We’ve been in lockdown in the UK for nearly a week. I was glad when it was announced as it was the first decisive step our government has taken during the coronavirus crisis. We’re supposed to stay in our homes except for essential outings (work, food or medical) and one “exercise” walk each day. Hopefully the lockdown will reduce the spread of the coronavirus by limiting social interaction but it does require people to follow the new rules.
It has been a beautiful week for weather, mild and spring-like with bright sunshine and blue skies, the sort of weather where the air is filled with birdsong and you can almost hear the buds swelling. When I have been out on my exercise walks, I have been taking photographs when I see something that catches my eye. I thought I would post these here, partly for interest as spring arrives in the west country and partly to show how much wildlife there is about us.
The picture at the head of this post is of some Anemone blanda growing among leaf litter in the Leechwell Garden. These blue flowers are native to southeastern Europe but seem to do well here.
A large stand of flowering ivy in the early autumn sunshine is an impressive sight. The many pale green globe flower heads give off their distinctive sickly-sweet smell and insects throng to the flowers to take advantage of the sudden abundance of pollen and nectar. Movement is constant and the entire bush buzzes audibly. Among the insects gorging themselves, there may be red admiral butterflies, plump stripy bumblebees, also good numbers of honeybees and wasps. Sometimes, especially near the sea in the south of the UK, these are outnumbered by beautiful honeybee-sized insects with a distinctive yellow and black banded abdomen and russet coloured thorax. These are ivy bees, the last of our solitary bees to emerge and it’s a delight to watch them each year in September and October.
Ivy bees are relative newcomers to the UK having arrived from mainland Europe eighteen years ago. Since then, they have prospered, spreading across the entire southern half of England and northwards as far as Cumbria As their name suggests, the species prefers pollen and nectar collected from flowering ivy and part of their success must reflect the large amounts of this climber that grow around the UK.
Each year I look out for the ivy bees; for me they signify the changing season, the movement of the year. September 2019 began very mild and dry where I live but, by the fourth week, temperatures dipped and intermittent wet and sometimes very wet weather set in and stayed with us during October and into November. In spite of the weather, I saw ivy bees in several places and here are some highlights of my 2019 observations:
A grassy bank in Sussex
In late September we spent a few days holiday in Sussex, a county in the south east of the UK. We had delivered our daughter to the University of Sussex to begin her degree and were keen to do some country walking. The weather was less than cooperative but on the 25th, our last day, we decided to walk up to the massive iron age hill fort at Cissbury Ring, high on the South Downs. We parked in the village of Findon not far from the 15th century pub, the Gun Inn, and as we passed the traditional butcher’s shop the butcher himself was standing outside wearing his blue and white striped apron.
We left the car and walked up through the village past some private houses where my attention was taken by movement in a grassy bank alongside one of the driveways. I was delighted to realise that this was a large colony of ivy bees. I hope the owner of the house is equally delighted, and I hope they know these are not wasps. Many male ivy bees were dancing about just above the surface of the grassy bank waiting for females to emerge. They occasionally coalesced into a mating cluster when a newly emerged female appeared and after a short time the cluster dissolved and the female and her chosen suitor were left alone. The incessant movement of the colony even on a dull day was very impressive. Here are two short videos which capture this movement.
We left the ivy bees and continued uphill to reach Cissbury Ring. Today this was an elemental place: clouds scudded about driven by the strong blustery wind that was now also peppering us with raindrops and, when the clouds parted, the sun broke through leaving transient pools of light on the surrounding countryside. We kept to the eastern rampart to afford protection from the wind and from the highest point we saw the sea to the south and a second hill fort, Chanctonbury Ring to the north across rolling tea-coloured fields. A few hardy bees were braving the conditions to take advantage of the scattering of wild flowers across the chalk hillside.
On our way back down the hill we passed banks of ivy in flower where, despite the intermittent drizzle, ivy bees were collecting nectar and pollen to take back to their nests.
