Wildflowers of the Dolomites

This blog post steps outside of my usual UK sphere and across to Europe to share some photographs from our holiday in the Dolomites. We spent 6 fantastic days in the Val Gardena and mid-June was the perfect time  for exploring the mountains and valleys at the beginning of the real flush of summer flowers.

We stayed in Ortesei – a popular skiing resort in the winter which lent its infrastructure to summer explorers such as us. Two cablecars and a funicular railway would take you up to 2,500m to alpine meadows to the south of the town, pine forests to the north and the scree-slopes below ancient elevated reefs to the west. With the help of these we walked over 100km of trails during out time there and passed through a wide range of habitat with the variety of flora to match.

This was a fascinating experience for me as an ecologist. Firstly, it was an opportunity to see a number of species which I would dearly love to see in the UK, from the much-celebrated lady’s slipper orchid to the delicate lesser butterfly orchid. I also saw a wide range of species I would recognise in the UK only as a garden ornamentals, such as the daphne and orange lilies. Then there were a whole host of species which could be identified to genus through their correspondence with familiar UK species, but which I had never encountered before such as the alpine colt’s foot and the alpine pasque flower. From these examples a naming system occured to me, similar to the way this landlocked ecologist deals with new coastal species. Whereas the prefix ‘sea…’ works with familiar-but-different‘s beside the coast (think sea mayweed, sea holly, sea campion), so the prefix ‘alpine’ often seems to work in the Dolomites! Finally there were utter unknowns which were quite unlike anything I had seen before – spotted gentian and box-leaved milkwort to name but two!

I worked through my charity-shop copy of ‘Mountain Flowers of Europe’, googled latin names of the right genus from the Plant Life of the Dolomites and refered to this excellent blog post. For the last few, I appealed to twitter and as usual for the botanical community there, some incredibly generous and helpful people offered identifications. However this slightly scattershot approach to ID has led to a number of ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’ ID’s whilst others might quite simply be wrong. If you spot anything in the following collection of photographs which looks awry, I would welcome any corrections or confirmations!

I would highly recommend this region, and Ortesei in particular, as an excellent spot for the extensive trails, the beautiful wildflowers and the predictably enjoyable food and drink. And that’s to say nothing of the marmots!

Alternatively, for an armchair whirl through some of the flora which these mountains have to offer, scroll on!

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Dark columbine – Aquilegia atrata
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Trumpet gentian – Gentiana acualis
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Lady’s slipper orchid – Cypripedium calceolus
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Lesser butterfly orchid – Platanthera bifolia
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Lesser butterfly orchid – Platanthera bifolia
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Yellow foxglove – Digitalis sp. – perhaps D.micrantha
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Foxglove – Digitalis sp. – probably D. lutea or D. ambigua
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Orange lily – Lilium bulbiferum
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Woundwort – probably Stachys recta
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Unidentified saxifrage – possibly Saxifraga hostii.
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Lupin – Lupinus sp.
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Rampion – probably Phyteuma spicata, P. scheuchzeri or P. betonicifolium
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Spotted gentian – Gentiana punctata
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Spotted gentian – Gentiana punctata
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Alpine rhododendron – Rhododendron ferrugineum
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Gentian – possible spring gentian – Gentiana verna
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Violet – Viola sp.
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Daisy-leaved speedwell – Veronica bellidoides
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Butterwort – Pinguicula leptoceras
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Bird’s nest orchid – Neottia nidus-avis
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Goat’s beard – Aruncus dioicus

 

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False lily-of-the-vally – Maianthemum bifolium
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St Bernard’s-lily – Anthericum ramosum
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Meadow clary – Salvia pratensis
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Campanula – Campanula sp.
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Rock soapwort – Saponaria ocymoides
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Solomon’s seal – Polygonatum sp
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Cow wheat – perhaps Melampyrum sylvaticum
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Meadow clary – Salvia pratensis
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Thistle – probably Cirsium erisithales
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Orchid – Dacylorhiza sp.

