Christmas Special – Mistletoe

Along with the holly and the ivy, mistletoe is one of those species which is intimately associated with the festive season. You might almost say it is a hemi-parasite on the cultural Christmas tree…

A small group of us undertook some voluntary tree climb surveys in Clumber Park before Christmas 2018 to look for roosting bats. One of the  trees which I climbed was an old lime set amongst younger trees and this had some beautiful examples of mistletoe right in the top of the crown. It seemed a good opportunity to share some photos and ecological insights into this fascinating plant.

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The lime tree holdings its territory against the younger tree stock crowding around – the mistletoe is visible at the top of the tree

Mistletoe is a obligate hemi-parasite – it is only found growing attached to trees. This is because it is partially reliant on the tree for sustenance – it taps into the xylem system of the tree to source water and soil minerals. It does however phytosynthesise itself which makes it only a half or partial (hemi) rather than full parasite.

Mistletoe does not have roots, rather it grows on the surface of the branch and encourages the tree to grow around it. This gives the illusion of it penetrating the bark to reach into the branch and take its sustenance, but the truth is much less aggressive.

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A new mistletoe sprig establishing at the top of the lime tree

The main ‘mistletoe’ heartland in the UK is the south-west midlands – this is particularly around Herefordshire, Somerset, Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire and up as far as Warwickshire. It is however found sporadically in many other locations around the country – close to Grantham, the village of Bottesford seems to be unusually well covered. The origins of these more isolated pockets of mistletoe is often unclear, but many old parklands and country estates tried to establish colonies in the past and it may be that these give rise to local populations away from their stronghold. Given the history of Clumber, this might be a good explanation for the colony I found!

Mistletoe expresses a significant preference for some tree species over others – cultivated apple is the most well-recorded host with lime (like the Clumber tree) coming in second. Other species include hawthorn, poplar, maple, and willow. They have however been recorded on hundreds of tree hosts and some have particular cultural significance – mistletoe growing on oak was the centrepiece of a Celtic religious ceremony.

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Mistletoe berries like pearls amongst the leaves – although these look ripe, they won’t in fact be ready until the early springtime

Most fruit and berry-bearing species in the UK owe a debt to wild birds who disperse the seeds, but mistletoe has a particular reliance upon them. Some species, such as the aptly named mistle thrush, will eat the seeds and excrete them again – often whilst perched on a branch. Not only does this deliver the berries right to the branches but it comes with its own ‘glue’ in the form of the droppings, to help hold the seed in place whilst they develop. Other species such as blackcap wipe the seeds from their beak directly onto the tree – a cleaning action which is coincidentally very likely to deliver the seed to an ideal spot for germination.

This means of spreading seed is the reason for the common name of mistletoe – ‘mistle’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for dung and ‘tan’ derives from the word for twigs. The latin is Viscum album – the album meaning ‘white’ and relating to the colour of the berries.

Small patches of mistletoe often go un-noticed or overlooked – either because it is concealed by the dense leaf cover of its host tree, or because people are simply not looking up and around to spot it. Winter is an ideal time to spot this fascinating species – keep your eyes skywards and look out for the characteristic globes of vegetation suspended bauble-like in the branches!

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Mistletoe high in the lime tree in the late afternoon sunlight

If you want to find out more about mistletoe – its ecology, natural history, cultural significance, distribution and commercial importance – I would highly recommend reading Jonathan Briggs’ Mistletoe Diary blog!

 

 

Thermal Imaging footage of Honeybees and Bumblebees

Thermal imaging technology works by recording the infra-red energy emitted from surfaces – this doesn’t rely on a light source like typical infra-red photography, but instead measures the radiation given off by both living an inanimate objects. The camera can measure the temperature of these items and display a ‘thermal’ image which shows the gradation and variation between different objects within the field of view. In simple terms – it can show a hot object as white/red whilst cooler objects would be shown as green or blue.

In mid-summer, social bees produce a high density of very busy insects in the nest, so it was no surprise that they stand out a mile on a thermal camera! It was also exciting to be able to understand what individual bees had been doing – for example their temperature signature differentiated those who had recently returned to the nest from those who were standing guard and checking in new arrivals.

Wild Honey Bee Nest

We often encounter honey bees when out looking for tree roosting bats in woodland and this was a prime example! Whilst honey bees are often kept in hives, they can establish wild colonies in features such as this.