Heath potter wasps, no – ivy bees, yes
Bovey Heathfield is a nature reserve, about half an hour’s drive from where I live with several claims to fame. It is a surviving scrap of lowland heath, a fragment of the large area of heathland that once covered this part of Devon. Even though it is small, the heath provides a unique environment with unique wildlife and in August and September it bursts into life as the heather blooms covering the land with a pinkish purple sheen. It’s also the site of one of the more important battles of the English Civil War, The Battle of Bovey Heath 1646 and on the reserve, there are memorials to the conflict.
I went to Bovey Heathfield on a windy Saturday afternoon (September 28th) under partly cloudy skies to meet John Walters, a local naturalist and wildlife expert. John knows more than anyone else about a species of solitary wasp that frequents sandy heaths. This is the heath potter wasp and the plan was for John to show me these insects. Unfortunately, the weather was not sunny enough to tempt the wasps out but he did show me one of the pots constructed from muddy clay by mated females that give them their name. They attach these pots to stalks of heather and gorse and then lay their eggs in the pot, equipping it with caterpillars as food before sealing. These are mini-marvels of engineering and John has some wonderful video showing the wasps constructing clay pots (see here).
In the absence of these insects, John showed me the large colony of ivy bees that has built nests in the south facing sandy paths on the heath. The ivy bees were not deterred by the cool conditions; the males were very active and a number of newly emerged females were mobbed by them. I saw one mating cluster develop around a female resting on a heather stalk and wondered how they all clung on.
Ivy bees in a local cemetery
The river Dart drives a picturesque, watery wedge through the town of Totnes dividing it into two unequal parts. The eastern part, across the river, goes by the name of Bridgetown, a mixture of old and mostly new houses. Buried in the old part, behind the early nineteenth century St John’s Church is the cemetery. I rather like the cemetery, it is slightly unkempt with rough grass, trees, flowers and several large clumps of ivy. Most of the graves date from the 19th and 20th centuries and the place has a peaceful calm atmosphere. Last year I found ivy bees here for the first time, it was also the first time I had seen the species in Totnes. This year the ivy in the cemetery was late in flowering but finally on the last day of September some ivy bees appeared on a few of the open flowers. I saw males and pollen-carrying females, but not many of either gender. I wondered if they might be nesting in the cemetery but was unable to find any evidence. Somewhere nearby there must a nest aggregation.
As I was poking about looking for ivy bee nests, one grave stone, for Edwin Jordain, caught my attention. It was late Victorian, dating from 1893 and had fine carvings of flowers along the top edge unlike most of the other graves. I wondered whether the flowers were symbolic or just decorative and did a little research.
The flowers on the left side are most likely blue passion flowers. I learnt that these were very popular adornments to Victorian graves, representing the suffering of Christ. I feel less comfortable about my identification of the flowers on the right but I think they are lilies, linked with purity and innocence by the Victorians, especially after death. Many of the flowers depicted are open, apparently symbolising the prime of life; Mr Jordain was only 36 when he died. His epitaph perhaps sums this up: “Brief life is here our portion”.
Towards the end of July, I visited the Maer, a nature reserve situated at the eastern end of the promenade in Exmouth, a seaside town in the south west of the UK. With its sand dunes and sandy grassland, the Maer is a remnant of a much larger dune system that once stretched down to the beach. Nowadays, it provides an oasis of calm close to the busy sea front as well as a habitat for special plants and insects.
A slight mist softened the long views as I walked eastwards along Exmouth sea front. Some warmth penetrated the cloud and a few people were already enjoying the beach on this late summer morning. The sandy tip of Dawlish Warren lay tantalisingly close across the water and further on, the Ness at Shaldon lurked in the mist like a gigantic wedge of cheese. The commercial area with its big wheel, pubs and cafes was busy but eventually I reached a quieter part where sand and scrub tumbled downwards at the side of the beach road. This is the edge of the Maer, a local nature reserve and one of Exmouth’s hidden gems. Superficially, the Maer is a large grassy, sandy space sandwiched between the beach road and Exmouth Cricket Club but it conceals a mosaic of different environments with unusual flora and fauna.
