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” .
A recent Sunday morning walk took us past the weir that crosses the river Dart about a mile upstream from Totnes. A weir was built here as early as the 16th century to divert water from the river along a leat so that its energy could power corn mills in the town The leat is still intact, but now meanders largely unnoticed through industrial estates and near supermarkets, though still attracting the occasional kingfisher. The Town Mill also still stands and has variously been the Tourist Information Centre, a Coffee Shop and home for the Local Image Bank. In the past decade, though, the weir has seen major change and rejuvenation with the construction of the Totnes Weir Hydro. Its twin Archimedes Screw-driven turbines once more harness the energy of the upper river, this time to generate electricity. [See picture of the weir and hydro at the head of this post]
Below the weir, the river is tidal and increasingly brackish with large sandbanks emerging at low tide. Today, these are gull territory where they squabble and shout at one another while fellow birds continually join and leave the party. Nearer the weir, small gangs of mallards, male and female, poke around in the water for food, taking little notice of children and their dogs playing nearby.
We pick our way downstream across the filigree of raised tree roots that covers the tidal area at the lower river’s edge. Across the water, a large, well-marked bird is swimming back and forth despite the brisk current. With its black head and long red beak above a largely white body this is a male goosander. The bird is paying attention to something floating in the water and, from this distance, this looks like a dead bird. I make out a chestnut head and grey body, possibly a female goosander, and my immediate reaction is that the male is mourning his dead mate. But no, I was wrong because, after a little more manoeuvring, the male hops briefly on to the female and when he is finished, she miraculously springs into life and swims about rapidly. My photos [see below] confirmed that she was far from dead but had adopted a submissive posture to encourage her chosen mate.
If, like me, you enjoy looking at flowers, then winter can be a pretty dismal time. The plants that give colour to the autumn such as asters and sedums have long since faded and there’s a gap of several weeks before the winter flowers, snowdrops, aconites and pulmonaria show their faces. It hasn’t helped this winter that the December weather, although very mild, brought many overcast days. Ceilings of thick grey cloud hung overhead, keeping light levels low and draining the landscape of colour so that I yearned for some brightness.
But there is help at hand in the form of winter flowering shrubs and plants which bring welcome colour to the gloom. These include winter honeysuckle and winter flowering heathers but my favourite is mahonia with its starbursts of lemon-yellow flowers and its spiky evergreen leaves. Mahonia works hard, flowering from November with some varieties continuing to bloom well into the New Year. A large stand of the shrub is a fine sight in winter, sometimes as much as three metres in height, covered with multiple plumes of flowers reaching upwards above sprays of spiky mid green holly-like leaves. Even on the darkest winter day, the yellow flowers light up their surroundings like banks of fluorescent tubes and should the sun shine, both flowers and leaves glow in reply. As an added bonus, stands of mahonia are often enveloped in a cloud of sweet fragrance said to resemble lily of the valley, a rare experience in these low months. If all that wasn’t enough, as the flowers mature, they produce attractive blue-black berries dusted with a white bloom.
Mahonia was first discovered during the Lewis and Clark expedition sent to explore the newly acquired north western territory of the United States during the early years of the 19th century. The shrub was found growing extensively between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean. The prominent Irish/American nurseryman Bernard McMahon based in Philadelphia was responsible for propagating the seeds and plants brought back from the expedition and mahonia was named in recognition of his work. Mahonia is also referred to as Oregon grape after the resemblance of its berries to the vine fruit and the part of the US where the shrub was first seen.
The native US shrub was imported into the UK in the 19th century and different varieties were also found in Asia at about the same time. These and their hybrids are now very popular in this country contributing architectural interest to gardens as well as winter colour. They are often planted around the edges of car parks and outside buildings where their potential size can be readily accommodated.
It’s not just humans, though, who take pleasure from mahonia in winter. Both insects and birds relish the profusion of flowers and berries on the shrub. The long arching racemes thrown upwards by mahonia are densely packed with small flowers, each shaped like an upturned bell and formed from concentric rings of petals and sepals. The flowers are rich sources of pollen and nectar providing important forage for insects on mild winter days and, as the insects feed, they contribute to pollination.
Among the insects visiting mahonia in winter, bumblebees are regular foragers in the south of the UK and I have seen both workers and queens even in late December, sometimes liberally dusted with yellow pollen. Honeybees and hoverflies will also venture out to feed on milder winter days and they may occasionally be joined by red admiral butterflies. It’s fascinating to watch bumblebees working the flowers, moving systematically along a raceme, dislodging yellow petals which fall to decorate nearby leaves and create a yellow “snow” on pavements below. Birds such as blackcaps and blue tits also take sugar-rich nectar from mahonia flowers. When they visit, they may pick up pollen on their beaks contributing to pollination.
