2016 in Wildflowers

Every week this year, with just one or two exceptions, I’ve taken part in the excellent #wildflowerhour on twitter where people across the UK share their sightings for the week between 8-9pm each Sunday – an excellent way to draw a weekend to a close.

Many of these photos made an appearance at some point but this is a run-through a few of my favourite wildflower finds or photos from 2016. The absence of orchids can be explained by a whole post all of their own from earlier this week – take a look here!

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Tree flowers are some of the first to make their appearance each year and this set shows a few of these in silhouette against a white February sky. The photo on the left is the male catkins of alder whilst the right two images are the female flowers of two different willow species. Many of these early tree species have both male and female flowers. Some, such as the hazel and alder, have both male and female flowers on the same tree. Others, such as these willows, have male trees or female trees which produce just one type of flower.
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An early-morning walk in May treated me to these frosted flowers in Muston Meadows NNR. The sward was still low, with many of the larger, later meadow species such as salad burnet and meadowsweet still to appear, and these smaller early-summer flowering species were the stars of the show. Clockwise from top left are bulbous buttercup,  cuckooflower, green-winged orchid and cowslip.
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Spring sandwort is a member of the campion family and I came across these cushions of flowers at a disused leadworking site in Derbyshire. It is quite a scarce plant across the UK but frequents these old spoil heaps – such is its connection that  leadwort is another name for this flower. I like that this species has specific habitat preferences which are far from the pristine grasslands and woodlands which are associated with the conservation of many species.
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This is another example of where a closer look rewards the curious – this is a view down the spadix of an arum lily – also known as Lords and Ladies. This reminds me of one of the plasma balls I used to see in Science Museums when I was younger!
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It would be difficult to exclude bluebells from this selection as the sight of a good bluebell wood, with wood anemone, primrose, violets and yellow archangel mixed in, is one of those sights which is profoundly uplifting after a long winter. Many species begin to flower before these, but the bluebell season marks a threshold between the sparsity of spring and the abundance of summer which is just on the horizon. I like the lightness and delicacy of this shot – taken at the Notts Wildlife Trust site – Treswell Wood.
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Another photograph from Treswell Wood. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an abundance of greater stitchwort than at this site this year – glades were filled with the snow-white flowers of this native woodland specialist.
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This is another photograph from Muston Meadows NNR – this time at sunset. I liked the moody, hazy feel of this photograph with buttercups and grass flowers against a darkening sky.
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This set was taken on my birthday this year – we were camping just below Old Sarum outside Salisbury and woke up early to climb the old hillside and watch the sun rise. The fields and landscape below were misty and I liked the contrast of these wildflowers against the sunrise haze.Clockwise from top left is dock, cow parsley, nettle and bulbous buttercup.
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Smooth tare is a member of the pea family with these tiny white flowers with delicate purple veining. Easily overlooked in a grassland sward, I like the way that they stand out against the soft greens of the surrounding vegetation when you get low enough to appreciate them!
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I took a treacherous walk up to the Hills and Hollows on the outskirts of Grantham one very stormy lunchtime in June – somehow these ominous heavens never opened but gave a nice opportunity to capture some common wildflowers against a dark sky. Clockwise from top left is white campion, poppy, white clover and hogweed.
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I have a real soft spot for arable weeds – modern farming works hard to eradicate competition from arable fields but many species still find a way to brighten a dull monoculture. This flax field was quite an amazing sight in itself with its array of ripe seeds, but flecked throughout where the glaucous green and delicate mauve of fumitory which scrambled up and through the crop.
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Harebells are common in more acidic conditions but can pop up in a variety of habitats. I found them for the first time in the grasslands above Grantham this year, nestled in amongst the Hills and Hollows, but this photo was taken on the Laurie Lee Wildlife Walk in Slad this autumn. You have to get down low to see inside these little flowers, and when i did, I was surprised to find two invertebrate residents settled in for the day. I guess a downwards-facing bell makes perfect cover for a snail to wait until nightfall!
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The Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire comes brightly to life with the purple wash of heather in August and this photograph was taken on one of my favourite walks which cuts across this land. The bell heather was frequented by the beautiful heather colletes bees which emerge to coincide with this floral abundance each year, feeding on the flowers and making their nest holes in the sandy soils beneath the roots.
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Another from the Peak District – this time the coconut-scented flowers of gorse against a backdrop of heather. The old saying goes, ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’ because you can find this species flowering pretty much anytime throughout the year. There are many fewer pollinators at work during the winter, but when a warm day awakens a hibernating bumblebee, it can be fairly sure of a nectar source amongst a stand of gorse.

 

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Whilst I doubt this will be my last wildflower photo of 2016, it seems a nice place to end – a common mallow flower with ice crystals taken on my walk to work in December. A bitterly cold morning, the white edging brought a nice contrast to the deep purple of this flower. Many wildflowers of late-summer will continue flowering until the first hard frosts of winter finish them off so this might perhaps signal the end for this individual!