A substantial sandy dune ridge forms the southern border of the Maer giving views across the reserve on one side and towards the beach on the other. Marram grass grows thickly giving the sand stability but there are also areas of bare sand and areas of scrub, reminders of the dune system that must have occupied this area before the beach road was built. Restharrow with its pink and white pea-type flowers and a few residual yellow evening primrose provided some colour but it was the sea holly that surprised. This is an unusual and unexpected plant that grows extensively along the first part of the ridge. Its spiky greenish-grey leaves with white margins and veins and its powder blue flowers light up the sand as though someone had spilt pale paint. Sea holly flourishes in these arid conditions by having leaves covered in a waxy cuticle to help retain water and through its deep roots. Although sea holly has some visual resemblance to our Christmas greenery, it is a relative of the carrot; in the past it was employed as an aphrodisiac.
Several large insects with bold black and yellow markings crawled about the bright blue sea holly flowers collecting nectar. These are beewolves, some of our most spectacular solitary wasps, that nest in sandy places and specialise in catching honeybees. Both male and female beewolves were feeding that day but it is the larger female (up to about 2cm long) that catches and paralyses honeybees and may be seen flying back to the nest carrying a quiescent honeybee beneath her. She digs a nest tunnel in sandy soil up to a metre long with multiple terminal branches where she lays eggs and provides honeybees as food for the developing larvae. These once rare insects have expanded their UK range since the 1980s, possibly in response to climate change and I saw them in several places on the reserve notably on a stand of mauve thistles. They are not aggressive towards humans.
Further along the ridge, before it is colonised by brambles, scrub and low trees, I found a large clump of an unruly scrambling plant covered in pea-type flowers of an impressive reddish-pink colour. This is broad-leaved everlasting pea, a perennial relative of our annual sweet pea, growing through the grasses on the Maer ridge holding on via thin tendrils. A chunky dark bee was feeding from the flowers, apparently undeterred by their jerky movements in the breeze. This was a leafcutter bee, most likely the Coast Leafcutter Bee that favours sandy habitats near the sea. They nest in burrows in vegetated sand lined with pieces of leaf cut from trees and plants. Later, when the sun came out, I saw several of these bees chasing one another around the bright pink flowers like children in a playground.
The large central part of the reserve was coated with golden brown grass criss-crossed with paths for walkers and looking very dry, a reflection of the recent lack of rain. Within the grass were mats of restharrow and many of the yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear. One area resembled a lunar landscape with many small craters where the surface had been dug out exposing the sand. Solitary wasps and small leafcutter bees had happily nested here.
Tall clumps of ragwort with bright yellow daisy-like flowers and deeply lobed green leaves were dotted around the central area. This plant provides valuable habitat and food for invertebrates and I found one clump that had been appropriated by black caterpillars with prominent yellow bands. They were moving about, eating the leaves of the ragwort, voraciously consuming the greenery and destroying the upper parts of the plant. These are caterpillars of the cinnabar moth and as they feed, they assimilate some of the toxic alkaloids contained in ragwort, rendering themselves unpalatable to birds and other predators. It is said that their yellow stripes act as a warning to birds. Once fed and mature, the caterpillars dig themselves into the ground to spend 12 months or so as pupae before emerging as beautiful day-flying red and black moths. The adult moths live for a few weeks, feeding on nectar before mating and laying eggs on the ragwort leaves. The eggs grow into caterpillars and the cycle starts all over again. The cinnabar moth is entirely dependent on ragwort for its survival.
Towards the western end of the reserve, I found a large colony of flowering plants, perhaps suggesting damper conditions. Clumps of common mallow up to a metre tall dominated with their trumpet flowers composed of five deep pink petals each with purple stripes. At the centre of each flower was a mass of grey pollen-covered stamens emanating from a single stalk like a miniature bunch of flowers. Near the mallow, large areas were covered by a sprawling, scrambling plant richly covered with pea-like flowers above many small, spear-shaped, mid green leaves. Flower colours varied from very pale to light blue, mauve and deep purple with some plants having several of these colour variants. One plant even had bright yellow flowers. This is Sand Lucerne, a fertile hybrid of lucerne and sickle medic, naturalised in East Anglia, where its two parents grow together, but now transplanted elsewhere.
