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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
This summer, I discovered a colony of wool carder bees in the Sensory Garden beside the River Witham and these characterful little creatures became the focus of my lunchtime walks for much of the rest of the season. The photographs and slow-motion videos below were all taken in this garden over the course of the summer.
The wool carder is a striking bee – chunky and robust with sporty yellow markings down the sides of the abdomen which is tipped with five spikes in the males. They are in the megachile family – alongside the leafcutters – but are the only representative of the Anthidium genus to be found in the UK. More broadly, they are one of the 250 or so solitary bee species in the UK. They are common in England and Wales but are just starting to make their appearance into Scotland.
The name ‘wool carder’ is an intriguing one which relates to an even more intriguing behaviour. ‘Carding’ is a mechanical process which involves disentangling, cleaning and preparing fibres for processing, and the word originally comes from the latin ‘carduus’ relating to teasels or thistles which were historically purposed for the task. In this context, ‘wool carder’ relates to the behaviour of the female bees who shave plant hairs and fibres from leaves and stems. They gather these fibres into a bundle and take them to their nest site – often aerial holes and crevices as well as hollow plant stems and bee hotels – and use them to line the nesting tubes.
The wool carder bees forage on a range of species, specialising in those in the deadnettle and pea families such as betony, woundwort, mint, balm, loosestrife, toadflax and restharrow. This study from Kernowecology found that in native vegetation, marsh woundwort and purple toadflax were the most commonly used flowers for nectaring whilst greater bird’s foot trefoil was most commonly used as a pollen source. They advise that planting those two species together is successful in attracting these bees.
However many people will encounter the bees, as I did, on a garden plant and Stachys byzantina seems to be one of the most popular for this species. This plant is one of the woundworts which is a member of the deadnettle family which the bees favour for nectaring, whilst also having perfect ‘wool’ for the females to gather for their nest tubes – the plant is not known as ‘lambs ear’ for nothing! This combination of the bees’ two key requirements makes them irresistible to the female bees and this is something which the male bees take advantage of.
The male bees are larger than the females, and are highly territorial. I spent many lunchtimes watching them patrol a patch of lamb’s ear, waiting for the females to arrive. Once a female landed to nectar, the male would pounce upon her for a swift and unambiguous mating – see video below – before leaving the slightly startled looking female to continue visiting the flowers.
The males would regularly rest in a spot of sunshine before upping and patrolling the flowers in search of females or rivals.Interestingly, one might expect the male bees to limit their attentions to other male wool carders who represent a direct rival, but instead they will attack and chase away any other bees including honey bees and much larger bumblebees – see videos below. This is thought to be a mechanism of maximising the value of their territory, and thus making the plant more enticing to female bees. They will grapple with these other bees and pull them off the flowers and sometimes pursue them to the ground. The spikes in the base of the thorax are then seen to be not simply for show – the male wool carders use these aggressively, capturing their enemy between their curled thorax and the spines in order to inflict damage.
This behaviour is fascinating to watch, and seemed of little concern in the garden as the wool carder males limited their attention to their patch of lamb’s ear, leaving other bees safe to forage on the multitude of other flowers nearby. However this aggressive behaviour gives significant cause for concern when the bee is invasive in other countries such as the US and New Zealand. Their distribution close to ports in NZ indicates that they may have come across in ships, whilst they have been detected in various parts of the USA since 1963 and are making an appearance across the country, establishing now in western USA. Kelsey Graham is studying the effects of the wool carder as an exotic species on the native US bee populations. As in the UK, there is considerable concern in the USA about the decline of native bees including bumblebees and other solitary bees species such as the Osmia. The impacts of the exotic wool carder bees in the US relate in part to competition for nectar as they are sharing a finite resource with the native species, but particularly relate to the aggressive behaviour of the males in attacking the native species. Kelsey identifies that the chemical changes induced in the plants by the ‘carding’ of the females releases chemical signals which attract further wool carder bees. Native US bumblebees seem most likely to be attacked, and Kelsey’s research has found that this leads to these bees avoiding areas where the wool carder bees patrol, thus reducing the availability of foraging resource to the native bees. You can read more about Kelsey’s research here.