 

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Herb paris – Paris quadrifolia
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Rock rose – possibly Helianthemum alpestre
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Alpine clematis – Clematis alpina
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Spurge – Euphorbia sp.
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Black vanilla orchid – Nigritella nigra
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Alpine snowbell – Soldanella alpina
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Daphne striata
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Alpine yellow-violet – Viola biflora
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Moss campion – Silene acualis
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Oxlip – Primula elatior
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Crocus – Crocus albiflorus
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Mountain avens – Dryas octopetela
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Trumpet gentian – Gentiana acualis
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Rampion sp. – Phytsuma sp.
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Geranium sp. – possibly G. pratense

 

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Box-leaved milkwort – Polygala chamaebuxus
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Box-leaved milkwort – Polygala chamaebuxus ssp grandiflora
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Sainfoin – probably Onobrychis montana
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Alpine colt’s-foot – Homogyne alpina
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Alpine colt’s-foot – Homogyne alpina
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Heart-leaved globe daisy – Globularia cordifolia
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Heart-leaved globe daisy – Globularia cordifolia
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Mountain everlasting – Antennaria dioica
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Primrose sp.
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Hoary plantain – Plantago media
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Alpine bistort – Polygonum viviparum
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Clover – probably Trifolium montanum
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Catchfly – probably Silene italica
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Hypochaeris uniflora
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Fragrant orchid – Gymnadenia sp.
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Fragrant orchid – Gymnadenia sp.
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Alpine aster – Aster alpinus
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Alpine pasque flower – Pulsatilla alpina
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Trumpet gentian – Gentiana acualis

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Pasque-flower – probably parsley-leaved pasqueflower – Pulsatilla alpina
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Field gentian – Gentianella campestris
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Anemone sp. – possibly A. trifolia
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Anemone sp. – possibly A. trifolia

 

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Meadow rue – Thalictrum aquilegifolium
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Sandwort – probably Moehringia muscosa
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Round-leaved wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia
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Round-leaved wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia
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Poppy – possibly Papaver alpinum
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Alpine butterwort – Pinguicula alpina

 

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Oxlips at Hayley Wood

Botany is one of those passions you can engage in almost anywhere – this could be spotting dandelions brightening in the lawn, ivy-leaved toadflax scrambling up the wall or whitlow grass offering a tiny bunch of flowers beside the pavement. Sometimes however, a flower requires a pilgrimage and oxlip – Primula elatior – is one of those species.

A rare woodland flower, somewhere between a cowslip and a primrose in appearance, it’s distribution is largely restricted to the point in the country where the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Cambridge meet. Hayley Wood has always been in my head as the destination for this pilgrimage – I can’t for the life of me recall which book which introduced me to the name but it has always stuck.

Situated near Cambridge, Hayley Wood is an ancient woodland, mentioned in the Doomesday book and owned, managed and protected by the Wildlife Trust for Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire since 1962. It plays host to a wide range of ancient woodland species – I spotted dog’s mercury, bluebell, yellow archangel, bugle and lesser celandine to name but a few. I hope to return later in the season to seek a few more of it’s treasures but this day was all about the oxlip.

The day I visited was overcast and perpetually interrupted by April showers, but although a little late for the main event, I was not disappointed…




Singing with Nightingales

My job is much concerned with the facts and figures of ecology and wildlife. We collate lists of plants on a site, or identify the protected species present, or count the populations of newts or reptiles. This allows abundant opportunities to get out of the office and encounter all kinds of habitats and wildlife, but the focus on the factual can miss a whole facet of what the wild means. The Nest Collective’s ‘Singing with Nightingales’ was a perfect opportunity to transcend the cold biology and experience the deeper essence of one of our most charismatic species. So on Easter Sunday, we drove down to Fingringhoe Wick – an Essex Wildlife Trust site on the south Essex coast – calling on the way to pick up some friends. We parked up and followed the handmade signs taking us off through the trees. It was only 6:30pm – hours before sunset – but we already picked out the song of an impatient nightingale trilling and whistling amongst the gorse and willow.

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One of the handmade signs directing us towards the campfire for the evening

Reaching the glade within the trees, Sam Lee – our host for the evening – welcomed us along with the other guests, and we settled around the fire for introductions and drinks before the expert ornithologist Tom Stuart led us on a walk around the hills and hollows of the reserve to introduce us to the soundscape of the dusk chorus. Tom conjured the reserve’s journey from an old gravel workings through stages of succession and management to the diverse habitat we were now walking through, and explained how the Essex WT maintained the mid-stage scrub which is essential for the nightingale.

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The group assembling around the campfire

As the sun sank into obscurity, we returned to the fireside for a delicious vegan curry and carrot cheesecake before Sam broke the fireside chatter with the first of his mesmerising songs. He went on to describe the prominence and place of nightingales in lyrics and folklore, interwoven with song and poetry. Whilst Sam evoked the mythology of these elusive birds with romantic flair, Tom described the biology and behaviour of the species with scientific yet equally mesmerising effect. To focus on the ecology alone misses the cultural and creative importance of these birds which have sung by our firesides for centuries and the Nest Collective weave these two strands perfectly.

