The Christmas weather had been poor but Boxing Day (December 26th) was mild, clear and bright and the seafront at Paignton in south Devon was thronged with people promenading in the sunshine and as busy as I have ever seen. Some had also come to watch “Walk into the sea” a charity event where hardy souls, often in fancy dress, splash in the cold waters of Torbay.
It was good to see all the people enjoying the weather but I was here for a different reason. I left the crowds behind and headed past the little harbour towards Roundham Head, a promontory that protrudes into the waters of Torbay. Here I found Roundham Head Gardens, public gardens built on the sloping, south-facing side of this headland where narrow paths zig zag up and down the cliff face between borders planted with many exotic species. Some of these plants flower throughout our winter providing an unusual micro environment.
Scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina) (see picture at the head of this post), a native of the Mediterranean, is one of the plants that flourishes here and the low winter sun seemed to accentuate the lemon-yellow colour of its pea type flowers. In the same border overlooking the sea I also found some bergenia flowers, an almost psychedelic pink in this low light.
It wasn’t just the humans who had been drawn out by the mild sunny weather, there were also a number of insects about. A small furry bumblebee had discovered the scorpion vetch and was systematically visiting each flower to feed. Her black, white and brownish-yellow banding stood out like a furry bar code and she carried a yellow lump of sticky pollen on each rear leg. She was most likely a worker buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) and I watched her track across the clump of flowers.
Eventually, I had to move to the far side of the border to get a better view of the small bee, but I hadn’t noticed the large queen bumblebee feeding on the bergenia. She objected to my presence and flew away buzzing loudly after circling closely around my head. Was this a warning or was she just having a look? I only got a quick glimpse but she looked like a buff-tailed bumblebee queen, our largest bumblebee species. Later, I got a much better view of one of these huge insects basking in the sun on an old stone wall. This one was the size of the distal section of my thumb, very furry and with clear black and orange-brown bands and a brownish tail.
As I wandered about the enclosed paths, I encountered more small buff-tailed bumblebees, often feeding from the slate blue flowers of the rosemary that grows well here. Most of these were carrying pollen of different colours, white, yellow or red, so they were all workers.
This winter bumblebee activity is probably a consequence of the mild marine environment in these gardens and the profusion of flowers that grows here even in the lowest months. The worker bumblebees will be supporting nests begun by queens a few months ago, whereas the queens I saw may be preparing to set up new nests that will last across winter.
A return to the first border gave another surprise: a red admiral butterfly basking on bergenia having been tempted out by the warm sun. As I watched it flexing its wings, another floated past my shoulder before disappearing. I shared my picture of the red admiral on social media and one commenter (see below for details) pointed out that although this survivor from the summer still had bright colours, it now looked very worn and suggested that this was the Keith Richards of red admirals!
The commenter referred to above was “Noticing Nature: the British microseason project” (@Naturalcalendar). They can be found on Twitter and they have a newsletter
Totnes is an ancient town with many old stone walls lining passageways, roads and the edges of gardens. In spring and summer, the wintery-dark stone of these walls erupts with clumps of green leaves followed by dense, rounded clusters of tiny flowers, usually a bright pink, so that the clusters resemble scoops of strawberry ice cream. This plant is red valerian (Centranthus ruber) and is thought to have been introduced from the Mediterranean in the late 16th century. It is now naturalised in the UK and common in England and Wales, especially in the south west where it insinuates its roots into the mortar in the old walls wherever it can get a toehold. Its colourful flowers lend a hint of the Mediterranean to some west country towns.
Despite this summer’s very dry weather, some valerian flower heads still remain attracting insects looking for late season nectar. Large furry bumblebees scramble about the colourful flowers and white butterflies perch on flower heads but the plant is a particular favourite of a spectacular day flying moth with a wingspan of about 5cm, the hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). Most years I see one of these moths but this summer I have had many more sightings especially in the last week of August and first week of September. A long spell of warm southerly winds may have brought the moths northwards from their Mediterranean strongholds.
A clump of red valerian hanging from an old stone wall in our street has been very popular with the moths. On several recent days, a hummingbird hawk moth has appeared by a flower head, as if from nowhere, and hovered, its long proboscis deftly inserted into one tiny flower collecting nectar from the base of the corolla. The moth seems to hang in the air, its greyish body with black and white chequered rear showing well. Its brown and orange wings beat so rapidly that they appear as a blur and create an audible hum. When it has finished with one flower cluster, it jinks to another.
There is something magical about these elegant creatures and I feel privileged to be able to see them. My feelings, though, are tinged with sadness as their arrival in greater numbers is a reflection of our rapidly changing climate.