The flowers have a special mechanism for increasing the efficiency of pollination by visiting insects and birds. In each flower, the pollen-loaded stamens are arranged in a ring just inside the petals. Stimulating the flower, as would happen if a pollinator visits, causes the stamens to move inwards increasing the likelihood that the pollinator will pick up pollen to transfer to the next flower. Pollination leads to formation of the berries, each about the size of a blackcurrant which start green and mature to blue-black with a white bloom. The berries provide winter food for birds later in the season and blackcaps, blackbirds and song thrushes may be seen feeding.
Although mahonia was a new discovery for colonists in the US in the early 19th century, the native American tribes of the north west were already familiar with its properties. Some ate the berries, either raw or cooked and some used preparations of the shrub for medicinal purposes. Yellow dyes derived from the plant were also used by the tribes for colouring fabrics and basketry. Preparations of mahonia have been employed in traditional Chinese medicine over many years and are used by some contemporary herbalists but rigorous scientific studies of their effects have not been performed.
It is interesting to reflect on how mahonia, a shrub native to parts of the US and Asia, has successfully travelled to the UK where not only does it brighten our winters but it also supports wildlife across this low season.
It’s become something of a ritual. Each year in the first week of August, we scan the sky nervously. We’re looking for birds but anticipating an absence. It’s not that we want the swifts to go but we know they must. The next part of their life is lived in Africa where they spend the months of September to April after their long migration. When they leave us, it’s a sign that the year has moved on and summer is gradually giving way to autumn.
This year the swifts arrived at the beginning of May. We had been watching out for them for several days and then finally we noticed a few birds swooping around in the sky above our house. With that dark crossbow silhouette and those rapid bursts of wing beats interspersed with smooth glides, we were relieved and pleased to see that the swifts had returned. Messages circulated on our local WhatsApp group celebrating their arrival and it was clear that our neighbours were just as interested as us. Gradually their numbers built up as more birds arrived from Africa. Numbers varied and, on some days, we saw none but at their peak this year up to 30 swifts were swooping and screaming across the valley below our house. The valley contains a community garden with flowers and trees and most likely the swifts come to feed on the insects that breed there.
Throughout late spring and summer we watched them flying backwards and forwards at high speed, changing direction as they banked and turned, sometimes going into steep dives pulling out at what seemed like the last minute, screaming as they went. Sometimes a group flew about together, individual birds adjusting their relative positions before splitting into smaller groups like rockets at a firework display. Sometimes the birds flew towards our terrace of houses, turning finally to avoid the brickwork or deftly navigating the gap between this and the next terrace.
The position of our house gave us a very privileged view of the birds. It is one of a terrace of five houses built on a ridge on the southern edge of Totnes overlooking the valley and community garden so that our kitchen window is level with the tops of the trees below. Sometimes, when the birds were flying about near the houses, they passed at speed very close to our kitchen window giving us views worthy of a nature documentary programme. Sometimes, when we sat outside on the patio, the birds passed directly overhead screaming as they went, a joyous and very visceral experience.
Sitting outside, we could also see some of the birds swooping up to the eaves of two houses in adjacent terraces where they made nests. They also nested in the roof space of one of the houses in this terrace and, for the first time, they occupied a wooden bird box fixed near the eaves on another house. The box was put up several years ago by a neighbour. It was occupied by sparrows one year and tree bumblebees in another but this year the swifts used it. Swifts tend to return to the same places to nest each year so we have high hopes of seeing them in this box in the future.
The second week of August arrived and the birds were still about. Although we expected them to go any day, they still had the ability to surprise. On the 10th just before 9 o’clock with the sun setting, I was standing outside looking across the valley, watching the light fade and the colours changing. I hadn’t seen swifts that day and wondered if they had left. The western sky was still bright, a luminous pale blue, and light cloud in the northern sky gathered pinkish-orange tinges from the setting sun. Suddenly, above the general hum of human activity I heard the familiar screaming sound announcing the arrival of a volley of swifts. About ten birds in groups of two or three were heading straight towards me just above head height. At the last minute, though, they changed course to fly through the gap between the terraces.
If all this wasn’t exciting enough, I had a second fascinating close encounter with the non-human world in the same week, this time with a very different species and some distance away from Totnes.