There’s so much to see at the Maer and I could easily have spent several more hours looking about. But I had a train to catch so I headed back along the promenade and across the town towards the station.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. May had been a dry month and the first two weeks of June very wet, with temperatures lower than normal for the time of year. How might the changeable weather have affected wildlife? As I waited at the station for my train, the staccato spits of rain made me wonder if it was even worth making this trip. But perhaps I was being too negative. The journey along the river estuary and by the sea was as glorious as ever and, when I stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, there was bright sunshine and a palpable warmth.
I left the station, headed past the funfair, past the shops selling garish beach clothing, past the pub and cafes and on to the nature reserve. Evening primrose with their papery lemon-yellow flowers grew on the dry, sandy soil either side of the descending path and when the track levelled out, small areas of standing water were an unwelcome reminder of our recent weather.
A short walk eastwards took me on to a long green meadow. This part of the reserve is known as Greenland Lake because in the 19th century it was a watery inlet where fishing vessels sheltered over winter before heading back to Greenland. The area was reclaimed in the mid-20th century but is still damp so that lush grasses flourish alongside a range of plants that relish the humid conditions. Today, flowers of yellow rattle and yellow bartsia formed a colourful sheen across the meadow, interspersed with many spikes of southern marsh orchids; some were a pale lilac and others a deep reddish purple, like colourful flames flaring from the meadow floor. Towards the edge of Greenland Lake, the ground rises, becoming drier and sandier, populated by more evening primrose, their tall stems trembling in the keen west wind that blew across the reserve keeping the temperature down.
I thought I remembered where the bee orchids grew but memory is a tricky thing and the look of the reserve changes each year. Eventually I found them, surrounded by enclosures to protect against trampling; there were several spikes in each enclosure, each spike with three or more of the complex flowers, each enclosure neatly labelled. Calling the flowers complex, however, doesn’t really do them justice. Three pinkish-lilac sepals form a propeller-like backdrop; each sepal is semi-transparent with narrow green veins. The main part of the flower contains three petals including one that forms the dominant, downward-projecting labellum, a very unusual affair, engorged and bulbous with impressively furry edges and a central maroon area with yellow horseshoe patterns. This is the part of the flower in which early botanists imagined a bee and gave the flower its name.
With their vivid colours and pristine petals, the flowers looked as though they had emerged very recently and some features such as the horns and the arching yellow pollinia had not yet developed. I gazed at all of this, marvelling at the complexity of nature but pondering whether the flowers really were beautiful or were they just plain weird. I couldn’t decide but I doubt if it matters, they are what they are.
It’s reassuring to find that others feel ambivalent about the flowers and here are a few lines taken from “Bee orchid at Hodbarrrow” by the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson where he hints at their contradictions:
See the bee orchid –
Neither plant nor animal,
Conceit of a flower
I left the bee orchids and wandered about the dry sandy paths bordered by flowering brambles and rough, greenish-brown marram grass. The wardens try hard to maintain the reserve and that includes controlling scrub, especially brambles, which would otherwise take over. Sometimes they treat the scrub with herbicides and cordon off the treated area. It makes me uneasy to see this happen but it’s probably the only way to preserve the present rich populations of flowers and insects. I was, therefore, surprised to see three men festooned with cameras some with phallic lenses entering one of the treated areas and walking about noisily. It seemed as though they were looking for something but they ignored me and eventually moved on.
Then I came across the bees. They were moving about just above the dry surface of a rising sandy path, darting back and forth in straight lines but often pausing on the sand to preen and perhaps take in the warmth. Sometimes when stationary they moved their abdomen up and down repetitively, a manoeuvre that encourages gas exchange after a period of activity, not unlike human panting.
To begin with, only a few of these insects were in evidence but when the sun came out more seemed to appear and everything got busier. They were slightly smaller than a honeybee and to the naked eye they appeared golden. Photographs showed bands of golden hair around the abdomen and thorax, a pale moustache and strikingly beautiful green eyes. These are male silvery leafcutter bees (Megachile leachella) and must have emerged very recently to retain the golden look which quite soon fades to a silver, hence the name.
