Tag Archives: nature writing

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

The long-horned bee in Devon – and its endangered friend

South Devon coast looking towards Prawle Point
The south Devon coast looking towards Prawle Point (June 16th 2017)

 

It’s been a good summer. We’ve had some fine weather and I’ve been able to spend time on a beautiful part of the south Devon coast looking for the long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).  It’s one of my favourite insects and one of our rarest bees and there is a strong colony on the coast between Prawle Point and Start Point where low, soft-rock cliffs meander around headlands, in and out of rocky coves and along seaweed-covered beaches.  I visited this area several times between May and July but my most interesting day was on June 23rd, just after the summer solstice.

It was breezy and warm but partly cloudy when I arrived at the coast.  The sea was a uniform grey-blue although now and then the sun broke through the cloud, creating shimmering areas of white water. I started by following the coast path eastwards along the cliff top from Prawle Point.  The sea-side of the path was fringed with scrub and rough grass along the cliff edge whereas the landward side was fenced and mostly used for arable farming.  Many kinds of wild flower grew along both sides of the path including a few generous clumps of purple tufted vetch scrambling through the scrub. After about a mile of easy walking, the enclosed path reached a gate giving on to a broad, open area, not farmed for some years, as far as I know.

I was completely unprepared for the view that greeted me after I closed the gate.  Here was a meadow where thousands of the small, dandelion-like flowers of cat’s ear moved with the breezes to create a mobile yellow canopy above the grass.  Lower down were many tiny yellow globes of hop trefoil and bright pink semi-circles of common vetch.  This is a paradise for insects and I saw many red-tailed bumblebee workers moving purposefully about the chrome-yellow flower heads.

But that wasn’t all: the area along the cliff edge was a kaleidoscope of purples, yellows and pinks, mostly flowering legumes such as bush, kidney and tufted vetches, bird’s foot trefoil and meadow vetchling, restharrow and narrow-leaved everlasting pea.   The number and variety of flowers was greater than I can remember from previous years, perhaps the warm spring had suited the legumes.

The range of flowers, especially the legumes is ideal for the long-horned bee.  I had seen one or two males back along the enclosed path and now I saw several more, also nectaring on the curving, purple, tubular florets of tufted vetch.   There is something other-worldly, almost primeval about these insects with their yellow mask-like face, orange-chestnut hair (in fresh insects) and their impressively long antennae, resembling stiff black bootlaces and about the same length as rest of their bodies.  They are particularly striking in flight, antennae held so that the bee can negotiate whatever obstacle it meets;  controlling those antennae must involve some impressive micro-engineering.   There were also females about feeding on lemon yellow pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling.  Chunkier than the males, they have shorter antennae and, on their back legs, generous pollen brushes resembling golden harem pants.

I scrambled down a rough track to the main Eucera nest area, a section of reddish, soft-rock cliff, pock-marked with hundreds of pencil-sized holes.  Behind me the sea soughed rhythmically on nearby rocks and an oystercatcher sang its plangent song. Female Eucera arrived at the nest site bringing pollen and nectar to provision their nests but they were not alone and I saw several other bee species that seemed to be using the nest area.

One species I had hoped to see was the very rare Nomada, and I had nearly given up hope when the bee suddenly appeared; I was so surprised, I nearly fell backwards off the rocks.  Like others of its kind, it is wasp-like, with a yellow and black-banded abdomen and orange legs and antennae. It was the pattern of the bands, six yellow bands on a black body that told me that this was Nomada sexfasciata, the six-banded nomad bee, one of Britain’s rarest bees.  This site on the south Devon coast is the only place where it is found in the UK; it is nationally endangered so it was very exciting to see it.

It moved about the nest area furtively as if trying not to be noticed and after looking in to a few of the holes it moved on. Later that day I had more sightings of the Nomada; whether it was the same bee or several I cannot say.  As a nomad, the bee has no nest of its own but lays its eggs in the nest of another bee, in this case the long-horned bee.  The Nomada eggs develop into larvae and take over the nest, killing the host larvae and eating their pollen store.  It depends for its survival on a strong Eucera colony and this one in south Devon is one of the largest in the UK.

