Friday, 16 February 2018

Gardeners Helping Pollinators

Over the past few years I have delivered many 'bee' talks to horticultural societies, but the talk I gave last night was different. Actually, it wasn't the talk itself that was different, but rather the reason this particular society had booked me.

I have found it usual when delivering talks to members of gardening groups, that mine will be one of a series of talks, given over the course of a year's programme, on a wide and often disparate range of subjects. Of course the talk content will have been chosen to appeal to people who enjoy gardening, but that's usually as far as it goes.

The reason last night's talk was different, is that it was the opening talk in a year during which Wellow Horticultural Society (based in the village of Wellow, near Bath) are focussing their entire 'talks and events' programme around bees... with a particular focus on bumblebees and solitary bees.

I found it SO inspiring to deliver my talk to such an engaged and interested audience of people working together as a group to help pollinators. I'm afraid I ran a little over time, choosing to expand in some cases on areas that I usually only touch on for a moment or two. However I did this in the sure knowledge that this particular group were listening not only for general interest or entertainment value (you may not know it, but learning about bees can be extremely entertaining!), but because I knew they were planning to use any information I imparted to actively help bees. 

Pollinators need our help, and by pollinators I don't just mean bees. Changes in habitat, together with increased use of pesticides, climate change, pests and diseases, and many other issues are also contributing to declines in butterflies and other pollinating animals. Those of us with gardens can make a big difference by planting more pollen and nectar rich plants, and creating (or conserving) suitable habitats for these creatures to nest and hibernate.

"Recent research indicates that private gardens in Britain cover an area bigger than all of the country’s nature reserves combined, estimated at over 10 million acres. Individual gardens may be small but they create important green links between urban nature reserves and the wider countryside, forming vital wildlife corridors. The potential of the country’s millions of gardens to help counteract some of the habitat losses that we have experienced in the last 50 years is enormous. Making your garden wildlife-friendly will help to ensure that the plants and animals that we value today will still be there for future generations to enjoy" - from Hampshire and Isle of Wright Wildlife Trust website.

Wellow Horticultural Society explain in their January newsletter  how they plan to support wild bees this year. Do PLEASE have a look... it's really worth a read and might give you some ideas for your own gardening clubs or societies.

"We want you to come to the events, but also get involved, doing things to support bees and other pollinators. While the honey bee is an excellent pollinator, we want to focus on wild bees – bumble bees and solitary bees. You do know the difference don’t you? No? – then come along to our events to find out!........."

Monday, 27 November 2017

Things I love.....

I love bees and trees. And leaf skeletons and seed heads. I also love butterflies, catkins, pussy willow, woodlice, dragonflies and shield bugs; lemon verbena tea made with freshly picked leaves from the garden; hares; sunset, sunrise and sunshine; moonshine and starlight; old man's beard; watching solitary leaf cutter bees building their nests in my garden; and knowing that you are never too old to fall in love. I love starling murmurations; wintersweet; grasses and beetles; and art. I love uploading my macro photographs when I come back from a walk and then pouring over my reference books to identify new (to me) species and I love the tawny owls when they t'wit & t'woo outside our bedroom window at night. 

I love the weather. I love snow and can't wait for it to fall again so I can make snow angels. I love fairy lights; my friends and my family; wild flowers (especially the rebels that grow between paving slabs); birds, bats, mice and toads; making nature mandalas; reference books illustrated with beautiful photographs and drawings; native hedgerows; Imbolc (Brigid/Brigit's Day) - and the fact that my mother named me 'Brigit' when I was born. And the Moomins…..oh how I love the Moomins.... Snufkin and Moominmamma and the Hattifatteners. And the Hemulen. You can't not love the Hemulin.

I love mosses and lichens; live music; speaking about the beautiful world of wild bees; seaweed and sand; Hairy Footed Flower Bees (yes, such creatures exist) walking barefoot on the beach; rainbows, corkscrew hazel and unicorns. I love raging rivers as they crash across rocks and boulders; streams so small that they are almost hidden by the undergrowth... and puddles. And jumping in puddles. I love juicing apples and the fact that the juice changes colour when it meets the air.  I love Dorset, Cornwall, Norfolk, Northumberland, The Western Isles and all the other breathtakingly beautiful places that I have lived in or connected with; I especially love The Malvern Hills. I love coastal paths; being a mother and a grandmother; old man's beard; candlelight; moths, caterpillars and spider's webs; hazel nuts and fungi; the beautiful hand crafted things that people have gifted me; ginger flavoured dark chocolate truffles and adding chopped lemon to pretty much everything I cook. I love Puffins and Pufflings; the amazing noises that Eider ducks make and the shape of Curlews' beaks. And being kept awake at night on the Isle of Barra by Corncrakes. And feathers and crystals and everything that sparkles. And I LOVE rough haired lurchers. 

