Last week we saw this beautiful and surprising creature, a hummingbird-hawk moth, feeding from the red valerian that grows so profusely in Totnes.
Here are two more photos I managed before it flew away.
The wing span is about 5cm to give some scale. These day flying moths come into the UK from southern Europe in the summer.
Seeing this insect was all the more surprising as I have recently had several conversations with people about how few moths they see nowadays and that is my experience as well. If you want to read about the general decline of insects in the UK here is an interesting article from the Observer.
As we stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, we had our first glimpse of the river Exe, its waters a sparkling pale blue in the bright sunshine. The weather was a welcome change after so many cold and snowy days but, during our short journey from Totnes, we had passed bright ridges of snow still piled against field hedges and, in low lying places, large lakes of standing water from snow melt. Perhaps the weather was giving us a gentle reminder of its power to disrupt life.
We hadn’t intended to visit Dawlish Warren again so soon (see here for a description of our previous visit) but we wanted to get out for a walk and, hearing that some country roads were still snow-blocked, we chose somewhere easily accessible. We also wondered how the recent extreme weather might have affected this beautiful sand spit.
The view from the promenade quickly told us part of the answer. Sand was piled up on the retaining wall that slopes to the beach and, along the promenade, some of the benches were partly submerged in sand as if caught by a pale brown snow storm. On the beach, huge quantities of wooden debris lay in random heaps, along with some very large plastic items; it will be a mammoth task to clear this. A closer look showed that the debris was a mixture of wood and reeds along with bits and pieces of plastic and many industrial plastic pellets (mostly grey nurdles). I don’t want to go on too much about these industrial pellets, I’ve written about them several times already, but we found them littering all the beaches at the Warren to a greater or lesser extent. Near the promenade there must have been thousands.
As we were picking up a few of the pellets, a woman asked Hazel what she was doing. After an explanation, the woman said:
“I thought you were picking up driftwood,” and after Hazel had shown her some pellets the woman continued “still they might be very nice for decorating a mirror.”
We then walked around the Dawlish Warren sand spit following the route I outlined in a previous post, which also gives some background information about this nature reserve.
The central area of the Warren was partially flooded but still passable. No spring flowers were to be seen yet but small birds were performing florid mating displays while a group of black corvids sat judgementally in a nearby tree. Vegetation along paths over the dunes was seemingly spray-painted with a coat of rough sand, probably a result of the blizzard sucking up material from the beach. Near the bird hide, I disturbed a large flock of Brent geese feeding on the golf course. These imposing birds took off as a group and circled low over us before moving to a quieter spot.
Warren Point at the end of the sand spit was as mysterious and beautiful as always, its pale marram grass covering glowing in the sunshine. A small flock of linnets, the males with their pink bibs standing out, fidgeted in the branches of a low bush. A skylark rose from the ground, wings flapping frantically as it hovered in mid-air, singing, turning a tune over and over, changing it each time. Then, without warning, it stopped flapping and deftly descended back to the ground with subtle, steadying wing movements.
The story on the beaches bordering Warren Point was less uplifting. There was a slew of debris along the strandline, mostly wood and reeds but also many dead birds. We saw at least twenty casualties, mostly lapwings, identified by their largely black colouring combined with russet brown and white undersides. During the storm there had been a mass movement of these birds across the Warren and a proportion didn’t survive. We also saw one or two golden plovers with their exquisite pale brown and white herringbone patterns. On the beach facing up the Exe, the low sand cliffs at the back of the beach had been damaged by high water and when we rounded the point to walk back, there were more signs of storm damage. Areas of marram grass had been torn out and reddish soil had been deposited on the edge of the remaining marram grass.
The most significant damage, however, had occurred to the taller sand cliffs that abut the groynes on the sea-facing beach. Sand had been washed away from the back of the groynes and several metres of sand cliff removed exposing, in some places, the old sea defences. Some of the new fences built on the reinforced dune ridge had been torn out and now lay on the ground in casual heaps or hanging in mid-air, still partly attached. The groynes themselves seemed to be intact but plastic notices attached to them lay in pieces among the other debris. In a powerful demonstration of the scale of the storm and the water level reached, small pieces of wood and more plastic pellets lay along the wooden planks of the groynes and on top of the main support posts nearly a metre above the sand.