These males were all rather excited, bombing one another and even trying to mate and frequently looking into holes in the sand that I hadn’t seen. Then I noticed a more protracted coupling between two of the bees which confused me for a while as I hadn’t knowingly seen any females. Again, photographs came to the rescue showing me that a female was involved. The diagnostic feature is a symmetrical pair of small white hair patches on the terminal segment on her abdomen. Mated females will go on to construct nests in the vegetated sand using leaf segments they cut to line the cavity but that didn’t seem to have got going yet.
There was so much sexual tension among the male bees as they waited for females to emerge that feeding seemed to be taking a low priority. It was only later when I walked back towards the railway station taking a detour via a dry meadow at the back of the reserve that I found some bees feeding. The meadow was covered in lush grass and flowers including diffuse globes of white clover and the slipper-like yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil. Silvery leafcutter males were feeding here pushing the two parts of the yellow flower apart to access the nectar.
While I was watching this, the three men with cameras reappeared. Seeing me they came across:
“We’re looking for butterflies, have you seen any?”
“Yes, I have, I can show you some pictures if you like?”
I showed them the picture I took earlier of a female common blue butterfly and they agreed sulkily with my identification, adding: “Well, we haven’t seen many, there don’t seem to be many about”
I tried to engage them in conversation about bees but they weren’t interested.
The Cirl Bunting is an attractive songbird once found throughout the southern half of the UK. Its numbers declined precipitously in the second half of the 20th century following changes in farming practice and, by the late 1980s, it was confined to coastal farmland in south Devon and might have become nationally extinct. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recognised the problem and worked with farmers to support the bird resulting in a dramatic increase in its numbers. In a recent expansion of its range the bird has established itself in East Devon at Stantyway Farm near Otterton having been absent for more than 30 years. I wanted to find out more so I went to Stantyway to see for myself.
The Cirl Bunting was first reported in the UK by Montagu in the winter of 1800 near Kingsbridge in south Devon in the west of the country. It is roughly sparrow-sized and the male, in particular, is very distinctive with its black and yellow striped head and olive-green breast band. The bird gradually spread across the southern half of the UK, its numbers peaking in the early years of the 20th century. Since then it has declined and by the late 1980s only 118 pairs remained, confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.
With the Cirl Bunting facing national extinction, the RSPB identified changes in farming practice linked to agricultural intensification as responsible for the precipitous decline. In the winter, the bird forages for insects and spilt grain in weedy stubble fields. In the summer, it nests in hedges or scrub and forages on unimproved grassland rich in invertebrates with grasshoppers being important food for chicks. With agricultural intensification, there was a shift from spring-sown cereals to autumn sowing so that far fewer arable fields were left as winter stubble; grubbing out of hedges took away nest sites and loss of the hay meadows and increased use of pesticides reduced invertebrate numbers and summer food for the bird.
Once the cause of the decline had been identified, the RSPB worked with farmers in south Devon to support the birds by reinstating some traditional agricultural practices, supported by government agrienvironment schemes. The effect was spectacular and by 2016, numbers of Cirl Buntings had increased to over 1000 pairs. Most of the increase occurred in the bird’s core range but there was some spread along the coast and inland where habitat was suitable. This was a major conservation success, also benefitting other species.
The bird has a reputation for being sedentary and it had been assumed that the estuary of the river Exe would be a barrier to further eastwards expansion of its range. So, it was a surprise when, around the end of 2010, a single Cirl Bunting was seen at Stantyway Farm near Otterton in East Devon followed by several more sightings early in 2011. Since then, the numbers at Stantyway have increased suggesting that the local conditions suit the birds and from 2015 it was clear that a breeding population existed.
Stantyway Farm is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and when the tenant, Mr Williams, retired in 2014, the farm was taken back into Clinton’s own Farm Partnership. Clinton Devon Estates were keen to support Cirl Buntings and other species on their arable farm at Stantyway so they took advice from the RSPB and applied for agrienvironment support. This was awarded in 2016 and supports planting hedges to provide more nest sites, leaving wildlife margins around fields to provide invertebrates as summer food, and planting spring cereal crops that are harvested in the autumn leaving weedy winter stubbles with seed as food. These are all activities shown to be critical in supporting these birds in south Devon. The farm was also put into organic conversion in 2016; organic farming by its nature supports wildlife and increases invertebrates. Cirl Bunting numbers at Stantyway gradually increased across this time.