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Showing the tree cavity feature where the honey bee nest was located

I took the following images around sunset so the tree itself was cooling but you can immediately see just how hot the inside of this tree cavity is compared with the surrounding wood. The temperature reading inside the nest was 33 degrees Celsius, whilst the surrounding tree barn dropped to around 25 degrees.

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A still photograph of the bees within the nest – you can see the differential in heat between the nest itself (yellow) and the outer wood (black). You can also see a recently-returned bee glowing white hot!

Even at sunset, honey bee workers were still returning to the nest and you can see the white-hot glow of these warmer bees compared with the much cooler bees at the entrance. What is also interesting is the pattern of heat in these recently-flown bees – the flight muscles are in the thorax where the wings are attached and this part is much hotter than the abdomen as you can see more clearly in the video below.

The thermal image gave a nice opportunity to watch guard behaviour in action – some honey bees will take the roll of guarding the nest entrance, positioning themselves on the edge and checking returning bees to ensure that they are welcome. The thermal footage clearly differentiates those bees who have recently flown from those which have not, and you can see the much cooler guard bees intercepting the warmer returning workers as they pass by.

If you’re interested in guard behaviour, you might also like this post from a couple of years ago regarding this behaviour in hornets!

Bumblebee Nest

These images and videos come from a bumblebee nest which was situated underneath a loose cobble in the courtyard of our office.

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The stone beneath which the bumblebee nest is situated

I think the bumblebees are either white-tailed (Bombus lucorum) or buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) bumblebees – this photo shows one of the worker bees returning with well laden pollen baskets.

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Bumblebee worker returning to the nest with well-laden pollen baskets.

The thing that I found most surprising on the thermal footage to see just how hot this cobble got compared with those around it, even though the nest is buried beneath! I assume this is due to the heat rising with the warm air from the next and heating the stone as it passed by.

As with the honey bees, you can see how much warmer the active bumblebees are compared with their environment. Bumblebees have a good degree of control over their temperature. The hairs on their body provide some insulation and they can use their flight muscles – uncoupled temporarily from their wings – to warm themselves up before taking off. This uses the same technique as they use for buzz-pollination of some flowers. This video gives an idea of just how much heat these muscles can generate, allowing some bumblebees to remain active through the winter, flying at temperatures of just 10 degrees Celcius. You can read more about bumblebee thermoregulation here!

Grantham Verges in Bloom

The verges around Grantham in 2018 are markedly different to previous years – this is a result of the council’s decision to reduce amenity cutting to twice a year, down from the previous seven cuts per year. The result of this cost-saving exercise is that the verges throughout the town are more alive with flowers and insects than they have been in years and I for one am delighted with the effect!

Purple toadflax flowering beside the zebra crossing in Grantham

 

At a time when the many scientists, ecologists and wildlife experts are sounding alarm bells over the catastrophic declines in many of our native species, and the dire threat of our falling pollinator numbers, the unintended consequence of cutting the cutting is the creation of wildflower corridors and habitat which lace their way through the town.

One of the hawkweed species flowering in the road verge in Grantham

Whilst I am wholeheartedly in favour of the new regime, I’ve seen comments from a people complaining about the effect – these comments generally fall into three categories:

The first is safety – and I agree that where the height of the vegetation represents an issue for visibility, especially around schools, then there is no question that this needs to be addressed. But these spots are the exceptions, not the rules, and many areas of town can happily support longer verges with no risk to passers by or vehicle users.

The second is the tidiness and neatness – there is an aesthetic which says that an unmowed verge is a sign that the town isn’t being looked after. This too is understandable, but it is also very cultural and very changeable – the concept of Obsessive Tidiness Disorder is very well addressed in this blog post. We have become so accustomed to nature being managed and manicured on a wholesale basis that this is the normal, and deviation from it is considered a drop in standards. But we have come a long way in the last century to a place where a council is expected to expend vast amounts of money to maintain an aesthetic which is so entirely detrimental to the huge host of species which would otherwise call it home. I would challenge anybody to read this piece about the death of a Cornish hedgerow in an age of mass mechanised maintenance and not feel horrified at what we have lost.