A week ago, I went down to the south Devon coast below the village of East Prawle to find the rare long-horned bees that live there. Their main nest site is located in the low cliffs near Horseley Cove and I scrambled down the steep path to the foot of the cliffs to have a look. It was a beautiful sunny day and the area was bathed in sunshine while the sea, a deep blue in that day’s light, fussed on the jumble of large boulders that lie just off shore. The sea was calm when I visited but in the winter these boulders will defend the cliffs from the worst of the storms creating a protected microenvironment.
Tracts of reddish soft rock peppered with pencil-sized holes were evident across the cliffs and several bees, roughly honeybee-sized, were patrolling the area showing a particular interest in these cavities. They swung in and moved quickly just above the surface sashaying back and forth and from side to side like hyped-up ballroom dancers. They looked very fresh and were rather lively and It was difficult to discern details but when I focussed my attention on a single insect I could see a pale yellow face, a bright russet thorax and two extra-long antennae, for these were the male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis) I had come to see. One landed briefly and I marvelled at his magnificent antennae, each as long as the rest of his body.
Numbers varied but there were always a few about and sometimes up to six at one time, weaving around one another, creating a loud buzz. My presence didn’t seem to bother them, some flew around me and another collided with me but they carried on regardless. They are driven by procreative urges and having emerged from their nest holes in the soft rock within the last week or so, they were now waiting to catch a virgin female as she appeared. Mating had, though, already begun. On two or three occasions, a bee flew directly into a hole and didn’t reappear. Photos confirmed that these slightly chunkier bees with golden pollen brushes on their back legs were female Eucera longicornis, already mated and preparing their nests.
Eucera longicornis is rare and much declined and one of many special insect species found along this stretch of coast, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The cliff top meadow above the nests was a mosaic of wildflowers and earlier I had found a few male Eucera feeding on bird’s foot trefoil. The coast path either side of the meadow had, however, been treated with herbicide and strimmed, virtually eliminating wildflowers, seriously degrading this important site.
Here is a short piece I wrote after a visit to the Lamb Garden in Totnes on March 9th together with a poem by Thomas Hardy.
It’s that time of year when I spend more time than I should peering at patches of lungwort. The wild variety (Pulmonaria officinalis) has been flowering for several weeks here in Devon and now has a mixture of pinkish-red and purplish-blue trumpet-shaped flowers above fleshy, white-spotted green leaves. The weather has kept most insects away but this morning, there is a hint of warmth in the air and finally, I see what I have been anticipating.
It’s one of the first bees to emerge each year, and I get that first time thrill again. I don’t see it arrive but suddenly it’s there hovering by the lungwort, hanging in the air as if working out which flower to sample. As it hovers, I notice the mostly buff-haired abdomen and thorax, also the pale yellow mask-like face and is that the tongue hanging in readiness? This chunky insect might be mistaken for a bumblebee but is a very fresh male hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), usually the first solitary bee species to appear in Totnes each spring.
Having chosen a flower, he settles down to feed, pushing his head in deeply to access nectar. His legs are splayed out gripping either side of the corolla, displaying the silky hairs that decorate them, celebrated in his common name. He doesn’t stay long, darting to another flower with a brief hover in between, buzzing loudly.
Lungwort flowers start out red and acquire the blue colour as they age. Red flowers contain more nectar than blue and the Anthophora feed preferentially from these red, higher forage flowers. This colour code means they don’t waste time visiting low-nectar blooms and may visit several plants looking for high nectar flowers, increasing the chance of cross pollination.
The male then notices me and hovers, buzzing loudly and aggressively in my direction before departing in a huff. Other males appear and occasionally two find themselves together on the flowers. This also doesn’t go down well and they depart, carving circles in the air around one another.
I wanted to include a poem to go with these spring observations so here is Thomas Hardy meditating on the topic in “The Year’s Awakening” .
Back in September last year I spent a pleasant afternoon watching grey seals at Peartree Point in south Devon. It was fascinating to observe these creatures in their natural environment, lounging on the rocks and swimming in the water nearby. What I hadn’t expected, though, was that I would spend part of the time watching humans and their reactions to the seals.
I wrote an article about my afternoon with the seals and this has just been published on the Land Lines blog. Click here to read.
Both of the pictures of seals shown here were taken at Brixham Harbour using a zoom lens.
One of my favourite parts of the coast path in south Devon is the section between Prawle Point and Start Point. Between these two imposing coastal landmarks the path follows the meandering line of the low cliffs and, unusually for this part of Devon, there are few hills and walking is easy. The area inland of the coast path is notable for the line of steep rocky cliffs that, many years ago, formed the coastline when sea levels were higher. Between these inland cliffs and the present coastline is a flattish area, about a field’s width across, mostly used for pasture and arable farming. One section, a long curving coastal meadow (above Horseley Cove), is left uncultivated and many wild flowers grow here and, to a lesser extent, along the edges of other parts of the coast path. With the rocky coastline and rugged inland cliffs, the area retains a wildness and I come here to be close to the sea and to immerse myself in nature in all its fullness.