Despite all this, the Warren itself is intact and ready for the bloom of spring flowers. The scale of the damage to the new sea defences was shocking and a salutary reminder of the power of the sea, but at least the defences did hold. Elsewhere in south Devon, the coast road linking Torcross and Slapton was almost completely washed away. As in 2014, when the Dawlish railway line was destroyed, this year’s damage was the result of a combination of high winds and very high tides, perhaps combined with increased sea level.
As we waited at the station for our homeward train, I noticed willow trees by the platform with many plump, pussy willow catkins. A medium sized buff-tailed bumblebee arrived to collect pollen from the lemon-yellow male flowers.
Here are a few photos to record yesterday’s exceptional weather when the cold air from Russia (nicknamed the Beast from the East) met Atlantic Storm Emma and large amounts of snow were dumped on the south west of the UK. Here in Totnes we experienced blizzard conditions for most of the day, many roads were impassable and a support centre had to be set up to help people stranded in the town.
I have concentrated on some of the birds I saw feeding during the blizzard. The photos convey the feel of the blizzard; the white-out is also shown very well in the featured image at the top of this post.
I’ve always loved visiting galleries, discovering what an artist has created, but in the first week of May, the tables were turned. For the first time, I was on the other side presenting a joint exhibition with my artist wife, Hazel. We called the exhibition, “Bees in a Landscape”, and it was based around Hazel’s semi-abstract paintings of memorable views from the South West of the UK depicting the local landscape in all its glories. Alongside the paintings, I showed photographs of some of the bees I have encountered in these same locations. We hoped that the exhibition would raise awareness of the variety, beauty and importance of these beneficial insects as well as showing how we can all support them.
It was more than a year and a half ago that we agreed to put on the exhibition and throughout 2016 I photographed bees and Hazel worked hard on her paintings. I didn’t spend hours looking for rare examples, I just photographed the bees that I saw, often in local gardens or when Hazel and I were out walking together by the coast. It has certainly made me look more carefully at insects and flowers when we go out.
As the week of the exhibition approached there were many things to arrange: had we done enough publicity, did we have enough wine for the Private View, had we sent out all the invitations, would enough people come? Fortunately Hazel has a lot of experience in putting on exhibitions. When we spoke to people in the run up to the exhibition, we detected a genuine interest in the topic of bees and the landscape which was very reassuring.
The most stressful time was “hanging” the exhibition. All the paintings and photos were ready but we couldn’t get in to the gallery until 1730, the evening before the exhibition opened on the Sunday. There were a few distractions, and it took longer than we expected to decide how to place the work around the gallery and to mount it on the walls, and we had to come back on Sunday morning to complete the job. In the end, we finished with just enough time to nip home to change and be back to welcome guests for the Private View.
The Private View is one of those special artists’ events that goes with an exhibition. It’s a chance to invite friends, other artists, and people with a special interest to share a glass of wine before the exhibition is open to the public. Many people came and everyone seemed genuinely interested and impressed by the work. We were also very fortunate that, during the Private View, Totnes women’s choir Viva, sang for us creating a magical atmosphere with their beautiful harmonies. Led by Roz Walker, and dressed in yellow and black, they sang songs about bees based on poems by Rudyard Kipling, Carol Ann Duffy, Vita Sackville-West and one based on the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala. We were so grateful that they gave their time to come and sing for us.
The Exhibition was open that afternoon and then daily until the following Saturday. Hazel and I split the stewarding duties which meant we each did a morning or an afternoon in the gallery. Totnes is a busy place and the gallery is in the centre of town so up to 100 people came in each day. We both had many interesting and unexpected conversations with visitors and I was very surprised at the warmth and interest shown by people who came to look at the pictures, both landscapes and bees. On many occasions, I heard the comment: ” I didn’t realise how many kinds of bee there were in this country and how beautiful they are!” Hazel found that her paintings evoked memories for visitors: of childhood picnics, happy holidays and even a honeymoon. The greetings cards featuring images from the Exhibition were also very popular.