Long-horned bees and their Nomada used to be found widely across the southern part of Britain in the early 20th century.  They favour a range of habitats such as coastal soft rock cliffs, hay meadows and woodland rides for nest sites and require unimproved flowery grassland for feeding, being especially dependent on flowering legumes for their pollen sources.  With agricultural intensification leading to a loss of habitat, especially flowers, these bees have been squeezed out and are now confined to a very few sites.

It’s not difficult to see how they could be supported.  At the south Devon site, all that is required is to ensure a consistent source of flowering legumes along the coast, the soft rock cliffs already provide the nest sites.    I recently met Catherine Mitson who is working with Buglife on a project to support the south Devon colony of Eucera longicornis and Nomada sexfasciata  by increasing the number of flowers.  Catherine is very enthusiastic and I have great hopes now for the survival of both the long-horned bee and its nomad.

Yellow meadow Prawle Devon
The yellow meadow

 

Male long-horned bee on meadow vetchling
Male long-horned bee on meadow vetchling (June 16th 2017)

 

Male long-horned bee
Male long-horned bee on tufted vetch (June 23rd 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee
Female long-horned bee on meadow vetchling (June 23rd 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee by nest
Female long-horned bee at the nest site (June 16th 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee 2
Female long-horned bee with pollen on tufted vetch (July 2nd 2017)

 

Nomada sexfasciata
Nomada sexfasciata by Eucera nests (June 23rd 2017)

 

Nomada sexfasciata 2
Nomada sexfasciata by Eucera nests (June 23rd 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee
Very worn female long-horned bee on tufted vetch (July 23rd 2017)

 

The featured image at the top of this  post is a male long-horned bee on bird’s foot trefoil   (May 23rd 2017)

 

 

Have you seen the bee orchids?

There I was, standing up to my knees in the long grass trying to examine a flower, when a woman passing on the nearby path asked, “Have you seen the bee orchids?”  I turned and answered “No, but I was hoping to find them” and she continued “If you go nearly to the end of the reserve by the bridge, there’s a very nice one”.

Bird's foot trefoil
Bird’s-foot Trefoil

 

Common vetch
Common vetch

 

Aller Brook Nature Reserve in Newton Abbott is a place of contrasts.  It might reasonably be called an edgeland for it is on the edge of the town and the reserve starts where the Brunel Industrial Estate ends.  But it’s more urban than even that implies; the other main boundary of the reserve is the A380 trunk road making its presence felt through the continual loud rumble of cars and lorries speeding between Torquay and Exeter.  Between these two urban barriers is an extended triangular tongue of land with the water of Aller Brook running down the middle in a deep scrub-lined channel – this is the Nature Reserve.

Despite all the noise and light-industrial activity, this reserve is a perfect example of how nature can be coaxed in to a space if it is properly managed.  Kingfishers and otters are reported to visit the Brook and, when I was there, birdsong filled the air, at least when traffic noise allowed.  The main path along the boundary with the industrial estate was fringed with typical May flowers: red campion, cow parsley and brambles, all blooming beneath a thick tree canopy.  On the other side of the path, the Brook was occasionally visible through the scrub shield.

Further along the path, I came across several small areas of grassland managed as hay meadows.  Typical meadow plants were flourishing adding splashes of colour to the muted green grasses. Tall drifts of yellow and white ox eye daisies and unruly purple knapweed grew through the thick vegetation.  Common vetch, dotted with pink pea flowers, and buttery yellow bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the rough cover holding on wherever they could.  A few common spotted and marsh orchids added a little exoticism.  Along the edge of the brook there were stands of dog rose with their floppy, pale pink petals. With all these flowers about, bees were abundant.

The reserve ends at a bridge where the Brook empties into the estuary of the river Teign between huge swathes of tea-coloured reed beds and shiny pillows of brown mud.  The same reeds form a narrow border to the brook.  The bridge area was the part of the reserve where the Bee Orchids were supposed to be, so I looked very carefully within the grass.  They were quite easy to spot, six fine flower spikes standing about 20 cm above the ground with triple propeller-like, pinkish-violet sepals surrounding their complex flowers.

From the bridge, a path returns along the other side of Aller Brook and, at least at the beginning, the vegetation is quite similar.  Compact tracts of grassland sloped downwards to the Brook; common vetch scrambled through the grass accompanied by a few pyramidal orchids.  This side of the reserve, however, felt more contained with stands of brambles and thick tree cover attempting to mask the nearby main road.  It was still slightly unnerving to see glimpses of cars speeding past at 70 mph about 20 metres away.  Incongruously, near here I found another impressive group of Bee Orchids, five spikes in total, with two growing perilously close to the path edge.