The second story began when, in the first week of August, Tim Worfolk, a local bird illustrator and naturalist, reported on social media that he had seen some rare and unusual bees on a nature reserve south of Exeter. This was the first report of this species in Devon and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go to have a look. So, on August 9th I made the 40-minute drive to the Exminster Marshes, part of the river Exe floodplain and a wetland nature reserve managed by the RSPB. I had driven through a shower on my way over and rain threatened later but it was my only free day that week. I parked in the reserve car park and made my way down a lane towards the Exeter Canal and the river Exe. Signs of water were never far away. Although the lane was enclosed by hawthorn bushes and other scrub, reeds grew through the vegetation and a ditch half full of water ran alongside the lane. Late summer flowers grew in the hedges including bright yellow fleabane, the lemon-yellow snap dragon-like flowers of common toadflax and the pink cushions of hemp agrimony.
I left the lane to cross open grassland criss-crossed by ditches with rough stony bridges. Clumps of tussocky grass grew across the marshy land along with stands of creeping thistle that attracted small copper and small tortoiseshell butterflies and some chunky hoverflies. Cows grazed nearby and this would have been a peaceful spot had it not been for the M5 motorway bridge crossing the marshes towards the north creating a continuous background hum of traffic noise.
At the end of the field path, I crossed the cycle track and scrambled up to the towpath at the edge of the Exeter Canal. The pleasant town of Topsham with its Dutch-gabled buildings lay across the river Exe on the far side of the canal. The towpath was quiet, most likely because of the weather, but a few walkers passed and two stand-up paddleboarders drifted lazily past on the canal. A little drizzle was now falling and I began to wonder if any bees would be about but I decided to press on. Banks of reeds lined the towpath and flowers grew up through the vegetation. I noticed the pink flowers of marsh woundwort with their intricately decorated lip and a few tall spikes of purple loosestrife. Then, as I walked southward, thick clumps of yellow flowers appeared in the canal-side greenery. This was yellow loosestrife, a plant that grows in wet places and, with its copious sprays of bright yellow cup-shaped flowers produced in late summer, it shone like a beacon of light on this gloomy day. Each flower contained large amounts of grainy yellow pollen and the plant grew in many places along the canal up to the lock where the canal and river merge. (The picture at the top of this post shows some the yellow loosestrife flowers)
Light drizzle continued to fall and I had almost given up on finding bees when I spotted a medium-sized dark insect in one of the yellow loosestrife flowers. Visually, I couldn’t see much to distinguish this insect except some white hairs on the hind legs. Photographs also showed the prominent white hairs on the back legs along with some black as well. These characteristics together with the association of the insect with the yellow loosestrife flowers showed that this was a female Macropis europaea, the yellow loosestrife bee, one of the bees I had come to find. The photographs also showed a few small drops of rain on the insect which was sheltering on this damp day and essentially immobile, making it easier for me to take pictures. Further along the canal, I came across another dark insect also resting in a yellow flower and in this case, photos revealed its swollen hind legs and its prominent yellow face, characteristic of a male of the same species.
These are the bees reported by Tim Worfolk but why was I so interested in seeing them? They are rare which is of course one reason. They also have some very unusual characteristics being the only UK species of bee that collects floral oils and they find these oils in the flowers of yellow loosestrife.
Within the flowers there are tiny glands that secrete floral oils. The glands, termed trichome elaiosomes, are found towards the lower part of the inside surface of the petals and along the stamen tubes and the oils collect near the glands. The female Macropis bees have specialised brushes of hair on their front and middle legs that they use to collect these oils which are then transferred to the hairs on their back legs, sometimes mixed with pollen also collected from the flowers. The female bees use the oils for two purposes, to waterproof the inside of the nest chambers they construct in wet places and, mixed with pollen, to provide food for their larvae.
When I visited, the damp conditions prevented the females from flying so I was unable to observe them collecting pollen or oils. Local naturalist John Walters has a nice video of the female bees collecting pollen where the bees look like they are wearing bright yellow pollen pantaloons.
I was glad to have made the trip to Exminster Marshes, despite my doubts about the weather. Seeing these oil-collecting bees and understanding the close and reciprocal relationship they have with the yellow loosestrife flowers was an unexpected gift.
But what about the swifts? August 13th was the last day we saw the birds near our house so we assume they are now on their long migratory journey. Their presence has not only entertained us but has enriched our lives this year, bringing us closer to the non-human world. It has been an excellent year for the birds in terms of numbers and it was good to see them reproducing so well, especially in this time of environmental crisis.