In 2017, Clinton Estates advertised for a new tenant farmer at Stantyway and Sam Walker was appointed. Although the farm is still mainly arable, Sam keeps 52 cows whose calves are raised and sold on to beef finishers. About a third of the land is now devoted to grass for silage production for winter animal feed. Sam has, however, embraced the existing philosophy of the farm in supporting wildlife: he has maintained the organic status and intends to apply for further agrienvironment support when the current scheme runs out in 2021.
I wanted to see the farm for myself so, on a mild early April day, I went to Stantyway. I left the car on the rough ground across from Stantyway Farmhouse and stood for a few moments enjoying the sunshine. The air was filled with the endlessly inventive song of the skylark and occasionally a buzzard mewed as it circled lazily overhead. Sometimes a low buzz cut through all of this and when I looked, I realised this was from all the insects about.
I walked away from the farm along the gentle downhill slope of Stantyway Road with views developing over rolling East Devon countryside on one side and to the hazy mid-blue sea on the other. The lane descended between wide grassy verges backed by luxuriant hedges. Spring flowers grew through the thick grass including stitchwort, celandine, dandelions, violets and white dead nettle. The dominant flowering plant was, however, alexanders, with its fleshy green stems, copious shiny dark green foliage and pale mop head flowers. This was proving very popular with many kinds of fly and a selection of solitary mining bees, some collecting large lumps of white pollen on their back legs.
My walk included a long section of the coast path skirting the edge of Stantyway fields. Thick scrubby hedges, mainly flowering blackthorn, lined the cliff edge along with more alexanders. The occasional hedge break afforded spectacular views along the red cliffs of the Jurassic Coast towards Ladram bay with its crumbling stacks, past the white elegance of Sidmouth and finishing in the chalk of Beer Head (see picture at the top). Again, there were many solitary mining bees taking advantage of the flowers. I did not see any Cirl Buntings on my walk but, on two occasions I heard their distinctive, rattling, metallic trill telling me the birds were about.
It’s a beautiful place made all the better by glorious early April weather and I was surprised to see so many insects along the paths. Perhaps this reflects the methods used at Stantyway, showing that productive farming and wildlife can coexist and prosper. Around the farm, each field gate has an information board giving the crop and some other useful information. An Honesty Café has been installed near the farmhouse providing continuous hot water for tea or coffee and homemade cakes that I can strongly recommend. All of this suggests an outward looking, open approach to farming. When I met Sam Walker, the farmer, he explained that, in addition to the provisions of the agrienvironment scheme, he has put skylark plots in cereal fields, created wild bird seed corridors and put up swift boxes to support wildlife. I came away feeling that at Stantyway, Cirl Buntings were getting the best support they could. His methods have already benefitted other farmland birds with numbers of skylarks and reed buntings doubling over the past year and in a further twist to the Cirl Bunting story, some of the birds have now been seen to the east of Sidmouth.
I should like to thank Sam Walker, Doug and Joan Cullen, Kate Ponting and David White for generous help in preparing this article which appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.
I walk through our local community garden (The Leechwell Garden) most days in summer just to have a look at the flowers and insects but I know that, if I am there late morning, the sound of children playing will brighten the air. The older children, sometimes along with mum or dad reliving their youth, will be enjoying the fine new play area with its exciting slide. The younger ones may be messing about on the watery edge of the stream that passes through the garden but it is the sand pit that really hits the spot. Children love playing in the sand and I often see several family groups clustered about the sand pit; the only thing that seems to deter the children is heavy rain. It’s a real tribute to the vision of the garden committee that they created something so popular.