The stretch of coastline between Start Point and Prawle Point is a nationally important site for rare invertebrates and was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1986. For some years now, I have been coming here in early summer to watch the rare long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis) (see here as well) that use the soft rock cliffs for nest sites and forage from the wild peas and vetches that flourish in this environment. The area is also a stronghold for the cirl bunting and I often see and hear these rare birds when I visit. If I am lucky, I may also see seals swimming nearby or basking on the rocks at Peartree Point .
Earlier this year, in April, I walked along this section of the coast path and was alarmed at what I found. The long curving coastal meadow, filled with wildflowers later in the year, was intact but outside of this area there was considerable evidence of herbicide use. Some fields to the east of the meadow and the paths around them had been drenched with herbicide prior to planting new crops. The chemicals had reached the hedges that line the sides of the coast path and the area looked barren and dried out (picture below). To the west, where the coast path runs between the cliff edge and arable fields, there had been spot spraying of “weeds”. It looked as though attempts were being made to eliminate wildflowers alongside areas where crops are grown.
Wildflowers are very important for supporting the insects and, indirectly, the birds that flourish here and I was concerned by this apparent degradation of the site. I decided to make several visits across the summer to see how the site recovered and how the insects fared.
My first visit was in late May and I found good numbers of male long-horned bees in the coastal meadow, foraging mainly on bush vetch. This flower scrambles through the bracken that lines the cliff edge of the meadow. With its slightly untidy looking flowers that start a deep purple but open to pale lilac petals, bush vetch provides excellent early forage (picture below). The long-horned males looked very fresh with their yellow face, bright russet thorax, shiny black abdomen, legs coated with fine hairs and their trademark very long, shiny, black antennae. They are such iconic, beautiful creatures and it was a pleasure to see them moving swiftly about the site between flowers. I also went to look at the nest area in the soft rock cliffs below the meadow where the vertical, reddish surface is peppered with pencil-sized holes. Males appeared here regularly looking about the site for females. They arrived and performed a meandering flight across the nest area, sometimes repeating this before flying off. There was some play-fighting and a few overexcited males got tired of waiting and tried to mate with their male cousins.
The coastal meadow looked glorious. A dense coating of knee-high grasses grew across the site lending it a sheen of pale browns, greens and muted reds. Many flowers grew among the grasses in addition to the bush vetch, including buttercup, catsear, common vetch, speedwell, hop trefoil, wild carrot and along the cliff edge to the western end, bird’s foot trefoil, thrift and bloody cranesbill, a rich kaleidoscope of colours . For the most part, herbicide-treated areas outside the meadow had grown back although some flowers had been eliminated.
Female Eucera longicornis appeared in June and by the third week of the month they outnumbered males. One hot spot for females was a hedge along the sea side of the coast path where it skirted a field just to the east of the flowery meadow. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea grew here in moderate amounts, its bright pink flowers proving very attractive to the females. I watched them feeding from the flowers; they looked rather different from the males, their antennae were a more conventional length and they appeared chunkier with striking golden plumes of pollen-collecting hair on their back legs. When they arrived, they landed on the lip of the flower pushing the large sail-like upper petal backwards to access nectar. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea also grew through the cliff edge bracken in the coastal meadow and female long-horned bees were foraging there too. Although many other flowers were growing here including several large patches of the yellow scrambling meadow vetchling, the females showed an absolute preference for the wild pea. I also spent some time by the nest area watching a regular stream of females returning to their nest, some carrying large lumps of sticky pollen on their back legs. A few males hung about the nest site and others foraged from bush vetch in the meadow but they paid little attention to the females, all mated by now.
Although the coastal meadow was still looking outstanding with its rich fabric of grasses embroidered by so many wildflowers, the situation elsewhere on the site was not as encouraging. Wilting plants in several locations indicated more herbicide usage and the path along the coastal hedge mentioned earlier had been strimmed on the sea side and treated with herbicide again on the field side (more wilting plants, pictures below). To cap all of this, when I visited in the second week of July, cattle had been allowed into this area trashing the hedge and eating all the narrow leaved everlasting pea growing there. In previous years, this hedge and the wild pea that grows here have been critical for the survival of the female long-horned bees so this could have been catastrophic. Fortunately, this year large amounts of the wild pea with its bright pink flowers had grown up in the coastal meadow and many females were foraging there instead.
So, based simply on this year’s observations and the numbers I saw, the long-horned bees seem to be doing well at this south Devon site. The colony is moderate in size and numbers seem to be holding compared with observations made in previous years.
There has, though, been significant degradation of the local environment this year with loss of wildflowers following herbicide use and cattle damage to an extent I had not seen before. In order to support these rare bees and perhaps to increase the size and extent of the colony of long-horned bees, the numbers of wild flowers should be increasing along the length of the coast path rather than being restricted to the coastal meadow as currently seems to be happening. This degradation of the site surely runs counter to the legal protections associated with an SSSI?