On the Tuesday, I took a small group on a Bee Tour of the public gardens dotted around the centre of Totnes. It wasn’t a very sunny day but we had wide-ranging discussions and were able to see some interesting bees foraging on large patches of comfrey and cerinthe including female Hairy-footed flower bees, early and tree bumblebee workers and a garden bumblebee queen.
Our exhibition was featured on Soundart, a local community radio station. One of the presenters interviewed Hazel in the gallery and I went to the studio to talk about bees. This was an interesting experience, if not altogether satisfactory. After Hazel’s interview had been played, the presenters asked me about the exhibition and about bees which was fine. When we got on to neonicotinoids, however, the discussion was hijacked by one presenter. He challenged the possibility of obtaining “evidence” in scientific investigations of complex systems like bees and after his intervention, the bee discussion petered out which was a shame as there were many other aspects we could have covered.
Hazel and I were extremely pleased with the exhibition. Many people came to look and we had some fascinating conversations. Several people made special journeys to visit and talk to us. People went away knowing more about bees. What more could you we have asked for!?
For more about Hazel’s paintings click here. The featured image at the top of this post is Hazel’s painting “Seal Bay (Brixham from Churston Cove)”.
Birdwood House Gallery web site can be viewed here
The signs have been there for a while. Birds singing as though someone told them it’s time to turn up the volume. Grassy banks dotted with starry yellow celandine flowers. A green haze of fresh leaves slowly creeping over previously bare branches. If only the weather would play fair it might be spring.
So, after many days of damp and grey, the sun shone, the air was warm and it was as though a transformation had taken place. It was also Friday Market Day and, as people wandered between the stalls, they smiled at one another and remarked on the weather. Two busking fiddlers played pleasing harmonies in the Market Square and, outside the Italian Café, it was not quite Tuscan weather but the beautiful people laughed and smiled in the Devon sunshine.
I wandered down to the Leechwell Garden where, soon after I arrived, my attention was grabbed by a low but insistent buzzing. On an extensive stand of rosemary growing against one of the old brick walls I saw a real sign of spring. It was a chunky bee covered in rich brown hairs but with a pale nose. Moving quickly and purposefully among the slate-blue flowers, it collected nectar, buzzing as it went. This was a male Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes), my first one of the year and seeing it lifted my spirits.
Elsewhere in town, I looked at a huge willow (Salix caprea) that has been cleverly pollarded and trained over a wall where its many slender stems drop like water over a precipice. The tree has been covered in immature, grey “pussy willow” catkins and, recently, these have been mutating into bright pollen-loaded male catkins. Last Friday in the sunshine the tree was very impressive: a mass of yellow flower heads, unruly brushes made from the long stamens, alive with honeybees and a few bumble bees and small flies. The whole tree buzzed as the sun’s energy was transformed into sound.
When the bumblebees saw me, they flew off in disgust. The honeybees, however, were drunk on pollen and nectar and either didn’t see me or didn’t care. Many of them already carried large chunks of orange-yellow pollen to take back to the hive but when they encountered a new flower head they wallowed in it, they almost swam in the stamens. If they could have expressed pleasure this would have been the occasion.
Later, a light mist crept over the hills to the east, gradually enveloping the town and shutting out the sun.
This year I promised myself I would try to get to know one our early solitary bees. I’d seen them in previous years but I knew there was more to learn so, from early March, I started looking carefully at the flowers in the local community garden, the Leechwell Garden. It was a bit frustrating as spring didn’t seem to know how to get started, rather like a sulky teenager on their way to school. The slow season had its effect on the flowers; there were plenty of primroses and dandelions and some rosemary but the early lungwort, a favourite of my chosen bee, was a bit short on blooms. It didn’t help my mood when a friend phoned to say she had seen one of the bees in a garden in Cornwall.
I had to wait another week after the phone call but eventually I was rewarded. Around lunchtime one sunny but cool March day, I heard a harsh buzz from the direction of some rosemary growing against one of the old stone walls. When I investigated, I saw one of my chosen bees working the disorderly blue-grey flowers, but he saw me coming and promptly flew away. Nevertheless, the spell had been broken and I began to see one or more of the bees each time I visited.