The flowers I come to see are across the other side of the garden and, for the past few weeks, I have been loitering near the old stone wall where there’s a large patch of the plant Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina). It covers the ground with a jumble of silvery-green, velvety leaves and sends up stout, silvery stems bearing clutches of smaller leaves and understated pink-purple flowers. It’s a pleasant, restful sort of plant creating an old-style, cottage garden feeling but what goes on around these Lamb’s Ears in midsummer is far from restful.
From the middle of June, a dark, chunky bee can be seen patrolling the patch of silvery-green leaves and I spend more time than I should watching him. Whereas most bees are gentle creatures keeping themselves to themselves, this one is a bit of a thug, oozing anger and aggression. He is the male wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), mostly black but with yellow markings along the sides of his abdomen, head and legs, reminiscent of the warpaint worn by native American tribes. He is about the same length as a honeybee but much broader making him quite imposing as he moves quickly about the patch of Lamb’s Ear. His movement is distinctive, he hovers then moves rapidly to a new spot, hovers, moves, all the time buzzing noisily. It feels like he is looking for something. And that’s exactly what he is doing, looking. Should he spot another male wool-carder bee or a different insect on his patch, he will chase it away by flying directly at it. I have seen him attack a bumblebee at least twice his size and knock it to the ground. But, not only is he aggressive, he is armed; the rear of his abdomen sports five stout spines which he will use to injure or kill the intruding insects and there are reports of male wool-carder bees disabling honeybees who dared to feed from their patch.
All this aggressive energy is directed towards protecting the patch of Lamb’s Ear for himself and his harem, for now and then a female wool-carder bee will appear. She looks very like the male, only a bit smaller; the wool-carder bee is one of the only species in this country where the male bee is larger than the female. When the male sees her feeding from the flowers he will pounce and, without any preliminaries, mating will ensue. This is a vigorous but brief activity sometimes causing the flower stem to vibrate before the two disengage and go about their business again. Unlike most solitary bees, where females mate once, wool-carder females undergo multiple matings so that, after a short time, our male will mate with the same female again and should a different female appear he will attempt to mate with her. One valiant observer went to the trouble of watching an individual male wool-carder in his garden and reported that the bee mated sixteen times in one day.
This focus on the aggressive behaviour of the male wool-carder bee tends to obscure the fact that it is the female that does all the hard work of nest building and egg laying. The wool-carder bee is a solitary species so that individual mated females build their nests alone, unlike the more familiar social honeybees and bumblebees. Nesting occurs in preformed aerial cavities in dead wood, in walls or in hollow stems, including the tubes found in bee hotels. Once she has identified a suitable site, the female strips or “cards” woolly fibrous material from plant leaves with her mandibles (hence the name wool-carder) and takes it back to her nest to line and plug the cavity (see the pictures below). Lamb’s Ear leaves are a popular choice for “carding” but Great Mullein or Yarrow can also be used. If you look carefully at the leaves of these plants you can sometimes see bare areas where she has been actively collecting fibres. Within the nest, she lays eggs and equips them with a mixture of nectar and pollen. The eggs develop in the nest where they stay until new bees emerge next summer and the whole cycle begins again.
So, if you have a patch of Lamb’s Ear in your garden take a look, there’s a good chance that wool-carder bees will be using it and you too can be enthralled by their antics.
After so many cool, damp and grey days, spring arrived in a rush in the third week of April. Temperatures soared by nearly ten degrees and the sun shone strongly from a virtually cloud-free sky, filling the air with an unexpected brightness, at least for a few days. The sudden change in the weather demanded that I get outside so I drove the short distance to the fishing port of Brixham, parking on the clifftop road on the eastern edge of the town. A steep stone stairway took me down the hillside past curious, deserted, rectangular buildings and wide sweeps of concrete enclosed by thick scrub echoing with birdsong. These are remnants of the Brixham Battery, built in 1940 to guard Torbay against a German invasion, now Grade 2 listed and an informal, unplanned nature reserve. Dandelions and cowslips were dotted about grassy areas and fleshy-leaved green alkanet with its grey-blue flowers provided a contrasting colour. The stairway continued downwards among trees until I was just above the sea where I joined the coast path.