As the reserve narrows, so does the path and for some time I walked along a green corridor beneath thick tree cover with relative shade and few flowers.  Eventually the path emerged into the light near a very busy roundabout and the car park of the Toby Carvery.  A ranger I had met earlier told me to look at the grassy area around the car park.  I had to ask a cuddling couple sitting on the edge of this area if they minded if I wandered around the grass but eventually I found thirteen flowering spikes of Bee Orchids looking very fresh, together with one pyramidal orchid.  This unlikely and rather bleak urban spot has a better population of Bee Orchids than the Nature Reserve itself!

There is something very beautiful and rather weird about the flowers of the Bee orchid when you look beyond the three pink sepals.  The most obvious part is the lower petal, the labellum, largely a rich dark red but decorated with variable, yellow horseshoe patterns.  Either side of the labellum are two spurs with a furry surface.  Above the labellum is a pale green arching structure containing two small yellow balls (pollinia) supported by fine threads so that when the wind blows these vibrate.  Above this pale green structure are two horns.

As the name of the orchid suggests, some people see a bee in the complex structure of the flowers.  They imagine the body of a chunky bee (the labellum, complete with furry extensions) with antennae (the two horns) and wings (two of the sepals).  To be honest, I don’t get this – all I see is a complex and idiosyncratic flower but perhaps I am being too literal.  I showed the pictures to Hazel, however, and she immediately saw the bee.

The apparent resemblance of the flowers to bees is also linked with theories of pollination whereby a male bee sees the orchid “bee”, thinks it is a female and tries to pseudo-copulate.  As it does so, it picks up pollen from the pollinia and when it leaves, disappointed, it tries again on another flower pollinating it at the same time.  In southern Europe, the Bee Orchid is cross-pollinated by bees of the Eucera genus but to me none of these bees looks anything like the Bee orchid.  But anyway, who knows what a bee “sees” and it has been suggested that the odour of the flower is more important in attracting the male bees.  To complicate things even more, Bee Orchids in the UK self-pollinate so they manage without bees.

Visiting a place like Aller Brook I can’t help but reflect on our relationship with nature.   I really like the Aller Brook Nature Reserve, there’s something special about the grassland with its profusion of meadow flowers and the Brook with its resident kingfishers and otters.  I love the orchids.  I can’t, however, help feeling troubled by the urban noise, the proximity of traffic and light industry.  This juxtaposition of modern urban life with some of the real glories of nature highlights our dysfunctional relationship with wildlife.  Is this tiny scrap of land the best we can do?  Surely we should be giving nature a higher priority rather than endlessly building roads and houses?

As I thought about this, Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi kept coming back to me, particularly the words:

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”

I visited Aller Brook Nature Reserve on May 30th 2017

Common spotted orchid
Cut-leaved cranesbill and common spotted orchid

 

Bee orchid 1
Bee orchid

 

Bee on knapweed
Bumblebee (male B.pratorum) on knapweed

 

Bee orchid 3
Bee orchids showing pollinia

 

Aller Brook
Aller Brook

 

Toby Carvery Car Park
The car park of the Toby Carvery

 

Perfect poisons for pollinators – available from your local garden centre

We try to make our garden welcoming for bees by growing flowers that provide pollen and nectar throughout the season. We also have some unkempt areas they might want to nest in and we don’t use any pesticides. I enjoy watching the bees foraging on the flowers as they come in to bloom and currently a large cotoneaster bush is full of small bumblebees buzzing loudly as they feed in the sunshine. It’s been very exciting this year to see bumblebees and solitary bees nesting in the dry-stone walls around the garden.

When we need new plants or compost, there is one local garden centre we use. It has a good range of healthy-looking plants and a very nice tearoom! In early spring, it’s also an excellent place to watch one of my favourite bees, the hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), whizzing about in the greenhouses full of flowers. Earlier this year, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late March, I noticed that these Anthophora had set up nests in the old brick wall of one of the garden centre’s buildings.

Bee 4
A hairy-footed flower bee foraging on plants within the garden centre

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About a year ago, I saw a crowd funding request from the well-known bee-defender and researcher, Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex. He wanted the money to test whether plants sold in garden centres in the UK and labelled as “bee-friendly” actually contained bee-toxic pesticides, applied during production of the plants. I remember being quite shocked to read about this possibility – could I have been buying plants to help the bees that were in fact laced with bee-toxic chemicals?

