Tag Archives: winter-active bumblebees

The Seafront Gardens in Lyme Regis

Mature trees, richly planted borders, gently curving paths, a place to look and a space to think – the Seafront Gardens in Lyme Regis provide both an oasis of calm for humans and a safe haven for wildlife.  Not only that, some of the town’s best views may be savoured from this green space.  Looking ahead, the Cobb can be seen stretching its protective, rocky arm around the harbour whereas, across Lyme Bay, the west Dorset coast rises and falls like a gigantic wave sweeping eastwards over Stonebarrow and Golden Cap reaching, on a clear day, that louring sea monster that is the Isle of Portland. 

West Dorset coast viewed from the woodland boardwalk
West Dorset coast viewed from the woodland boardwalk; the distinctive shape of Golden Cap is framed by the trees

 

History of the Seafront Gardens

Just over a century ago, the Langmoor Gardens were opened to the public on the slopes above Marine Parade in Lyme Regis.  The land was bought through a bequest to the town from Joseph Moly of Langmoor Manor, Charmouth and the gardens were named in honour of the donation.  The slopes were known to be unstable and concrete buttresses had been built to prevent movement.  Despite this, there were periodic slippages of mud on to Marine Parade and throughout the 20th century the Gardens continued to move causing distortion to paths and eventually rendering the lower part of the gardens unusable.  In 1962, land to the west of these gardens suffered a catastrophic landslip following a misguided attempt at development and several houses were destroyed.  This land was eventually taken over by the town becoming the Lister Gardens, named after Lord Lister of Lyme Regis, pioneer of antiseptic surgery.  The Langmoor and Lister Gardens now form one large continuous public space above Marine Parade.

Rebuilding the Seafront Gardens

The Lyme Regis Environmental Improvements carried out early in the 21st century provided an opportunity to deal with the unstable geology of the Gardens.  Between 2005 and 2007, major civil engineering works were carried out to stabilise the Langmoor and Lister Gardens which were completely remodelled.  The new design included many planted areas and grassy spaces, gently curving paths that seem to reflect the convexity of the Cobb, and a woodland boardwalk with outstanding views across the harbour and bay.  Facilities for mini-golf, putting and table tennis were also built.

Supporting wildlife was deemed important so before work started, bat nesting sites were sealed to prevent them returning, 2000 slow-worms were caught and rehoused and a 15cm barrier erected to prevent others entering.  The gardens were replanted with salt tolerant, sub-tropical and rare plants as well as native species, taking account of the needs of bats, birds and insects.  Now, a decade later, the Gardens have a mature look and nesting boxes for birds and bats are flourishing.  Visitors love the open space and the new design was recognised with an important national award.

The Seafront Gardens in winter

Mid-winter is typically a low time when weather is poor, plants are dormant and wildlife scarce but when I visited the Gardens in December and January I found surprising activity.  Flowering cherry trees at the rear of the Gardens were covered in frothy pink flowers and close by, two fragrant shrubs were also showing well: winter honeysuckle with its white trumpet flowers filled with yellow-tipped stamens; sweet box, covered with tiny white starburst flowers, dark green fleshy leaves and shiny black berries.  As I was admiring the flowers, several bumblebees flew past, stopping briefly to feed from the cherry blossom.

On the terraced borders above Marine Parade, extensive banks of rosemary were covered in mauvish-purple flowers.  These were proving very popular with bumblebees and even in mid-winter, I saw queens and workers foraging busily, collecting sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen from the flowers.  The queens were large and furry with two prominent buff/yellow stripes and a grey or pale brown tail, the workers similar but smaller and more brightly coloured.   These are buff-tailed bumblebees and their relationship with the flowers is far from one-sided.  The flowers consist of two petals enclosing pollen-loaded anthers that beckon seductively at passing insects.  The lower petals contain darker markings highly visible to bees helping to draw them in. Each bee that feeds collects additionally a dusting of pollen from the overhanging anthers which they transfer to the next flower they visit ensuring cross fertilisation.