The aesthetic which likes a well-managed verge is now the norm, but councils around the country are adopting more wildlife-friendly cutting regimes and if these become more widespread, then expectations will shift and this perception will soon die away. Flowers provide food for insects which in turn provides food for swifts and swallows which are continuing to decline in numbers and will soon be an absent sound from our summer if steps are not taken to address this. It would be great to see the council really embrace the positives of the change to grass cutting regimes rather than simply defending it as an unfortunate necessity – be bold and be ahead of the curve! We would have support and help from the likes of Plantlife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust – both of whom understand the importance of verges as habitat and have designed campaigns to change perceptions and behaviours.

Three species flourishing thanks to the reduced cutting of the verges – purple toadflax, creeping cinquefoil and yarrow

The third reason people object seems to be the species which appear – people have commented that it would be OK ‘if they were nice wildflowers’. The plethora of garden flowers which we’re used to, and to some extent the highly vibrant but unnatural annual mixes which some councils sow, are affecting expectations of what our native flora look like. As well as the showy orchids and exuberant vetches are smaller, more subtle species but they are equally beautiful if you take the time to look. The verges are also full of surprises – Ancaster has a population of one of the rarest orchids in the country on its road verges and who knows what might pop up when given a chance. Even the most seemingly mundane flowers can surprise you – some of the yellow dandelion-like flower heads around town are indeed the familiar dandelions, but there are also closely related hawkbits, hawkweeds and nipplewort which you may never even have noticed.

Ribwort plantain, cow parsley and common mallow flowering beside the roads in Grantham

On a lunchtime walk today I counted eighteen species of wildflower in just a short stretch and I am sure there are many more besides. Many of these are not rarities, but they are bright and colourful and provide life for so many bees, butterflies and hoverflies. A few are pictured in this post – see which ones you can spot on your next walk around town!

Nipplewort, white clover and dove’s foot cranesbill – a tiny member of the geranium family, flowering on the uncut verges of Grantham

30 Days Wild 2018

It’s once again that summer month when everybody is encouraged and excused to take a moment out of their busy days to do something wild – the aptly named 30 Days Wild.

The Wildlife Trust team behind 30 days wild have generated a wealth of ideas and inspirations to help people to connect with nature during June, as well as welcoming the vast array of individual ways which people find themselves.

You can get involved too through the Wildlife Trust’s Facebook Page, Twitter Page or Website. The website has much more info on 30 Days Wild, including the opportunity to sign up, download wallcharts and Random Acts of Wildness Cards (little flashcards which give you hints and inspiration) or to share your adventures on social media.

I’ll be posting my daily wild-fix on this page throughout the month so watch this space!


Day 1: 1st June 2018

It was a day spent in the office writing and thinking about ecology in the abstract, but lunchtime is a time to get out in nature for real!

The Hills and Hollows above Grantham is a cracking little grassland with some calcareous specialist wildflowers which are appearing by the day right now!

I spent a while watching the red-tailed bumblebee workers enjoying the mouse-ear hawkweed with their lemon-yellow dandelion-like flowers.

There was a little nomad bee digging deep as well – these little bees are nest parasites of solitary bees and look like tiny wasps to a casual observer.

One of my favourite meadow flowers had also appeared – salad burnet has both male and female flowers which are very distinctive – the male flowers hang low like catkins whilst the females are the tiny red frilly flowers on the same head.

Other new arrivals included common rockrose with their broad yellow flowers low amongst the sward.

I’ll certainly be back for more to see what else is out and about before #30dayswild is over – bee orchids and southern marsh yet to appear!


Day 2: 2nd June 2018

A day spent in the allotment which, thanks to its location beside a hedge and a river which runs through the village, is a lovely spot to listen to birdsong and watch the world pass through.

However behind the idyllic facade, there is an amphitheater of action on a tiny scale – we watched wolf spiders skittering across the bare soil in hunt of prey, veracious ladybird larvae devouring aphids and nomad bees searching out the nests of ground-nesting mining bees to parasitise.

The most impressive, but gruesome, sight was this spider-hunting wasp which had snipped the legs off its captor and was bravely carrying away a prize bigger than itself!

Another impressive visitor was this ichneumon wasp which hung around a while in the sunshine before heading off.

If you spend some time out and about, nature is always keen to come out and meet you!