I love long-tailed tits and wrens; discovering bumblebee nests in unexpected places; the aliveness of water; the silence of stillness and clouds that look like dragons for a moment or two before they shift shape seamlessly into hippopotami; knowing that you are never too old to fall in love; loving and being loved back. I love grass snakes and I love reading 'Meadowland' - a book so delightful I still haven't read the last chapter because I can't bear for it to end. I love Meadow Pippits, even though I have yet to meet one; sitting by the wood burner with a bowl of porridge on a cold winter morning; winter squashes; summer squashes; sowing seeds, saving seeds and swapping seeds; dandelion clocks; carving wooden spoons; greater stitchwort; nice surprises; meeting friends in cafes for a cup of tea; yoga; collecting sea glass and driftwood from the beach; bees; swimming in the sea; curly kale; sutherland kale; russian kale; black kale…….and SO much more!

And I love my children and grandchildren, and my husband Rob, to the moon and back.

It feels good to make lists of the things you love and appreciate every now and then, especially during these challenging times when it is all too easy to feel overwhelmed by all the doom and gloom. It reminds you how wonderful it is (and how lucky we are) to be alive. It fills you with the positive energy and inspiration to DO something to preserve all that is sacred to you.  

Wishing everyone who has read this post a beautiful day, evening, week and life…. and hoping you all enjoy making your own lists of things you love as much as I enjoy making mine! x

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Lost Words

The postman delivered something very beautiful today. A book. But not just any old book. This book just happens to be one of the most beautiful books I've ever seen. A 'keep forever' book.

The words in this magical book are themselves works of art. Inspired words, beautiful words, words with purpose that weave together other familiar but strangely endangered words; like Acorn, Conker and Otter.

The illustrations are breathtakingly beautiful; page after page of images you can't help tracing with your fingers, as though this will somehow imprint them in your mind... like a visual mantra you can summon up whenever you have need of 'beauty'. The otters are imprinted in my mind already. I can see them when I close my eyes.

The book is 'The Lost Words' - written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris. It is for children of all ages - from 1 - 101

More about The Lost Words and the story behind the need for it to be written, here 

Thank you Robert and Jackie for championing these words - and the creatures and plants they conjure up

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Snail shell bees

Another little excerpt from my book......

It’s raining. This means my planned excursion to Salisbury Plain to search for the snail shell bee Osmia spinulosa would most likely be quite fruitless, so I’ve decided to stay at home and write about her instead....

I first came across this little solitary bee a few years ago whilst living in West Malvern, Worcestershire. By that time I had begun to take photographs of pretty much anything ant-sized and upwards that visited my tiny patio garden on the side of the hill - and had already uploaded a few thousand images of two, four, six and eight legged creatures to a file on my lap-top titled ‘unidentified garden visitors’. Many of my garden visitors will remain forever unlabelled in that file, but when I enlarged the photograph I took of this particular bee, I could tell from her ‘jizz’ (one of my new favourite words) that she must be an Osmia species... and I was quite excited when I realised she wasn’t one I already knew. She was certainly not one of my regular bee hotel nesters. 

As well as being excited by the possibility of a new bee to add to my species list, I was also struck by the fact that my hitherto almost-non-existent ID skills had just notched up a level; i.e.  I was able to place this bee into a ‘genus’ before going the BWARS (Bees, wasps & ants recording society) site rather than after hours of trawling through it searching for a visual match or posting my photograph on twitter to ask for help. I cannot tell you how empowering this felt.

Once I had decided she was an Osmia species, it was relatively easy to pin-point exactly which. Many of our solitary bee species are impossible to tell apart without a microscope, but this one had unusual blue/green/ eyes so I was able to identify her very quickly.

So, not only was this a new bee (for me) but I had also managed to identify her accurately (and entirely by myself) as Osmia spinulosa - the Spined Mason-bee. On their own, these two happenings were worthy of celebration, but when I started to read and watch videos about her nesting behaviour, I was close to bursting with joy! I’d been watching other Osmia species since early April, as they flew back and forth to my bee hotels carrying balls of mud or chewed up leaf mastic with their mouthparts - or with the undersides of their abdomens caked in bright yellow/orange pollen - and was already entranced by their nesting behaviour. 

But this bee doesn't lay her eggs in bee hotels, she lays them in old snail shells. A bee who makes her nest in snail shells… how exciting is that? And how in the world had I never come across her before?!

More about these, and other snail shell nesting bees in my book, but for anyone who has come to this blog searching for information about snail shell bees, please see Steven Falk's amazing flickr pages which are full of photographs and information....