The wool carders are a summer bee, flying from June – August, and visiting the Sensory Garden in September seems somewhat lacking without the antics of this boisterous and charismatic bee. Kate Bradbury wrote a wonderful piece in the Guardian about watching these bees in her newly created wildlife garden where they arrived in less than a year, so I am hoping that the already-established lamb’s ear in the garden of the house we have just moved to will provide this spectacle on our doorstep next summer!
Cider with Rosie has to be one of my favourite books, with its evocation of life in a wooded Gloucestershire valley at a crucial time when the world around the village was changing but where a more ‘traditional’ country life still persisted. I have wanted to visit the landscape ever since reading it, but it is always that little bit too far or not quite convenient – however a recent site visit took me back past Stroud and so opportunity knocked to call in at Slad – the village where the book is set.
I parked up at Swift’s Hill – a SSSI which overlooks the valley and took a look around the grassland before setting off on a walk. The sward is clearly past its summer finery but many flowers still studded the hillside – small scabious, devil’s bit scabious, knapweeds ad eyebrights – frequented by these beautiful little Lasioglossum solitary bees with endearingly long antennae.
Lassioglossum solitary bee feeding on small scabious
Lassioglossum solitary bee feeding on small scabious
I then picked up the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way which takes you down the steep hillside and across open pasture field to an apple orchard where the mustard-green mistletoe nests amongst the branches.
Next, the path takes you down across the river and into the village itself, before heading up the other side of the valley and into the darker woodlands of Frith Wood where the trees crowd over the pathway to form a shady passageway between the trunks. After crossing the road, and walking beneath some truly majestic beeches, the track winds up a steep wooded hillside and releases you into the meadow of Snows Farm – managed for wildlife and thronged with flowers such as yellow agrimony, blue harebell and scented wild basil and marjoram.
The way continues then through woodland and wildflower grassland, ending in Laurie Lee wood – a recent Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust aquisition – before ending back at the high open hillside of Swift Hill.
One of my favourite aspects of the walk was the totems displaying Lee’s poem’s written black on perspex so that the view was visible behind the words. This means of display was an excellent way of placing the poems within the landscape which was so important in inspiring his work.
After reading Cider with Rosie, I read ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ where Laurie Lee talks about leaving this very village on foot and working in London before making his way to the continent and walking down to the south coast of Spain. The steep valleys and hillsides would be fine training for a long distance walk and I could certainly feel my flatland legs when I got to the end, but this was a magnificent way to spend an afternoon through some of the most quintissential Cotswolds scenery you could hope for. Woodruff and wood sorrel leaves covered the woodland floors, whilst the dead flowering stems promise bluebells in the springtime so I will certainly be back to explore this beautiful place again.
You can read more about the Laurie Lee WIldlife Way here. I didn’t have a copy of the route guide but found the walk quite straightforward to follow for the most part – however there are places where crossroads are not signed so it’s a good idea to pick up the leaflet or to take a map with you as backup!
For the last month, all through June, I’ve been taking part in #30dayswild. Now that June has come to an end, I am looking back on the activities which kept me feeling connected to nature through the month. The following post summarises Week 1 – feel free to click through the links to read more about any of these activities!
Weeks 2-4 summaries will follow!
Day 1 – Bat Survey
I started Day 1 of 30 Days Wild at 2:30am when I set a very early alarm to carry out a bat survey. Despite the murky conditions, the night had been damp but without rain, and the dawn temperature o…
Day 3 – Common Blue Butterflies I called in at a Warwickshire Wildlife Trust site on my way home from site survey to see whether the butterfly orchids were yet in flower. I found several spikes where the first flowers were openin…
Day 4 – Wildflowers in the Garden It is often said that a weed is simply a flower in the wrong place. I would consider that any flower which adds life and colour to a drab lawn has found it’s right place, and so I went out in…
Day 5 – Sunset in a Wildflower Meadow For Day 5 of 30 Days Wild, I walked out to a local National Nature REserve (NNR) called Muston Meadows to watch the sun go down. As I spend much of the summer doing bat surveys, I do get to see my …
Day 6 – Recording a Cuckoo Bee on iRecord The blue skies and sunshine first thing this morning made a walk around the garden a must-do before heading into work. I spotted a bumblebee on one of the ornamental garden shrubs which looked rath…
Day 7 – Orange -tip Butterflies along the Viking Way Taking the time to watch nature, rather than simply notice it and keep on walking, is an immensely rewarding experience. There is much information available on so many species, but sometimes it is …