Day 3 – 3rd June 2018

We started off in the morning with a few hours down at the allotment again – we’re lucky to have a fair few frogs on the plot, hiding under every leaf it seems and this one hopped out from under the rhubarb. Frogs are fantastic allies in an allotment or garden, having a taste for those creatures which have a taste for your crops!

In the afternoon we went to help out at my parents’ open garden – they are the reason for my love of gardening and growing your own vegetables and their garden is quite a work of art! However so much of the planting and the design is geared towards wildlife with native and pollinator-friendly species, log piles, a frog-filled pond and nest boxes for birds and bees. My role was manning the plant sales – altogether we raised £174 for the Nottinghamshire WIldlife Trust Badger Vaccination Scheme.

Back home to plant out some selfheal seedlings in the lawn (trying to make our lawn a little wilder than the rather neat grass-dominated entity we inherited from the last owners) and then contributing to #wildflowerhour in the evening and seeing what the community had seen this week. A few sample tweets below!


Day 4 – 4th June 2018

Have you noticed a high-pitched buzzing when you walk past wild roses? It sounds a little like a bumblebee has got stuck but in fact they are intentionally deploying their ‘buzz pollinating’ technique. This involves them clasping the anthers between their legs, holding their bodies against them, and using their strong flight muscles to vibratetheir entire body causing the rose to release its pollen. Few pollinators have the size, strength and power to do this and this helps with the specificity of pollination.

I’ve seen this many times but never captured any video so I headed down to Grantham Cemetery to get a video clip of the behaviour. The cemetary was looking stunning – filled with ox-eye daisies and other wildflowers – sadly this was the last time it would be so as by my next visit, the council’s mowing gang had reduced the entire site to clippings.


Day 5 – 5th June 2018

The day started wading through head-height grass and nettles to reach a pond to collect in newt traps set the night before. Amongst the newts were some greater diving beetles – ferocious aquatic predators which hunt the depths!

On my way into the office (and to avoid hitting the schools traffic at 8:30!) I called in at a local calcareous grassland to visit the man orchids once more – these are nearing the most northerly tip of their distribution here in Grantham and are quite a rarity! It’s easy to see how they get thier name…

The calcareous grassland had a few more treats in store as well – abundance of common rock rose and one of my favourite wildflowers – bladder campion.

At lunchtime I took a walk up to the Hills and Hollows and was pleased to find some of these hoverflies – Merodon equestris – foraging on the hogweed. This is known as the narcissus bulb fly, and is a good mimic of bumblebees. However with its big furry rugged shoulders, it reminded me more of a minature hyena, there wassomething of a malevolent presence around this impressive hoverfly!

I also saw my first large skipper of the year – resting amongst the grasses. This species appears before the small and Essex skippers which will be on the wing in the next few weeks.

And finally, just to round off, I finally found the southern marsh orchids in flower on the plateux – I stumbled across this little colony during #30dayswild last year and have been awaiting their return! Still no sign of the bee orchids…


Day 6 – 6th June 2018

A lunchtime walk rewarded me with more hoverflies and butterflies and I was pleased to get some slow motion footage of this hoverfly – the incredibly good bumblebee mimic which is Volucella bombylans var. plumata. This species buzzes, flies, feeds and looks just like a bumblebee but features such as the eyes, the single pair of wings (as opposed to the two in hymenoptera such as bumblebees) and the tongue give it away. This amazing species comes in two varieties – this one is mimicing the black, white and yellow varieties such as white tailed, buff tailed and garden bumblebee, but I have seen them flying alongside another form of the same species which does an equally good job of mimicing a red-tailed bumblebee!

I posted this video on twitter and instagram with a quiz to identify the species – many recognised this as a hoverfly but it certainly tricked a few people!


Day 7 – 7th June 2018

A lunchtime walk up to the Hills and Hollows above Grantham rewarded me with some beautiful butterflies and dayflying moths. We may not have the variety which grace tropical regions, but these three individuals do a good job of showing some of the distinct and attractive species we get in the UK!


Day 8 – 8th June 2018

The day began in the trees where we were climbing using arboricultural techniques to check potential roosting features for bats. We ascend to the features – such as knot holes, woodpecker holes, failed hazard beams and splits – to assess their suitability and to see if anybody is at home! No bats this time but it always feels great to be up in the canopy!

