Sunday, 20 August 2017

In a cabin by a stream

I started writing a book last year, but earlier this year I suddenly became blocked and stopped. I started writing again today so am feeling very happy. My 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.

Chapter 6: In a cabin by a stream

Sunday 21st May 4.35am - I slept last night in a tiny little thatched cabin at the top of a garden in Ashbury, Oxfordshire… and have just woken to (or been woken by) the local dawn chorus. The cabin is nestled underneath mature trees in a semi-wild area of the garden and when I open the door I can also hear the stream below, in what I believe used to be a watercress bed.  It’s earlier than I’d like to be awake, but oh, what a way to start the day!

Unlike the birds, the stream hasn’t been to sleep, and it too has a song to sing. How can I possibly describe the song of the stream? It contains both movement and stillness. Movement as it makes its way from source to sea… but stillness in the fact that it can only be heard here, and now, in this very spot where I am sitting. Does that make sense? I’m not sure, but know I want to explore this idea further.

I open the door wider. There’s 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 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 in a place where I could go to sleep and wake up to that sound.

I recognise the birdsong 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...

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

'Help... there's a swarm of bees in my bird box!'

I'm getting LOADS of messages and emails this week from people who have noticed 'Swarms of bees in bird boxes'..... also under the eaves of houses and other unexpected places.

These will be Tree bumblebees Bombus hypnorum.

Please don't call out the pest control people!!! The nest has already been there, possibly unnoticed, for at least a few months. The reason for the sudden increased activity is that this is the time of year bumblebee colonies produces new daughter queens. The local males (who have already left their own nests) become very excited and congregate outside the nests where new queens are about to emerge.... in the hope that they can mate with them.

The males dance frantically around the outside of the nest (which is very often in an old bird box, a hollow tree, or under the eves of a house) giving the appearance of a swarm.

Don't worry; this will not last long. It just means the colony has been successful and is now approaching the end of its life-cycle.

The new queens will soon leave the nest, mate, stock up on pollen and nectar, and go into hibernation till early next spring. The old queen, together with all the remaining workers and the males will not survive for longer than a few more weeks.

Tree  bumblebees are the ultimate opportunists. I have seen the nesting in old canons, tumble dryer outlets and letter boxes. I also watched a nest thrive last year in a muck spreader that a local farmer was still using to spread muck at least 3 times weekly. He got stung a couple of times whilst attaching it to his tractor, but took it on the chin (literally) and generously decided not to evict them

So, enjoy and celebrate the fact that you have provided a home for these bumblebees!
A final word of caution. The female guard bees are on high alert during this period and a little more defensive in their behaviour than usual, so stay away from the nest whilst the males are dancing outside.... and be aware that they seem to become especially defensive, and occasionally aggressive, if you use strimmers or lawnmowers nearby.

And please submit a record of your sighting here...  TREE BUMBLEBEE SIGHTINGS

Loads more excellent info about tree bumblebee nests (and how to move them if you really need to) here... Reigate Beekeepers 

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Some very basic information about bees

Andrena cineraria (Ashy mining bee)
What's the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the word 'bee'? For many people this word conjures up images of beehives, honey, and people dressed in strange, white, masked outfits; i.e honeybee related images.

Yet, if I gave the same people a box of coloured pencils and asked them to draw me a bee, most would probably draw something black, yellow and white striped in the shape of a rugby ball, with a pair (or two) of wings, two antennae and six legs; basically something more akin to a bumblebee. So there is clearly a little confusion.

I thought it might help if I wrote down some very basic information to help clear up some of this confusion..........

There are over 20,000 different species of bee in the world.

7 of these are honeybees.
250 are bumblebees
The rest are solitary bees!

In the UK we have around 270 different species:

1 honeybee
24 bumblebees 

245+ solitary bees


Honeybees and bumblebees are 'social' bees - which means they live together in colonies comprising a queen, female workers, and males. They communicate and co-operate.
There are tens of thousands of worker bees in a honeybee colony, but only around 50 - 400 in a bumblebee colony.

With social bees (i.e. honeybees and bumblebees) all the 'worker bees' are female. The males are produced at specific times of the life-cycle for the sole purpose of mating.

Solitary bees, on the other hand, do not have 'queens' or 'workers', nor (with one or two exceptions) do they share their nests with other solitary bees. This is why they are called 'solitary'. They do, however, often nests alongside each other. When you see lots of solitary bees nesting in the same area you are seeing an 'aggregation' not a 'colony'.

After mating, female solitary bees make their nests. They do this either by excavating tunnels in the ground (ground nesting) or using pre-existing cavities in walls, trees, etc (cavity nesting). Cavity nesting solitary bees are opportunists and will also nest in man-made locations such as hose pipes, wind chimes, key-holes and teapot spouts! Some species specialise in empty snail shells. A few solitary bee species have become adept at burrowing into rotten wood or pithy plant stems.