It was still early when I looked out of the back window. I had expected a clear morning but, instead, a veil of grey mist lay across the eastern hills. The line of mist seemed to follow the course of the river Dart hidden beneath the lower town, softening and lending an air of mystery to the view. A hazy orange glow emerged above the line of mist gradually shading into a clear, translucent blue sky. This orange dawn light reminded me of one of the species of the butterfly about at this time of year. The French call these butterflies “l’aurore”, (the dawn) and the Germans refer to them as “Aurorafalter”, (the dawn butterfly). We English settle for the name “orange-tip butterfly” (from the bright orange wing tips of the male).
Last year, during the first lockdown I found orange-tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines) in the Nursery Car Park, one of the town centre car parks. The butterflies laid eggs on the garlic mustard growing along one of the borders, caterpillars developed and I presume they left chrysalises on vegetation in the car park. Unfortunately, last December, the council carried out a “tidiness” raid on the Nursery Car Park cutting down most of the trees and all the plants and other vegetation, presumably destroying the chrysalises. Some early spring flowers did grow but in the third week of April the “tidiness brigade” returned and strimmed the borders again. This included destroying a bank of flowering three-cornered garlic that was popular with female hairy-footed flower bees last year. I don’t bother to look in the Nursery Car Park now.
The male orange-tip butterfly is one of the clear signs that the new season has arrived and, at this time of year, they can be seen meandering about the countryside searching for females. In flight, they mostly appear white making them awkward to distinguish from other “white” butterflies although hints of the orange wing tips can sometimes be seen. This year, I had seen several of the males in different places around the town despite the markedly cool weather. I had only seen one female so, last Sunday afternoon, with sunshine forecast, I decided to have another attempt at finding orange-tip females, this time in an orchard on the western side of Totnes.
Colwell Wood is owned by the Woodland Trust and located a short distance up Harper’s Hill. It occupies a sloping site with good views towards Dartmoor and was planted nearly 25 years ago. Now there is an area of woodland with a good selection of broadleaf native trees and an orchard stocked with heritage fruit trees: apple, plum, pear, cherry, medlar and mulberry.
A mature horse chestnut tree greeted me when I walked through the wooden gate off Harper’s Hill into Colwell Wood. The tree was covered in floppy lime-green leaves and there were plenty of white candle-like flowers flecked with pink. The woodland area is a short distance away and, with the trees now fairly mature, this a lovely spot. A path took me through the rows of mature trunks, sunlight percolated through the partially leafed trees and above me a chiff chaff sang among branches that chattered as the breeze made them tremble. The lesser celandine that had given the woodland floor a yellow sheen a few weeks ago were on their way out, the colour being replaced by a fulsome green growth with ferns unfurling and hogweed leaves spreading.
The woodland ended and I walked a little way down the slope into the orchard, now a mass of flowers with most of the trees in blossom. Apple predominated with its pink and white flowers and a steady stream of pollinators were visiting. I saw bumblebees, honeybees and hoverflies and above the trees a few St Mark’s flies.
I also began to see an intermittent passage of white butterflies across the orchard in the sunshine. With their undulating, slightly uncertain flight these insects often remind me of fragments of paper blowing in the wind but here a better comparison would be with the pale petals of apple trees. These were blowing about in the breeze and on more than one occasion I jumped thinking that a butterfly had passed me only to find it was just a fragment of apple blossom.
Several species of butterfly appear white in flight, so it’s important to look carefully at individual characteristics to identify the species. Most of the “white” butterflies passing through the orchard that afternoon, though, were elusive and accelerated away when they saw me. Then two appeared dancing around one another in the air. I watched, thinking this might have been a mating pair but one flew off leaving the other to land on some cow parsley. I got a quick glimpse of orange as the butterfly landed so I knew this was a male orange-tip. He tolerated me approaching and looking, even when I knelt down and inadvertently sat on a stinging nettle. His wings were closed for most of the time, revealing the beautiful green and yellow mottled underwing patterns (see picture at the top of this post and also below). Slight traces of orange bled into the pattern but the dominant mottling blended well with the colours of the cow parsley. When he had finished feeding, he flew off giving me another quick flash of brash colour.
Then another “white” butterfly appeared and landed on one of the pear trees. This insect fed with wings half open, also exhibiting the mottled underwing pattern characteristic of orange-tip butterflies. It lacked the orange upper wing markings but in their place were black wing tips and spots showing this to be a female of the species. I was able to watch for a while before she flew off.
