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.
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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.

 


 

 

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

Mink climbing a tree

I wanted to share a rather unusual video clip which I captured on a trailcam recently. I know mink to be good swimmers but I did not realise they were tree climbers! Various sources suggest this is a known behaviour, with some suggesting they climb regularly whilst others suggest rarely. One website states that they frequently climb to escape predation although there is nothing to suggest that this was the case in this video.

One of the best applications of a camera trap is when it allows you to observe something unusual or unexpected which could not otherwise be obtained without hours of watching and waiting. I think this clip is a perfect example!

Mistletoe in the Vale of Belvoir

On a walk along the Grantham canal through Redmile in the Vale of Belvoir, we spotted this very distinctive shape in a tree growing somewhere in the village – sadly it looked to be on private property. The photograph is terrible but this is mistletoe, a very common species in the south and west of the country but not something I have ever seen around Grantham before – the populations along the main road running through Burton Joyce was the closest colony I was aware of.

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Mistletoe – latin name Viscum album is a hemi-parasitic plant, a half parasite if you will. Unlike some parasites, it does some of the work for itself, hence the green pigmentation of the chlorophyll. It does however take a range of other nutrients from the tree it is growing upon although they are unlikely to do damage to an established tree. The common name gives a clue about its mode of establishment – ‘mistle’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for dung and ‘tan’ derives from the word for twig* . Birds, most notably the mistle thrush but also species such as the blackcap, eat the berries and excrete them onto the branch afterwards. The seeds germinate here and the distinctive globe of mistletoe develops.

The distribution of mistletoe in the UK is very much to the south and west where it can be very common, particularly favouring apple orchards which has led to the myth that the predominance of orchards in the west country explains the distribution. This is not the case however -apple is one of the most favoured hosts and also happens to be grown in the way which suits mistletoe best – in open spaces rather than denser woodlands. Around 200 tree species can act as hosts however the tolerance of mistletoe for the less optimal ones declines as the suitability of other conditions deteriorate. It is these other conditions – the winter minimum and summer maximum temperatures – which actually limit the plant to a rarity in much of the country*. The mistletoe likes true seasons, cold winrers and hot summers as well as humid springs to germinate.

This awful quality photograoh is not the only record of mistletoe in the area fortunately, this website has photographs of a number of other specimens in the area, noteably in Bottesford only a few miles away. Why they have developed here and where the population origionated from, I do not know. But it is a lovely sight – this time of year is ideal to get out and spot them but hurry, it won’t be long until they’re lost amongst the leaves of their hosts!