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As we approached 11 o’clock, we walked out across the reserve, following in Sam’s footsteps both literally and mechanically; without torches we were taught to walk like foxes, toes first to feel for uneven ground and move with the undulating terrain safely. We had been to the depths of the Sussex forest with Sam and Ezra last year to hear the nightingales, but they had been reluctant to sing. Tonight however, we walked between serenading males, auditioning them until we paused beside a particularly fluent vocalist. We stood in silence, listening to the surreal exotic song of this African visitor, before Sam’s first accompanying note appeared gently in the air as though it were always there. He sang ‘Down by the Tan Yard Side’,  dueting with the nightingale whose notes fell into the pauses between the lines or overlapped and accented them.

The inspiration for these intimate, outdoor gatherings came from the history of musicians playing with nightingales, most notably live on BBC Radio in the early part of the 20th century. Every May from 1924 – when it was the first ever live outside broadcast on the radio – the cellist Beatrice Harrison played with the local nightingales in her back garden in Surrey. This continued until 1942 when the live broadcast picked up the drone of allied bombers flying overhead on their way to the continent. Realising that this would give warning of the impending raid, the BBC pulled the plug and there the tradition died. Until 2014 that is, on the 90th anniversary of this first recording, when Sam and two companions travelled to a secret location to re-enact this event for a live BBC broadcast once more. This sparked the enthusiasm for this tradition, and the Singing with Nightingale events – now at a range of locations around the country – have sprung from this.

With a gentle hum, in resonant and fluent imitation of a cello, Sam sang along with his chosen accompanist, just as the low drone of a Stanstead-bound aircraft broke on the horizon. With the fireside tale of the history still fresh in our memories, this otherwise unwelcome intrusion of the modern world in fact provided a poignant and fortuitous resonance of that final BBC broadcast.

We left this nightingale and walked back towards the cars at 1am – only to be captured by another who was impossible to walk on by so we gathered beneath its willow podium. In the darkness, images come unbidden and the soundscape surrounding us was like seeing beacons being lit as these birds sang in their individual islands and the songs sparked motifs and patterns which were heard and echoed, repeated and elaborated  and embellished by others across the reserve.

The Nest Collective, set up by Sam in 2006, takes music to unusual venues and unique settings, and these events combine history and folklore with ecology and conservation, all bound together through song and poetry and good fireside company. This was our second year experiencing this magical night, and I very much hope it won’t be our last. You can find out more about the series at the Nest Collective’s website here, or get a taste of the evening in this 90th Anniversary broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

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Frosted seedheads

We had a wonderful hard frost just after Christmas so I took the opportunity to get out in the morning sunshine to take a few photos!

The frost serves to outline these seed heads, making them stand out against the background but also helping to highlight the structure which is best appreciated at this time of year when the leaves and flowers have fallen.

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These willowherb plants were growing in the churchyard. Each of the long, linear seed heads which cap the stem was originally filled with feathery seeds which float like a dandelion clocks when the pods split open and release them to the breeze.
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Many grass seed heads are fairly transient, disappearing as winter progresses but the seed heads of cock’s foot can remain on the stem for a long time after the seeds have been released.
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The spiky seed heads of burdock were slowly thawing where the sun caught them one one side whilst the frost remained clinging to the other. The hooked ends of the seedheads are prefect for catching onto the fur of passing animals which then transfer the seeds to new habitat.
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The seed heads of one of the umbellifers – known commonly as the carrot family. You can see the umbel structure which gives this family its name – the flowers are borne on a cluster of stems, each of which radiate from a single point. It’s easy to see the comparison with the ribs of an umbrella in these frosted remains.
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The seed heads of black knapweed. These are a member of the compositae family along with the burdock pictured above.

2016 in trees

Looking back through the photographs I’ve taken in 2016, it’s striking how many trees there are! As with the small things such as wildflower ‘weeds’, it’s easy to take for granted these enormous beings which grow amongst us. The sheer scale of a mature oak or beech is far beyond our magnitude of experience, as is the timescale they can span which numbers many of our lifetimes combined.

Here are just a few of my favourite encounters from 2016.