But shouldn’t bumblebees be hibernating at this time of year?  That’s what all the books say, but the presence of worker bumblebees collecting pollen suggests that somewhere in the Gardens or nearby there are active nests.  Winter active colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees have also been described in South Devon and in Cornwall as well as other locations in the southern half of the UK.  It isn’t clear why this is happening but perhaps these bees are taking advantage of the British penchant for planting winter-flowering plants and shrubs.  The Langmoor and Lister Gardens with their huge banks of flowering rosemary provide this winter forage for the west Dorset bumblebees.

Support your local bumblebees and they will support you.

Although buff-tailed bumblebees seem to be doing well in west Dorset, many other species of bumblebee in the UK have declined over the past 50 years.  This is bad news because these insects are important pollinators of fruit trees, vegetables and flowers.  The decline is largely a result of the agricultural intensification that has changed the look of our countryside leading to the loss of bee habitat, loss of wild flower forage and the use of pesticides.

We can’t reverse this intensification, but we can all help bumblebees by planting flowers in our gardens and by never using insecticides.  It’s important to choose a range of flowers that provide food for bees throughout the season:  the University of Sussex has a useful guide to bee-friendly flowers.   If we provide flowers, the bumblebees and other kinds of bee will return the compliment, visiting our gardens, pollinating our fruits and vegetables and improving their quantity and quality.

When I returned to the Gardens in early April, I found the rosemary still flowering profusely, showing what an important source of insect food it is.  Other plants were also starting to contribute to the forage, and spring insect species were emerging such as the beautiful early bumblebee and red-tailed bumblebee and the grey-patched mining bee.

Lyme Regis Gardens and west Dorset coastline
Seafront Gardens

 

Lyme Regis Gardens
Seafront Gardens

 

Lyme Regis ammonite lamppost and seagull
One of the Lyme Regis ammonite lamposts with “friend”

 

Buff-tailed bumblebee on rosemary
Buff-tailed bumblebee worker feeding from rosemary, photographed on December 26th 2016

 

Andrena nitida
Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida) photographed on April 2nd 2017 in the seafront gardens.

 

This article appeared in the May 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Fragrant flower or invasive thug?

We’d been walking for twenty minutes or so with plenty to see: a wooded garden with a drift of early snowdrops scattered across the grass like confetti, the winter sunshine percolating through the trees creating mosaics of light and shade, running water a constant companion. Then suddenly, something new captured my attention but I couldn’t immediately identify what it was. You know how it is when you hear a fragment of a well-known piece of music but can’t place it; only this wasn’t music. Gradually, though, I became conscious of a low-level odour permeating the air by the path. I am sure there had been other smells as we walked, such as rotting leaves and wet mud, but this was entirely unexpected: a sweet, fragrant odour that stopped me in my tracks.

It was the day after Christmas and we decided to walk the riverside path linking the village of Uplyme in the far east of Devon to the seaside town of Lyme Regis just across the border in Dorset. This was the most rural section of the walk. One side of the path was bordered by skeletal trees and a damp, woodland bank. Hart’s tongue ferns grew prolifically, their leaves spilling out across the soil, octopus-like. On the other side of the path, the ground fell away steeply to the river Lym.

But the ferns did not have it all their own way and a small section of the bank was occupied instead by heart-shaped, bright green, fleshy leaves. Floating above the leaves, on thick stems, were the flowers, daisy-like brushes of pale petals gathered together and swept upwards. Each slightly hairy stem carried several of these chunky flower heads. This was winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans).

I bent down to smell the flowers and was greeted by a sweet, cloying fragrance that spoke to me of almonds and resurrected distant memories of amaretto liqueur; this was the source of my arresting sensory experience. Although I smelt almonds, it turns out that there is some disagreement about the exact odour of winter heliotrope. Perhaps it is the complexity of the smell; there was indeed an additional hard edge to the `fragrance that I couldn’t place, and some say the flowers smell of almonds, others vanilla, some even licorice and I began to doubt my response.

Back home, I looked for another patch of the plant to test my nose. Finding the plant wasn’t a problem; there is a lot of winter heliotrope about at present in south Devon. Much of it, however, grows by busy roads and it took me a while to find some that I could smell safely. I finally struck lucky by the coast path above the beach at South Milton Sands. Here I found drifts of winter heliotrope, some in shade and some in sunshine on the cliff top. The flower heads trembled in the breeze and the late afternoon sun highlighted the delicate colours of the flowers, some pale lilac, others tinged dark pink. Sometimes, the sea breeze carried traces of that low level woodland odour.