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 Butterflies

I thought I had probably seen my last butterfly of 2016 when I started to put together this collection for 2016 – only to see a peacock flitting around on my lunchtime walk yesterday. Sunny weather or disturbance can bring out some of our hibernating species during the winter so the ‘season’ never truly ends!

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This green-veined white butterfly was feeding on the greater stitchwort flowers in the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust reserve Treswell Woods earlier this year. A closer view reveals the yellow pollen from the anthers on the legs of this butterfly which will likely be transferred to the next stitchwort flower on which the butterfly alights. This act of pollination is the reward which the flowers get in return for their nectar they provide.
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This is a close-up photo of a orange-tip butterfly – I love the chequer-board green eyes. This individual was resting with folded wings on a white flower and their camouflage really is superb in this pose – until their open their wings and reveal those gaudy orange wing-tips from which they derive their name.
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This year was a good one for dingy skippers – I was lucky enough to see them at a number of different sites.This was at a Warwickshire Wildlife Site – Harbury Spoilbank – where grizzled skippers and green hairstreaks are also to be found. This is a male and a female pre-mating in the low vegetation.
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Another skipper from another Warwickshire Wildlife Site – this time at Ufton Fields. This is the grizzled skipper, a tiny little butterfly which could easily be mistaken for a moth at first glance as it zips past. This one is feeding on a speedwell flower.
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This is one of the UK’s rarest species – the wood white taken at Ryton Woods in Warwickshire. I took a walk around the rides hoping to spot this species and was just about to give up hope when this one appeared, bouncing along the edge of the rides. Their flight is slow and delicate and the males spend much of their time patrolling in search of females on the vegetation. I followed this one a while and got just one or two photos before he fluttered on over some dense scrub away from the path and out of sight.
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This is a common blue butterfly perched on one of their favourite food plants – the bird’s foot trefoil. I like this photo as you can see the curled tongue protruding. This long tongue straightens when they feed, allowing them to reach nectar from deep within the flowers and to access resources that many insects cannot.
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This photograph of a common blue was taken at sunset at Muston Meadows NNR in Leicestershire. The butterflies settle on vegetation such as this, always seemingly adopting this downwards-facing pose, at the end of the day. This one tried several locations before finding a position it was happy with. The butterflies spend the night roosting like this, ready to awaken when the temperatures rise again in the morning.
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This orange tip was displaying the colouration which gives the species its name, although it is only in fact the male butterflies which have orange tips – the female butterflies have black tips. Orange tip butterflies favour flowers of the cabbage family and this individual alighted and then departed several non-cabbage flowers before settling and drinking deep from these dame’s violets growing along The Drift SSSI.
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I think it’s only fair to include a raggedy painted lady butterfly in this collection, considering the journey these butterflies make to get here. This was taken feeding on hogweed along the Grantham Canal – many miles inland from the sea across which this butterfly had flown to get here. This species does not breed in the UK which means that every individual you see will have migrated from the continent.
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I rather liked the angularity of this photograph of a marbled white in a slightly unusual pose. I do not know of a site local to me where these butterflies are found, but they occur in good numbers in many grassland sites in Warwickshire where I have spent some time this summer. These butterflies seem to favour thistles – newly emerged individuals will alight temporarily on all sorts of purple flowers – from ragged robin to orchids – until they get their eye in for the thistle flowers they are seeking.
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2016 wasn’t a good year for the small tortoiseshell with low numbers recorded through much of the summer. I saw a few more in the later months, such as this one feeding with several others on a patch of thistles in a pasture field. Nettle and thistle often come to dominate patches of higher nutrient ground within pasture fields. The imago – adult butterflies – love the thistle flowers, and their caterpillars feed on nettle, so this combination of species is ideal habitat for small tortoiseshells.
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A red admiral to finish – these are one of our few species which hibernate along with small tortoiseshell, comma, peacock, speckled wood, clouded yellow and brimstone butterflies. This individual had found the patch of naturalised Michaelmas daisy in the grassland above Grantham in October, along with a range of bees and hoverflies – and was taking advantage of the nectar source and autumnal sunshine before finding somewhere dark and stable to fold its wings and await the spring.

 

 

 

Three trillion answers to a single question

On the last day of November, the decadence of summer is long gone. The flowers and leaves, butterflies and bees were so easy to take for granted until autumn and then winter take them from us. But every season has its own treasures and the wind-whipped, leaf-stripped trees are on glorious display across the countryside.

One thought which always strikes me when I see winter silhouettes, is how amazingly adept trees are at achieving their structure in an infinite number of ways. A line of trees planted together will each grow to maturity in a different form. The form will be dictated by species, by sub-species perhaps, by individual genetic variation, phenotypic plasticity to adapt to the conditions, defense responses to biotic attack or abiotic damage such as frost and wind, competition avoidance strategies and more besides. There are as many answers as there are trees to the simple question of how to be upright. And whilst the tree is growing, the process is never complete as the tree grows adaptively to maintain its balance and posture with continual interaction with their environment.