I wanted to find out more so I got in touch with our favourite garden centre and asked whether they were using neonicotinoid insecticides on their plants. They reassured me that they were not. So far so good. I then asked if their suppliers used neonicotinoids in the compost on the plants they sold. The reply came back “I’m afraid I can’t answer that question without phoning every supplier. Also a few companies we deal with import some of their stock from other European countries. I’m happy to ask my local nurseries when I’m speaking to them.” That’s the last I heard.
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Dave Goulson got his money and went ahead with the analyses. The results of his tests have just been published and they don’t make happy reading;  here is a link to his blog on the topic. He and his colleagues bought 29 pots of flowering plants from well-known garden centres around Brighton (Wyevale, Aldi, B & Q, Homebase). Many were labelled “bee-friendly” and some had the Royal Horticultural Society endorsement “Perfect for Pollinators”.

They analysed a range of pesticides in leaves and pollen from the plants and found that most of the plants contained a cocktail of insecticides and fungicides. In the leaf analysis, only 2 of the 29 plants contained no pesticides. 76% contained one or more insecticide and 38 % contained two or more. 70% of the leaf samples analysed positive for neonicotinoid insecticides, well known for their toxic effects on bees. In the pollen analysis, neonicotinoids were found at levels known to cause harm to bees. So much for “Perfect for Pollinators”.

As a result of his work, B & Q announced that from February 2018 their plants would be neonicotinoid-free. Aldi revealed that they had stopped using neonicotinoids in October 2016, a few months after Goulson’s analyses took place. Neither B & Q nor Aldi  addressed the other chemicals found in the Sussex analysis.

The Horticultural Trades Association issued a statement that I believe is both silly and cynical, basically rubbishing Goulson’s analysis. You can read Dave Goulson’s rebuttal here.
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So, it really is true that when we buy plants to help bees in our gardens from garden centres, we may be unwittingly exposing the bees to harmful chemicals, despite the “bee-friendly” labels. Also, any insect that nips into a garden centre for a feed, especially early in the season when garden centres have an abundance of flowers, may be getting a hit of insecticide at the same time.

So, what do we do if we want to have a bee-friendly garden?

Dave Goulson recommends the following course of action: if you must buy plants, buy from an organic garden centre or, failing that, go to B & Q or Aldi. Better still, grow from seed or swap plants with friends and neighbours.
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One point that has not been discussed so far concerns potential effects on humans of these pesticides found in garden centre plants. Earlier this year, I bought some fruit bushes from the garden centre and these now have a nice crop of plump berries. If these plants have been treated with pesticides, and of course I don’t know if they have, then the fruit will presumably also contain these pesticides. This possibility makes me very angry. I grow fruit in our garden so that we can eat chemical free, fresh, good quality produce. I don’t want to ingest insecticides and fungicides with poorly defined toxic effects on humans.

The featured image shows a hairy-footed fower bee feeding from plants in a lane adjacent to the garden centre

The Seafront Gardens in Lyme Regis

Mature trees, richly planted borders, gently curving paths, a place to look and a space to think – the Seafront Gardens in Lyme Regis provide both an oasis of calm for humans and a safe haven for wildlife.  Not only that, some of the town’s best views may be savoured from this green space.  Looking ahead, the Cobb can be seen stretching its protective, rocky arm around the harbour whereas, across Lyme Bay, the west Dorset coast rises and falls like a gigantic wave sweeping eastwards over Stonebarrow and Golden Cap reaching, on a clear day, that louring sea monster that is the Isle of Portland. 

West Dorset coast viewed from the woodland boardwalk
West Dorset coast viewed from the woodland boardwalk; the distinctive shape of Golden Cap is framed by the trees

 

History of the Seafront Gardens

Just over a century ago, the Langmoor Gardens were opened to the public on the slopes above Marine Parade in Lyme Regis.  The land was bought through a bequest to the town from Joseph Moly of Langmoor Manor, Charmouth and the gardens were named in honour of the donation.  The slopes were known to be unstable and concrete buttresses had been built to prevent movement.  Despite this, there were periodic slippages of mud on to Marine Parade and throughout the 20th century the Gardens continued to move causing distortion to paths and eventually rendering the lower part of the gardens unusable.  In 1962, land to the west of these gardens suffered a catastrophic landslip following a misguided attempt at development and several houses were destroyed.  This land was eventually taken over by the town becoming the Lister Gardens, named after Lord Lister of Lyme Regis, pioneer of antiseptic surgery.  The Langmoor and Lister Gardens now form one large continuous public space above Marine Parade.