My third close encounter with a “white” butterfly that afternoon occurred as one landed on apple blossom and rested with its wings closed. The underwings of this individual were mostly yellowish green with a beautiful pattern of darker, radiating veins rather like the branches of a tree. This was a green-veined white butterfly (Pieris napi).
The weather changed, cloud covered the sun and the temperature fell a little. The butterflies took this as a signal and I saw no more that afternoon but I returned a few days later on a sunny but rather windy day. Walking through the woodland section, I came across several clumps of garlic mustard, the larval food plant of the orange-tip butterfly (and also the green-veined white). I examined each plant carefully and very gently and was pleased to find one tiny, orange, ovoid structure attached just under the flower head on one flower stem (see pictures below). This “mini rugby ball” was the egg of an orange-tip butterfly. It has a much better chance of producing a new butterfly next year in this environment compared to those I saw last year in the Nursery Car Park.
Thanks to Dr Claudia Garrido who identified the medlar tree for me (see picture below).
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]
For my next Lockdown Nature Walk (taken on February 10th 2021), I went up Fishchowter’s Lane, an ancient track on the southern side of Totnes. It was a very cold, grey day but I found much that was encouraging and some that wasn’t. After my account of the walk, I have included a poem that feels relevant, “A Backward Spring” by Thomas Hardy.
A jumble of bright green, grass-like leaves spills along a roadside wall near the beginning of Fishchowter’s Lane on the southern edge of Totnes. This is three-cornered garlic and despite the bitter easterly wind, a flower stem has dared to appear among the leaves. Most of the flowers on the stem are still swathed in a pale papery bract but one has escaped, snowy white with a hint of a pale green stripe. For a moment, this fragile flower holds my hope that spring, when it arrives, might lighten this lockdown making it easier to bear.
I begin to walk up the lane past houses and a former quarry, now a dark, fern-fringed grotto occasionally used by a wood worker. Trees grow within the quarry and a group of small birds fusses in the leafless branches. One of these trees, a hazel, drapes over my path casting a mist of yellow catkins that shimmers in the wind.
The lane rises gently along the side of a grassy valley as it enters open countryside and I begin to be aware of a stream rushing along the valley bottom a little way below. I am used to mud on this path but with the recent spell of cold weather, it has frozen hard with reminders of that morning’s snow caught in crevices. At first the lane feels open with views across nearby fields in the valley but soon the character changes. Trees and scrub growing in the path-side soil banks now cover the track giving it a more enclosed, sheltered feel. By late spring, fresh leaves will have created a mysterious green tunnel here but today some light still gets through. With the overcast conditions, though, this is a poor flat light and everything feels rather gloomy.
Despite this, the enclosed track has a feeling of lush green growth. Ferns and wall pennywort cover large areas of the soil banks and have yet to be touched by the cold weather. Shiny arrow head-shaped leaves push up through the soil on the banks and by the path side, some with prominent black spots. These are the leaves of Lords and Ladies whose beacons of orange-red berries will light up the green tunnel in late summer. Groups of pointed leaves like small spears, some spattered with mud are also emerging through the hard soil along the side of the path. Breaking a piece of leaf releases a sharp oniony smell transporting me forwards to a time when these starry-flowered ramsons will capture the edges of the track. Then further along, green mats of oval wavy-edged leaves cover the bank. This is opposite-leaved golden saxifrage an evergreen, damp and shade-loving plant. A few yellow flower stems are already showing, bringing hints of sunshine to the dark track.
The path continues to climb slowly, sometimes enclosed by trees, sometimes more open. A stream running off a steeply sloping field crosses the lane to join the water in the valley and I pass an organic smallholding before the lane rises again to reach a junction where another path crosses at right angles. The junction is set in a peaceful tree-lined glade where water cascades from fields across rocks and old tree stumps before entering a culvert to hurry downhill towards the valley stream. I stand there for a while listening to the ebb and flow of the watery sounds and I try to imagine the people that have walked this way over the years. I also reflect on how, if you walk a path regularly, it can insinuate itself into your life.
Fishchowter’s Lane leaves the tree-lined glade to head steeply upwards across the side of a rising hillside. The path is enclosed by scrub and mature trees and feels rather bleak today. As I climb, the noise of the wind threading through the trees begins to dominate and apart from wall pennywort growing on the soil banks there is little to see except for a few green spikes that may be bluebells. In compensation, the views to the north become increasingly spectacular, across the valley below, to the town of Totnes and further on to the Dartmoor hills.
