Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Bees - it's all about shape and size!

There are an estimated 25,000 different species of bee on Planet Earth and they come in many different shapes and sizes. The largest bee in the world is 'Wallace’s Giant Bee' (Megachile pluto). She grows up to 3.9 cm long and has a wingspan of 6.3 cm. The smallest bee in the world is 'Perdita minima'. She is less than 2 mm long.
Bees also have different length tongues (proboscis). Tongue lengths vary from around 5mm to 15mm.
The size of the bee and the length of her tongue, are both of great significance when it comes to which flowers she is able to access when foraging for pollen and nectar. Honeybees proboscis are around 6.3mm in length - so they are classed as short tongued bees and can only access flowers with fairly short corollas.
If you have red and white clover on your lawn, you will notice different bee species on each. Short-tongued bees like honeybees and buff tailed bumblebees will go for the white clover, as it only has a short corolla. However, long tongued bumblebees, like B. hortorum (the Garden bumblebee) will forage on the red clover as it has a very deep corolla.
The deeper the corolla (flower tube) the greater the nectar reward….so short tongued bees need to visit more flowers to get the nectar they need. 
The bee in the photo above is Bombus hortorum (the Garden Bumblebee). She has the longest tongue of any bee. If you see a black & yellow striped bumblebee with a white tail on your broad beans, and if her tongue is hanging out as she flies between each flower, she is highly likely to be this bee!

Some bee species resort to ‘robbing’ the nectar by cutting a hole in the base of the flower and accessing it that way. This is known as 'larceny'. When a bee commits larceny, the plant loses out because the bee completely bypasses the flower's pollen. Bombus terrestris (the buff tailed bumblebee) is a notorious nectar robber. Once she has made a hole, other bees and wasps use it to access the plant's nectar. Not a very fair exchange!

More about bumblebee flower preferences here  
Photos of largest and smallest bees here

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

SO much more than a hole in the ground!

This tiny little hole (around 3mm in diameter) is the entrance to a solitary mining bee's nest. Each individual female solitary bee chooses an area of compacted sandy soil and digs her own tunnel. Some ground nesting bees choose south facing slopes, whilst others prefer to construct their nests amongst the roots of trees, or in river banks.  

After she has dug the main tunnel, the bee constructs a number of offshoot tunnels and at the end of each of these she fashions a small chamber. Each chamber is provisioned with pollen, which the bee has collected over many trips back and forth to the nest. Although most bees are not too fussy about where they source their nectar, they can be slightly more fussy when it comes to choosing pollen to provision their nest. Andrena clarkella, for instance (one of our earliest ground nesting bees) relies heavily upon the pollen from Willow (Salix spp.) So, it is of paramount importance that the right plants are in flower during the nest provisioning period.

Once she has provisioned the chamber with sufficient pollen and a little nectar, the bee lays a single egg in each chamber. When this process is complete, she fills in the entrance to the tunnel and may then go on to construct a few more nests before she dies. She is on the wing (above ground) for approximately 4 - 8 weeks. 

When the eggs hatch, the larvae will feed on the pollen before pupating. After they have pupated they remain beneath the ground till the following spring, when they emerge as adult bees, mate, and start the cycle all over again.

So, next time you see a little hole in the ground like this…..make time to stop and watch for a while. You will be enthralled and enchanted by what you see!

N.B. some of these nests belong to solitary wasps. Neither the solitary wasps, nor the solitary bees will sting you.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Hairy Footed Flower Bees & Silver Linings

I've been feeling extremely frustrated. Winter is over, spring has sprung, the sun is shining, the pulmonaria is flowering, and everyone I know is reporting sightings of Hairy Footed Flower Bees. Actually that's a slight exaggeration - only some of the people I know are reporting sightings of Hairy Footed Flower bees.

But that's not the point. The point is that whilst all this wonderfulness and excitement has been going on outside, I've been stuck in bed with an extremely unpleasant lurgi. Fortunately I'm beginning to recover now, but whatever it was has left me feeling so weak & weedy that I can't get dressed, let alone drag myself downstairs to go for a walk.