Another concern at this site is the fate of the six banded nomad bee (Nomada sexfasciata), the UK’s rarest bee. This bee is a parasite of Eucera longicornis and in the UK is only known at this south Devon site. I last saw it in 2017 when I made several sightings. Since then, it has been seen by others on only one occasion each subsequent year so it is very rare. This year, I saw several Nomada species by the nest area in late June. One stayed for a short time but was definitely not Nomada sexfasciata and the others disappeared too quickly for verification. I believe there have been no other sightings this year.
The south Devon site needs support to protect the unique flora and fauna present there, especially the rare bees and other insects that live in this special habitat. Buglife and the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are developing a project termed Life on the Edge which aims to protect the site and increase the number of wildflowers. It is currently seeking funding so we have to hope it gets that support.
The state of the site across spring and summer
The featured image at the head of this post shows a male Eucera longicornis on bird’s foot trefoil in late May.
As the train drew in to Dawlish Warren station, I realised that I hadn’t made this journey by rail for nearly two years because of the pandemic. Seeing the familiar landmarks at the station and, in particular, the river Exe, a pale blue ribbon of water stretching ahead parallel to the railway, was like visiting the house of an old friend. I had decided to travel by train to try to inject some sense of normality into my life. Being “double-jabbed”, I felt the risk was low.
The journey had gone well, the vast majority of passengers wore masks and were being careful and respectful of others. The railway line between Newton Abbot and Exeter runs close to water all the way, providing one of the great railway journeys in the UK and I was enthralled, as always, by the close-up views of the Teign estuary and of the sea between Teignmouth and Dawlish Warren. It was by no means a “normal” experience, though, as everywhere there were signs urging people to take care.
Leaving the station, I walked through the commercial area which had a distinct holiday atmosphere. Racks of colourful plastic buckets and spades vied for attention with row upon row of beach shoes and there were quite a few people about. Some were enjoying the funfair, some the busy cafes and pub while others were simply promenading.
When I reached the seafront, I sat on one of the benches for a short time to take in the view. Thin cloud hung overhead but milky sunshine kept the temperature pleasant. Visibility was good and there were clear views across the water to the red cliffs of East Devon. The tide was low and the sea a silvery-blue mirror tempting children and parents into the water for a swim or splash about.
A fenced boardwalk took me down into the nature reserve passing between sandy areas covered in rough grass where the papery, lemon-yellow flowers of evening primrose showed well. Some small birds were moving about here perching above the scrubby bushes. I was unable to see them clearly enough to identify by eye but their distinctive rattling call told me they were cirl buntings, rare birds that frequent this part of south Devon.
The middle part of the reserve is a large area of damp grassland and ponds surrounded by sand dunes. A dense population of scrambling plants grew across the damp areas with colourful flowers decorating the thick green matrix (see picture at the top of this post). Meadowsweet with its frothy, creamy blooms was perhaps the dominant flower but there were also many spikes of yellow bartsia, a root hemiparasite that takes nutrients from grasses and suppresses their growth. Purple tufted vetch scrambled through the lush canopy and the tall stems of purple loosestrife were just coming into flower. The southern marsh orchids that had illuminated the area a month ago were now mostly over although a few flowers remained.
Further on I began to see one of Dawlish Warren’s summer specialities, marsh helleborine. Clusters and then large drifts of this beautiful but unusual orchid were coming up through the short, damp grassland lending it a pinkish veneer. I made the error of kneeling down to look more carefully at the flowers only to realise just how damp the area was. The flowers are complex with three pink sepals and two upper petals, white with pink striations, covering the yellow reproductive apparatus. The large lower lip is even more complex with its upper section decorated with pink striations and its lower, mostly white frilly-edged section. This lip also has a strange appendage, rather like a pocket with egg yolk splodges.
The land then rose steadily towards the dune ridge in a network of soft sandy paths separating patches of rough vegetation. The sounds of the sea were always present and as I walked about, it seemed that wherever there was loose sand, a few small stripy bees were resting near the path edge. Photographs showed that these had striking green eyes. Some had yellowish brown hair around the thorax and looked very fresh whereas in others this had turned silvery an indication of their age. The green eyes and the preference for a sandy environment are characteristic of male silvery leafcutter bees (Megachile leachella). This species is found in large numbers at Dawlish Warren.
The pink and white pea-type flowers of restharrow grew alongside one rising sandy path and a stream of black and white stripy bees, (slightly larger and pointier than the male leafcutters) were arriving to forage. They landed on the white lower part of the flower and then rocked backwards and forwards as they accessed the nectar. These are female silvery leafcutter bees collecting nectar for their nests. There were also males about but they showed no interest in the females, mating having, I presume, happened already.