But what was the smell of the flowers in this seaside location? I took first sniff and smelt almonds again so my earlier response had been correct. Next Hazel tried without knowing my experience and she said lilac. It would be interesting to know what others sense when they smell winter heliotrope.

Many people, however, have an entirely different reaction to winter heliotrope, they hate it! They regard the plant as an introduced, invasive thug, taking over landscapes and eliminating native plants like a triffid destroying everything in its path. I share these concerns, but I have to admit to having a soft spot for winter heliotrope. It brightens up the sparse winter landscape and provides welcome forage for early insects. South Devon, with its mild climate, supports colonies of winter bumblebees and they need forage throughout the season. Winter heliotrope provides some of that food and this morning I watched winter bumblebees foraging on the flowers above the sea in Torquay.

 

winter heliotrope close up
Close up view of winter heliotrope flower head showing an individual flower with five petals and a central stamen and anther with pollen.

 

Cliff top South Milton Sands with winter heliotrope
Drift of winter heliotrope on the cliffs above South Milton Sands showing Thurlestone Arch

 

 

Winter heliotrope and bumblebee queen
Bumblebee Queen on winter heliotrope.
Winter heliotrope and bumblebee worker
Bumblebee worker ( B. terrestris) and pollen on winter heliotrope.

The meaning of a winter bumblebee

As I drove back from Paignton, the low sun cast long shadows across the sensuous folds of the South Hams hills. But the sunshine was deceptive; the temperature outside was 7oC and in the distance, there stood Dartmoor sprinkled liberally with snow like icing sugar on a cake. It was our first taste of winter and, inspired by Mark Cocker’s recent Guardian Country Diary on “The meaning of a bumblebee”, I had been to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what insects were about on this cold day.

grevillea
Grevillea

 

There were pockets of warmth in sheltered corners of the Roundham Head Gardens but generally it felt cold in the wind and by the time I got back to the car my hands were numb. Despite the conditions, there were plenty of flowers about: yellow scorpion vetch in profusion, hanging curtains of rosemary with a few grey-blue flowers, exotic pink and white grevillea, purple spikes of hebe and the pink cup-shaped flowers of bergenia.

painted lady butterfly in winter
Painted lady butterfly on rosemary

 

What about the insects? I saw a few large black flies and one hopeful hoverfly but my biggest surprise was two smart looking painted lady butterflies enjoying the sunshine. Seeing bumblebees required patience but eventually I was rewarded by the appearance of a few buff-tailed bumblebee workers filling their pollen baskets by probing the rosemary, grevillea and bergenia. I also saw one plump and furry buff-tailed queen meticulously working the bergenia flowers before she flew off.

buff-tailed bumblebee worker 2
Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) worker on rosemary

 

 

buff-tailed bumblebee worker 3
Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) worker on bergenia. The pollen baskets are visible.

 

buff-tailed bumblebee queen1
Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) queen on bergenia

 

Mark Cocker attributes his surprise sighting of a bumblebee in Norfolk on January 1st to anthropogenic global warming and anomalous weather linked to El Nino but there must also be suitable forage for the bumblebees if they are to be active in winter and survive. The British penchant for gardening and for planting winter-flowering shrubs seems to supply this forage.

tamarisk by torbay
The view across Torbay from Roundham Head Gardens with tamarisk in the foreground

 

I visited Roundham Head Gardens on January 15th 2016

Winter-active bumblebees in a Devon seaside garden

It was a sunny Sunday morning in January last year and we were walking through public gardens at Roundham Head in Paignton, South Devon. Passing a bank of flowering rosemary, we spotted a bumblebee. Surprising? Well yes, bumblebees are supposed to be hibernating in January, aren’t they?

Worker bumblebee on veronica in winter
Worker bumblebee on Hebe (January 4th 2015)

 

Fast forward 12 months to January 2015 and we are passing through these same gardens. As we enjoy the sunshine we notice another bumblebee, feeding on a very smart looking purple Hebe. This time we take a few photos before the insect flies off and we confirm that it’s a worker bumblebee with loaded pollen baskets.

