By the end of October, I had begun to feel that autumn was running away from me. Then came the announcement that a second lockdown would be imposed. So, one afternoon at the beginning of November, I decided I needed to get outside and went to Roundham Head in Paignton, one of my favourite nearby nature haunts. Roundham Head sits roughly in the centre of the semi-circular arc of Torbay and from the southern side of the promontory there are fine long views around to Brixham with its harbour, small boats and breakwater.
My main reason for visiting, though, was the public garden built on the southern slopes of the headland. Here, zig zag paths meander up and down between borders stocked with tender and unusual plants many originating in warmer climates but thriving here in the mild maritime conditions of Torbay. Many of these plants continue to flower here in autumn and winter.
I started at the top of the public garden looking south west with the low sun creating a dazzling mirror across the wet, low-tide sand at Goodrington where dogs and their owners rushed back and forth. There was rain about, though, and across the bay Brixham was veiled in a grey mist, its landmark lighthouse barely visible. Fortunately for my afternoon, the storm gradually moved away, and the cloud over Paignton evaporated leaving blue sky and sunshine but with a strong blustery wind.
I wandered about the gardens where the low sun was casting long shadows from the trees and shrubs, draining them of colour, leaving dark silhouettes. The agapanthus had lost their blue flowers, replacing them with mop heads of chunky green seed capsules, like so many large lozenges. A fuchsia hedge, covered in blossom last time I visited was now nearly devoid of flowers but, in compensation, yellowish-brown clumps of fungi grew beneath. Some plants were still in bloom, though, and I was surprised to find several large clusters of creamy coloured lantern-shaped flowers with pinkish sepals, hanging like ornate chandeliers above thick clumps of spiky strap-shaped leaves. These are yucca gloriosa, plants originating in the southern US although they seem to be very happy here.
Spread about the upper, sunnier parts of the garden, I also found several large banks of rosemary. The plant grows prolifically here, covering long stretches of wall where it hangs like a pale blue curtain. It begins to flower in late summer and continues through the winter providing important forage for insects; many of its locations here are also sheltered from the wind. Despite recent heavy rain, the rosemary was covered in small, spiky, silvery-blue flowers and this is where I began to see pollinators. A hoverfly, probably Eristalis tenax, the world’s most widespread hoverfly, was feeding and I managed a few photos despite its jumpiness. Then I saw the first of several small bumblebees each with a furry, pale chestnut thorax and stripy abdomen. They were nectaring from the rosemary, moving purposefully from flower to flower, taking away a dusting of pollen from the overarching stamens as they fed. These were common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) and as well as feeding they occasionally basked on the stones of the wall in the sunshine. Sometimes, two or more were present on the same patch of rosemary and there was a little joshing between the insects.
I took as many photos as the carder bees would allow in the hope of being able to see their back legs as these are a key to establishing the gender. Where I was able to see the back legs, the insects were all males and Steven Falk kindly helped confirm my identification. These males must be late survivors from the second brood. The mated females will have settled down to hibernate and the males are left to live out their short lives.
I did see one smallish buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) collecting pollen, a worker which most likely comes from one of the winter active colonies that live in these gardens. I was surprised to see so few but perhaps the weather had put them off or there were other flowers available in the many nearby private gardens. The surviving male common carder bees have no nest to return to for shelter which may be why they were still foraging in this threateningly damp weather.
By now, another storm had bubbled up from the south west but this time it was closer and a fine grey haze hung over the beach and countryside at Broadsands just along from Goodrington. The blustery wind chased the autumn leaves about and hurled a few large drops of rain at me, stinging my face. The sea took on a sinister greenish blue tone and a kestrel appeared, hovering in the wind above the gardens, eventually landing on the steep cliff face. I decided to get back to the car before the rain set in properly.
Even before the recent storms there were signs of the changing season. Flushes of red berries had begun to appear in roadside hedges and subtle colour changes were permeating leaf canopies. One sign for me, though, that always heralds the arrival of autumn is the emergence of the ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last species of solitary bee to appear in this country. It’s the time of year when I stand in front of clumps of flowering ivy gazing at these insects feasting on this final flush of food. So, here are two stories about my recent experiences with the ivy bees.