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These snow-lined branches were in the mountains above Freiburg at the beginning of the year – we took the cablecar from the grey countryside below up into a winter wonderland of freshly fallen snow. I liked the way that the snow outlines the curved architecture of the branches.
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Part of my job involes climbing trees to inspect them for roosting bat potential. On my way up this field-edge tree, the sun came out and I couldn’t resist a quick shadow-selfie!
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This photograph was taken for the Woodland Trust – this is one of the Verdun Oaks which grew from acorns brought back from Verdun after the First World War and planted in towns and cities as a commemoration to the fallen. In the background is Lichfield Cathedral. The Woodland Trust are tracing these trees as part of the commemoration of the First World War – you can read more about these pieces of living history on their website here.
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I spotted this tree sillouetted against the sunrise on a drive across to Norfolk one morning and had to stop off to get a photograph. The tree was in the middle of a field which was not publically accessible, so I only have the shape to go off but this looks like a poplar tree to me – perhaps a black poplar?
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This is the view up to the canopy at Treswell Wood in North Nottinghamshire. This is a Notts Wildlife Trust site which has a precominantly ash canopy. Unfortunately, Ash Dieback was confirmed in one corner of the woodland and targetted trees were felled in an effort to stop the disease spreading. Ash trees are a characteristic part of the British Countryside and one of the most common species in our landscape – it would be a tragedy if they were to go the way of the English Elm.
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I love being out in the countryside at night – we spent much of the summer watching trees to survey for emerging bats so this scene feels very familiar to me. I took a walk out past this tree near Harlaxton one night when the skies were very clear to capture a starlapse with the North Star centred above the dead crown of this oak.
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This is a slightly boosted photograph in terms of colour saturation, but is otherwise untouched. This was a starlapse of a meadow oak but the quirks of lighting led to this rather psycadelic image. The tree and the hillside to the left were occasionally lit by car headlights from the road behind me, and the background cloud was illuminated by the light pollution of Nottingham in the distance. Not your typical tree image but I rather liked the effect!
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These beautiful old beech trees line a trackway which forms part of the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way in Slad. I love trackways which are overarched by tree canopies, and I especially like the idea that Laurie would have walked these tracks. The book Cider with Rosie is a favourite of mine, especially the descriptions of the Gloucestershire vally in which he grew up, so there is a real feeling of walking somewhere familiar, even when exploring this landscape for the first time.
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This is a photograph taken in Wyndham Park in Grantham. The autumn leaves of a beech provide a frame for the Hand and Apple sculpture which commemorates Isaac Newton’s connection with the town of Grantham – he went to school at King’s Grammar which is just beside Wyndham Park, and lived at Woolesthorpe Manor just down the A1 from the town, where the famous apple tree can still be seen today.
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These two majestic field trees stood like sentries on either side of the gateway. This was on a walk in Somerset which explored an ancient landscape full of both recent history – including an old lead working now rewilded as a nature reserve – and ancient history including a number of monuments, burial mounds and barrows.
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This photograph was taken on a farm track footpath which leads to Muston Meadows, an old haymeadow now designated as an NNR. I wanted to try to capture the essence of mid-December in the Midlands – to me that is muddy walks, early sunsets and skeletal trees.
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This photograph was one of several I took of bark patterns in a veteran oak we were climbing to look for potential evidence of bats. This deadwood can be very stable, remaining as a component of the tree for decades after the wood has died, and the patterns etched into the wood represent to the various conditions and experiences which the tree has gone through.
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This photograph neatly finishes where this summary started – back in the mountains above Freiburg. This was taken just before Christmas where we had the magical opportunity to rise up above the clouds and see the sun setting. The fog and cloud was rolling up the valleys, obscuring and revealing treelines, and the sunset coloured the fog in pinks and oranges.

New Year Plant Hunt – Grantham 2017

The first few days of New Year can be a little underwhelming – Christmas is over and it’s a long old drag until springtime. But there’s still colour and life out there and the BSBI‘s annual New Year Plant Hunt is a great way to experience this, as well as contribute your data to a national recording scheme. Everybody is welcome to get involved – even if this is just spotting a daisy on the lawn or gorse flowering by the roadside on your way to work!

Last year I found 44 species flowering in Grantham so I thought I’d cover a similar patch this year and see what I could find!

I started just before sunrise on a Bank Holiday Monday – thinking this would be a good time to explore the roads and walls around the centre without too many funny looks! It was just below zero and as slippery as an ice-rink when I started but the road down from the Railway Station was a very fruitful location with yarrow and daisy visible before I even got out of the car! A total of nine species were flowering here against the wall including two non-natives – Oxford ragwort and Guernsey fleabane. The sun strikes this wall first thing in the morning which might explain why this spot was good for flowers persisting through the winter.