Rebuilding the Seafront Gardens

The Lyme Regis Environmental Improvements carried out early in the 21st century provided an opportunity to deal with the unstable geology of the Gardens.  Between 2005 and 2007, major civil engineering works were carried out to stabilise the Langmoor and Lister Gardens which were completely remodelled.  The new design included many planted areas and grassy spaces, gently curving paths that seem to reflect the convexity of the Cobb, and a woodland boardwalk with outstanding views across the harbour and bay.  Facilities for mini-golf, putting and table tennis were also built.

Supporting wildlife was deemed important so before work started, bat nesting sites were sealed to prevent them returning, 2000 slow-worms were caught and rehoused and a 15cm barrier erected to prevent others entering.  The gardens were replanted with salt tolerant, sub-tropical and rare plants as well as native species, taking account of the needs of bats, birds and insects.  Now, a decade later, the Gardens have a mature look and nesting boxes for birds and bats are flourishing.  Visitors love the open space and the new design was recognised with an important national award.

The Seafront Gardens in winter

Mid-winter is typically a low time when weather is poor, plants are dormant and wildlife scarce but when I visited the Gardens in December and January I found surprising activity.  Flowering cherry trees at the rear of the Gardens were covered in frothy pink flowers and close by, two fragrant shrubs were also showing well: winter honeysuckle with its white trumpet flowers filled with yellow-tipped stamens; sweet box, covered with tiny white starburst flowers, dark green fleshy leaves and shiny black berries.  As I was admiring the flowers, several bumblebees flew past, stopping briefly to feed from the cherry blossom.

On the terraced borders above Marine Parade, extensive banks of rosemary were covered in mauvish-purple flowers.  These were proving very popular with bumblebees and even in mid-winter, I saw queens and workers foraging busily, collecting sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen from the flowers.  The queens were large and furry with two prominent buff/yellow stripes and a grey or pale brown tail, the workers similar but smaller and more brightly coloured.   These are buff-tailed bumblebees and their relationship with the flowers is far from one-sided.  The flowers consist of two petals enclosing pollen-loaded anthers that beckon seductively at passing insects.  The lower petals contain darker markings highly visible to bees helping to draw them in. Each bee that feeds collects additionally a dusting of pollen from the overhanging anthers which they transfer to the next flower they visit ensuring cross fertilisation.

But shouldn’t bumblebees be hibernating at this time of year?  That’s what all the books say, but the presence of worker bumblebees collecting pollen suggests that somewhere in the Gardens or nearby there are active nests.  Winter active colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees have also been described in South Devon and in Cornwall as well as other locations in the southern half of the UK.  It isn’t clear why this is happening but perhaps these bees are taking advantage of the British penchant for planting winter-flowering plants and shrubs.  The Langmoor and Lister Gardens with their huge banks of flowering rosemary provide this winter forage for the west Dorset bumblebees.

Support your local bumblebees and they will support you.

Although buff-tailed bumblebees seem to be doing well in west Dorset, many other species of bumblebee in the UK have declined over the past 50 years.  This is bad news because these insects are important pollinators of fruit trees, vegetables and flowers.  The decline is largely a result of the agricultural intensification that has changed the look of our countryside leading to the loss of bee habitat, loss of wild flower forage and the use of pesticides.

We can’t reverse this intensification, but we can all help bumblebees by planting flowers in our gardens and by never using insecticides.  It’s important to choose a range of flowers that provide food for bees throughout the season:  the University of Sussex has a useful guide to bee-friendly flowers.   If we provide flowers, the bumblebees and other kinds of bee will return the compliment, visiting our gardens, pollinating our fruits and vegetables and improving their quantity and quality.

When I returned to the Gardens in early April, I found the rosemary still flowering profusely, showing what an important source of insect food it is.  Other plants were also starting to contribute to the forage, and spring insect species were emerging such as the beautiful early bumblebee and red-tailed bumblebee and the grey-patched mining bee.