Every cloud has its silver lining though, and my silver lining is that I have just written a large chunk of the opening chapter to my book!

I started writing a book a couple of years ago, but lost everything I'd written (and a lot more besides) when the hard drive on my laptop died and I wasn't able to retrieve the contents. It has taken me till this morning to find the momentum to start again from scratch.

I'm going to resist the temptation to copy my opening paragraphs into this post. Suffice to say my book has bees in it and it starts with a fluke sighting on 17th February of a female Hairy Footed Flower bee who emerged far too early from hibernation….

So, thank you universe for laying me up with a horrible lurgi. I'm HUGELY excited by this silver lining!

Monday, 2 February 2015

Not one - but FOUR Short-eared Owls!!!

Yesterday was the most exciting day ever. It was a bitingly cold but unbelievably beautiful afternoon, so we headed over to Wyke down on the Dorset/Wiltshire border, a place we sometimes go to see hares, in the hope that we might spot one or two before the sun went down. There was not a hare in sight on this occasion, but…… before we even had a chance to park up and get out of the car, we saw a Short-eared Owl! Within just a few moments more we saw another, and another, then another. FOUR Short-eared Owls!!!!

I've never even seen ONE Short-eared Owl before, so seeing four was like a dream come true. We watched the owls hunting back and forth across the fields on either side of the track for around an hour and couldn't believe how close they came to us. It was broad daylight, between 3.30pm - 4.30pm, but the owls appeared oblivious of all the people watching them (at least 20 photographers as well as ourselves). They completely ignored us and just carried on hunting, hovering, flapping their huge powerful and beautifully marked wings, heads steady, eyes down, gliding low and silent just above the grass ,and, every now and then, swooping suddenly down to kill.

Short-eared Owls hunt for small mammals like voles, so the fact that there were four owls in this spot, and also that they are (we were told) seen at Wyke Down regularly in the winter, indicates that this is perfect habitat for them; for the voles and the owls that is.  We marvelled at our good fortune, feeling truly blessed that such habitat exists so close to where we live, but at the same time feeling sad that due to modern farming practices and urban sprawl, habitats like this are becoming increasingly rare and fragmented.

We watched as one of the owls suddenly changed its behaviour and flew up high in the sky to chase away another bird of prey that I assumed might be a buzzard, but on reflection may have been a Harrier. We also watched two of the owls performing some kind of aerial dance with each other.

One of the photographers had a telescope, which he had focussed on an owl who had come down to rest on a grassy chalk bank just in front of us. This owl remained hunkered down in the long grass for at least 15 minutes and was still there when we left. There's no way on earth that we would have been able to even see the sitting owl without a telescope or binoculars; so perfect was its camouflage that it blended in completely with the landscape behind it, but the telescope owner kindly invited us to look through his lens and, oh joy, we were able to see every single last detail on the owl's face as though it were sitting just a few feet away from us! It had stunning markings, piercing dark yellow eyes and the most delightful little pointed ears. It was doing that thing that owls do so well, you know, where their heads rotate fully from far left to far right and back again, in the blink of an eye, for all the world as though they were puppet owls, being worked by a puppeteer with a stick. Mesmerising.

When we finally turned back to scan the fields again after watching the hunkered down owl through the telescope, the others had gone. Not an owl in sight. All disappeared. Anyone arriving at that moment would have wondered what on earth all those people were doing there; standing by the side of the road in the bitterly cold wind with their tripods, cameras, telescopes and binoculars. And hot water bottles….

By now the light was fading fast, so the photographers all packed up and left. Rob and I went back to the car and sat there a little while longer, not being able to tear ourselves away just in case we missed something, but the owls didn't show themselves again.

So, I'm madly happy that we arrived at Wyke Down exactly when we did yesterday afternoon. Timing, it seems, is everything. Thank you universe for such an amazing experience. I feel truly blessed.

Huge thanks to  Steve Farmer for allowing me to use his beautiful photographs of Short-eared Owls

More information about Short-eared Owls here:-

From the BTO

From the RSPB

Brigit x

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Loving Life

I love bees and I love trees. 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 and sunrise; sunshine; moonshine; watching solitary leaf cutter bees building their nests; starlight; living in Dorset with Rob; Starling murmations;  Wintersweet;  grasses and beetles. 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. I love the tawny owls outside our bedroom window at night. 