Around Grantham town itself, I found a few more species including feverfew, smooth sow-thistle and common chickweed. A wander around the Sainsbury’s carpark also provided me with a flowering grass – annual meadowgrass.

Down by the River Witham, the earliest blackthorn I know was in flower – just a couple of individual flowers amongst the bare branches – along with frosted white deadnettle and the winter heliotrope.

Onwards through St Wulfrum’s churchyard, I picked up shepherd’s purse flowering in the sunshine against the stone archway of the South Entrance. Sun spurge was another species growing next to a pedestrian crossing – this is a species whose flowers look so much like leaves that you really do need to know to lean close and check in order to realise they’re in bloom!

A few naturalised species were added to the list as I continued around Grantham. These were not growing in gardens but were self-set, often finding little niches in walls or at the edges of pavements. Such species flourish in urban settings, where there are plenty of gardens to escape from and little niches of soil and warmth in which seeds can germinate and bloom. This collection includes yellow corydalis, greater periwinkle and Michaelmas daisy.

One advantage of carrying out a Plant Hunt on your home-turf is visiting locations where you have seen species flowering in the lead-up to Christmas. In this case, a carpark towards the north of the town had a colony of gallant soldier – a member of the daisy family with large yellow centres and white petals. Red deadnettle and ox-eye daisy were also flowering on the walls here, along with a stalwart of the NY Plant Hunt – the beautiful ivy-leaved toadflax.

I walked up to the Hills and Hollows above Grantham to finish – picking up a few individual dogwood flowers amongst the unopened buds, along with red campion and, of course, gorse to finish. The saying goes ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion‘ and this held as true as always with several bunches of yellow flowers brightening the spiky shrubs.

Nine kilometers and three hours later, my total count this year was 30 species – not too bad but lower than any of my counts from last year. The beginning of 2016 was preceded by unusually mild weather and many late-season species were still hanging on. This year by contrast, we have had a few good frosts which I know have finished off a few plants which were in flower up until that point including yellow toadflax and common mallow. This trend for lower numbers seems to be mirrored by others who have completed counts across the midlands and east, but we will need to await the full results to fully understand the picture for this year.

A new feature of the hunt this year is the excellent New Year Plant Hunt App which you can download here – this is so easy to use on a smartphone when you’re out hunting, or equally easy to enter the data into when you get back home. I uploaded all of my data onto the app and even popped back on to edit a record the next morning, when I realised I had made an error in the ID of one species. It works off the back of the iRecord system and is a good introduction to an excellent tool for keeping and submitting biological records when you’re out and about.

Linked in with the app, is a brilliant Results website which updates the records on the fly, showing the locations where hunts have been completed and tallying up the most commonly recorded species to date. So far, daisy is in the lead with groundsel running a close second, but with a day to go yet, there’s all to play for! Get out and see what you can find – Happy Hunting!

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A montage of all the flowers found and photographed for the New Year Plant Hunt around Grantham in 2017

2016 in Orchids

A third 2016 Review Post – this time some of the orchids I’ve seen over the last year. Few of these are particularly rare species, but there is something undoubtedly ‘other’ about the orchids. A number of these photos are from reserves which are designated partly for the populations of these orchids, but also included are a specimens which I’ve discovered in my local area including my favourite find of a roadside colony of bee orchids just on the edge of Grantham.