The lane climbs about 75metres from the watery glade in a short distance so I am relieved when the track levels out. This part of Fishchowter’s Lane is open and airy in spring and summer, its high hedges richly embroidered with wildflowers. Today, though, the plants growing along the banks look damaged. Foxgloves and wall pennywort show this most with their leaves drooping uncharacteristically. I am puzzled by this at first but decide that the recent high winds from the east combined with persistent low temperatures have damaged the lush leaves of plants that grew well in the earlier mild weather. It looks alarming and although it may set back these plants, they will recover and regrow so I press on to the next junction where I turn left along Bowden Lane.
This is a well-used farm track, scarred with deep muddy ruts glinting with shards of ice. It’s another mass of growth in the warmer seasons, abounding with flowers and insects but today it looks apocalyptic. The farmer appears to have decided to rein in the vegetation, flailing the hedge and plants growing there, spreading the cuttings across the high banks that line the lane. A thick brown layer of coarse fragments of wood and leaves covers both sides smothering any new growth, so that the lane looks dead. I don’t hang around here, there is nothing to see, the wind is bitter and a little snow is now falling. The lane ends at a four-way junction and I walk on to the minor road which allows me to descend along Totnes Down Hill. Primroses with their yellow flowers are showing well in the high banks but it is very exposed with more evidence of wind damage.
So, what about my earlier hopes for the arrival of spring? With all this natural and unnatural destruction, all this loss, I can’t help but feel downcast but then I come across a splash of snowdrops growing by the side of the road. As I look at the delicate green markings on these flowers, a great tit sings a joyful “teacher, teacher” from a nearby tree and then a robin appears. Not wishing to be left out, the bird begins to speak to me.
A Backward Spring by Thomas Hardy
The trees are afraid to put forth buds, And there is timidity in the grass; The plots lie gray where gouged by spuds, And whether next week will pass Free of sly sour winds is the fret of each bush Of barberry waiting to bloom.
Yet the snowdrop’s face betrays no gloom, And the primrose pants in its heedless push, Though the myrtle asks if it’s worth the fight This year with frost and rime To venture one more time On delicate leaves and buttons of white From the selfsame bough as at last year’s prime, And never to ruminate on or remember What happened to it in mid-December.
For my next Lockdown Nature Walk I took advantage of a rain-free day to cross Totnes to look at some unusual flowers growing on the northern edge of the town. Here is my account of the walk (taken on January 25th 2021)together with a poem by the American poet Ruby Archer entitled Fire in the Sky. For my previous Lockdown Nature Walks, please click here.
The day dawned to a washed out, almost translucent, pale blue sky. To the east, though, there was a hint of what was to come as an apricot halo crept above the low hills as if a fire were burning behind them. Then, as the sun rose, a raft of thin cloud towards the south east caught its light, first a rose-pink, then orange before relaxing to cream. It was a good way to start the day.
No rain was forecast so I decided to walk across the town, past the castle to the northern edge, where semi-urban and residential gradually give way to rural. It was a day of light and dark, a day of bright sunshine and long shadows, and a cold day where frost lingered in areas inaccessible to the sun.
A minor road, Barracks Hill lies in this transitional zone, striking north away from the bypass past a modern housing development. The road rises gradually between rough grassy banks and then more steeply to cross a low ridge. This section of the road is enclosed and dark. It rises, like a sunken green lane, between steep sides, some rocky, some covered in rough vegetation, emerging eventually into sunshine and open countryside with farmland and trees. There was once a Barracks along this lane, built in the late 18th century. Some of the buildings remain but most were demolished when a fine Georgian house was built in the 1820s.
But I want to go back down the hill to the lower part of the lane to look at the scruffy areas of vegetation that line the road. Where it can, the sun casts pools of brightness on to these roadside banks, its spotlight picking out pennywort, hart’s tongue fern, brambles and what looks suspiciously like garden rubbish. Whatever can get a foothold here seems to flourish and there is a long section of the bank where lime green, heart-shaped leaves push through a mass of dark brown, dry, decaying vegetation. Unusually for the time of year, many sturdy flower spikes also rise above the leaves, some sporting striking blue flowers that sparkle in the sunshine like sapphire jewels. This is oriental borage (Trachystemon orientalis) commonly known as Abraham-Isaac-Jacob. A relative of wild borage (Borago officinalis), this plant was introduced into gardens in the UK in 1868 from its native Bulgaria, Georgia and Turkey where all parts of the plant are consumed as a popular spring vegetable.