I love the weather and the fact that it is so wonderfully unpredictable and changeable in the UK. I can't wait for it to snow again so I can make snow angels.I love fairy lights; my friends and my family; wild flowers (especially the ones that grow between paving slabs because they show how resilient nature is); 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'; Glennie Kindred's beautiful book 'Letting in the Wild Edges' (if you haven't already got it, put it on your wish list now!). And the Moomins; especially Snufkin and Moominmamma and the Hattifatteners. And the Hemulen.

I also love mosses and lichens; music; speaking with people about the unbelievably amazing and 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 full of huge rocks and boulders, streams so small that they are almost hidden by the undergrowth and puddles. And jumping in puddles; and the fact that this year, if I'm really lucky, I am going to see my first ever Great Yellow Bumblebee when we visit the Machair in the Western Isles of Scotland. I love juicing apples and the fact that the juice changes colour when it meets the air.  I love Dorset, Cornwall, Norfolk, Northumberland 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; Martha Tilston; 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 and adding chopped lemon to pretty much everything I cook. I love Puffins; the amazing noises that Eider ducks make and the shape of Curlews' beaks. And feathers and crystals and everything that sparkles.

I love long-tailed tits and wrens; discovering bumblebee nests in the compost heap; the aliveness of water; the silence of stillness and clouds that look like dragons for a moment or two before they shift shape 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 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 (did I already mention that?); swimming in the sea; curly kale; sutherland kale; russian kale; black kale…….and SO much more!

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. This, in turn, 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, 23 January 2015

Who listens to what the smaller charities have to say?

Over the last few years I have, sadly, witnessed many small, expertly informed and passionately dedicated charities - and other not-for-profit organisations - being squeezed into oblivion on the funding front because (it seems) the funds are mostly given to larger, more influential NGO's.

There are still funders and philanthropists out there who prefer to give their monies to grass root organisations, but they seem to be fewer and farther between these days. This concerns me because it means we are losing diversity….in more ways than one!

I'm not suggesting for one moment that we don't need the larger charities. I understand how important it is that they continue to receive the funds and donations needed to deliver their vitally important messages and work…..especially because they reach such a large audience and, in many cases, are able to influence policy decisions at government level. HOWEVER, having run a small charity myself, and having been seriously tempted to shift the focus of that charity's aims when applying for funds - in order to tap in to any available funding just to survive - I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the way the system (especially in the case of corporate donations and sponsorship) favours the larger and better known charities.

One of my biggest concerns is when national & international charities take up causes that their trustees, management and staff appear to know little about. For instance, I have seen members and volunteers of large charities being interviewed on BBC news about bee decline and have been dismayed to hear them leave out enormously important information, or even worse, deliver mis-information. When this happens, I fear, with the greatest of respect for their aims, that they are in danger of doing more harm than good.

In the mean time, the media are mostly oblivious of smaller charities who have been working for years, sometimes decades on raising awareness of this, and other issues….charities who really know their bees from their bees and who have (in some cases) now folded because the large funders and corporate sponsors prefer to nail their flags to larger masts.

Of course we need as many voices as possible to speak out for the myriad environmental, ecological and humanitarian issues facing us today….and if the national press are only interested in promoting the charitable aims of the larger charities then so be it, but I really hope we don't end up in a situation where the voices being heard come solely from charities/organisations so large that they are begin to resemble corporations….. whilst smaller, but equally knowledgeable voices get squeezed out completely.

This is a big subject to tackle in a little blog post, and I haven't fully worked out where I'm going with my own thoughts yet, but I'd be extremely interested to know what others think?

Thank you,

N.B. I still donate to, support and promote the work of many large charities myself, so please don't read what I have just written as an attack on said organisations. It isn’t. I just don't like seeing the amazingly dedicated smaller charities being squeezed out of the arena and wanted to air this concern to see what others think. Hopefully I will discover that I've got it all wrong and that more small grass root organisations are actually healthy and thriving than are hitting brick walls and folding.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

What's wrong with Intensive Farming - and how can us 'reconnecting' with nature change things?