I was very intrigued by these observations and felt compelled to find out more, but first I need to tell you about the gardens as they are a bit special.

Roundham Head

Roundham Head
Roundham Head from the southern side showing the Cliff Gardens above the esplanade with the red cliffs on the far right.

 

The popular seaside holiday resort of Paignton is enclosed by urban sprawl and Roundham Head is a surprising botanical oasis in this part of South Devon. To the North of the headland is Paignton harbour with its many tempting summer treats (wildlife and angling cruises, Molly Malone’s seafood stall and so on), all sadly closed at this time of year. To the South is Goodrington Sands, fine for a pleasant summer’s dip but, in winter, a dog and doggy walker’s paradise. The headland itself is surrounded by steep red cliffs and is grass-topped with a fine stand of pine trees offering Mediterranean views across the Bay to Torquay.

Pine trees at Roundham Head, Paignton
Pine trees at Roundham Head – Mediterranean view?

 

Goodrington Sands
The view from the gardens towards Goodrington Sands

 

The cliffs on the southern side are where we find the Cliff Gardens (sometimes called Paradise Gardens). A maze of flower beds and zigzag paths ascend and descend the cliffs and there is an occasional secluded seat for those who wish to contemplate the sea or simply rest. The Gardens themselves seem to enjoy a very mild microclimate. Many of the borders are protected from the wind and for much of the day, the sun, when it is out, warms the soil. The Gardens are home to tender, sub-tropical plants and there are flowers throughout the year. The predominant colour in January is yellow from the scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina, a native of the Mediterranean ) which thrives here.

scorpion vetch
Scorpion Vetch

 

My visits to the Cliff Gardens

Five days after the most recent sighting, I am back in the gardens with my camera, looking for bumblebees and getting a few odd looks from passers-by. I had scoured the forecasts on the Met Office web site and the weather today was predicted to be sunny and mild (12oC, good for bees), although rather gusty and getting windier (not so good for bees). It is a bit of a gamble but I decide to risk a visit.

worker with pollen
Worker bumblebee on rosemary (January 9th 2015)

 

When I reach the Gardens I take the first path, half left downhill, where there is a huge bank of rosemary facing in to the sunshine, enveloping the border and the wall below. It’s a mass of small blue flowers and I immediately see a worker bumblebee on the blooms, its pollen baskets laden. It’s either a buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) or white-tailed (Bombus lucorum); the workers of both species look similar. I zigzag up and down the paths and don’t see any others until I come across a large island border just below the top of the cliffs. This is filled with flowering rosemary, some tired-looking bergenia, and more scorpion vetch. There are two or three queens here, definitely Bombus terrestris based on their buff-tails, feeding from the bergenia and rosemary flowers. They don’t use the vetch. It’s quite gusty but they are very determined and forage despite the wind. I feel sorry for them: one gets blown off a flower stem another seems to shelter for a while but she could be warming up. Eventually I give up as the wind is too strong.

Queen bumblebee in winter
Buff-tailed queen on rosemary – by comparison with my hand she is about 2.5 cm long (January 9th 2015)

 

Bumblebee queen on bergenia
Bumblebee queen on Bergenia (January 9th 2015)

 

Despite the weather, it was worth the visit but I now have many questions. How many bees and how many colonies? Are they all buff-tailed? Where are the nests? Why is there a mixture of workers and queens?

……………………….

So, two weeks later, the weather again looks possible and I am back. The temperature today is ~9oC, a mixture of sunshine and cloud with a light wind. There was frost the night before in Totnes and, although it probably didn’t frost in Paignton, I wonder how the lower temperatures will have affected the bumblebees.

Bumblebee worker on Grevillea
Bumblebee worker on Grevillea (January 23rd 2015)

 

In fact all seems to be well. I see workers with pollen on the hanging rosemary, on the hebe and on a shrub covered with unusual spiral-shaped red flowers that I identify later as Grevillea, a native of Australia. Some of these workers fly at me as if to shoo me away; perhaps they feel threatened. At the island border I see a worker and several queens feeding off the rosemary. At one point, a queen flies to the ground where she wanders about apparently looking for something. There are no bumblebees on the bergenia today but, astonishingly, I see a red admiral butterfly on this plant.

bumblebee queen on rosemary
Buff-tailed queen approaching rosemary (January 23rd 2015)

 

Red Admiral on bergenia
Red admiral (a little tattered) on Bergenia (January 23rd 2015)

 

I don’t think I learnt very much from this visit except that this is a very mild spot with plenty of bee forage even in midwinter.
………………………..

