When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold which is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
(from Little Gidding, the last of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets)
We had a lot of grey, wet weather towards the end of last year, and very little sunshine. A few days before Christmas, however, the forecast predicted a bright, dry and relatively mild day, so I took the opportunity to get over to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what flowers and wildlife might be about. It’s a journey of about ten miles and that morning I took the bus, enjoying the long views across the surrounding countryside. Paignton is a seaside holiday resort but it looked distinctly “out of season” when I arrived, despite the sunshine and blue sky. A few people were walking along the promenade; they were well wrapped up even though it wasn’t a cold day. The little harbour was quiet; small boats bobbed on the water protected by the old stone walls and a gang of turnstones skittered like mice at the water’s edge. Molly Malones food shack was closed for the winter and the booths normally touting fishing excursions were empty.
I walked up suburban streets to get on to the northern side of Roundham Head, the flat-topped, cliff-lined, grassy promontory that protrudes into the waters of Torbay. A line of tall pine trees straddles the first part of the headland and the low sun rendered these as silhouettes casting long shadows across the grass. The path around the promontory follows the cliff edge with views to the sea below and a seal teased me by briefly raising its shiny black head above the water. Eventually I came to southern side of the Head and the gardens that were built in the 1930s partly to stabilise the cliffs. Steep zig zag paths track up and down between flower beds planted with exotic species that, between them, provide colour throughout the year. There are benches should you wish to rest or enjoy the views over Torbay and the shelter, the proximity of the sea and the south facing aspect of the gardens generate a mild microclimate.
It was the winter solstice that day, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, the day when darkness begins to give way to light. From the southern edge of Roundham Head, above the gardens, I could see the sun hanging very low in the pale wintery-blue sky casting its light across the beach at Goodrington Sands creating a silvery mirror on the water. Even though this was midwinter, there were plenty of flowers around me in the gardens and the low sunshine created surprising effects. Its intense golden light gave a softness to the air and enhanced flower colours to an almost psychedelic extent. Banks of bergenia acquired a pink brightness worthy of late 1960s San Francisco and the scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina) that flourishes all over the gardens glowed with a lemon-yellow light.
I paused by a clump of bergenia, enjoying the warmth of this sheltered spot. A small bumblebee, ovoid and furry with black, white and yellow stripes, soon appeared, moving among the bright pink flowers looking for food. Quickly tiring of the bergenia, it flew to one of the white funnel-shaped flowers in a large clump of shrubby bindweed (Convolvulus cneorum), burying its head in the base of the bloom where it stayed, drinking nectar. Based on size and appearance this was probably a buff-tailed bumblebee worker. A drone fly also took advantage of these flowers resting near the mass of golden yellow stamens. Soon after, I got a surprise when a butterfly landed briefly on the bergenia before flying off. It circled for a while before settling on a wall to bask in the sunshine showing me that it was a painted lady, with its characteristic wing coloration of orange/buff, black and white. An insistent buzz announced the arrival of a large bumblebee, black with orange/buff coloured bands. This was a queen buff-tailed bumblebee and she proceeded to feed from the bergenia. I had two more sightings of large furry queens on these pink flowers.
Another plant that flourishes here is rosemary and extensive curtains of the herb cascade from several borders, their slate blue flowers glinting in the sunshine like diamond chips. Rosemary is in flower here for several months across winter providing pollen and nectar for insects and I saw several buff-tailed bumblebee workers moving quickly about the flowers, their pollen baskets well loaded. They were very jumpy and flew off when I got too close. For a short time, they were joined by another queen carrying a small amount of grey pollen, also a basking, but rather worn, red admiral butterfly with its bright red and white patterns on a black background.
By mid-afternoon, cloud began to bubble up to the south, and eventually a slab of grey cloud obscured the sun. The temperature dropped noticeably, the wind got up and the bees went off to shelter, bringing observations to a close. I made my way back to the bus station pondering what I had seen.
It still surprises me to see butterflies in the winter. I have seen them here before in December and January but in my mind these brightly coloured insects signify summer. Although most red admirals are thought to migrate to the UK from North Africa and continental Europe, a few are thought to be resident now that mild winters are becoming more common. These residents can be seen flying and feeding on gentle winter days. The painted lady also migrates into the UK but is thought to be unable to survive our winters, so the one I encountered is unlikely to see our spring.
What about the bees, aren’t they supposed to be in hibernation at this time of year? Well yes, most bees are, but based on my observations of buff-tailed workers collecting pollen in December, there must be winter active colonies at Roundham Head. I first saw worker bumblebees here in January about five years ago and since then I have seen them at a similar time each year, so this is a well-established phenomenon. There are presumably queens in their nests laying eggs supported by these workers. These queens would have been produced in the previous October to mate with males at emergence. Last year I did see male buff-tails here in December so perhaps these were survivors of the late autumn emergence.
There is abundant evidence now from a variety of sources that colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees are active in the winter across the southern part of the UK. Two factors seem to be important: winter weather should not be too harsh and there should be plenty of flowers to support the colonies.