On the way back, I called in at Holwell Quarry – a Leicestershire Wildlife Trust reserve – to have a hunt for bee orchids – allegedly this reserve has the largest population in the county! I didn’t find a single one (still!) but it was good to see all of the common spotted orchids coming into bloom!


Day 9 – 9th June 2018

I put the trail camera out a few days ago, by the river which runs through the village, to see what uses the trail. I had hoped for badgers, but the camera footage still showed a few species including fox, hedgehog and bank vole, along with wood pigeon and blackbird.


Day 10 – 10th June 2018

After finishing off Robin Kimmerer’s excellent exploration of the cultural and ecological significance of mosses – Gathering Moss – it was an afternoon spent in the garden with a few more native and pollinator-friendly species joining the borders. One small but beautiful visitor to the garden was this mint moth – a fan of (surprise surprise!) mints, along with other members of the deadnettle family.

On a trip to Thistleton nursery (highly recommended!), we also called into Cribbs Meadow to see a few of the common spotted orchids, before horseflies chased us away!

In the evening it was time once more to catch up with what the twitter community have been finding in bloom this week – here are a few of my highlights!


Day 11 – 11th June 2018

There has been a significant reduction in the cutting regime in Grantham this year, after the number of ‘amenity cuts’ was reduced from 7 a year to just 2. Whilst there is surely still so much more which could be done to allow our verges to flourish, this reduction has resulted in a plethora of wildflowers within the town which is great news for biodiversity.

I went out at lunchtime to see what i could find, and wrote up a blog post to celebrate the mini strips of habitat which have sprung up from the inert short-mown grasses which we take so much for granted. There are a number of voices who are ‘disgusted’ by the state of the verges in the town and whilst everyone is entitled to their opinion, I wanted to contribute a positive response to the new regime!

A link to the blog post can be found here.


Day 12 – 12th June 2018

The grasses are most definitely in flower right now, as my hayfever attests to, but despite the snuffles, there are some stunning flowers out there!

Grasses can be a tricky group to identify in the middle of the winter, but the flower spikes at this time of year really help to reveal the different species.

Pictured below are two which were looking particuarly stunning first thing as the sun was breaking through – cock’s foot and crested dog’s tail.

Harebell Carpenter Bees

Our native bees come in all shapes and sizes – from the uvuncular bumble bees to the sporty leafcutters and the tricksy nomads. One of my favourites is also one of the most inconspicuous – you may well have seen them around a garden campanula, mistaken them for small flies and thought no further. Whilst I’m not advocating flies as worthy of oversight, the harebell carpenter bee (Chelostoma campanularum) is certainly rewarding if you take the time to look a little closer.

Harebell Carpenter Bee - Chelostoma campanularum

These tiny black bees are just 6-7mm long and black all over. The females have a white scopa – as illustrated in this BWARS profile of the bees – and the males are very similar in size and appearance.

We have a number of campanula species which are native to the UK, including the harebell along with a range of bellflower species which are larger and more akin to the ornamental garden varieties, such as nettle-leaved bellflower. Fortunately, these little harebell carpenters don’t seem too fussy and I’ve watched them on two different ornamental cultivars in our garden over the past few years.

To watch these bees around the flowers, you might be forgiven for wondering what precisely they’re doing – they often look for all the world as though they love the flowers… but don’t know what to do about it. In fact, they are intimately intertwined with the genus – the females will only collect pollen from bellflowers and this blog from Urban Pollinators has some great images of their specialised means of collecting this. They also mate in the flowers and females will wait for males in the flowers, whilst the males will  swarm and circle around on the hunt for females! Males will often shelter in the flowers in dull weather too.

These bees are aerial nesters – this means that they will seek out opportunities such as dry stems and holes in wood to nest in. This makes providing for this species in your garden very straightforward – simply plant some campanulas (the native harebell is a delightful addition to any garden) and provide some bundles of reed or straw at height for them to nest in.

The bee is on the wing from June through to August and has a mostly southerly distribution in the UK but certainly occurs around Grantham in the midlands!

Below is a slow-motion video of the harebell carpenter bees in our garden flying around an ornamental bellflower – but if you want to see some excellent images of the bees at rest, check out Ed Phillips’ blog post here. And if you want the detailed image of males and females, as well as habitat shots, head over to Steven Falk’s flickr albums!