Not far away was a different habitat again where the soft paths ran between small vertical areas of sand held together by rough grass and with poorly defined but visible cavities. Male leafcutters were loitering about here but then I saw a female arrive carrying a segment of green leaf under her abdomen. She landed in front of one of the holes and gradually eased forward eventually disappearing with her leaf segment. The piece of leaf will be used to construct her nest in the cavity in the sand.
But where was she cutting her leaf segments? I wandered about the area near her nest looking at the vegetation and eventually came across a tree where the leaves had many small semi-circular holes. Some of the leaves had been so well cut that there was little leaf left. This may be the source of the leaf segments but without seeing one of the bees cutting I can’t be sure as there is another species of leafcutter resident at Dawlish Warren. No bees turned up to answer my question and by now the weather had changed becoming cooler and windy and it felt as though the bees had decided to take the afternoon off.
Last year, I did find silvery leafcutter bee females cutting leaf segments at Dawlish Warren but from a different tree and here is a short video:
With the change in the weather, I decided to go home and made my way to the railway station. It had been a good visit and I was pleased to have taken my first train journey after such a long time. Ironically, that evening, the Prime Minister announced that from July 19th all COVID restrictions on behaviour would be abandoned. This has not been met with universal acclaim and I would urge you to read this deeply felt critique. For myself, I am not sure I would feel comfortable to travel by train again unless the railway companies make mask wearing compulsory.
It felt like an unexpected gift, a warm, dry and mostly sunny day after so much dull, wet weather. I had been feeling very constrained and was determined to get out to enjoy this different day and it looked as though the non-human world felt the same. The wisteria at the front of our house caught the morning sun, wafting its distinctive sweet fragrance on to the air and bees were busily foraging from the greyish-mauve flowers. Bumblebees, honeybees and two red mason bees (Osmia bicornis males) were among the insects working the blossom. The Osmia came from one of the nearby bee houses and it was good to see them about after the spell of poor weather.
Hazel had a meeting in Kingsbridge that afternoon, so I dropped her off and took the opportunity to make a quick trip to the coast. It took me about 20 minutes, passing through several small villages, to reach Torcross and the sea. The sun shone optimistically as I then began the two and a half mile drive from Torcross along what is known locally as the Slapton Line. The geography here is very unusual with the road running northwards in a straight line along a narrow bank bordered on both sides by water. On one side of the road a shingle beach slopes down to the sea and on the inland side a narrow area of rough grass and vegetation separates the road from an extensive lagoon, Slapton Ley. The situation of the road makes it very vulnerable to storms, high tides and rising sea levels and, in 2018 it had to be closed and rebuilt after damage by Storm Emma.
That day, though, the sea was calm, a deep blue shading to a darker steely blue. Sunlight sparkled on the surface of the lagoon and generous clumps of thrift decorated the edges of the road as if splashed with pink paint. When the road turned inland to climb away from the water, I located the car park that gives access to the northern part of Slapton Sands, as it is known locally.
The beach here is a broad flat plateau of fine, pale brown shingle that eventually slopes down to the sea from a low ridge. The landward side is backed by densely wooded cliffs giving the beach an enclosed feel and providing some shelter from winds. This can be an elemental place especially when a westerly gale blows and fierce waves attack the beach. That afternoon, though, there was just a light breeze from the west and spells of sunshine warmed the air. A few clouds were moving about overhead and as they shifted, mobile pools of light and shade tracked across the shingle. I paused to stand on the beach for a short time and looked across the water towards Start Point and its lighthouse listening to the sound of the water lapping on the beach and the occasional cry of a passing gull.
Shingle beaches are rare environments and this one is unlike any other I have encountered, not only for its size but for the special selection of plants that grows here. The section of beach near the land featured many small islands of vegetation, a green archipelago in a sea of pale shingle. Often, these islands contained a clump of red valerian, a plant introduced into the UK in the 16th century and now widely naturalised in the west. Each island also contained a variety of other plants including sea campion, bird’s foot trefoil, forget me not and hawksbeard. One contained a colony of rosy garlic with its charming pale pink flowers, others supported small shrubs. The red valerian flowers looked very fresh and many were not yet open. In a few weeks, though, huge numbers will be in flower casting a distinctive reddish-pink sheen across the beach.
Towards the sea, the green flowery islands petered out leaving a sparsely vegetated zone of shingle populated by plants capable of coping with harsher conditions. Sea spray and some large waves reach this part of the beach and only specially adapted plants can grow here. These often have leaves with waxy coatings to prevent water loss and long roots to reach fresh water deep below the shingle. Sea kale is one of these and imposing clumps of this plant grew towards the shingle ridge. The clumps were several feet across with fleshy, dark green, cabbage-type leaves tinged with pink, and overlaid with copious sprays of white flowers. Sea kale is an impressively architectural plant that dominates this part of the beach and perhaps it encourages people to build the beach sculptures with flat stones that I saw nearby.