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Early purple orchid is, as the name suggests, one of our earlier flowering species. And purple! It is often found in woodland settings and flowers around the same time as the bluebells. This one was photographed in the dappled sunlight at the edge of Treswell Wood, a Notts Wildlife Trust site in North Nottinghamshire.
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Another early flowering species is the green-winged orchid. This species is so named for the green veins on the sepals which you can see in this image. These were taken at Muston Meadows – a National Nature Reserve designated partly for its populations of this species. You can see the frost glistening in the background – this was just after sunrise in May when there had been a ground frost the night before and many of the orchids had keeled over beneath the ice. A visit the following week showed them all restored to health luckily – a species which elects to flower as early as this needs to have some resilience to late frosts!
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This is another image of the green winged orchids at Muston Meadows with the early morning blue sky in the background. I wanted to try a slightly different angle from the normal shot and was quite pleased with the result of this one.
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This common spotted orchid was taken at Ufton Fields – a Warwickshire Wildlife Ttust site. Visiting a number of sites where you know a species can be found has the advantage of helping you get your eye in for where particular species like to grow. After visiting several such reserves I found a new (to me certainly) colony of common spotted orchids on a small patch of marshy rush-filled grassland next to the Grantham Canal this year. I was walking past when the general ‘feel’ of the habitat reminded me of the locations where I’d seen these orchids and, sure enough, there they were!
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Early marsh orchid is quite a robust, chunky flower with prominent bracts visible in between the individual flowers on the flower spike. I took this photograph at the Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust site – Fulbourn Fen. I liked the background of buttercups to contrast yellow against the soft pink of the orchid flower.
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The greater butterfly orchid is always a very exciting find – this one at a Warwickshire Wildlife Trust site where only a relatively small number of flower spiked were apparent. The cream-coloured flowers open from the bottom upwards so this flower spike has only just begun with many buds still to break further up the spike.
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The lesser twayblade is one of the most inconspicuous orchids you could imagine – the light green/cream flowers blend perfectly in with the grasslands in which they grow and are easily overlooked, or worse stepped on, if you’re not paying attention! There is a beauty in the subtly though, and something special in spotting a flower which doesn’t ask to be noticed which makes the discovery even more rewarding.
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Man orchids are another rarity but which are found at a number of local sites including good populations at Barnack Hills and Hollows NNR. Such is the rarity of this species that some sites cage the flower spikes to avoid accidental damage and keep off the rabbits which would otherwise nibble at the flowers. You can see the mesh in the background of this image.
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This bee orchid was taken after a heavy afternoon rain shower at a Warwickshire Wildlife Trust reserve. I love the way that the raindrops and dampness add vibrancy to the colours – always a great time to get out and see wildflowers, provided you get back under cover before the skies open once more!
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I spotted this perfect pair of bee orchids flowering right beside a roundabout on the outskirts of Grantham. I myself had driven past this spike many times without realising it was there, and I wonder how many other people would be as amazed as I was to find something so beautiful and intricate in such a mundane location. A further search found another ten or so flower spikes in the grassland across the road.
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To complete the insect-related trypic after butterfly and bee, we have the beautiful little fly orchid. This is a tiny species and so easy to overlook even when you are hunting specifically for it. It is often found in woodland rides and this one was at Bedford Purleius – a  National Nature Reserve just off the A1 near Peterborough. The first spike took a little time to find, but once you get your eye in, there are many more flourishing along the woodland edge.
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This is a species I had never seen before this year – I was driving between two survey sites and had a little time so I called in at a Warwickshire Wildlife Ttust site near Birmingham Airport and was treated with this heath spotted orchid.
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This is not only the first time I have seen a white helleborine, but the first time I had seen one of the helleborine species at all! The white helleborine is woodland species and commonly found beneath the cover of beech – this means they have a largely southern distribution but are also found in other locations such as this one outside of Cambridge. The flowers barely open much more than this but they have a beautiful architectural arrangement of leaves and flowers.

 


 

 

2016 in Bees

As the winter is drawing in and the buzz of bees and other insects is sadly lacking from the soundscape of the countryside, I have put together a collection of images from throughout 2016 to remind me of warmer times!

Each photograph below is captioned with a little information about the species and the story behind it. I have learned a lot about bees and their enemies and allies this year, but it has served only to show what a vast amount more there is to learn about these vital creatures.