I can't help wondering how many more species of flora and fauna will be taken to the brink before we realise our current farming practices are completely and utterly unsustainable?

We live in a dangerously blinkered, confusing and sometimes fearsome world. Many of us are blissfully unaware that there are any problems, whilst others are frightened into believing the crazy propaganda put out by the multinational corporations; the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer, who tell us that intensive farming - with its (often genetically modified) mono crops, its emphasis on 'crop yield' and its dangerous reliance on insecticides, fungicides and herbicides - is the only way to 'Feed the World'.

Intensive agriculture may well be producing unprecedented crop yields at this point in time, but the soil these crops are grown in is becoming increasingly devoid of essential nutrients and micro-organisms; the diversity and variety of food crops is being reduced on a daily basis; the people who grow the crops are, in many cases themselves, starving; unprecedented amounts of water are being used for irrigation; and entire ecosystems are being wiped out in their wake. Anyone who dares to open their eyes and look at the facts can see that this way of farming cannot possibly be sustained and that the cost of producing food this way is too high.

The problem, I believe, stems from our way of thinking…..from our 'separateness' and from our tendency to reduce everything to its individual components and/or its monetary value. But in truth mankind cannot survive separately, on his own, in a bubble or as an island. No man is an island.

We need to recognise that we are 'a part' of the whole. Our 'apartness' and all that comes with the disconnection, is surely but steadily driving us to a point beyond which we will, ourselves, eventually be added to the list of endangered species.

As the Native American saying goes "When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, only then will we realise that we cannot eat money' 

But it doesn't have to be this way! I'm not going to suggest that the journey we have ahead of us is without its challenges. Of course it's not and these challenges are enormous. However the first steps could not be more simple and it's up to US (you and me) to take these steps. All we need to do is find a way to reconnect with our inner selves, with our communities and with the plants and animals we share this amazing planet with. This reconnection is fundamental if we want to bring about the changes that are needed in the world. Without being 'reconnected' we cannot deal with or fix the farming situation... or any other situation/issue for that matter. Once we recognise this fact and begin to reconnect and fall back in love with all that was once sacred to mankind, the rest will surely follow because you cannot possibly hurt that which you love or that which is a part of you.....i.e. the whole.

But where to start? 

Easy! Go outside and spend some quality time getting to know the plants living on your drive, in your garden, on the road verges, in the meadows, riversides, woodlands, moorlands, coastlines…anywhere and everywhere in fact. Don't just walk past them. Sit down and look closely at them, draw them, photograph them, look at them under a magnifying glass, write about them, talk to them, ask them if they have any medicine for you, look at the insect life on and around them, touch them, smell them, sense them, make friends with them.

Too scary? Then do it when no one is looking! Start with a pot of herbs on your kitchen table……or make a cup of delicious nettle or dandelion tea from freshly picked young leaves of these common and easy-to-recognise plants. Then, whilst you are drinking it, take a moment to say thank you to the plant who provided the leaves and just see how that makes you feel...


The Medicine Garden

I would like to finish by saying that a few years ago I attended a weekend course run by Rachel Corby. Rachel uses plants to heal all manner of ailments; physical and otherwise. She is a plant shaman, a writer and a gardener, and anyone who has ever had the pleasure of attending one of her courses, or accompanying her on one of her plant walks, will know what I mean when I say that through her you come to see plants in a whole different light and to form wonderful, fulfilling new relationships with them and with the world around you. From this new view point wonderful things begin to happen.

If what I have written about connecting with the world of plants has not quite made sense to you, I suggest you beg, borrow or buy a copy of Rachel's beautiful book The Medicine Garden . She explains it far more eloquently than I can.

Anyway, I’ve rambled enough now. I’d love to write more but the sun is shining and I am being beckoned outside to practice what I preach!

 Seriously though, do please have a think about what I’ve written and next time you walk past a plant…..maybe stop to say 'hello' and see what happens. At the very least I’m sure it will make you smile :-)