Rosettes of furry, pale grey-green leaves were also emerging from the shingle in this zone. These are from yellow-horned poppy, yet to flower. Later in the year, these plants will light up the beach with their papery, lemon-yellow flowers and enormously long scimitar-shaped seed pods. Also struggling through the shingle were many long ropes of a plant with fleshy, green, spade-shaped leaves arranged geometrically around a central stem with a slight helical twist. This is sea spurge another of the plants that frequents these salty, harsh environments. It has very unusual flowers (see pictures below).
I spent the rest of the time wandering about the beach looking at the flowers, hoping I might see some interesting insects given all the floral resource about. I concentrated on the bird’s foot trefoil, a bee-favourite that grew well in several of the island clumps. A few bumblebees were foraging from these bright yellow cushiony flowers and then suddenly another very different bee appeared, feeding from the bird’s foot trefoil, moving purposefully from flower to flower. It was quite small, about two thirds the size of a honeybee and a striking ruby red colour with prominent golden bands of hair around and across its abdomen (see picture at the head of this post and below).
I had seen several of these insects here two years ago; they are gold-fringed mason bees (Osmia aurulenta) and this one was a female. Not only are they very beautiful insects with their sparkling, jewel-like colouration but their life cycle sets them apart as they are one of the three UK bee species that nests in empty snail shells. The female constructs cells within the abandoned snail shell using leaf mastic and provisions each cell with pollen and nectar before laying one egg. Even more bizarrely, they decorate the outside of the filled shell with more leaf mastic. Vegetated shingle is one of their favoured habitats and there were empty snail shells scattered sparsely across the beach. Try as I might, though, I have yet to find one of these insects working on a snail shell!
I visited Slapton Sands on May 19th on a warm dry day but on May 20th, the cold, wet weather returned. After a week, however, something meteorological shifted and, thankfully, summer finally arrived. Many female red mason bees are now busily building nests in the bee houses.
I had intended to go further afield for my next Lockdown Nature Walk but events drew me back once again to the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the centre of Totnes. I visited several times during the second week of March and discovered a fascinating story of bees, beetles and their mutual interactions.
After my account, I have included part of a poem, “The Spring”, by William Barnes written in the dialect of the west country county of Dorset.
A laughing sound, the yaffle of a green woodpecker, reached our house on several days and I thought it might be coming from the Leechwell Garden. I went to look but I didn’t find the bird. It’s no hardship, though, to visit the Garden at this time of year when the non-human world seems to be waking up and changing rapidly. On early spring mornings, it’s a very peaceful spot and the combination of old stone walls and sunshine creates a warm microenvironment. Noise from nearby roads can intrude but birdsong and the rushing of water from the stream overcome this. There are often a few children enjoying the play area, their voices blending with the song of the chaffinches flitting around the Garden.
Most shrubs and trees are in bud now but the weeping willows seem to be in the lead, their gracefully hanging branches grazing the ground in cascades of lime green. Close up, the green haze covering the branches is a mixture of immature spear-shaped leaves and catkins. The catkins are small green cigar shapes at present but will turn yellow as they mature. Towards the back of the Garden, snowy splashes of blackthorn decorate the hedges and fleshy green tongues of ramsons make their way up through the leaf litter.
Below the pergola is a sloping, southeast-facing grassy bank. When I visited, a few dandelions and daisies were pushing through the grass and the underlying soil had been exposed on part of the bank by children’s feet running excitedly towards the play area. It was March 9th, on a sunny morning, when I first noticed a few small bees flying about above this bare soil. Occasionally one of the insects paused on a leaf or flower to take the sun or to feed on nectar and I could then see their well-marked stripy abdomen. They were quite small, about two thirds the size of a honeybee and over the next few days, especially when the sun shone, the numbers increased. There were also several holes in the bare soil, some surrounded by soil spill and the bees occasionally stopped to investigate, disappearing inside the hole for a short time.
By the middle of March, a mobile cloud of the insects, at least 100 I estimated, would fly just above the soil. They moved back and forth and from side to side, circling, dancing, the urgency of movement increasing when the sun shone, like water simmering, threatening to boil over. My photos of the insects highlighted the prominent creamy hair bands around the abdomen, the pale hairs that decorate the face and sides of the thorax and the haze of pale yellow hairs coating the legs, confirming that they were male Yellow-Legged Mining bees (Andrena flavipes), one of our earliest spring solitary bees.
One day I noticed a slightly larger but otherwise similar bee pausing on a dandelion. The size suggested this might be a female and before I could take a photo my hunch was confirmed as one of the smaller bees hopped on top of the larger bee. They stayed clasped together for about two minutes, his legs twitching before they separated. She stayed on the flower whereas he moved to a nearby blade of grass. If this mating was successful, the female now starts the job of nest building. Within one of the tunnels in the bare soil she will construct a series of cells each equipped with one egg and a mixture of pollen and nectar collected from flowers. The eggs will develop into new bees. Each mated female works alone without cooperation so that these insects are referred to as solitary bees.