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This bumblebee queen was one of the first I saw in 2016 – back in April she spent the night tucked up on the bud of a bluebell. This was taken in the evening after a late-afternoon rain-shower which presumably drove her to cover. She was still there first thing the following morning, but soon took to the wing again after the sun hit the flowers.
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Blackthorn is one of those quintessential spring flowers and a local patch made a great lunchtime walk to look for early mining bees – in both the general and the specific sense as this little bee is actually called the Early Mining Bee – latin name Andrena haemorrhoa.
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This foxy little creature is another of the mining bees to appear early in the spring – this one is the Tawny Mining Bee – latin name Andrena fulva. This is quite an easy species to identify and one of the first solitary bee species I was able to ID with confidence.
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The nomad bees are a group of solitary bee species which parasitise the nests of other bees by laying their eggs in them – a behaviour known as cleptoparasitism. They are quite wasp-like in appearance and can often be found hanging around nesting burrows of the mining bees waiting for their opportunity. This one was taken at Treswell Wood, a Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust reserve but I’m unfortunately able to identify it beyond Nomada sp.
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Like the nomad bees, this bumblebee seeks to use the nests of other bees to rear its young – however its tactics are a little more brutal. The dark wings and the lack of a pollen basket on the hind leg identified this as a cuckoo bee – this species mimics its host and then takes over the nest, killing the queen and establishing itself as the new queen. The workers then work to raise a new generation of cuckoo bees. There are several species of cuckoo bumblebee – this one is Bombus rupestris, the Hill Cuckoo Bee.
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We have red mason bees – Osmia rufa – nesting in the ‘bee hotel’ in our garden each year, but more exciting still is the ‘mud mine’ I found down at the local river Witham in Grantham. The mason bees have used this same spot for at least the last two years, arriving in good numbers to gather materials which they use to create mud-wall partitions between nest cells, and then to cap off the nest tube when they’ve finished. There is extensive evidence of their workings as many bees are taking material from here. Here you can see a mason bee with a rolled ball of mud clutched in its mandibles, ready to fly back to its nest site.
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This is another species of mason bee which I spotted in our garden for the first time this year – the much smaller blue mason bee – Osmia caerulescens. This bee spent a good period of time on our garden table in the sunshine, occasionally making short excursions to check out gaps in the construction, perhaps with a view to finding a nest site. Like the red mason bee, this species nests in holes such as dead wood and plant stems.
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This one is not a bee but one of their ‘enemies’ – an ichneumon wasp called Ephialtes manifestator. The wasp paid a visit to our bee hotel and used its long ovipositor to lay its eggs within the sealed nesting tubes within. Creating habitat for the bees will inevitably bring in the other members of the ecosystem which has developed alongside these species and the range of parasites which exploit bees is extensive!
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This tiny little bee is a harebell carpenter bee – Chelostoma campanularum. This species uses a range of native members of the harebell or campanula family, but they seemed quite excited by the ornamental campanula in our garden!
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The leafcutter bees are so named because they snip circles of leaves to create the nest cells – using it as a material in a similar way to the mud walls used by the red mason bees. They were often to be found foraging on the ornamental flowers in the garden, and can be quite aggressive to other bees, even nipping bumblebees with their leaf-cutting mandibles when they try to share their flower!
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I spend a fair few summer lunchtimes watching this colony of wool carder bees – latin name Anthidium manicatum – at the local park in Grantham. The females use the ‘wool’ shaved from plant leaves as a material for their nest tubes and furry plants like lamb’s ear are perfect for them. They also feed from the flowers of this species and so a patch of lamb’s ear is a great place for a male wool carder to hang out and wait for females to turn up. The larger males would patrol the flowers, resting occasionally on a leaf, and mate with any females who turned up. They would also aggressively chase away any other bees who strayed into their patch – larger bumblebees included – often physically grappling them off the flowers.
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I’m going to sneak these two in even though they are not bees but rather bee mimics. They are two different variants of the same hoverfly species – Volucella bombylans. The ‘bombylans‘ in the species name refers to the genus of the bumblebee ‘bombus‘. The variant on the left is mimicking the white-tailed bumblebee whilst the individual on the right is mimicking a red-tailed bumblebee. Both of these variants were photographed on the same shrub during a site survey in Cambridgeshire this summer.
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Different bees have different preferences for flowers based on their physiological characteristics – for example bees with a long tongue will use deep flowers whose nectar is further back as this is a resource unavailable to shorter tongues species (unless they snip the ends to steal the nectar but this is another matter!) The preference for flowers can also change throughout the day or the season to reflect the relative provision of different flowers which may produce more nectar at a particular time. I watched this common carder bumblebee – Bombus pascuorum – moving between different members of the pea family along the Grantham canal including meadow vetchling, tufted vetch and common vetch. It would pass by other flowers, always seeking this same family and often showing me flowers I had not spotted within the undergrowth!
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One final ‘enemy’ of the bees for this collection – I spotted this unusual looking fly skulking around on the scabious flowers in the garden where numerous bumblebee workers were foraging. It seemed to have sought out the most favourable species for these bumblebees and was waiting to attack its victim. This is a species called Sicus ferrugineus and has a particularly distasteful strategy – it lays its eggs into the bumblebee where the eggs develop, pupate and overwinter in their victim.
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I was rather taken with these little heather colletes bees – Colletes succinctus – this year. We came across them whilst walking in the peak district in September when the heather was in full flower. After spotting them foraging as we walked, we began to come across aggregations of holes in the sandy soil of the paths which were the nest holes of this species and a little patience allowed us to watch them coming and going. They appear late in the season, to coincide with the vast abundance of heather flowers in these habitats.
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A September walk in Slad revealed these little Lassioglossum sp. bees on many of the grassland flowers – scabious seemed a favoured food source but they were also using ragwort and others. They are such characterful little bees especially when you catch them face-on with their long antennae.
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Into November, the queen bumblebees began to appear again. These queens will overwinter to set up next year’s nests in the springtime. The density of flowers in the wider countryside decreases significantly as the season turns to winter, but ornamental species such as these naturalised Michealmas daisy can be an excellent late-season nectar source for queen bumblebees, especially on a sunny afternoon.
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Perhaps my favourite bee photo of 2016 – this bumblebee feeding on Verbena in my parents’ garden during their Open Garden event this year.

