Long tailed tits

I have been writing a short piece in the Grantham Canal Society newsletter each month for the last three years – I thought it would be fun to share these little snippets on here! If you would like to subscribe to the digital newsletter which drops into your inbox once a month, or look at older issues, visit their website here:

January 2018 – Long tailed tits

A walk down the towpath in January is likely to be accompanied by the flutter of wings and warning calls as birds forage in the path-side hedgerows. One of the smallest species in the UK is likely to be among them, but far from being discreet they make their presence disproportionately known as they forage.

Long tailed tits, weighing just 9g, are highly social birds – they move through the landscape in flocks of closely related individuals, maintaining a shrill ‘si-si-si’ call-and-response as individuals keep in touch. Their aim, at this time of year especially, is to forage for enough high-value food to keep their tiny bodies warm enough to survive. They seek invertebrate prey by preference, capitalising on their low weight to pick food such as moth eggs as well as other invertebrates from the higher reaches of twigs and leaves which their heavier counterparts are unable to reach.

At night, the flock remains together, nestling down in a shrub or tree to form a dense ball with just their tails sticking out. As spring marches on, they will be building their tiny nests out of moss, lichen and spiders webs, lined with feathers. Interestingly, they are also social at nesting time – they will try to pair up and nest on their own but if unsuccessful, they will help at the nest of a close relative.

Listen out as you walk this winter – the distinctive call will alert you to the presence of these charming little ‘flying teaspoons’!

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Long tailed tit on hawthorn – image kindly provided by Ryan Clark

Fieldfares

I have been writing a short piece in the Grantham Canal Society newsletter each month for the last three years – I thought it would be fun to share these little snippets on here! If you would like to subscribe to the digital newsletter which drops into your inbox once a month, or look at older issues, visit their website here:

January 2016 – Fieldfares

Fieldfares and redwings are two thrush species which arrive in the UK for the winter each year, having spent the summer in their breeding grounds in Central Europe. The UK has had unusually mild conditions this year which has led to lower numbers than usual, but October and November still saw a good influx.

The Grantham Canal is always a reliable place to find chattering flocks of fieldfares which work their way along the hedgerows in search of the dogrose hips, hawthorn haws and blackthorn sloes, as well as the less obvious ivy berries which form a vital part of their diet in January and February when the best of the berries have been stripped. Their diet also includes insects, fruits and grains.

They are often quite cautious of human presence and their distinctive flight-call – a harsh “tsak tsak tsuk” – will often signal them moving ahead of you along the towpath.

Fieldfares and redwings often fly in mixed flocks but are easily told apart. Redwings are a rich warm brown with rusty-red underwings – similar in size to a song thrush – with a bold white line across the eyebrow. Fieldfares have more white/grey colour about their bodies and are slightly larger – similar in size to a blackbird. They lack the bold red underwing and the black supercilium which distinguish the redwing.

Both of these winter thrushes tend to stay with us through until April or early May when they head back to their breeding territories in warmer climes.

Fieldfare feeding on cotoneaster berry
Fieldfare feeding on cotoneaster berries

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!

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.

Staverton Thicks

I am currently reading Oliver Rackham’s ‘History of the Countryside’ – the seminal text on the landscape I’ve known all my life. I was lucky enough to hear Dr Rackham speak back in 2014, before his sad passing the following year, and the enthusiasm he brought to the conference is apparent in every page of this otherwise weighty tome. Whilst learning much about how the British landscape came to be, I am treating it as something of a tourist guide to compile a wishlist of exceptional and illustrative locations. One such is Staverton Park and I was pleasantly surprised to find that a Biodiversity Seminar I was attending was just a few miles away, providing the perfect excuse to see for myself! With a quote like this, how could one resist?

“Sometimes a park still has its original trees. The supreme example is Staverton Park (near Woodbridge, Suffolk), a famous and awesome place of Tolkienesque wonder and beauty. The mighty and bizarre shapes of oaks of unknown age rise out of a sea of tall bracken, or else are mysteriously surrounded by rings of yet mightier hollies.”

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One of the mighty old oak trees within Staverton Park.

Staverton is a place which seems to have a special effect on those who visit – from casual walkers to woodland ecologists, you can appreciate it on many levels. Rackham’s account of the site is one amongst many – Peterken wrote extensively on the history and vegetation of the woodland (you can read it for free on the FSC website here) and Nick Sibbett produced a quite extraordinary survey of the individual trees which make up this exceptional arboreal congregation for Natural England. Exploring the crossover between the ecological and the cultural – Sara Maitland includes it as one of the chapters in her Gossip from the Forest – an exploration of the connections between woodland and folklore. It has formed the focus of Guardian Country Diaries and there are some lovely blog posts from the likes of Frames of Reference, Crossways Farm and Down the Forest Path.