One of my visits to the Garden was on a sunny Sunday morning and, after I had looked at the bees, I wandered about glancing at the flowers. My attention was captured, though, by a large black beetle (about 2.5cm long) among a mass of ivy beneath a hawthorn tree. I found a second similar insect close by on a separate leaf. Both were motionless and seemed to be taking the sun. These are unusual creatures with a small head and thorax compared to their much larger abdomen. Wing cases were visible but they were too small to cover the abdomen, rather like a portly Victorian gentleman unable to secure his jacket across his belly. The prominent legs and antennae of the beetles seemed to be comprised of many small segments so that they resembled tightly coiled wire. In the sunshine, their bodies, legs and antennae sparkled a beautiful iridescent dark blue. After a bit of searching and with some kind help from John Walters, I worked out that these were female violet oil beetles (Meloe violaceus). This was a surprise as these rare insects have not been spotted in the Leechwell Garden before.
Oil beetles have one of the most bizarre life cycles of all insects, one that is inextricably intertwined with the lives of solitary bees. Each spring, mated female oil beetles dig shallow burrows in soil where they lay eggs in large numbers. The eggs develop and the louse-like, early-stage larvae, called triungulins, eventually leave the burrow. The tiny triungulins look for flowers, climb up the stems and wait in the flower for a passing solitary bee. When an unsuspecting bee arrives looking for pollen and nectar, the triungulin clambers on board and hitches a ride to the bee’s nest. Once there, it feeds on the pollen and nectar left by the bee for its own offspring and, after passing through several developmental stages, a new oil beetle emerges the following spring.
With such a complex life cycle, it’s surprising that oil beetles manage to survive, but survive they do. They are, though, declining and part of the problem is a reduction in the number of solitary bees. With urbanisation and the intensification of agriculture, wildflowers have disappeared from large parts of the countryside. Solitary bees are unable to survive in such a degraded environment with obvious knock-on effects on oil beetles.
The Leechwell Garden has a good selection of flowers, both wild and cultivated, and there are several colonies of solitary bees including the Yellow-Legged Mining Bees mentioned earlier. I hope these oil beetles will be able to continue their lives here and, as the season progresses, I shall be looking for the triungulins on flowers popular with solitary bees.
As a postscript, last Saturday morning we were walking down our street and were very surprised to find another female oil beetle. This one was crossing the road, moving quickly, antennae flexing and moving all the time as the beetle sampled the air. We stood nearby to prevent it from being squashed by cars or other passers-by. I was able to get a reasonable photo and Andrew Whitehouse kindly confirmed that this was another violet oil beetle, newly emerged.
Perhaps there are more of these insects about than I had realised?
“The spring” by William Barnes
When wintry weather’s all a-done, An’ brooks do sparkle in the zun, An’ naïsy-builden rooks do vlee Wi’ sticks toward their elem tree; When birds do zing, an’ we can zee Upon the boughs the buds o’ spring, – Then I’m as happy as a king, A-vield wi’ health an’ zunsheen.
Vor then the cowslip’s hangen flow’r A-wetted in the zunny shower, Do grow wi’ vi’lets, sweet o’ smell, Bezide the wood-screened graegle’s bell; Where drushes’ aggs, wi’ sky-blue shell, Do lie in mossy nest among The thorns, while they do zing their zong At evenen in the zunsheen.
[These are the first two verses of Barnes evocation of a 19th century Dorset spring. Most of the dialect becomes clear if read aloud but here are three translations: Vield – filled, graegle – bluebell, drush – thrush]
In the Guardian Country Diary for November 13th 2020, Sarah Gillespie described, in beautiful poetic language, her experience of starlings roosting in reed beds at Slapton Ley in south Devon. By coincidence, we had visited Slapton Ley a week or so earlier (on October 25th) and had a different but complementary experience.
It was a grey, overcast Sunday afternoon as we headed towards the coast, dry and not too cold but with a blustery wind. Our plan had been to walk around the Ley and through the village of Slapton, finishing in time to watch any starling roost in the 30 minutes before sunset. Slapton Ley is known for its starling roosts but we had no idea where we might see any activity or even whether any would occur.
The Ley is a long, thin lake separated from the sea by a narrow shingle bar, the Slapton Line, wide enough to accommodate a road, paths and stony beach. The shingle supports many interesting plants and the lake, reed beds, marshes and woodland form an important nature reserve with many species including passage and overwintering birds. The Ley extends roughly north-south with extensive reed beds at both ends. Our walk took us south along the inland flank of the lake by the water’s edge and under trees with intermittent views across the water. It was a pleasant, late autumn jaunt and it felt good to be outside and in touch with the changing season. The path was quite muddy in places and there were, unsurprisingly, few flowers about although we did see several cheerful red campion and some fresh-looking white deadnettle, brightening the gloom like fairy lights.