This section of the coast path is enclosed by low scrub and, at this time of year, blackthorn dominates, its branches covered with a snow of small flowers, creating a curtain of white with occasional glimpses of the blue sea. In the bright sunshine, the delicate white petals were almost transparent below a confused mass of yellow-tipped stamens. Eventually, this enclosed path gave on to an open, grassy area roughly the size of a football pitch, overlooking the water of Torbay and backed by thick trees creating a sense of seclusion. Wooden benches positioned along the sea side were popular, occupied by people wearing sun hats and enjoying the spectacular view. The full panorama of Torbay was spread out ahead like an enticing display in a travel brochure: the red cliffs, the white seafront buildings, the pine trees, the big wheel and, in the foreground, the Brixham breakwater with its white lighthouse. The sea was a bright, slightly greenish blue textured with patches of silvery sheen and pleasure boats shuttled across the water to and from Torquay. It was a holiday scene and felt almost Mediterranean.
Amongst all this human activity, no one seemed to be paying any attention to the many mini-volcanoes of crumbly soil partly concealed beneath the rough grass or to the many bees moving about the area just above the grass. Everywhere I looked there were bees flying about, backwards and forwards, swinging from side to side, as if they were trying to find something; a few were walking about on the red soil. There must have been thousands of bees, an amazing natural phenomenon and very exciting to watch. When I looked carefully, I saw that they were mostly black but with distinctive bands of pale hair. These are Ashy Mining Bees (Andrena cineraria), one of our more common solitary bees, and the soil volcanoes in the ground are their nests.
While I was taking in the scene, a couple arrived, both carrying plastic bags. He was in his sixties with long white hair roughly corralled into a pony tail. She was in her late fifties with copious dark hair. They threw down a blanket into the middle of the grassy area, stripped down to their underwear, cracked open some cans and proceeded to sunbathe. Like the other people, they didn’t notice the bees swirling about the grass around them and I wondered how they might react if they encountered the insects. Luckily for them, only the females of these kinds of mining bees possess a sting and they use it only when threatened.
I wanted to take some photos of the bees but, wishing to avoid any misunderstandings as I waved my camera about, I moved to the other end of the grassy area, passing a small turf-roofed building that used to contain the searchlight for the wartime Battery. I found an unoccupied bench, sat down, and providing I was still, the bees resumed their incessant movement around me. The bench turned out to be a front-row seat as, on several occasions, I saw one bee rush at another and the two struggled for a while on the ground. Two or three others tried to join in and it all got a bit confused and messy for a while. Eventually, however, only two were left coupled together, end to end. They stayed like this for a few minutes before separating and flying off. I presumed they were mating but it seemed rather sedate compared to the frantic copulatory behaviour of some solitary bees.
Photographing the flying bees is difficult, but for the short time they were occupied in mating they were relatively still, making it easier. My photographs showed that the honeybee-sized females have shiny black abdomens with a blue sheen in some lights. Two thick, furry bands of grey-white hair line the front and back of the thorax and the face is white-haired with black antennae. The slimmer and smaller males also have black abdomens but differ from the females in having white hairs on the sides of the thorax and thick tufts of white hair on the face. With their pale hairs and contrasting dark abdomens, Ashy Mining Bees are one of the most distinctive and beautiful species of mining bee in the UK.
Despite all this excitement on the ground, I kept an occasional watch on the sea and got quite excited when I saw a shiny black head emerge from the water. This was one of the local colony of grey seals swimming towards Fishcombe Cove. The water was so clear and calm that the seal’s huge body was clearly visible as it passed.
When I had finished, I walked back past the lush banks of three cornered leek that grow along the low cliff edge. I saw male Ashy Mining bees nectaring from the delicate white-belled flowers. Further on, I stopped to look at the blackthorn flowers. Here there were more Ashy Mining Bees foraging together with one very different bee with a shock of orange-brown hair on the thorax and a largely black abdomen tipped with orange-red hair. I later identified this as an Orange-tailed Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa). With all this insect interest, there should be a good crop of sloes on the blackthorn here in the autumn.
If you are interested to learn more about these wonderful bees, here are three more descriptions: