We’ve been in lockdown in the UK for nearly a week. I was glad when it was announced as it was the first decisive step our government has taken during the coronavirus crisis. We’re supposed to stay in our homes except for essential outings (work, food or medical) and one “exercise” walk each day. Hopefully the lockdown will reduce the spread of the coronavirus by limiting social interaction but it does require people to follow the new rules.
It has been a beautiful week for weather, mild and spring-like with bright sunshine and blue skies, the sort of weather where the air is filled with birdsong and you can almost hear the buds swelling. When I have been out on my exercise walks, I have been taking photographs when I see something that catches my eye. I thought I would post these here, partly for interest as spring arrives in the west country and partly to show how much wildlife there is about us.
The picture at the head of this post is of some Anemone blanda growing among leaf litter in the Leechwell Garden. These blue flowers are native to southeastern Europe but seem to do well here.
A large stand of flowering ivy in the early autumn sunshine is an impressive sight. The many pale green globe flower heads give off their distinctive sickly-sweet smell and insects throng to the flowers to take advantage of the sudden abundance of pollen and nectar. Movement is constant and the entire bush buzzes audibly. Among the insects gorging themselves, there may be red admiral butterflies, plump stripy bumblebees, also good numbers of honeybees and wasps. Sometimes, especially near the sea in the south of the UK, these are outnumbered by beautiful honeybee-sized insects with a distinctive yellow and black banded abdomen and russet coloured thorax. These are ivy bees, the last of our solitary bees to emerge and it’s a delight to watch them each year in September and October.
Ivy bees are relative newcomers to the UK having arrived from mainland Europe eighteen years ago. Since then, they have prospered, spreading across the entire southern half of England and northwards as far as Cumbria As their name suggests, the species prefers pollen and nectar collected from flowering ivy and part of their success must reflect the large amounts of this climber that grow around the UK.
Each year I look out for the ivy bees; for me they signify the changing season, the movement of the year. September 2019 began very mild and dry where I live but, by the fourth week, temperatures dipped and intermittent wet and sometimes very wet weather set in and stayed with us during October and into November. In spite of the weather, I saw ivy bees in several places and here are some highlights of my 2019 observations:
A grassy bank in Sussex
In late September we spent a few days holiday in Sussex, a county in the south east of the UK. We had delivered our daughter to the University of Sussex to begin her degree and were keen to do some country walking. The weather was less than cooperative but on the 25th, our last day, we decided to walk up to the massive iron age hill fort at Cissbury Ring, high on the South Downs. We parked in the village of Findon not far from the 15th century pub, the Gun Inn, and as we passed the traditional butcher’s shop the butcher himself was standing outside wearing his blue and white striped apron.
We left the car and walked up through the village past some private houses where my attention was taken by movement in a grassy bank alongside one of the driveways. I was delighted to realise that this was a large colony of ivy bees. I hope the owner of the house is equally delighted, and I hope they know these are not wasps. Many male ivy bees were dancing about just above the surface of the grassy bank waiting for females to emerge. They occasionally coalesced into a mating cluster when a newly emerged female appeared and after a short time the cluster dissolved and the female and her chosen suitor were left alone. The incessant movement of the colony even on a dull day was very impressive. Here are two short videos which capture this movement.
We left the ivy bees and continued uphill to reach Cissbury Ring. Today this was an elemental place: clouds scudded about driven by the strong blustery wind that was now also peppering us with raindrops and, when the clouds parted, the sun broke through leaving transient pools of light on the surrounding countryside. We kept to the eastern rampart to afford protection from the wind and from the highest point we saw the sea to the south and a second hill fort, Chanctonbury Ring to the north across rolling tea-coloured fields. A few hardy bees were braving the conditions to take advantage of the scattering of wild flowers across the chalk hillside.
On our way back down the hill we passed banks of ivy in flower where, despite the intermittent drizzle, ivy bees were collecting nectar and pollen to take back to their nests.
Heath potter wasps, no – ivy bees, yes
Bovey Heathfield is a nature reserve, about half an hour’s drive from where I live with several claims to fame. It is a surviving scrap of lowland heath, a fragment of the large area of heathland that once covered this part of Devon. Even though it is small, the heath provides a unique environment with unique wildlife and in August and September it bursts into life as the heather blooms covering the land with a pinkish purple sheen. It’s also the site of one of the more important battles of the English Civil War, The Battle of Bovey Heath 1646 and on the reserve, there are memorials to the conflict.
I went to Bovey Heathfield on a windy Saturday afternoon (September 28th) under partly cloudy skies to meet John Walters, a local naturalist and wildlife expert. John knows more than anyone else about a species of solitary wasp that frequents sandy heaths. This is the heath potter wasp and the plan was for John to show me these insects. Unfortunately, the weather was not sunny enough to tempt the wasps out but he did show me one of the pots constructed from muddy clay by mated females that give them their name. They attach these pots to stalks of heather and gorse and then lay their eggs in the pot, equipping it with caterpillars as food before sealing. These are mini-marvels of engineering and John has some wonderful video showing the wasps constructing clay pots (see here).
In the absence of these insects, John showed me the large colony of ivy bees that has built nests in the south facing sandy paths on the heath. The ivy bees were not deterred by the cool conditions; the males were very active and a number of newly emerged females were mobbed by them. I saw one mating cluster develop around a female resting on a heather stalk and wondered how they all clung on.