One recent 2015 study put an estimate of 3 trillion on the number of trees in the world. The mind boggles to even begin to comprehend the variety and scale which this number encompasses, but here are nine examples from my walk near Muston Meadows at dusk this evening.

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!

A November Walk in the Quantocks

Sometimes surveys take me further from home, and a Monday morning survey in Somerset invited an early start to take advantage of the opportunity to explore somewhere new. A chance leaf through the Guardian Travel’s Best Autumn Walks section on Sunday night obliged me with an excellent suggestion – a walk from Adscombe across the Quantock hills to Crowcombe and back.

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The drive on the approach to Crowcombe presented this autumnal treat – it’s difficult to get over how beautiful beech trees look in their yellows and golds. The beech is generally considered native only towards the south of Englan, and whilst there are plenty of specimens tp be seen around the Midlands, it’s only really on a trip south that you can really enjoy their autumn exhuberance en masse.

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There must be a name for when something inanimate catches your eye and morphs into something alien. When I was on a field site at uni, I remember we watched a hare stock-still in the woods for a good 5 minutes before realising it was an apt arrangement of log and stick. This piece of branch and moss caught through the wire fence at the beginning of the walk put me in mind of a tiny maurauder breaking through the defences, strangely sinister!

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The walk took me up through Great Wood, managed by the Forestry Commission. The woodland is varied – from dull conifer plantation to glorious semi-natural oak woodland, all punctuated by beech boundaries where the roots pour over the tops of the banks as the trees cling to their precarious looking anchor points. This smartly-spaced plantation of conifers caught my eye, especially the way the light increases as the beech re-asserts itself on the banks which rise up behind.

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There were plenty of mushrooms and fungi to be seen in the woods – this was a particuarly impressive ring around a conifer. I’m not sure on the species but would welcome enlightenment!

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The route I took went close to Dead Woman’s Ditch, and passed through this spectacuarly gnarled sessile oak woodland. These trees are of a considerable age, but the poor quality of the soils and the exposure results in them being relativly small and encourages these gnarled, twisted growth forms. These are ancient woodland sites, many of which had uses for charcoal and tanning in the past. These days, they provide excellent roosts for a range of bat species including rare barbastelle and Bechstein bats.

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The walk back up from Adescombe took me up Quantock Combe – this is the name given to a steep narrow vally which cuts down the hillsides. The stream running through this combe was gentle and shallow, crossable at almost all points, and overshadowed by ferns and bracken.

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Back up to the top once more, I crossed a cow-grazed pasture to reach the Drove Road which took me back towards Crowcombe. This beech-lined trackway has the gnarled roots replacing the rocks in the walls in places, and provides a sheltered passage across the open fields. Sadly, the exposure meant most of the autumn leaves had already been consigned to the wind, but it must be glorious in its peak. This track is probably pre-historic and was once an important trading route. The sunken track bears testimony to centuries of footfalls, which is a truly humbling thought.

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Before the descent back into Crowcombe, I walked up to Beacon Hill to take in the view from the trig point. Here, the scenery changes from the lushious woodlands to a blasted heath with gorse, heather and Deschampsia with the flar agricultural plains stretching out below.

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Despite being well into the middle of November, there were plenty of flowers to be seen along the route including red campion, bramble, gorse, dandelion, herb robert, wood sage, hedge woundwort and heather.

There are many tracks between Crowcombe and Adscombe, meaning there is no need to retrace your steps on a circular walk between the two. The route I took was a pleasant 8 1/2 miles with some good ascents and descents (certainly compared with my neck of the Midlands!). Allow a few hours to meander and explore, there’s plenty to distract you along the way!

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.

 

If everybody looked the same…

So I spent a little time today taking portraits of amphibians, as you do… I was translocating great crested newts from a site proposed for development and ended up capturing large numbers of smooth newts and toads as well as the great cresteds. I collected the amphibians together and then took them to the receptor site which had been created to provide them with habitat in the long term. As I went to release them, I was struck by the variety of individuals within the same species.

The variation is probably down to a range of factors such as diet, age, maturity, condition, sex or simply genetic variation; and ranges from obvious differences such as colour down to quite subtle differences in patterning or facial structure.

I took the opportunity to take a few ‘portraits’ to record some of these individual characters. It is a lesson which nature constantly re-iterates – look a little closer and you will always see more than at first meets the eye.

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Four portraits of different common toads – Bufo bufo
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Four portraits of smooth newt – Triturus vulgaris / Lissotriton vulgaris

Boisterous Wool Carder Bees

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.

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Wool carder bee feeding on lamb’s ear

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.

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Male wool carder bee resting on the ‘wool’ of a lamb’s ear leaf

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!

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Wool carder bee in flight