The first concerns a visit I made to Roundham Head, Paignton, south Devon in the second week of September:
Hidden away on one side of a residential street on Roundham Head is a curious area of rough grass and trees divided into rectangular spaces by old stone walls and loved nowadays by dog walkers. This was once the kitchen garden of a nearby Victorian villa, now a care home, set in a commanding position on the edge of the promontory overlooking Torbay. The kitchen garden is surplus to requirements but the land has not been developed and the old walls have been commandeered by ivy. At this time of year, this normally dark green and slightly sinister climber adopts a new persona covering itself with lime green globe flower heads creating a multi-sensory experience for anyone prepared to look.
I approach one of the old stone walls bathed in sunshine, and gradually I become aware of the sickly-sweet perfume emanating from the ivy flowers to pervade the surrounding air. This perfume attracts huge numbers of insects which move about the ivy flowers in all directions at high speed, occasionally pausing on a flower to sample the extraordinary, late-season canteen of pollen and nectar. This profusion of insect life means that a clearly audible buzz surrounds the ivy.
Today, I see honeybees, hoverflies, a speckled wood butterfly and a buff tailed bumblebee together with many, many ivy bees. These insects must have emerged very recently and with their pale chestnut-haired thorax and yellow and black-hooped abdomen they look very fresh. The slimmer, slighter males (about two thirds the size of a honeybee) outnumber the chunkier females who collect lumps of bright yellow pollen on their back legs. The pulsating movement of so many insects implies a huge kinetic energy fuelled by the sugary nectar provided by the ivy flowers.
Wherever there is ivy and sunshine there are ivy bees on the old walls and the same is true when I walk through the nearby public gardens built on the cliffs overlooking Goodrington Sands. The gentle microenvironment offered by this seaside garden supports succulents, palms and other tender plants and today the agapanthus are providing flashes of a bright steely blue. Ivy has also insinuated its way into the gardens growing along old walls and railings overlooking the sea.
At one end of the gardens is a partly concealed path leading downwards to the beach below and along one side of the path I find a long grassy bank. The grass has not been cut this summer, a result of the pandemic, but beneath the grass cover I can see bare red soil with open holes and many more male ivy bees. This is the main nest site for the ivy bees at Roundham Head. The males are even more excited here, dancing above the grass, flying backwards and forwards rapidly and from side to side in a tick tock movement. They occasionally explore the holes but emerge disappointed and fly off. Sometimes there is a little joshing between the males who seem overexcited but they are waiting for females to emerge so that they can mate.
Today, though, I don’t witness any matings but I do see a few females returning to the nest area carrying bright yellow pollen so some couplings have occurred. These mated females enter the nest holes and leave pollen as food for their larvae. It does feel, however, as though the main emergence of female ivy bees has not yet occurred here. The males will go on waiting by the nest site for that chance to mate, visiting the ivy occasionally for a top up of sugary nectar.
My second story comes from a visit we made to West Sussex in the third week of September to deliver our daughter to University. We had a few days walking in the county including this visit to the coast:
Autumn had arrived with a vengeance in West Sussex, the temperature had dropped by nearly ten degrees overnight and there were heavy squally showers at West Wittering where we had planned to walk. Rain fell as we made our way along quiet lanes between houses to access the track along the water’s edge leading to East Head a huge sand spit projecting into Chichester Harbour. Long views across the flat watery surroundings made approaching storms easy to spot adding an elemental feel to the day. East Head is coated in marram grass which must help to stabilise its structure but, as we walked along the beach, there were signs of erosion at the sides of the spit and much of it is cordoned off to prevent further damage. Near the tip, it was possible to look at plants growing away from the edge such as sea holly, its prickly blue flowers faded to grey, sea rocket with its pale violet flowers and sea spurge its grey green leaf-covered stems tipped with greenish yellow complex flowers.
Behind East Head is a lagoon with salt marshes and the path along this side eventually curves round to meet shingle beaches on the edge of the harbour. Oaks grew along the edge and a few generous clumps of ivy overhung the beach. Much was in flower and here I saw the first ivy bees of the day, all males with clear yellow and black hoops moving backwards and forwards with high speed despite the lack of sun.