Whilst guided walks do occur from time to time, the park is in private ownership but a path meanders through The Thicks to the south and then edges the eastern periphery of the parkland.

From the Woodbridge Road, just before Butley, a footpath takes you into the woods. The finger sign points directly towards a mighty oak – just a flavour of things to come! A short path winds you through the bracken, and past a few more giants, and then you’re into The Thicks! This part of the park was fenced from the remainder in the early 19th century and was left fairly unmanaged. It’s modern name was first recorded some 60 years later in 1881 as the canopy closed to form the dense woodland you can see today.

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One of the might oaks which parts the path in The Thicks, Staverton Park

The path is vague, meandering and dissipating between mighty oaks – in places, they settle contentedly in the middle of the path causing the way to wend around it, whilst in others the oaks loom across your way, making you duck and divert.

But despite the imposing, watching presence of the oaks, this is really the realm of the holly which is the most abundant tree in The Thicks. One of these hollys is thought to be the tallest in Britain at a towering 22.5m high!

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One of the amazing tall holly trees within The Thicks, Staverton Park

Some grow from old coppice stools, sending an array of trunks skywards, whilst others grow twinned with older, larger oaks, the angle of their growth aiming for gaps in the canopy beyond their associates. The ground beneath the living trunks is littered with the bodies of their fallen – branches and boles lie as deadwood across the woodland floor,  providing abundant opportunities for invertebrates which has evolved to rely upon such deadwood which is increasingly hard to find in our modern woodlands.

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One of the holly trees arising from an old coppice stool in The Thicks, Staverton Park

Peterken presents evidence which indicates that the site might have been continuously wooded since the wildwood era. Whilst there is no woodland in the country which is not influenced by human management or exploitation, he argues that this might be closest to the primeval, natural condition than most other woods in lowland Britain. The effect of walking The Thicks is of wandering between ancient beings, but the deviations from natural condition are quickly apparent. The oaks are predominantly pollarded – a historic practise of cutting the trees above browsing height to allow a sustainable harvest of the new growth. This extends their life and facilitates the gnarled, huge boles but is far from a natural occurrence on the scale seen in The Thicks. The ground flora too is surprisingly poor, lacking many of the ancient woodland indicator species. This is presumably a result of the intervening parkland years when the trees were open grown and the land grazed or heath beneath. Then there is the composition of the stand – according to Rackham’s analysis, Suffolk is deep within the limewood province, where small-leaved lime would have been the dominant tree species before the wildwood was cleared. Whilst Peterken makes no assertion that this woodland is akin to the wildwood which was once to be found upon the same soil, it is worth considering how far even a woodland with such an ancient feeling as this is departed from the wildwood we once had.

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The dense holly enclosing the path through The Thicks, Staverton Park.

Walking out of the dark oppressive vegetation of The Thicks, the scene switches. Suddenly the oaks are free from the evergreen accompaniments of the holly and are strewn majestically across the parkland with only bracken beneath. Any one of these trees would make you stop and stare if you stumbled across them, but en masse they form an army, like walking through a coven of witches or a gathering of the ents.

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Walking out into the parkland at Staverton Park is like stumbling across a gathering of ancient beasts

Wandering down the sandy track which etches the line between ancient parkland and modern farmland, birch begins to join the scene, its youthful white bark serving to throw into relief the massive presence of the oaks they grow amongst.

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The mighty bole of an ancient pollarded oak with the fresh white trunks of the birch in the background.

Nick Sibbett’s immense survey numbered the living oaks at 2,899, and more standing dead trees besides!

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One of the standing dead oaks within Staverton Park

Some of the oaks in the park have a Diamater at Breast Height (DBH) of over 7m although many specimens are much smaller than this. The precise age of these oaks isn’t known – there was a myth that the trees were planted in the early 1500’s by the monks of Butley Abbey. Some are indeed over 400 years old but there are a wide range of different aged trees across the park.

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Another of the mighty idiosyncratic oaks within the Staverton Parkland.

My first visit was at dusk, and the second at dawn the next day as the sun rose to the east. My time amongst this ancient assemblage was short lived, but I hope to be back in spring or summer to spend more time in this magical place.

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One of the boundary oaks of Staverton Park at sunrise.