Harebell Carpenter Bee - Chelostoma campanularum

How to make a bee hotel

If you look carefully at who’s visiting your flowers in the spring and summer, you’ll soon spot a range of subtly different and equally beautiful bees alongside the industrious honeybees and the avuncular bumblebees. We have 250 species of ‘solitary bees’ in the UK – far more than the social species combined and a number of these can be encouraged to nest in your garden through provision of pollen, nectar and a place to stay!

Who can you expect to see?

A number of different species can be found using bee hotels. One of the most common, and most widely provided for, is the red mason bee. These rusty coloured bees, around the size of a honey bee, are on the wing from March to July and will readily take up residence in a well constructed bee hotel. The females visit ‘mud mines’ where they gather up balls of soft mud to line and seal the individual cells within the nest tubes. They are a welcome visitor to any garden, especially if you have fruit trees, as they are a prolific pollinator, estimated to be over a hundred times more efficent than the honey bee. A number of the other Osmia (mason bee) species are also likely to pay a visit if the conditions are right.

The photograph below shows a red mason bee feeding on green alkanet – a great source of early-season nectar for spring bees.

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As the year progresses, leafcutter bees emerge in the summer. These are so named for their habit of cutting circles of leaf from species such as roses which they use in a similar way to the mason bees – to line their nests and segregate the cells. A good garden can provide the leaves they need to line their nests; the nest tubes themselves; and a good source of pollen and nectar for the adult bees to feed on.

The photograph below shows a brown-footed leafcutter – Megachile versicolor – visiting our bee hotel last year with a section of leaf ready to line its nest.

Orange-vented leafcutter bee building its nest with rose leaf segments in our home-made Bee Hotel

Alongside the charismatic species such as bees, you might also get some less charming but equally intriguing species. Last year, one of the nest tubes in our bee hotel was used by a willow mason wasp who hunted and paralysed beetle larvae to bring back to its nest.

But a word of warning: don’t expect the hotel to be free of uninvited guests. The life history of bees is a complex one – they have ‘enemies’ including other bees (often named cuckoo bees), flies and wasps which will parasitise and exploit them. This is all part of the ecosystem which has developed and whilst you might feel protective towards your bees, you should bear in mind that the parasitic species is generally rarer than its prey!

The photograph below shows a wasp using its long ovipositor to inject its eggs into the nest tube of one of the solitary bees in our garden bee hotel.

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How to make a bee hotel

It’s worth bearing in mind before you begin, just what you are aiming to do in creating a bee hotel. The species who are most likely to be attracted to the hotel are those which nest in cavities naturally; these include dead plant stems, holes in decaying wood often bored by beetles, and holes in brickwork. What you are seeking to do is replicate and ideally perfect these conditions for your garden visitors.

Whilst there are many purpose-built boxes on the market these days, the nesting opportunities are easy to make yourself and understanding what you are tying to achieve can open up lots of opportunities to be creative. You could create the features within existing woodwork in your garden, say a fence post in a sunny spot or an old sleeper. Similarly you could create several small hotels of just the right size and shape to fit in with your existing materials in different locations around the garden. The additional advantage of multiple small hotels is that you are avoiding a dense congregation of nests, which may be more susceptible to parasites and ‘enemies’ and thereby maximise the chances of your bees successfully rearing broods.

Firstly: the materials.

You can use lots of different materials, but do remember that wood treated with chemicals may be harmful to bees so certainly avoid anything freshly treated. Offcuts of old wood can be good though, along with logs, bamboo canes and other similar materials. You need your materials to be a minimum of around 8 inches deep, but some variation can be fine.

Secondly: the structure.

We have had bees happily nesting in holes in fence posts where old screws have come out, but if you are making a bee hotel from scratch, you should aim to ward off any potential hazards. Aim to make your structure rain-proof – this often means constructing a simple box within which to place the nest tubes and put on a sloping roof which overlaps the top. This will allow the rain to drain off and keep the nest tubes dry. A box also helps to hold your tubes together and give them stability. I used a back board as well, which could be used to affix the different blocks of wood and keep the whole thing stable.