So, I decide to visit again just under two weeks later on another sunny day. In Totnes the air is very cold (~5oC) but, when I get to Roundham Head, the sun is shining directly on the Gardens, it feels quite warm and there is little or no wind. My experience today is different: I don’t make any definite sightings of queens but I do see several workers and with one exception these are all feeding on rosemary. The workers differ considerably in size but that’s a common observation. They all look in very good condition; their wings are not frayed so they are relatively young. While I stand near the Grevillea, a large bee, probably a queen, flies at me, does a few circuits around my head and then flies off. I get the impression I am being warned but perhaps I am overreacting!

Bumblebee worker on rosemary 2
Bumblebee worker approaching rosemary (February 4th 2015). If you click on the photo you should be able to see the brown band before the white tail (typical of B. terrestris)

 

Bumblebee worker on rosemary 3
Bumblebee worker on rosemary (February 4th 2015) – note the brown band before the white tail (typical of B. terrestris). I am not sure where this one found the yellow pollen?

 

Later, when I have a good look at the photos of the workers I notice that they have a narrow brown band just before the white tail. This is typical of buff-tailed bumblebees and is not seen on white-tailed workers so it is likely that the active nests are buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris).

What does it all mean?

Over a period of about four weeks in the middle of winter, I have been able to see buff-tailed bumblebee queens and workers quite easily at this location. I get the impression, however, that there are actually not very many about: perhaps four queens and eight workers?

The presence of foraging workers as early as January 4th indicates an active nest. I have no idea about the site of the nest but I assume there is a queen, tending larvae and being fed by the workers. The nest was probably established in the last few months of 2014.

At this time of year, bumblebees typically hibernate but since the 1990s there have been reports of winter-active colonies of mainly buff-tailed bumblebees, largely confined to the southern part of the UK. Speculation has been rife as to what is causing this change in behaviour. Some suggest it is linked to warmer winters associated with climate change. This can’t be the whole story as, according to Dave Goulson, bumblebees in Brittany do not exhibit the same winter activity. The magic ingredient may be the availability of winter forage in the UK linked to the British passion for gardening and planting winter-flowering shrubs.

The sub species of Bombus terrestris found in some parts of continental Europe can also have two nesting periods a year, when climate is suitable and winter forage is available. A litter is produced across spring and summer and fertilised queens find suitable places to hibernate for 2-3 months before emerging in late September to set up new colonies across the winter. The Roundham Head colonies probably arise from fertilised queens produced during summer 2014 who emerged after a few months rest to set up winter nests. The microclimate and the abundant local forage make this activity possible.

There has been speculation that the continental sub species of Bombus terrestris, imported for pollinating vegetable crops, may be escaping and establishing itself in the UK. Given that this sub species sometimes produces two generations, it is possible that these continental bumblebees could be the winter-active bumblebees seen in the UK. The Roundham Head colonies, however, have the physical characteristics of the British sub species so they cannot be foreign escapees.

What about the queens that I saw? Here it all becomes rather uncertain. They could be founding queens from active autumn/winter 2014 nests coming out for a feed or they could be new queens generated by these nests. Alternatively, they could be queens from summer 2014 nests emerging from hibernation on a warm day. What might happen to these summer 2014 queens is also a bit unclear. They might set up new nests if the weather stays warm. Perhaps if the weather turns cold they return to hibernation after feeding but, it is not known if this actually occurs.

So, more questions than answers, but there definitely are active winter nests at this favourable seaside spot. It’s been fascinating and great fun to observe these bees and I shall continue watching over the next few months to see what else I can learn.

I should like to thank Dave Goulson (University of Sussex) and Tom Ings (Anglia Ruskin University) for helpful comments.

Goodrington Sands
Another view over Goodrington Sands at low tide