This patch of the plant is probably a garden throw-out and it seems very happy here, covered in flowers and having elbowed out all the competition. At a first glance, the flowers look rather chaotic but this is because several different forms and colours exist together at the same time.
First there are the pink tapering flower buds about 1cm long, decorated with a fuzz of white hairs resembling the stubble on an old man’s chin. The buds open to reveal the strikingly beautiful complex flowers. Each has five petals that curl and twist backwards creating an intensely blue frilly decoration around a crimped white collar reminiscent of a sapphire-coloured ruff around the neck of an Elizabethan lady. Adding to the complexity, five stamens, each about 1 cm long, and a single slightly longer style protrude proudly from the collar as a tight cluster. The stamens themselves are multicoloured starting white at the top, then pinkish-lilac, terminating as indigo anthers clasping lumps of pollen.
As the flowers mature, they discard the petals and stamens leaving an odd-looking remnant where a spiky pinkish-lilac style emerges from hairy sepal cup. This form in particular contributes to the overall messy look of the plant. Unusually, all three flower forms, representing different stages of maturation, are present at the same time. This may be the inspiration for the common name of the plant, Abraham-Isaac-Jacob, itself a reference to three generations of a biblical family. [Photographs at the end of this post illustrate the three different flower forms.]
A plant that produces flowers at this low time of year is a rare discovery and these out of season sources of pollen and nectar often attract winter-active insects. Nothing was about when I looked, though, and the day was probably too cold. I came back a few days later on a warmer afternoon and was pleased to find a fine hoverfly on the flowers (see picture at the top of this post). With its bulging brown eyes and distinctive barcoded abdominal pattern of yellow, silver and black bands this was a marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) a species that overwinters as an adult and emerges on mild winter days. It was collecting pollen from the indigo-coloured anthers and nectar from the nectaries in the white collar.
Fire in the Sky by Ruby Archer
I thought the darkness would not yield, Glooming the sun-forgotten sky, ‘Till pulsing, surging glows revealed A far-off burning,—home or field, Up flung the light. Oh whence? O why?
I thought forgetfulness had spread A Lethean gloom athwart one sky, ‘Till memory’s light crept warmly red From flame I deemed in ashes dead. Up leapt the light. Oh whence? Oh why?
Here we are again in another Lockdown. The rules prevent us travelling away from the local area and while I support this, it feels much more constraining this time with winter weather and pandemic fatigue. The only answer is to make the best of it so we are taking daily exercise walks around the town and the nearby countryside looking at the non-human world as winter gives way to spring.
During the first Lockdown, I wrote a series of posts entitled Lockdown Nature Walks and I intend to do the same during the current hiatus. In the first of these new Lockdown Nature Walks (taken on January 13th 2021) I go up to one of the high points above the town of Totnes in south Devon. As well as the description of my walk, I have included a poem that feels relevant, The Rainbow by the 18th century Scottish poet James Thomson, and some photos of what I saw.
I started on the western edge of the town and walked up Harper’s Hill with its unpredictable surface and its 1 in 3 gradients (see Lockdown Nature Walk 7). The sides of this ancient sunken track showed plenty of growth, mainly ferns and pennywort but I did find a few clumps of dark green spears piercing the leaf mould cover. The white swellings at the top of these spears told me that these were snowdrops, getting ready to flower, a welcome indication that the year was moving on.
The lane levelled out and at Tristford Cross, I turned right on to the old ridgeway road. The trees that had been providing some shelter petered out and I began to feel the full force of the bitterly cold wind that blew from the west. To the north, the land fell away to a deep valley, a patchwork of fields, farms and woodland. The edge of Totnes lay to the east some 100 metres below. It felt very exposed on the ridgeway road and curious things were happening in the air above the valley as fragments of rainbow formed and faded repeatedly as if memories of past events were attempting to replay. These transient hints of colour really did feel spectral but, in reality, they were the result of a significant meteorological battle. Thick grey cloud was trying to dominate, even partly obscuring the hills of Dartmoor in the distance. Occasionally, though, the sun got the upper hand, breaking through the cloud and transiently painting fields in the valley a luminous yellow-green. Barely visible, mobile swirls of mizzle were also about, waiting to separate the sunlight into its constituent colours.