Lyme Regis Gardens and west Dorset coastline
Seafront Gardens

 

Lyme Regis Gardens
Seafront Gardens

 

Lyme Regis ammonite lamppost and seagull
One of the Lyme Regis ammonite lamposts with “friend”

 

Buff-tailed bumblebee on rosemary
Buff-tailed bumblebee worker feeding from rosemary, photographed on December 26th 2016

 

Andrena nitida
Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida) photographed on April 2nd 2017 in the seafront gardens.

 

This article appeared in the May 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Liquid Energy – ivy bees by the sea in South Devon

Here is an account of a visit I made to Paignton about eight weeks ago, seaching for ivy bees.

Goodrington Sands
Goodrington Sands viewed from Roundham Head

 

Ice cream and chips, not together of course, but that’s what people are eating. The sun is shining, the sea an intense blue, the air gently warm and sun loungers have been dragged unexpectedly out of pastel-coloured beach huts. Couples stroll along the promenade arm in arm and one or two children shriek with delight as they run in and out of the waves washing over the long sandy beach. This is Goodrington Sands near Paignton in south Devon and it’s the end of September.

At one end of the beach, the ground rises steeply to Roundham Head, a cliff-lined, grass-topped promontory that interrupts the otherwise smooth sweep of Torbay. The south-facing side of the headland is home to the Cliff Gardens with its terraced flower beds, zigzag paths and mild microclimate supporting many tender sub-tropical plants. A colony of winter bumblebees also flourishes here, nurtured by the almost year round supply of pollen and nectar.

The flat, grassy surface of the promontory eventually gives way to residential streets but before suburbia takes over completely, there is a transitional region, a mosaic of green rectangular spaces and tall, red-brick walls. Nowadays, the area is popular with dog walkers but, in one wall, there is an intriguing, curved-top gateway, hinting at older usages. These walls, now mostly covered with ivy, are the remnants of the kitchen gardens of a nearby Victorian villa.

About a year ago, I discovered these old walls covered in full-flowering ivy with many ivy bees taking advantage of their preferred food. The ivy bee (Colletes hederae) is the last solitary bee to emerge each year and is very distinctive with its yellow and black-striped abdomen and chestnut-haired thorax. I looked for the nest area but, although I found a few small nest aggregations, I was unable to find anywhere large enough to support the number of bees I had seen.

Today, I park in a street bordering the old kitchen garden. Ivy cascades over the wall by the car, its many pale green flower heads scenting the air with their sickly-sweet smell. Insects move about the ivy constantly, flying to and fro, ignoring me to the extent that we sometimes collide. I see hoverflies, wasps, one or two bumblebees and honey bees, and hundreds of ivy bees. The male ivy bees fly about edgily, sometimes stopping to feed, sometimes pausing on a leaf to preen and rest. The females, noticeably larger than the males, carry chunks of chrome yellow pollen on their back legs and abdominal hairs but continue feeding. Sometimes a hopeful male disturbs them, attempting to mate, but they show no interest in their new suitors. Movement is constant, there is an insistent low buzz and this liquid energy steps up in the sunshine. The same liquid energy abounds wherever the ivy is in flower on these old walls. There is a lot of ivy here and that means many ivy bees.

But where are the nests? Last year I found one small nest area in some exposed red soil along the cliff-side path descending from Roundham Head to Goodrington so that’s where I begin today. Sure enough there are still holes in the cliff face together with crumbly soil suggesting active nests. Around these holes there are hundreds of ivy bee males performing what my friend Susan Taylor has christened the “sun dance”. They fly about incessantly, swinging from side to side, occasionally stopping to look into one of the holes but emerging unsuccessfully. It’s an impressive sight along a two metre stretch but what is lacking are any females and anyway it doesn’t feel like a big enough area to account for all the bees on the ivy so I decide to walk down to Goodrington to look at the sea.

As I stand by the beach, I see someone walking down another steep path from Roundham Head. I hadn’t noticed this paved path before: it runs parallel to the cliff-side path but about three metres inland and is partly hidden behind a low hedge. I decide to take a look. The path is bordered on one side by a low bank covered in short, rough grass and hundreds of ivy bee males fly about, skimming the surface, “sun dancing”. When I get closer, I see that the red soil in the bank is peppered with many holes and crumbly soil is spilling out showing that the bank contains active nests.