This kind of watery environment with extensive salt marshes should also favour the close relative of the ivy bee, the rare Colletes halophilus which Steven Falk refers to as the sea aster bee owing to its preference for the flower. I looked around for sea aster and found some, rather pale and faded but I saw no insects on the flowers. Then we came to a grassy open area by the side of the water. Large stands of gorse were growing by the edge and one of these was smothered by Russian vine, an invasive scrambling climber with many racemes of small white flowers. I have seen this used by ivy bees in Devon, even when flowering ivy is abundant and the same was true here, or so I thought. Insects that looked like ivy bee males were moving about the flowers rapidly, barely resting to feed but I managed a few photos as it was otherwise difficult to see the details of the insects. In the photos, to my surprise, all of the bees I captured on camera had black and white hoops.
The sea aster bee looks very similar to the ivy bee only its hoops are white compared to the ivy bee’s yellow hoops. So, could I have seen the rare sea aster bee here? The environment is certainly right for the insect and it has been recorded at this site before but it is impossible to draw a firm conclusion based on colouration. Male ivy bees can fade, losing their yellow colour and microscopic analysis of the mouth parts is required to distinguish males of the two species unequivocally but that is beyond my capability.
Females are easier to distinguish from photographs as there are yellow furry patches, like epaulettes, at the top of the abdomen of the ivy bee that are lacking in the sea aster bee. You can see these furry patches in the picture of the ivy bee at the end of this post. Unfortunately, I saw no females that day but it provides a good reason to return to this fascinating place with its mosaic of environments.
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.
Here is an account of a visit I made to Paignton about eight weeks ago, seaching for ivy bees.
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.
As I drove back from Paignton, the low sun cast long shadows across the sensuous folds of the South Hams hills. But the sunshine was deceptive; the temperature outside was 7oC and in the distance, there stood Dartmoor sprinkled liberally with snow like icing sugar on a cake. It was our first taste of winter and, inspired by Mark Cocker’s recent Guardian Country Diary on “The meaning of a bumblebee”, I had been to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what insects were about on this cold day.
There were pockets of warmth in sheltered corners of the Roundham Head Gardens but generally it felt cold in the wind and by the time I got back to the car my hands were numb. Despite the conditions, there were plenty of flowers about: yellow scorpion vetch in profusion, hanging curtains of rosemary with a few grey-blue flowers, exotic pink and white grevillea, purple spikes of hebe and the pink cup-shaped flowers of bergenia.
What about the insects? I saw a few large black flies and one hopeful hoverfly but my biggest surprise was two smart looking painted lady butterflies enjoying the sunshine. Seeing bumblebees required patience but eventually I was rewarded by the appearance of a few buff-tailed bumblebee workers filling their pollen baskets by probing the rosemary, grevillea and bergenia. I also saw one plump and furry buff-tailed queen meticulously working the bergenia flowers before she flew off.
Mark Cocker attributes his surprise sighting of a bumblebee in Norfolk on January 1st to anthropogenic global warming and anomalous weather linked to El Nino but there must also be suitable forage for the bumblebees if they are to be active in winter and survive. The British penchant for gardening and for planting winter-flowering shrubs seems to supply this forage.
I visited Roundham Head Gardens on January 15th 2016
Not far from the quaint, walled harbour at Paignton in South Devon lies Roundham Head, a rocky headland that protrudes nose-like in to the sea. The northern part of the Head is a grassy plateau and views from here across the vast sweep of Torbay can be spectacular. Today, rust-red cliffs glow and the steel-blue sea sparkles; even the slew of white buildings scarring the Torquay hills acquires some dignity in this bright, late autumn light.
On the southern edge of the headland are the Cliff Gardens and promenade, built in the 1930s to protect the crumbly rock against sea erosion. Paved paths zigzag up and down the steep slopes between flower beds and the gentle microclimate allows many exotic plants to flourish, providing a haven for wildlife. Dotted around the Gardens are the distinctive Torbay palms and the stiff breeze rattles their leaves like an avuncular uncle ruffling the hair of his favourite nephew.
I know it is autumn but as I walk up and down the zigzag paths it seems that the plants are less sure about the season. Yes, there are swathes of cobwebby old man’s beard, mature olive-green ivy berries with their rich brown caps and the agapanthus has exchanged mauve flowers for massive green seed heads. But there are also gaudy splashes of lemon yellow scorpion vetch, hanging curtains of rosemary with their sparkling blue flowers, clumps of shrubby bindweed covered with their yellow-throated white trumpets and dense sprays of pink bergenia.