Rosemary and lungwort were their favourites and they moved deftly from bloom to bloom in search of nectar, long tongue often extended in readiness. Pausing to feed each time for a second or so, they emitted an urgent buzz as they moved, sometimes hovering briefly as if to take stock, their wings a pale blur in the sunshine. Despite the rapid staccato movements, I could see that they were roughly the size of a small bumblebee and covered in pale brown hair. Their distinctive, pale facial markings also stood out, reminding me of masked revellers at the Venice carnival.
These were male Hairy-footed Flower Bees (Anthophora plumipes), some of the earliest solitary bees to appear in the UK as winter stumbles slowly away. In this part of Devon, my first sighting was in March, around the time of the Spring Solstice, their presence providing a rather wonderful indicator of the new season. They are partial to lungwort flowers but feed from a wide variety of others. This year I have seen them feeding from banks of rosemary in a seafront garden, from aubretia cascading down an ancient wall and from three cornered leek growing in a long border near the sea. They forage at lower temperatures than many other bees making them important early season pollinators. In a rural setting, they are important pollinators for broad beans.
I tried to photograph them but they were rarely still, moving very quickly, seeming to object when I got too close, hovering in the air and buzzing loudly as if to frighten me away. After some persistence I managed to get a good photo showing their hairy middle legs and feet, celebrated in their name. The photo also shows their subtly marked abdomen with its alternate pale and dark stripes.
By early April, the lungwort was flowering well and the pale brown males were regular visitors to these trumpet-shaped flowers. They were joined by another chunky bee, this one jet-black except for two orange-tan flashes towards their rear. Easily confused with a small bumblebee and surprisingly different from the males, this was the female Hairy-footed Flower Bee. The female bees moved around the flowers as quickly and as edgily as the males, like small mobile black bullets. The splashes of colour come from thick tufts of orange/tan hairs on their back legs. These are their pollen hairs, used for collecting as they visit different flowers. A female with her yellow-loaded pollen hairs is a fine sight at this time of year.
The females were just as sensitive to my presence as the males, displaying a belligerent attitude as they hover and buzz aggressively in mid air. Occasionally they would check me out, hovering and looking, darting to right or left, hovering and looking, sometimes circling right round me. Bumblebees sometimes also take a good look, circling around me, even landing on my sleeve but this is a dialogue whereas my interaction with the Hairy-footed Flower Bee felt more confrontational.
For a few weeks, I saw a mixture of males and females feeding on flowers and it’s surprising how common they are. Occasionally they performed an aerial dance, circling around one another. Sometimes the males were more aggressive, hovering a few centimetres behind a feeding female, buzzing loudly and then pouncing, knocking the female off the flower. Given that the females have usually already mated, this behaviour is counter-productive and wastes valuable female foraging time. Perhaps the males are just hard-wired to behave in this manner as it ensures mating success.
By the third week of April I saw mostly the jet-black females, working hard, busily collecting for their nests, visiting a wide range of flowers. It takes each female about a day to provision one cell with pollen and nectar for the developing egg. Nests tend to be in sunny vertical surfaces such as cliffs, soil banks or holes in soft walls but although there are many old walls in Totnes with loose mortar I haven’t located a nest yet. John Walters wrote a nice description of A. plumipes nests in a soft cob wall near a Devon church. The cob wall offers good nesting conditions so the bees tend to nest in aggregations even though they are solitary bees.
The few males about looked faded and discoloured and noticeably slower than earlier in the season. They play an essential role in the survival of the species but they have mated with the females and are not needed anymore.
My last sighting of these bees was on May 15th. This seemed a little early and I can’t be sure if it reflected the lifetime of the bees or the bees foraging elsewhere. We won’t see the bees again for nine or ten months and the action now switches to the nests where eggs develop in to larvae eventually producing the new bees that will emerge next spring.