Hornet Sentries

I was intrigued to spot the nest of an European hornet – Vespa crabro – in an old haybale at a survey site recently. It was the middle of October and the weather was turning cooler and damper.

I was fascinated by the behaviour of the guards who were stationed at the entrance where hornets returning to the nest would land and enter. One individual was stationed to intercept each new arrival, touching antennae with them before either letting them pass or subjecting them to further scrutiny.

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A hornet sentry stationed at the entrance to a nest built into an old hay bale

I can find little on this behaviour in hornets, but as a social hymenoptera, I hope that honeybees are a good parallel. The seminal piece on guard behaviour seems to be Butler and Free’s 1952 paper entitled The Behaviour of Worker Honeybees at the Hive Entrance.

In honeybees, the guards are drawn primarily from younger bees with older workers rarely taking the role. The role of guard is also not fixed – many also forage and will even be seen attempting to rob the nests of other hives. If the hornet system is the same, this would mean that one of many workers can take the sentry role.

In the paper, the Guard Bees are described as ‘assuming a very typical attitude, frequently standing with their forelegs off the ground, with their antennae held forwards and their mandibles and wings closed. Should they become even more excited they open their mandibles and wings and appear to be all ready to rush towards any intruder. Such excited guard bees watch the movements of bees flying overhead and approaching the hive, often jerking round to do so, and make intention movements to intercept any bee which they see to alight near them‘. This very neatly describes the behaviour I was watching, and is shown in the photograph below of the guard intercepting a new arrival.

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The hornet sentry waiting to interrogate a new arrival on their return to the nest

The method of interrogation was through contact between the antennae of the two hornets – social hymenoptera have an advanced ability to distinguish between those within their colony and those outside – termed ‘kin recognition’. Some individuals returning to the nest showed almost no signs of interest in the guard and simply barged on in whilst others paused and interacted with the guard before being allowed entry.

The guard did their best to check their credentials and usually found them acceptable, but sometimes would follow a returning hornet into the entrance for further investigation.

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Showing the guard hornet interrogating their nestmate

One or two individual hornets were not permitted entry, despite repeated attempts to gain it. They would be chased away across the face of the haybale by the guard, soon to return and re-attempt entry only to be denied once more. There may be several reasons for this. These rogue hornets could be individuals from another nest, or it could be that the guard was mistaken in denying entry to a member of their own colony. The system relies upon chemical signals, and is not perfect leading to errors through denying entry to legitimate colony members as well as sometimes accidentally allowing entry to non-nestmates.

The investigation in honeybees noted that intruders carrying a load of pollen were usually permitted entry whilst those without were more likely to be intercepted and turned away. This is perhaps on the assumption that robbers rarely come bearing gifts and so their arrival with resource suggests they can be allowed in. Other factors important in influencing guard behaviour was recent disturbance – if the nest was disturbed and the bees felt under threat, they were much more likely to examine newcomers, even those with a full load of pollen.

This is a fascinating fascet of behaviour and I have tried to piece together the likely story based on the research into the honey bee. If anybody can provide me with further information about this behaviour in hornets, I would love to hear from you!

Bonfires and Wildlife

Where we see a bonfire, wildlife tends to see a home.

In the lead-up to November 5th, lots of people will be building bonfires. Many people have now got the message that hedgehogs may take up residence in these piles, but many other less obtrusive species will also be drawn to them such as reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.
Creating brash piles and log piles is one of the key ways we look to enhance a site for a range of native species. During the cold winter months, our native reptiles and amphibians often seek out places such as this to hibernate until spring, unfortunately just at the time when people are creating bonfires. Many species will see these wood piles as a potential home, unawares that they are crawling into a wicker man which will soon be put to the torch.

The only way you can be sure that you are not endangering the wider range of wildlife who may take up residence in a bonfire, not just the hedgehogs, is to make it just before you light it. This might mean piling the logs and wood nearby in preparation, and then moving them to build the bonfire on the 5th November.