Thirdly: the nest tubes

One way to achieve the nest tubes is to use a drill and create various sized holes in the pieces of wood. These should be up-to 7 inches deep and vary in size between 2mm and 10mm. Different bee species like different sizes of holes, and producing a variety will maximise the chances of the hotel being used by a number of species. Larger holes, around 8mm, seem to be favoured by the leafcutter bees with smaller holes used by smaller mason bees and species such as the delightful harebell carpenter bee. It’s important to make the entrances to the holes smooth, by sanding or otherwise removing rough wood and splinters asd these could damage the wings of the bees.

Another option is to use bamboo canes cut to the correct lengths – again taking care to avoid splintered edges. A variety of different sizes will similarly work for a range of species.

Dead plant stems, especially those robust enough to maintain their structure such as hogweed, reed or nettle, can provide a ‘natural’ nest tube. These can be bundled together length-ways to create a tempting array of opportunities.

With the box illustrated below, I opted for a combination of all of these materials which creates a pleasing arrangement – an important consideration if you are going to site this somewhere prominantly in your garden – as well as providing a diverse range of nesting opportunities.

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Fourthly – the position

The bee hotel should be placed somewhere south facing, in full sun if possible. The key requirement is sun in the morning to allow the bees to warm up and start their day – like all invertebrates, they are cold blooded. You should also ensure that they are not shaded too much by vegetation, for the same reason.

The video below is a selectively-speeded clip, taken over 15 minutes in realtime, of bees emerging tentatively as the sun warms the bee hotel in the morning.

Finally – the management

Whilst you can fit and forget, many will advocate that an element of management is in the best interests of the bees to secure the long-term value of the bee hotel. Whilst parasites and enemies are a natural part of the bee’s life history, the creation of durable, artificial nesting habitat with higher densities of nests than would occur naturally can affect the balance of parasite and host and result in the bees failing to successfully hatch out a new generation.

I am no expert in this area and will defer to others for this advice. This website is a great resource for further and more detailed reading on how to make a bee hotel, and how to manage it. Some sources talk of bees vs. pests when discussing management and this is, to my mind, an unhelpful distinction. Where your provision of nest boxes is not significantly upsetting the balance between the bees and their parasites/predators, then the loss of some eggs and indeed some broods to species of parasitic wasp and flies which depend upon them for their own survival is entirely to be expected. A wild garden should have space for these as well as the bees – creating a habitat invites an ecosystem rather than a species in isolation. However creating a ‘sink’ for bees which are drawn to the nest box and then fail to raise a brood because of the density of paratises or the impacts of fungal attacks is not a desirable outcome. In this instance, the bees may have been better served by not creating the bee hotel in the first place. Cleaning out holes in wood; swapping bamboo tubes; and replacing dead stems is recommended by some, but you need to be careful in your timings and approach to ensure that your actions are not inadvertantly removing the eggs and larvae before they hatched.

One obvious way to minimise some of the risks would be the creation of multiple, small bee hotels around your garden if possible, as this addresses many of the density issues and reduces the risk of entire broods failing in a given year!

Find out more…

For more information about solitary bees – Ryan Clark has put together an excellent introduction to the species native to the UK in this Wildlife Trusts article. If you’re looking to identify solitary bees in your garden, this is a great place to start. If you begin to delve deeper, it won’t be long before you reach the work of Steve Falk who has produced the Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland – an indispensible book if you are looking to further your knowledge of our native species.

New Year Plant Hunt 2018

BSBI‘s annual New Year Plant Hunt is a great way to experience this, as well as contribute your data to a national recording scheme. Everybody is welcome to get involved – even if this is just spotting a daisy on the lawn or gorse flowering by the roadside on your way to work!

I’ve walked the same New Year Plant Hunt route at the beginning of each month since January 2017 and thought it would be interesting to view the results of the January 2018 hunt in the context of the year passed.

I would caveat this by saying it is very sketchy data to base any assumptions on so this should be considered ‘observations and possible trends’ rather than anything more robust. It is a single transect, over a single year in a single geographic location. It is  also along a route which is incidentally prone to the machinations of land owners and council contractors being focused on streets, parks and carparks. This means that species which I know to have been in flower can disappear from the record because somebody has tidied up the only place in my transect where they grow. This could account for gaps in particular species which does not actually have any reflection on their ecology! Furthermore, these records may relate to a single individual with a single flower being found on the transect – it has nothing to do with abundance or dominance. I found one tatty cow parsley in flower in January 2018 but there were swathes of them flowering in  April 2017 – presence may relate to exceptions and outliers rather than reflecting standard flowering ecology.