Whatever the preferred nest site, each female provisions a number of individual cells with sufficient pollen for larvae to feed on when they hatch. She then lays an egg alongside each lump of pollen, seals each cell (and then the nest), and dies before her young complete their life cycles to become adult bees. These new adult bees remain in hibernation in their nests throughout autumn and winter... and emerge the following year in spring or summer to start their life cycle all over again.


Only honeybees make honey, which they make out of nectar collected from flowers. Honeybees turn the nectar into honey to store over winter, so the colony has something to feed on whilst it's too cold to forage and flowers are scarce.

Other bee species also collect nectar, but do not turn it into honey. They just use it as an energy drink.


Unlike honeybee colonies, bumblebee colonies do not overwinter. Each bumblebee colony produces males and new daughter queens in the summer (at different times depending on the species). These new queens mate and then go into hibernation till next spring. The old queen, together with all the female workers and the males, die before winter. That is the end of this nest. So, in a way, you could say honeybee colonies are 'perennials' and bumblebees colonies are 'annuals'.



As well as collecting nectar, bees also collect pollen, which they use to feed their young. Different species collect their pollen in different ways.....

Social bees (honeybees and bumblebees) collect it in pollen baskets on their hind legs. They pack the pollen into these baskets very neatly, so don't drop much off on their way home.

Solitary bees, however, collect pollen on stiff branched hairs, either under their abdomen (cavity nesting species) or on their legs (ground nesting species). It is not moistened or packed down, which means lots of this pollen drops off on the other flowers they visit as they make their way home. This makes them extremely good pollinators.


Only female bees have a sting. Male bees do not. If a honeybee worker stings you, she dies. If bumblebees sting (which they very rarely do) they will not die. This is because the honeybee sting is barbed, whereas the bumblebee sting is more like a needle. Apart from a few exceptions, solitary bee stings are mostly redundant and incapable of even piercing the human skin.

More on stings here -  Which bees sting and which bees don't? 


The most important thing of all is that we provide food and habitat for ALL of these species. They all pollinate different plants, in different ways, at different times of the year, and in different habitats. DIVERSITY is the key! It is equally important that we provide for other pollinating insects like butterflies, moths, hoverflies, beetles, wasps and flies.

Photos below are of a honeybee, bumblebee, cavity nesting solitary bee and ground nesting bee.... showing the different ways they collect their pollen.

Apis mellifera (Honeybee)

Bombus terrestris (Buff-tailed bumblebee)

Megachile centuncularis (Patchwork leafcutter bee)

Halictus rubicundus (Orange-legged Furrow-bee)

Saturday, 21 January 2017

If I Could Be A Dream

I wish I could be a 'dream'. If I could, I would visit our misguided leaders, policy makers and those who run the banks and multinational corporations, in their sleep. I would fill their troubled heads with images, sounds and smells of meadows and verges full of wild flowers, butterflies, crickets and bees; sunshine, rain and clouds; breezes and howling winds, muddy puddles, brooks, rivers, and oceans; dandelion clocks and daisy chains; ancient woodlands and wild forests; home made bread, cake and compost; children and people of all races creeds and colours playing together and holding hands; freshly picked runner beans and tomatoes that have been grown outside and pollinated by local native bumblebees; healthy soil; arts and artists; rainbow coloured mosses and pale green lichen; song birds and slow worms; and lots and lots of glow worms; mountain tops and mole hills; Sunday afternoon walks and family get togethers from the days before shops were open every day of the week and Sundays truly were a day of rest; people playing music in local parks without a licence; pine martins, beavers, wolves and otters; open doors; raindrops caught in spiders webs; kindness; full moons and starlit skies; the feel of walking bare foot on wet grass; laughter; abundance for everyone; bridges and open arms; the sound of curlews on the Yorkshire moors; deliciously crisp but misshapen apples; fresh, unpolluted air and fresh, unpolluted (free) water; hedgerows brimming with life; more bees, butterflies, moths and crickets; and with so many more good, healthy, natural, magical, enchanting and beautiful things….. that they would not be able to resist falling head-over-heels in love with this amazing planet we live on. Then, they would wake up (in more than just one sense) and instead of their minds being full of fear, greed, hate and noise.... they would be full of love, peace, joy and stillness. They would abandon their destructive elitist policies, decisions, rules and regulations to reflect their new found 'earth, people and wildlife friendly' views.

This dream would be my gift to ALL those who have lost touch with the natural world. 

Wishing and hoping that peace, love, light and good old fashioned common sense will prevail