but one of Nature’s Calendar spring events were early, some considerably so.   Lorienne Whittle of Nature’s Calendar attributes these changes to the warmer winters we are now experiencing and the concern is that the long-established patterns of nature are being disturbed with potentially serious consequences.  For example, if frogs and toads spawn early, late frosts could kill their tadpoles.  Also, should insects emerge too soon they may not survive unless plentiful flowers are available for food.  We are entering uncertain times.

Ivy bee stories

For the past five weeks or so I have been watching the ivy bees (Colletes hederae) as they emerged from hibernation to mate and to build and equip their nests. South Devon is something of a hot spot for these insects and from my limited observations they can be seen all along the coast, at least wherever there is plentiful flowering ivy. They are by no means rare but I still get a thrill when I see them, especially if it’s in a new location (for me). There’s also something paradoxical about their frantic activity at a time of year when most of nature is shutting down.

Occasionally, something surprising happens when I am out observing, either because of people or because of the bees and here are two recent anecdotes.

Mansands and man’s hands

Last year I came across an impressive collection of ivy bee nests in the low cliffs at Mansands, an isolated beach near Brixham on the South Devon Coast (see featured image). There was plenty to see and the large number of nests was a surprise. The bees were mostly mated females so that the day I visited (October 3rd) might have been a bit late in the bees’ life cycle.

nest area
Part of the nest area in the crumbly cliffs

 

This year I decided to visit earlier with the hope of finding a mixture of males and females. We went to Mansands for the first time on September 15th; it was sunny and mild and not particularly windy but surprisingly I saw no ivy bees around the nest area. I did see a couple of ivy bees on a clump above the coastguard cottages but no others. There is quite a bit of ivy in the cliffs surrounding Mansands and in the approaching lanes but not much of it was in flower so perhaps I was too early.

I was keen to try again but life is rather busy at present and I didn’t have a chance until September 30th; that day we had an hour to spare and made a flying visit to Mansands. It was a sunny day and the temperature mild for the time of year (~16o). At the coast, there was a surprisingly strong and variable onshore wind which buffeted us as we walked down the steep stony path to the sea; on the way we saw plenty of ivy in flower. Under a clear blue sky, the sea was a uniform turquoise but the strong wind decorated its surface with white wavelets and created trains of foamy waves nearer the shore. The view was spectacular but given that I had come to see the ivy bees and Hazel to paint with watercolours, a little less wind might have been preferable.

Male ivy bee
A resting ivy bee, male I think

 

Female ivy bee 2
A pollen-loaded female ivy bee in the nest area

 

When we reached Mansands, I headed for the nest area, staggering slightly in the wind as I negotiated the stony beach. There were plenty of nest holes in the pinkish crumbly cliffs and a few, but not many, ivy bees about. It was so windy that they were finding it difficult to fly and difficult to land. Some of the bees were males patrolling hopefully, looking for females; from time to time they rested on the sand and grass. Females, their back legs dressed with yellow pollen-pantaloons, also arrived sporadically and, after resting, they made their way in to nest holes. The males paid no attention to these mated females.

Female ivy bee
Female ivy bee resting on my hand

 

As I watched, camera in right hand, a male approached the area and landed on one of the fingers of that hand. The camera was secured with a safety strap making it very difficult to manoeuvre and I failed completely to get a good shot of this trusting male bee. I was able to study this bee for some time by eye but in my experience a good photo reveals much more. Later, however, a female decided to land on my left hand. She seemed happy to stay there allowing me to get some rather nice photos from several angles.

This has never happened to me before and feels like uncharacteristic behaviour for solitary bees. They usually appear disturbed by my presence so, I assume, that on this windy day in their slightly dazed state they landed wherever they could.

watercolours
Some watercolours

For more of Hazel’s paintings see http://www.hazelstrange.net/


Lots of wasps about today!

Should anyone watch me on one of my ivy bee investigations they will see someone gazing in a slightly bemused manner at a clump of ivy, marvelling at the behaviour of these small creatures. Many of these clumps are found along the South West Coast Path, many in the urban sections around Torbay so there are plenty of passers by. I don’t know what they think but for the most part these people ignore me.

Above Hollicombe beach
Above Hollicombe Beach showing ivy on the cliffs

 

Ivy at Hollicombe bridge
Urban ivy at Hollicombe railway bridge

 

I recently discovered some particularly generous clumps of ivy cascading down one side of a railway bridge in Hollicombe. This is a Torbay district between Paignton and Torquay with a secluded cliff-enclosed beach. I have observed at Hollicombe several times and on the last two occasions, it was a very sunny, warm day and the ivy flower odour was particularly strong and cloying. I was transfixed by the energy expressed by the bees and other insects as they flew ceaselessly around the ivy flowers, and sometimes around my head! Even in this small area there must have been thousands of ivy bees. They were a mixed population of pollen-gathering females and nectaring males.

Female ivy bee
Female ivy bee

 

Ivy bees on ivy flower head
Ivy flower head with ivy bees

 

Ivy at Hollicombe bridge close up
How many ivy bees can you spot?

 

On my most recent visit (October 2nd), I was standing by the ivy enjoying the bees and the warm sunshine when a man stopped to chat:

“Lots of wasps about today!” he began cheerily.

“They’re not wasps, they’re ivy bees” I tried to make my reply as helpful as possible.

“Horrible smell” he continued “what’s that plant with the smell?”

“It’s the ivy” I replied, again trying to be helpful.

“I hate it”, there was some anxiety in his voice, “it smells horrible”

“I find it sickly sweet but I don’t dislike it.” I replied, “Some people like the smell, some hate it. You know, like Marmite”

“What, you mean they use it to make Marmite?” he sounded shocked.