Near the start of our walk, we found the observation platform. This is a wooden-slatted affair that extends for a short distance across the water, largely surrounded by vegetation. It is a good place to look out across the Ley or to listen to the rustlings of waterfowl hidden among the reeds. With the recent heavy rain, the Ley was quite full and we noticed the sound of the water lapping on the wooden slats of the platform, the sound rising and falling as the wind imposed its rhythm. The sounds of the wind and the water felt like natural music and captured our attention.
The breakfast programme on BBC Radio 3 with Elizabeth Alker has a Saturday Sounds feature where listeners send in recordings from everyday life. We decided to record our “natural music” (click here to listen; warning, when this video is finished, Facebook will try to load another unrelated video over which I have no control) and send it to the programme but this also needed a companion piece of music. Perhaps it was the wooden slats of the observation platform but we both kept thinking of music played on the marimba and the simplicity of the sound suggested the composer Steve Reich. Hazel, though, found another piece that complemented the rising and falling of the natural music even better: Orbit by Will Gregory played by the saxophonist Jess Gillam but with an ensemble that includes a marimba (click here to listen).
To our surprise and delight, both recordings were played on the show on November 7th.
Towards the end of our walk, the sky began to clear. Bright light filled the western sky and the low reddening sun captured the tops of roadside hedges, highlighting drifts of plump red berries. Flocks of finches flew from nearby fields including chaffinches, goldfinches and greenfinches.
By now it was about half an hour until sunset so we looked for a suitable vantage point to watch for roosting starlings. We came across a small group of people by a bridge looking towards the northern end of the Ley where there are extensive reed beds, so we waited nearby. The northern sky was clear now except for a few clouds, some white and some grey. We didn’t know why the people had gathered there so It was a bit of a gamble but our uncertainty was soon dispelled when a small group of starlings rose from the northern reed beds. At first, they were just a mobile smudge on the pale blue background but more birds soon joined. This larger group began to move back and forth in a more defined manner sculpting mobile motifs against the sky, the pulsating mass taking on a life of its own like a shape-shifting, super organism. The murmuration continued for a short time before this first group of birds fell back to the reeds only to be replaced by another; this process of rising and falling was then repeated several times. The light was steadily fading but as the sun dipped downwards it cast pastel hues of rose and mauve across the northern sky.
Occasionally, rather than returning to the northern reed beds, the mass of birds streamed past some trees on a nearby rise disappearing in the direction of Ireland Bay behind us. Sometimes, though, they took the alternative route to Ireland Bay directly across where we were standing and this turned out to be an intensely visceral experience. The sight of several thousand birds flying low overhead is spectacular on its own but there was also the noise, the rushing sound of their wings beating urgently, disturbing the air as they passed low over us. The level of sound rose rapidly as the birds approached, falling away just as quickly as they went on, like a sudden gust of wind passing through trees. I hadn’t known what to expect but just for a few moments that afternoon we had been close to these wild creatures, closer than I can ever remember, witnessing part of their life and experiencing them in an entirely unexpected way.
The starlings, of course, don’t behave like this for our benefit, an underlying urge for security and safety compels them to form these groups. This didn’t, however, stop me from marvelling at their behaviour and the liquid shapes they carved across the sky, like artists creating magical images from paint and canvas. There was, though, another, less comfortable sensation hovering at the edge of my consciousness that I found harder to pin down. Perhaps it was a hint of fear, perhaps at some level I was concerned that so many birds so close to me might pose a threat. Overall, though, these were moments of magic that made me glad to be alive and as the poet, Mary Oliver writes: “Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us”.
The small group of people who shared these events seemed to be entirely focussed on the birds and there was little or no conversation. One man even had a notebook, the true mark of a serious naturalist! We had a brief physically-distanced conversation with them afterwards and learnt that the Slapton Ley starlings divide their roost between the northern and the south western (Ireland Bay) reed beds. They also told us that a loud plop from nearby water had probably been an otter.
I did not notice any “bright, intrusive screens held up between world and eye” but perhaps we were lucky that afternoon. I did take a few photos myself but I made sure that I also watched the murmurations. For me, photographs provide a record, jogging my memory, sometimes showing aspects of events that I failed to notice in the heat of the moment.
By now the sun had set and the starlings had settled down to roost so we walked back to the car. A pale half circle of moon hung low above a dark blue sea. On the beach, pebbles rushed back and forth urged on by the waves and, across the bay, the lighthouse at Start Point began to flash its protecting light.
The photo of Slapton Ley at the head of ths post and the photo of the wooden-slatted observation platform were both taken by Hazel Strange.