With all these flowers about and a sunny, mild day, I expect to see wildlife. Eventually my patience is rewarded by the buzzy arrival of a huge furry bumblebee queen. Despite her size she moves deftly among the plants, systematically probing the rosemary and bergenia flowers. She appears to be in very good condition, and, in the sunshine, her golden yellow stripes glow and her tail is a warm tan colour, so she must be a buff tailed (B. terrestris). Later I see several worker bumblebees collecting pollen from the rosemary so there are active nests nearby, even in mid November. It doesn’t surprise me any longer to find these bumblebees at Roundham Head; I have seen them even in January and February and I am beginning to think that they are active throughout the year. What did surprise me was to find two yellow and black wasps mating on a fleshy green bergenia leaf. They start end to end, lying back on the leaf, but eventually the larger female mounts the male. When they are finished the fertilised queen will find somewhere to pass the winter, the male will die, his job done.
From the top of the Cliff Gardens there are good views down and across Goodrington Sands. This popular holiday beach is quiet today, its cafes and beach huts closed for the winter. The sea here is more battleship grey than steely blue but I also notice tinges of yellow and green where the underlying sand shows through shallow water. The strong offshore wind creates ripple patterns on the sea and lifts crests of fine spray from the incoming waves.
Once the tide falls back, dog walkers and their canine friends appear on the beach in the sunshine. The still-wet sand is a mirror to the sun and the dogs and walkers become dark silhouettes. Elsewhere on the beach, curious low piles of sand appear in apparently random patterns, the work of local bait diggers.
It was a sunny Sunday morning in January last year and we were walking through public gardens at Roundham Head in Paignton, South Devon. Passing a bank of flowering rosemary, we spotted a bumblebee. Surprising? Well yes, bumblebees are supposed to be hibernating in January, aren’t they?
Fast forward 12 months to January 2015 and we are passing through these same gardens. As we enjoy the sunshine we notice another bumblebee, feeding on a very smart looking purple Hebe. This time we take a few photos before the insect flies off and we confirm that it’s a worker bumblebee with loaded pollen baskets.
I was very intrigued by these observations and felt compelled to find out more, but first I need to tell you about the gardens as they are a bit special.
The popular seaside holiday resort of Paignton is enclosed by urban sprawl and Roundham Head is a surprising botanical oasis in this part of South Devon. To the North of the headland is Paignton harbour with its many tempting summer treats (wildlife and angling cruises, Molly Malone’s seafood stall and so on), all sadly closed at this time of year. To the South is Goodrington Sands, fine for a pleasant summer’s dip but, in winter, a dog and doggy walker’s paradise. The headland itself is surrounded by steep red cliffs and is grass-topped with a fine stand of pine trees offering Mediterranean views across the Bay to Torquay.
The cliffs on the southern side are where we find the Cliff Gardens (sometimes called Paradise Gardens). A maze of flower beds and zigzag paths ascend and descend the cliffs and there is an occasional secluded seat for those who wish to contemplate the sea or simply rest. The Gardens themselves seem to enjoy a very mild microclimate. Many of the borders are protected from the wind and for much of the day, the sun, when it is out, warms the soil. The Gardens are home to tender, sub-tropical plants and there are flowers throughout the year. The predominant colour in January is yellow from the scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina, a native of the Mediterranean ) which thrives here.
My visits to the Cliff Gardens
Five days after the most recent sighting, I am back in the gardens with my camera, looking for bumblebees and getting a few odd looks from passers-by. I had scoured the forecasts on the Met Office web site and the weather today was predicted to be sunny and mild (12oC, good for bees), although rather gusty and getting windier (not so good for bees). It is a bit of a gamble but I decide to risk a visit.
When I reach the Gardens I take the first path, half left downhill, where there is a huge bank of rosemary facing in to the sunshine, enveloping the border and the wall below. It’s a mass of small blue flowers and I immediately see a worker bumblebee on the blooms, its pollen baskets laden. It’s either a buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) or white-tailed (Bombus lucorum); the workers of both species look similar. I zigzag up and down the paths and don’t see any others until I come across a large island border just below the top of the cliffs. This is filled with flowering rosemary, some tired-looking bergenia, and more scorpion vetch. There are two or three queens here, definitely Bombus terrestris based on their buff-tails, feeding from the bergenia and rosemary flowers. They don’t use the vetch. It’s quite gusty but they are very determined and forage despite the wind. I feel sorry for them: one gets blown off a flower stem another seems to shelter for a while but she could be warming up. Eventually I give up as the wind is too strong.
Despite the weather, it was worth the visit but I now have many questions. How many bees and how many colonies? Are they all buff-tailed? Where are the nests? Why is there a mixture of workers and queens?
So, two weeks later, the weather again looks possible and I am back. The temperature today is ~9oC, a mixture of sunshine and cloud with a light wind. There was frost the night before in Totnes and, although it probably didn’t frost in Paignton, I wonder how the lower temperatures will have affected the bumblebees.
In fact all seems to be well. I see workers with pollen on the hanging rosemary, on the hebe and on a shrub covered with unusual spiral-shaped red flowers that I identify later as Grevillea, a native of Australia. Some of these workers fly at me as if to shoo me away; perhaps they feel threatened. At the island border I see a worker and several queens feeding off the rosemary. At one point, a queen flies to the ground where she wanders about apparently looking for something. There are no bumblebees on the bergenia today but, astonishingly, I see a red admiral butterfly on this plant.
I don’t think I learnt very much from this visit except that this is a very mild spot with plenty of bee forage even in midwinter.
So, I decide to visit again just under two weeks later on another sunny day. In Totnes the air is very cold (~5oC) but, when I get to Roundham Head, the sun is shining directly on the Gardens, it feels quite warm and there is little or no wind. My experience today is different: I don’t make any definite sightings of queens but I do see several workers and with one exception these are all feeding on rosemary. The workers differ considerably in size but that’s a common observation. They all look in very good condition; their wings are not frayed so they are relatively young. While I stand near the Grevillea, a large bee, probably a queen, flies at me, does a few circuits around my head and then flies off. I get the impression I am being warned but perhaps I am overreacting!
Later, when I have a good look at the photos of the workers I notice that they have a narrow brown band just before the white tail. This is typical of buff-tailed bumblebees and is not seen on white-tailed workers so it is likely that the active nests are buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris).
What does it all mean?
Over a period of about four weeks in the middle of winter, I have been able to see buff-tailed bumblebee queens and workers quite easily at this location. I get the impression, however, that there are actually not very many about: perhaps four queens and eight workers?
The presence of foraging workers as early as January 4th indicates an active nest. I have no idea about the site of the nest but I assume there is a queen, tending larvae and being fed by the workers. The nest was probably established in the last few months of 2014.
At this time of year, bumblebees typically hibernate but since the 1990s there have been reports of winter-active colonies of mainly buff-tailed bumblebees, largely confined to the southern part of the UK. Speculation has been rife as to what is causing this change in behaviour. Some suggest it is linked to warmer winters associated with climate change. This can’t be the whole story as, according to Dave Goulson, bumblebees in Brittany do not exhibit the same winter activity. The magic ingredient may be the availability of winter forage in the UK linked to the British passion for gardening and planting winter-flowering shrubs.
The sub species of Bombus terrestris found in some parts of continental Europe can also have two nesting periods a year, when climate is suitable and winter forage is available. A litter is produced across spring and summer and fertilised queens find suitable places to hibernate for 2-3 months before emerging in late September to set up new colonies across the winter. The Roundham Head colonies probably arise from fertilised queens produced during summer 2014 who emerged after a few months rest to set up winter nests. The microclimate and the abundant local forage make this activity possible.
There has been speculation that the continental sub species of Bombus terrestris, imported for pollinating vegetable crops, may be escaping and establishing itself in the UK. Given that this sub species sometimes produces two generations, it is possible that these continental bumblebees could be the winter-active bumblebees seen in the UK. The Roundham Head colonies, however, have the physical characteristics of the British sub species so they cannot be foreign escapees.
What about the queens that I saw? Here it all becomes rather uncertain. They could be founding queens from active autumn/winter 2014 nests coming out for a feed or they could be new queens generated by these nests. Alternatively, they could be queens from summer 2014 nests emerging from hibernation on a warm day. What might happen to these summer 2014 queens is also a bit unclear. They might set up new nests if the weather stays warm. Perhaps if the weather turns cold they return to hibernation after feeding but, it is not known if this actually occurs.
So, more questions than answers, but there definitely are active winter nests at this favourable seaside spot. It’s been fascinating and great fun to observe these bees and I shall continue watching over the next few months to see what else I can learn.
I should like to thank Dave Goulson (University of Sussex) and Tom Ings (Anglia Ruskin University) for helpful comments.