Osmia spinulosa (Spined mason bee)

Osmia bicolor (Red tailed mason bee)

Osmia aurulenta (Gold-fringed mason bee)

B x

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Of Snowdrops and Hairy-footed Flower Bees

Male Hairy-footed Flower Bee
It’s February 17th and I’ve just seen my first Hairy-footed flower bee of the year. She’s foraging amongst the snowdrops in the gardens where my husband, Rob, works, and I can barely contain my excitement. I watch her darting from flower to flower, her proboscis extended as she sups the nectar provided by these earliest of blooms. I am enthralled. Her small black furry body emits the high-pitched buzz so typical of this species, that first alerted me to her presence in the flowerbed - and I am smitten, all over again, by this charming little bee.

I can’t believe I don’t have my camera with me! I have never before seen a Hairy-footed flower bee foraging on a snowdrop and would so love to have a photograph to accompany my record when I submit it to BWARS (Bees, Wasps, Ants Recording Society) later today. I wonder if mine will be the first sighting this year, or perhaps even the earliest sighting ever....?

The Hairy-footed flower bee’s scientific name ‘Anthophora plumipes’ (plumipes meaning ‘feather-footed’) sounds, to me, almost as beautiful as her common name, although the ‘plumipes’ part only really applies to the male of the species. The male’s middle legs are elongated and adorned with long feathery hairs, which he uses to transfer secretions from his abdominal glands to the female’s antennae whilst he mates with her. It looks like he’s covering her eyes with his legs whilst he does this.  I have no idea what might be the significance of this transfer of secretions during mating; it is but one of many mysteries I have yet to unravel in my on-going quest to understand more about the fascinating and beguiling world of bees. 

Unusual amongst our British bee species, male and female Hairy-footed Flower bees are quite different to each other in appearance, although both are fairly easy to recognise and identify in their own right, even for complete beginners.  Hairy-footed females are jet black all over, with bright yellow/orange pollen brushes on their hind legs, whilst males of the species are golden-brown in colour (fading to a paler colour as they spend more time in the sun) with pale yellow faces and, of course, very beautiful hairy legs.

Although Hairy-footed flower bees are solitary species, they are often mistakenly identified as bumblebees... and with their rotund body shape and complete covering of hair this is hardly surprising. However when they first emerge in early spring there should be less confusion, for the only bumblebees on the wing at that time of year are the enormous queens who have just emerged from hibernation.  Compared to these huge bumblebee queens, Hairy-footed flower bees are actually quite small. 

Colour, shape and size aside, the easiest way to recognise this bee - and to tell it apart from other bees - is undoubtedly by its behaviour. No other species of bee (apart from other related Flower bee species) behaves, forages or sounds quite like the Hairy-footed flower bee. Zipping back and forth from flower to flower, with such speed and purpose that you can barely keep your eye on them, and then hovering for a few seconds in the air like miniature humming birds as they probe for nectar and pollen with their long pointed proboscises; their behaviour really is most distinctive and almost un bee-like. Add to this their highly pitched ‘buzz’ and the male’s territorial tendencies, and there’s no mistaking a Hairy-footed flower bee when you meet one....

Female Hairy-footed Flower Bee

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Bees: where to begin?

A few more passages from the opening chapter of the book I'm writing....

Bees. Where to begin….?

Given the enormity of our reliance upon bees as pollinators of human food crops, it beggars belief that we (by we, I mean you and I; not the scientists who study insects) know so little about them. Mention the word bee to most people, and images of bee hives, beekeepers and honey are the most likely things that will spring to their minds. However if I were to give the same people a sheet of paper and some coloured pencils and ask them to draw me a bee, most of them would draw something shaped a little like a rugby ball with striped yellow, white and black bands to which they might attach a head, six legs, two antennae and a pair (or two) of wings; something that looks, essentially, like a bumblebee.

So there is clearly a little confusion as to what, exactly, a bee is.

In actual fact, Planet Earth is home to at least 20,000 different species of bee. This is quite a staggering figure; one which surprises most people when they first hear it, especially if they have previously only been aware of the existence of honeybees and bumblebees.  Of all these different species, only 7 are honeybees, around 250 bumblebees and the rest are solitary bees. (N.B. of the so called 'solitary' bees, some groups actually have social structures. I have not yet fully understood the varying degrees of sociality amongst these groups; it's a complex subject and one I'm still trying to get my head around)

Bees are incredible in so many ways, that I will barely manage to scratch the surface of their existence in this book. My aim is simply to introduce you to certain aspects of their world; a world which, for the last decade or so, has filled me with ever increasing wonder and joy as I have immersed myself in watching, listening and tuning in to the bees (and other wild creatures) that I come across in my garden and on my travels around the UK. By sharing the knowledge I have gained, together with my observations, understandings and realisations, I hope to inspire you, too, to fall in love with these extraordinary little beings… or at least to see them in a different light and want to find out more about them.

