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!

If you are interested in commissioning botanical surveys in the midlands, you can check out Landscape Science Consultancy’s website here!

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Heather Colletes bees

August is a fairly spectacular sight in the Peak District – up away from the arable fields, the heather turns the landscape pink and purple amongst the gritstone. Such a vast resource does not go un-tapped by the natural world and one solitary bee in particular has evolved to exploit the nectar wich underpins this aesthetic abundance.

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The heather colletes bee – Colletes succinctus

This beautiful little solitary bee is known as the heather colletes – Colletes succinctus. These are slightly smaller than a honeybee but have a similar banded pattern to their abdomen. They are a member of the colletes family – known as the plasterer bees.

These sandy paths, studded with gritstone and lined with heather, offer ideal nesting sites for the heather colletes bees with open substrate for burrows and a plentiful food source just next door.

One of the first misconceptions about solitary bees is that you will find them in isolation. Where the conditions are right however, many species of these bees form dense nesting aggregations. The ‘solitary’ epithet refers to the fact that they do not partition roles in the same way as the social honey bees, such as workers and queens. As we walked the sandy soils of the National Trust‘s Longshaw Estate, we saw these little bees feeding on the heather – their bodies curled almost foetally around the flowers – and soon started spotting their nesting holes too!

Heather colletes bee feeding on heather

At first we saw a few holes here and there, but soon we were coming across dense aggregations of the pencil-sized nesting burrows. Much to the bemusement of a group of American tourists hiking up to the tor, I spent the next 20 minutes on my knees watching their coming and going – the video below shows some their entering and leaving their nesting holes.

The males emerge a little before the females, who themselves appear in August to co-incide with the flowering of the ling. I watched the females leaving their holes and flying up to the heather in whose roots they were nesting. Here they gather nectar and also pollen to stock the larders of their nesting burrows. The females layer their burrows with pollen and then lay their eggs which overwinter as pre-adults (eggs to larvae) to emerge the following summer.

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Heather colletes bee emerging from a nest burrow amongst the heather roots

The males hang around the nesting burrows and mate with the females as they fly to and fro – sometimes a mating ball will form where several males will attempt to mate with a single female, grappling together until one wins out. I did not manage any good images of this behaviour, although I would recommend a read of Phil Gate‘s Guardian Country Diary piece which has a cracking photograph of the mating bees.

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As the weather warmed up, the previously empty holes increasingly revealed their inhabitants which responded to the changing conditions and began to pop out

One thing which was noticable was the difficulty the bees had in keeping their footing on the loose, sandy soil. Often they would slip and fall, or otherwise engage their wings just to stay positioned on the ground. Coupled with their propensity for nesting on bare ground, an opportunity often afforded by well-walked paths, it much be a feat of engineering to maintain the integrity of these burrows in such substrate. The video below shows a couple of such incidents in slow motion:

I took a few more slow-motion videos of their flight as they enter and leave their nesting burrows. They would often land close to their burrow and the look around a while before successfuly locating their hole. I wonder how they know which is their entrance, amongst so many others. From watching other mining bees prviously, they seem to use landmarks in such a way that adding or removing something from the immediate vicinity of the entrance, such as a twig or leaf, can leave them apparently unsure about their home.

Just a few clips of them leaving in slow motion to finish off! As always if you want to find out more about a bee species in the UK, including these heather colletes, I would suggest checking out the BWARS species accounts and Steve Falk‘s Flickr page including images and the text which accompanies the images in his excellent book.