The males here seem particularly edgy, they constantly investigate the burrows, presumably looking for females and sometimes they even try to mate with one another, not a clever move. On several occasions I notice the males suddenly congregating to form a rough ball. Other males soon join the melee rather like rugby players in a ruck. Somewhere in the middle there must be a female who has just emerged from one of the burrows. The males are trying frantically to mate with her but only one will be successful and I see one copulating couple fly off together, still attached.

There is also a slow but steady stream of females returning to the nest area loaded with yellow pollen. They have come to deposit food in their burrow for their larvae, but finding their nest looks a bit hit and miss. Some approach the area and fly around for a short time before landing and making their way on foot. Others seem to crash land and then pull themselves together after a short rest. The males show no interest in these already-mated females.

The aggregation covers an area about ten metres by half a metre and there must be hundreds of nests. This is a large, very active, nest site and looks big enough to support a huge number of ivy bees. I can’t say whether there are other nest aggregations in the area but this one goes some way to explaining the large number of ivy bees seen at Roundham Head.

I am completely absorbed watching these creatures go about their lives; it’s like being allowed through a door into another world. But then I look up and see, no more than 20 metres below me, an ice cream kiosk with people enjoying their Devon Farmhouse ice cream. Dogs dash along the hard sand splashing in the water. A steam train struggles up the bank hauling vintage chocolate and cream coaches towards Kingswear.

Roundham Court
One of the old walls and the Victorian Villa overlooking Torbay.

 

Red brick wall plus archway
An intriguing, curved-top gateway covered with ivy.

 

Male ivy bee
A male ivy bee

 

Red soil cliff bank Paignton
Some of the “sun dancing” males by the cliff nests. Some are flying, some are investigating the holes.

 

Soil bank above Goodrington
The grassy bank by the path descending from Roundham Head to Goodrington, with the ice cream kiosk by the beach.

 

Red soil in bank
Crumbly red soil and nests in the grassy bank

 

Mating ball of ivy bees
Male ivy bees forming a mating ball, somewhere in the middle is a female.

 

Mating pair ivy bees
Ivy bee mating pair

 

Female returning to nest
Female ivy bee returning to her nest loaded with pollen

An autumn sunshine walk in South Devon – Salcombe to Gara Rock

East Portlemouth Ferry
The ferry arrives at East Portlemouth from Salcombe

 

Steep steps descend from a narrow passageway off Salcombe’s Fore Street.   At water level there is a stone jetty, the Ferry Pier, and above and to the right the Ferry Inn enjoys almost perfect views across the estuary.   A clinker-built motor boat, with the skipper standing up, is already making its way across the water to pick up the few waiting passengers.  Once we are all safely on board, he backs out and turns before heading across the estuary to East Portlemouth; it’s a calm day so this is an easy crossing.   The view from the boat always impresses me, low in the water, a cormorant’s perspective.  Looking towards the mouth of the estuary, the sea is a dark blue but, in the light breeze, ripples caught in the low sunshine cast a dancing light across the water.

The journey takes only a few minutes but it’s transformative.   Salcombe is all cafes and posh clothing shops but across the water we find peaceful long beaches with fine sand.  The tide is very low so we follow the strandline, leaving a record of our footsteps in the soft sand.  Beachside houses cast long shadows in the low sunshine but, where the sun reaches the beach, it creates pale blues and greens in the seawater, shallow over golden sand, and I imagine the Mediterranean.

Eventually, we reach Mill Bay, a football pitch-sized expanse of undulating, pale sand stretching from the sea to the coast road.  Very popular for family holidays in summer, today it is all but deserted.  On one side of the beach, the low tide has exposed a long, green, seaweed-covered slipway with prominent metal rails and stone teeth.  This was built in 1943 by the US navy to support landing craft during the Normandy landings.  It’s hard to imagine the beaches and the estuary filled with ships awaiting the assault on occupied France.

The rear of the beach is fringed with sand dunes bound together with scrubby grass.  One exposed vertical face is peppered with holes, burrows for insects, and several black and yellow striped wasps are moving about the nest area in a proprietorial manner.  Longer and sleeker than the better known common wasp, these are field digger wasps, solitary insects that dig tunnels in the sand and provision them with dead flies as food for their larvae.  A large buff-tailed bumblebee queen is scrabbling in the sand wall as if she is trying to burrow.  She looks in good condition but behaves as if something is wrong.