About a mile upstream of the south Devon town of Totnes, the tree-lined tranquillity of the river Dart is interrupted by a weir. Water cascades over this concrete barrier and after heavy rain there is a spectacular display of power with swirling whirlpools and foamy white water. Slate-grey herons and sparkling white egrets stand sentinel by the weir and the occasional grey seal lurks below, waiting to feast on fish that linger too long. There has been a weir at this bend in the Dart since the 16th century, built originally to harness the power of the river; the present rather bland construction dates largely from the 20th century.
The weir is a downwards-sloping concrete barrier that interrupts the flow of the river so that a large pool of water accumulates upstream, isolated from the tidal downstream water about three metres below. This pool of water is a store of potential energy that was used in the past to drive several water mills in the town a mile away. A channel, the leat, ran from the pool all the way in to Totnes and providing the leat stayed above the level of the river it contained the energy to drive a water wheel. Only one mill building now survives: the Town Mill dating from the 17th century but with 19th century additions. This was used as a water mill until 1945 and currently houses the Tourist Information Centre. The leat is still intact and can be viewed along much of its path, through an industrial estate, under the main railway line and passing near the front of Morrisons superstore. The leat is celebrated in the name of the town’s large medical centre, the Leatside Surgery.
Over the past year, a neat, stone-clad, turf-roofed building has materialised by the side of the weir. This is the turbine house of the new Totnes Hydro which once again harnesses the power of the Dart. On the downstream side of the building are two tube-like structures roughly aligned with the descending surface of the weir, each tube containing an Archimedes Screw. Water from the pool behind the weir passes under the turbine building to enter the tubes, pressing on the blades of each Archimedes Screw causing them to turn and driving the turbines. The Archimedes Screws can be viewed from the downstream side and I find them mesmerising – turning steadily, water splashing, feeling almost alive – as they transform the potential energy of the water in to kinetic energy and subsequently electrical energy.
When there is a good head of water, the turbines generate about 250 kW of power. Output will depend on flow in the river (higher power after heavy rain) and the head across the weir (typically about 3m but reduced by spring tides). Generation may cease altogether for about two weeks in a dry summer when water flow in the Dart is low. Currently, the electricity generated is powering the local comprehensive school and an aluminium foundry on the nearby industrial estate and any surplus enters the grid. To put this in to perspective the overall energy produced is enough to power the equivalent of about 300 homes. In time, the hydro will also provide electricity for the new ATMOS project. This is a community-led development of homes and businesses on the former Dairy Crest site in Totnes.
The river Dart is an important route for migrating fish and the weir already contained a fish pass to help sea trout and salmon overcome the barrier. The pass was, however, in poor condition so that fish were having difficulty moving up the weir leading to losses to hungry herons and seals. The new Hydro project includes renovating the existing fish pass and building an additional modern fish pass alongside the turbine building. These should help migrating fish so that, in time, the piscine population on the Dart increases; new fish counters have also been installed to help monitor traffic.
So far so good, but if equipment is installed to capture the energy of the river it is bound to alter the flow over and around the weir. You can see this clearly on the upstream side of the turbine house where water in the pool flows towards the new building to enter the Archimedes Screws, eventually discharging in to the river below. Although water flow through the turbines is carefully regulated by sluices to make sure that the weir does not dry out, less water now flows across the weir than before. This redistribution of water has remodelled islands in the river downstream and night fishermen have had to relearn safety on the river. We should not forget, however, that when the weir was first built and water was directed down the leat to power the Totnes mills some 500 years ago, water flow in the river must have been changed to a much greater extent. There is also the question of noise. The new Archimedes Screw turbines do emit noise as they turn and there is some splashing of water. The turbine building is insulated and the current level of noise from the new installation is no more than I can remember coming from the weir on a full flood.
The Weir Hydro project was developed by the owners of the weir, Dart Renewables, working closely with the Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC). TRESOC was set up by local residents to enable the community to develop renewable energy and to retain control of the resources. On a practical level TRESOC aims to supply local homes and businesses with “local” energy. If everything works to plan, the Totnes Weir Hydro should generate 1.35 GWh of electricity each year, saving 550 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The majority of this electricity will be used to power local enterprises.
Disclaimer: I am a member of TRESOC and have invested in some of their projects.