Ivy bees in a local cemetery
The river Dart drives a picturesque, watery wedge through the town of Totnes dividing it into two unequal parts. The eastern part, across the river, goes by the name of Bridgetown, a mixture of old and mostly new houses. Buried in the old part, behind the early nineteenth century St John’s Church is the cemetery. I rather like the cemetery, it is slightly unkempt with rough grass, trees, flowers and several large clumps of ivy. Most of the graves date from the 19th and 20th centuries and the place has a peaceful calm atmosphere. Last year I found ivy bees here for the first time, it was also the first time I had seen the species in Totnes. This year the ivy in the cemetery was late in flowering but finally on the last day of September some ivy bees appeared on a few of the open flowers. I saw males and pollen-carrying females, but not many of either gender. I wondered if they might be nesting in the cemetery but was unable to find any evidence. Somewhere nearby there must a nest aggregation.
As I was poking about looking for ivy bee nests, one grave stone, for Edwin Jordain, caught my attention. It was late Victorian, dating from 1893 and had fine carvings of flowers along the top edge unlike most of the other graves. I wondered whether the flowers were symbolic or just decorative and did a little research.
The flowers on the left side are most likely blue passion flowers. I learnt that these were very popular adornments to Victorian graves, representing the suffering of Christ. I feel less comfortable about my identification of the flowers on the right but I think they are lilies, linked with purity and innocence by the Victorians, especially after death. Many of the flowers depicted are open, apparently symbolising the prime of life; Mr Jordain was only 36 when he died. His epitaph perhaps sums this up: “Brief life is here our portion”.
I walk through our local community garden (The Leechwell Garden) most days in summer just to have a look at the flowers and insects but I know that, if I am there late morning, the sound of children playing will brighten the air. The older children, sometimes along with mum or dad reliving their youth, will be enjoying the fine new play area with its exciting slide. The younger ones may be messing about on the watery edge of the stream that passes through the garden but it is the sand pit that really hits the spot. Children love playing in the sand and I often see several family groups clustered about the sand pit; the only thing that seems to deter the children is heavy rain. It’s a real tribute to the vision of the garden committee that they created something so popular.
The flowers I come to see are across the other side of the garden and, for the past few weeks, I have been loitering near the old stone wall where there’s a large patch of the plant Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina). It covers the ground with a jumble of silvery-green, velvety leaves and sends up stout, silvery stems bearing clutches of smaller leaves and understated pink-purple flowers. It’s a pleasant, restful sort of plant creating an old-style, cottage garden feeling but what goes on around these Lamb’s Ears in midsummer is far from restful.
From the middle of June, a dark, chunky bee can be seen patrolling the patch of silvery-green leaves and I spend more time than I should watching him. Whereas most bees are gentle creatures keeping themselves to themselves, this one is a bit of a thug, oozing anger and aggression. He is the male wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), mostly black but with yellow markings along the sides of his abdomen, head and legs, reminiscent of the warpaint worn by native American tribes. He is about the same length as a honeybee but much broader making him quite imposing as he moves quickly about the patch of Lamb’s Ear. His movement is distinctive, he hovers then moves rapidly to a new spot, hovers, moves, all the time buzzing noisily. It feels like he is looking for something. And that’s exactly what he is doing, looking. Should he spot another male wool-carder bee or a different insect on his patch, he will chase it away by flying directly at it. I have seen him attack a bumblebee at least twice his size and knock it to the ground. But, not only is he aggressive, he is armed; the rear of his abdomen sports five stout spines which he will use to injure or kill the intruding insects and there are reports of male wool-carder bees disabling honeybees who dared to feed from their patch.
All this aggressive energy is directed towards protecting the patch of Lamb’s Ear for himself and his harem, for now and then a female wool-carder bee will appear. She looks very like the male, only a bit smaller; the wool-carder bee is one of the only species in this country where the male bee is larger than the female. When the male sees her feeding from the flowers he will pounce and, without any preliminaries, mating will ensue. This is a vigorous but brief activity sometimes causing the flower stem to vibrate before the two disengage and go about their business again. Unlike most solitary bees, where females mate once, wool-carder females undergo multiple matings so that, after a short time, our male will mate with the same female again and should a different female appear he will attempt to mate with her. One valiant observer went to the trouble of watching an individual male wool-carder in his garden and reported that the bee mated sixteen times in one day.
This focus on the aggressive behaviour of the male wool-carder bee tends to obscure the fact that it is the female that does all the hard work of nest building and egg laying. The wool-carder bee is a solitary species so that individual mated females build their nests alone, unlike the more familiar social honeybees and bumblebees. Nesting occurs in preformed aerial cavities in dead wood, in walls or in hollow stems, including the tubes found in bee hotels. Once she has identified a suitable site, the female strips or “cards” woolly fibrous material from plant leaves with her mandibles (hence the name wool-carder) and takes it back to her nest to line and plug the cavity (see the pictures below). Lamb’s Ear leaves are a popular choice for “carding” but Great Mullein or Yarrow can also be used. If you look carefully at the leaves of these plants you can sometimes see bare areas where she has been actively collecting fibres. Within the nest, she lays eggs and equips them with a mixture of nectar and pollen. The eggs develop in the nest where they stay until new bees emerge next summer and the whole cycle begins again.
So, if you have a patch of Lamb’s Ear in your garden take a look, there’s a good chance that wool-carder bees will be using it and you too can be enthralled by their antics.
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