The Constants

There are a number of species I picked up on the 2018 New Year Plant Hunt which I had found in flower every month of previous year along the same transect route. In all, 50% of the flowers I found in January 2018 had been recorded flowering along the transect in 9 or more months during the previous year.

The species recorded in every single month were daisy, ivy-leaved toadflax, white deadnettle and shepherd’s purse. Alongside these were a number of species where I had only missed them in either one or two months in the previous year – these included annual meadowgrass, sun spurge, oxford ragwort, common chickweed, snapdragon (naturalised), yarrow, Guernsey fleabane and petty spurge.

constants
The ‘Constants’ – these were from photographs taken throughout the year and not taken on the day – the dark start and lunchtime rain made photography difficult!

Interestingly, the missing months when I hadn’t found these individual species in flower were clustered around March/April time but in all cases, they had been consistently in flower since September. This could indicate a flowering season which is all year round, or could represent a long flowering season which begins in the late spring and continues to early spring depending on the winter weather for duration. It could also represent an anthropogenic phenomena I noticed which was that winter ‘weeds’ were often ignored in January to March but a colony was often wiped out when the weather warmed up and people turned their attention to de-greening the edges of pavements!

Long-season species

Those species found flowering in only nine months in 2017 continue the distribution trend noticed in the near-constants – feverfew and hedge mustard were found in January 2017 and 2018 but disappeared between February and April 2017 to then reappear and remain for the rest of the year. Hedgerow cranesbill and wall barley similarly disappeared between February and May and have been constant since.

Species with a lower number of records, perhaps considered more late-season than long-season, appeared in later-summer/autumn 2017 and persisted through the winter to January including bramble, blue fleabane and Canadian fleabane.

long season.jpg
The long- or late-season specialists – these were from photographs taken throughout the year and not taken on the day – the dark start and lunchtime rain made photography difficult!

These would accord with previous interpretations by BSBI scientists who concluded that most of the New Year Plant Hunt finds in 2017 were hangers-on from the last season rather than early arrivals from the new season. Late flowering and long flowering species might be expected to be particularly prone to this.

Winter/Spring Specialists

Several species recorded showed a markedly winter flowering period – winter heliotrope being the key example but alder and oragan grape also according with this pattern. Naturalised wood spurge and greater periwinkle also fit into this category, though their season seemed longer.

Cow parsley and  bittercress both showed a predominantly spring flowering pattern, but with sporadic flowering during the winter months as well.

Red dead nettle showed an interesting distribution – it went missing in the middle of the year between June and September but remained fairly constant otherwise. This almost indicates a winter-flowering strategy but with a much longer timeframe than things like alder which appear in flower only for a month or two. It could however be due to management removing the regular plants on my transect, resulting in an apparent gap in what is actually a constant species. Repeating the transects in 2018 would help clarify this!

spring1.jpg
The winter or spring flowering specialists – these were from photographs taken throughout the year and not taken on the day – the dark start and lunchtime rain made photography difficult!

 

Conclusion

Accounting for the various caveats in the data, there do appear to be three key categories to which the species flowering on my 2018 New Year Plant Hunt accord. Those which flower almost year-round; those which have a late flowering distribution which hangs on into winter; and those which are winter or early-spring flowering specialists.

I totted up 31 species on the regular transect of the New Year Plant Hunt, which is just under 20% of the total number of species I recorded across the year. What is missing from the transect in January is a host of spring flowers which will not appear for another month or two (such as violets, naturalised spring bulbs and woodland species such as ramsons); the vast majority of the trees and grasses; and the dominant summer species which flowered between May and July (such as hedge parsley, meadowsweet and black knapweed). Also missing are some of the autumn specialists with shorter flowering seasons (including ivy, Russian vine and Michaelmas daisy).

I do however hope to continue the transects through 2018 and build a more robust dataset over time as I think the context it adds to the new year plant hunt is quite an interesting one!

Find out more about the BSBI’s 2018 New Year Plant Hunt results on their website here!