The path leaves the beach to head gently upwards through coastal woodland in the direction of the estuary mouth.  The autumn leaf-strewn track meanders through the woods with tantalising views of beaches below.  In today’s light, the colours of the sand and water glimpsed through the trees look more southern European than south Devon.  We emerge from woodland cover into brilliant sunshine and spectacular but slightly hazy views across the mouth of the estuary to the vast green headland of Bolt Head and the sandy beach at South Sands with its boutique hotels.  A red, yellow and blue boat passes by purposefully; it may look like a toy, but it is the Ferry that links South Sands with Salcombe town.

The path turns gradually eastwards seemingly cut into the hillside so that we walk with the land falling away to the sea below us and, on the landward side, rising steeply to rocky outcrops.  There is much bracken in evidence, already showing the effects of autumn; bright sparks of yellow gorse shoot upwards.  We pass a single spike of mullein, a few yellow toadflax and clumps of sheep’s bit with their unruly mops of blue petals.  Several stonechats entertain us, fluttering up and down, tail flicking, chatting.

The sea is calm today. From this vantage point, it is a deep blue but where it meets the rocky coastline, the surface shatters into bright fragments in the sunshine.  I scan the coastal waters for seals but get a surprise when I see what looks like a person standing on a rock just above the sea.  A closer look reveals a large cormorant, sunning itself.   Further away, sailing boats take advantage of the good weather and a fishing boat moors close enough for us to read its name through our binoculars.

Eventually, ahead of us we see a curious, white-painted, cylindrical hut, topped with a thatched roof and perched high above the path upon one of the rocky outcrops.  Far below the hut is a secluded stretch of sandy beach and in the distance lies another headland, Gammon Head.  The thatched hut is the former coastguard lookout at Gara Rock and we leave the coast path to head up to investigate.   Behind the lookout there is a new resort/hotel/apartment complex with people sitting in the sunshine enjoying a drink.  A row of coastguard cottages was built here in the 19th century and converted into a popular hotel early in the 20th century.  Laurence Olivier, John Betjeman and Margaret Rutherford are said to have stayed here, not necessarily at the same time.  The old building was knocked down in the last ten years and rebuilt as the new complex.

The old coastguard lookout has glorious views across the sea and coast and it is surrounded by huge banks of ivy.  Much of the ivy is in full flower, filling the air with its distinctive sickly-sweet smell.  Perhaps it is something to do with the light today but the flower heads on these clumps of ivy appear as almost perfect globes.  Multiple pale green lollipops extend from the centre of each flower head in perfect symmetry, like pins in a pin cushion.  Each lollipop is decorated with a frieze of pale yellow-headed stamens, creating, from a distance, a sunny halo around the green globe.  The ivy flowers attract many insects including more field digger wasps but it is the ivy bees that I am looking for and I am not disappointed.  Many of the elegant yellow and black striped-females move quickly about the flowers together with a few hopeful males.  The females are carrying large amounts of bright yellow pollen but still feeding.

We drag ourselves away from this extraordinary spot and head back down the inland valley to Mill Bay following an ancient, slightly sunken green lane with farmland either side.  This is a green tunnel with muted light, formed by overhanging trees including a long stretch of very old lime trees with dark, gnarled bark and multiple branching trunks.  When we reach Mill Bay, we take the coast road back to the jetty.  Many of the houses here are closed up; more than 40% of the houses in the Salcombe area are second homes.  The chimney of one of these homes is swarming with bees, probably honeybees.  The owner will be in for a shock when they next visit!

For a map and further information on this walk click here.

 

Mill Bay
Mill Bay

 

US Navy slipway, Mill Bay
The old US Navy slipway

 

 

Field Digger wasp
Field digger wasp (Mellinus arvensis)

 

South Sands Ferry
South Sands Ferry

 

Coast Path
The coast path and view across to Bolt Head

 

Sheep's Bit
Sheep’s Bit

 

Coastguard lookout Gara Rock
Coastguard lookout at Gara Rock

 

Inspecting the ivy
Inspecting the ivy at Gara Rock

 

Ivy with ivy bee
Female ivy bee (Colletes hederae) with ivy

 

View from Gara Rock lookout
View from the lookout

 

 

Ancient limes
Ancient Lime Trees

 

Bees in the chimney
Bees in the chimney