Until the Turnpike was built in the valley below, this ridgeway road was the main route from Totnes to Plymouth and the west. Nowadays, it is very quiet and, in spring, colourful wild flowers decorate its roadside banks. Even in mid-winter, though, I found a drift of fleshy heart-shaped green leaves on the roadside bank with the occasional spike of shaggy white and mauve flowers pushing through. This was winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), introduced into gardens in the early 19th century, loved by some for its almond-scented flowers, hated by others for its invasive nature. Further along, a single chunky flowerhead, rather like a large bottle brush showed above the rough grass along with one round leaf. This was butterbur (Petasites hybridus), having emerged very early, and I noticed multiple pink and white florets covering the flowerhead.
Winter heliotrope and butterbur are members of the same botanical family, Petasites, named after the Greek word petasos for a wide brimmed felt hat, a tribute to their large leaves. Later in the year, butterbur leaves can grow up to a metre across and, in the days before refrigeration, were used to wrap butter, hence the name.
Rain arrived from the west driving me back down Harper’s Hill towards home but also reminding me of the other use of mature butterbur leaves as impromptu umbrellas.
The Rainbow by James Thomson
Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around. Full swell the woods; their every music wakes, Mix’d in wild concert, with the warbling brooks Increased, the distant bleatings of the hills, And hollow lows responsive from the vales, Whence, blending all, the sweeten’d zephyr springs. Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud, Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow Shoots up immense; and every hue unfolds, In fair proportion running from the red To where the violet fades into the sky. Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism; And to the sage-instructed eye unfold The various twine of light, by thee disclosed From the white mingling maze. Not so the boy; He wondering views the bright enchantment bend, Delightful, o’er the radiant fields, and runs To catch the falling glory; but amazed Beholds th’ amusive arch before him fly, Then vanish quite away.
Many of the lockdown restrictions imposed across the UK to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have now been removed or relaxed but life still feels very different from what we were once used to. It does, though, seem inappropriate to continue referring to Lockdown Nature Walks and this will be my last one with that name. So, for my tenth walk I want to come back to where I started back in March by walking round some of the town centre gardens and car parks looking at what is out and about in late August/early September.
Let’s start at the Leechwell Garden, a peaceful, green oasis in the centre of Totnes open to all. There is always plenty to see here and it changes week by week. Many flowers grow and I pop in regularly to look at the insects that have been attracted. During my lockdown visits to the Garden, I have talked to many people and I came to realise what an important lifeline the Garden has been for those without green spaces of their own or for people wanting a physically distanced conversation. The Garden has also echoed with children’s laughter and the sandpit and play area have been a much-needed diversion for families.
Here are a few highlights from my recent visits:
It’s a short walk from the Leechwell Garden to the Nursery Car Park, one of the town centre car parks, surrounded by tall stone walls, grassy banks and soil borders. In April and May, one of the soil borders was unexpectedly enlivened by colourful wildflowers that commandeered its scruffy surface. Insects were attracted and in Lockdown Nature Walk 5, I described how I found beautiful orange-tip butterflies here. As spring gave way to summer, the first flush of flowers was replaced by large clumps of spear thistle occupying the border with their architectural presence as if the triffids had taken over. These thistles proved very popular with bees:
In mid-August, the local council decided to mend the fence along the back of this border and in the process cut all the flowers and trees down to ground level. This did seem rather drastic but most of the plants had finished flowering for the year so perhaps the damage was mostly cosmetic. I do, though, wonder what happened to the chrysalises of the orange-tip butterflies?
The other borders were unaffected by this scorched earth policy and a large buddleia in one corner is currently covered in its purple plume-shaped flowers that perfume the air with their distinctive but slightly sickly fragrance. In another corner, brambles still retain a few late flowers. Both are currently attracting butterflies.
Finally, I want to go to the Heathway Car Park, also close to the Leechwell Garden. Along one side of the parking area there is an old stone wall covered in dark green-leaved ivy and now is the time of year that I begin to peer at stands of this climber. It’s the developing flower heads that interest me and they currently show considerable variation: some still resemble tiny, pale green golf balls composed of a tight cluster of small spheres. In others, slightly more mature, the individual spheres are held on extended stalks like a clutch of ice cream cones. Then on August 23rd, in the Heathway Car Park I found that some of these ice cream cones were showing yellow-tipped stamens, the ivy had flowered. Insects come immediately to take advantage of this new canteen of nectar and pollen and a stand of ivy in full bloom and covered with insects can be an awe-inspiring sight. So far, I have only seen wasps and hoverflies on the flowers but I hope to see some ivy bees, the last of the solitary bees to emerge each year and a sure sign of the changing season.
The picture at the head of this post shows a small white butterfly (Pieris rapae) on globe thistle (Echinops) in the Leechwell Garden