“No, no, no”, I couldn’t help sounding a little irritated, “what I meant was that people either like Marmite or they hate it and the same is true about the smell of ivy.”

“Oh,” he didn’t sound convinced.

“Would you like me to show you the ivy bees?” I offered.

“No thanks!” he said accelerating away down the path. He still thought they were wasps!

…………………..

There are many species of wasp in the UK but the species known and feared by many people are usually either the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) or the germanic wasp (Vespula germanica). These are the familiar black and yellow striped insects which make such a negative impression on people. I remember in August this year, a hot midsummer’s day, when tea in an outdoor cafe was seriously disrupted by the creatures. I didn’t suffer any stings but I have in the past and it’s something you don’t forget. Many others have had similar experiences and given the passing resemblance between common wasps and ivy bees it’s possible that a really busy clump of ivy reminds people of these stinging insects.

The problem is compounded by the lack of knowledge among the general population about solitary bees. Most people don’t even know that solitary bees exist; the bees themselves are very reticent so that most humans rarely knowingly encounter them.

So, it’s no surprise that the man who accosted me mistook the ivy bees for wasps. Education is what is needed so I shall have to continue to offer to show the ivy bees to anyone who passes.

We see our first Ivy Bees!

We picked our way carefully down the steep, stony path to the beach at Mansands, one of the many small coves dotted along the South Devon Coast. At this time of year, the banks lining the path celebrate the season with silky draperies of “Old man’s beard” punctuated by bonfire-sparks of red rose hips and great outbursts of flowering ivy. Pale sunshine coaxed a sickly sweet perfume from the ivy flowers and encouraged a busy profusion of wasps, hoverflies and honeybees but we were hoping to spot another kind of insect. Suddenly my attention was grabbed by a different shape and there it was: marginally longer than a honeybee, its abdomen slender and pointed with clearly defined regular stripes of black and yellow. This sleek insect was an Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae), with a fringe of russet hairs around the thorax and its manner of browsing the ivy flowers in a crescent shape. We saw a few more but they were elusive and moved about quickly. It didn’t matter, we had seen our first Ivy Bees!

Ivy bee on ivy

Ivy bee on ivy flower

I was pretty sure that if there were Ivy Bees about, there must also be nests nearby but the conundrum was how to find them. At other sites in Devon, the nests are said to be near the beach so that seemed a good place to start the search. Ivy Bees generally choose soft friable soils to build the tunnels that form their nests. The beach at Mansands is book-ended by south-facing cliffs containing buff-coloured sandy soil, some shale and some rock. Scrubby grass provides cover in places. This is probably an ideal environment for these bees and, when I looked, I saw many small holes pock-marking the cliffs. Numerous bees were buzzing around and based on their patterning and shape these were probably Ivy Bees. Rather like commuters at a busy rush-hour railway station, some bees were going in and out of the holes and some were moving about, occasionally colliding with others. The nests were distributed along a stretch of cliff about 50 metres wide; there must be thousands of bees here. It seemed too easy but, almost by accident, I had stumbled across a massive Ivy Bee settlement, a truly impressive natural phenomenon.

Detail of Mansands cliffs with ivy bee nests
Close-up of the nest area

 

Mansands cliffs with Ivy Bee nests
Cliffs to the north-east of Mansands. Much of this area is populated by Ivy Bees

When I looked more closely, I noticed that the female bees returning to their nests carried chrome-yellow pollen along their legs, looking as if they were wearing bright yellow lycra cycling shorts. They mostly disappeared in to the holes presumably to unload the pollen to provide food for their larvae. A few returning females rested on blades of grass before entering their nests. As they cleaned themselves, they were bombarded by other bees. These may have been hopeful males but the females showed no interest at all, having probably already mated.

Ivy bee with pollen
Ivy Bee with pollen

 

Ivy bee approaching nest
Competition!

 

Ivy bee resting on grass blade
Female resting before finding her nest

 

Ivy bee at nest
Having a look

 

The Ivy Bee is a relative newcomer to the UK having been first identified on mainland Britain in Dorset in 2001. Since then it has colonised many sites along the south coast and is also spreading north. It is the last solitary bee to emerge, flying between early September and early November. It shows a strong preference for pollen and nectar from ivy although it will feed from other sources. Some call it a mining bee as it digs tunnels for its nests but others refer to it as a plasterer bee from its habit of lining the nest with a protective cellophane-like coating. Although it is a solitary bee in that it does not form cooperative colonies, many Ivy Bees tend to nest in the same area.

There are two other solitary bees that are on the wing around this time and which could be confused with Ivy Bees. The sea aster mining bee (Colletes halophilus) looks very similar but it is confined to salt marshland on the East and South East coasts of the UK. Another look-alike is Colletes succinctus but this is a bee of heather moorland. The Mansands bees are unlikely to be either of these species, especially as there are large banks of ivy in the area.

These Colletes hederae are the last solitary bees I shall see until next spring and I can’t help marvelling at their behaviour. Ivy Bees spend a frantic period of roughly eight weeks on the wing when they have to mate and build nests. They must also lay eggs and provide them with supplies of pollen and nectar, helping to pollinate the ivy along the way. During the next ten months the miraculous transformation of egg to larva to pupa to bee occurs but we don’t see any evidence of this until the new bees emerge next year and the cycle starts again.

We visited Mansands on October 3rd 2014;  the photos were taken by Hazel Strange.

I should like to thank Amelia, who writes two fascinating blogs: A French Garden and Bees in a French Garden, for kindling my interest in solitary bees.