Most of us are aware that bees are important pollinators, but far from being in awe of the fact that something so tiny is capable of achieving something so extraordinary i.e. pollination.... we tend instead to take this gift (or service as it is so sadly referred to these days by economists) very much for granted. I use the word ‘gift’ with consideration and awareness of the fact that a gift is usually something that has been given with intent to a recipient. As bees and other pollinators go about their daily business of foraging for pollen, their aim is of course to collect as much as possible to take back to their nest to feed, or provide for, the next generation of their species. Bees are no more setting out to ‘gift’ us their services than they are setting out to ‘pollinate’ the plants they visit, but the result, in my eyes, is one of the most wonderful gifts that nature bestows upon mankind, and one without which we simply would not survive.....

So, ‘Bees pollinate flowering plants’. This we know. But how exactly do they achieve this? How does a bee, newly emerged from its brood cell or cocoon, recognise that plants provide it with food, or which flowers contain the best sources of pollen and nectar? Which bees (or which other species of pollinating animal for that matter) pollinate which plants? How do they know which flowers have already been worked and which still contain rewards? How do they access the more complexly structured flowers? How do they extract pollen and nectar? How does the plant make sure that pollination actually takes place? How do bees carry pollen back to their nests? How do they find the same plant again? How do they communicate (do they communicate?) this information to other bees? How do they use the pollen……? So many hows?!

Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Song of the Stream

Here are a few passages from the book I'm writing. The book is mostly about bees, but this little piece is about birdsong and the sound of water; written whilst I was staying away from home on a bee identification workshop. Work in progress...

Chapter 6: The song of the stream

Sunday 21st May 4.35am

I slept last night in a tiny little thatched cabin at the top of a garden somewhere in Oxfordshire. 
The cabin is nestled beneath mature trees in a semi-wild area of the garden and I have just woken to (or been woken by) the local dawn chorus. The room is warm so I step out of bed and open the door; now I can also hear the stream below as it makes its way through what I believe used to be a watercress bed.  It’s earlier than I’d like to be awake, but what a way to start the day.

Unlike the birds, the stream has not been to sleep, and it too has a song to sing. How can I describe the song of the stream? Simultaneously complex yet simple; 'of the moment' whilst also in continuous motion, it brings images to my mind of a never ending carnival procession. Depending on when, where and how you tune in, you either catch the full flow of its journey, or a little snap shot that can only be heard here, now, in this very spot where I am sitting. It is the song of a traveller. Does that make sense? I’m not sure, but know I want to explore this idea further.

I open the door wider. There is a lull in the birdsong now so I am better able to tune in to the stream. There must be some kind of fall because I can hear the sound of water cascading over rocks. It is so very soothing in its constancy; moving, perhaps dancing, with no sense of urgency. ‘Less haste, more speed.’ So reassuring. Almost meditative. I can tune in and out at will.

I wonder, if I were to record the sound for a few minutes now - and then again later - would I be able to tell the difference? Does it sound the same in the middle of the night as it does in the middle of the day? In the middle of winter as the middle of summer? Rainfall and wind speed and direction will surely make a difference; in the same way that an orchestra playing the same tune with fewer (or more) violins - or under different conductors - would sound different. The song of the stream is probably softened at this time of year by the leaves in the trees. I wonder how it would sound in mid-winter when the trees are bare.

I love the sound of living water and wish I could live forevermore in a place where I might go to sleep and wake up to this sound.

I'm listening to the birdsong again now and recognise it from yesterday morning. Same birds, singing in the same trees at the same time. But I don’t know who they are. I sing along with a few of them, trying to memorise the sequences and cadences in the hope I’ll be able to find and identify them on the RSPB website when I get back home this evening. I know what they’re ‘not’, which is at least a start. I can confidently say they are not chiffchaff or willow warbler, nor are they robin, blackbird, goldfinch, greenfinch, song thrush, sparrow or starling. Or cuckoo. My birdsong recognition skills are extremely basic, but I delight in those that I do know. I have a similar feeling, each time I recognise a bird by its song, to the feeling I experience when I overhear someone speaking in a foreign language and realise I understand what they’re saying. It’s the beginning of a connection. 

Of course the birds neither know nor care that I have recognised them, but know it; and somehow, at that moment of knowing, I feel a great sense of belonging. It is this sense of belonging that I long for beyond all other longings, for it brings with it a sense of peace so deep and profound that I find I have no need of, or interest in, the trappings and distractions of everyday life....

Brigit x

P.S. The little cabin I've written about here was in the village of Ashbury in Oxfordshire. I found it on Airbnb and really enjoyed my short stay there. Thank you Joseph!