Friday, 4 November 2016

It's that tree again

In a previous blog I mused on the tree species Acer negundo or box elder. It cropped up again (my friend Serendipity at work again) in another context, that of pollination. But let me, as always, digress. My earliest proper beekeeping was at the college of agriculture in Aberdeen, where the biggest challenge was getting the bees in good condition through winter. We fed generously in autumn, we insulated the hives, we provided a microclimate kinder than conditions even a few metres away, and made sure that the colonies went into winter strong, heathy and queen-right. And as spring started to appear, we beekeepers were probably as excited as the bees. We concentrated on growing plants that would give early sources of pollen - crocus, snowdrop, hellebores and especially willows. (Now there's an interesting topic, willows, which I will certainly come back to.) The willows, several species chosen to give a sequence of flowering, were by far the most copious yielders, and really kick-started the spring build-up. I spent many happy hours watching bees on willows...

...and recently someone asked me why bees work wind-pollinated flowers, such as willow. That had me stumped, but I think the argument goes as follows. Wind-pollinated trees typically have catkin-shape male flowers which produce enormous amounts of light and dry pollen that is not particularly nutritious as far as bees are concerned. The female flowers carry sticky stigmas which catch pollen grains which are blown in their direction. It's a bit hit-and-miss, but nobody could deny that it has been a successful strategy for millions of years (billions even? - I need to check). The willow family changed over to partial insect-pollination by investing energy in creating attractive pollen (sweet, protein-packed, colourful and aromatic) while retaining the typical wind-pollinated flower shape.

It's not only the willows that have adopted this tactic, the Acers have as well, such as our sycamore and plane. So far so good. Now, let's go back to our cryptic box elder. According to D. M. van Gelderen (Maples Of The World), Acer negundo is in the process of changing its mind anthropomorphically speaking. Having started out as wind-pollinated plant, it changed to insect-pollination and now seems to be going back to wind. How strange is that? What environmental pressures is the species responding to?

Bee hotel
But let's get back on track. I really should be talking about bees. What I would like to do is share some of the fun of a year of looking after solitary bees, and this is a good point to start. I have a nest provided by Robin Dean of the Red Beehive Co. as shown in the photo. It contains tubes of several different sizes and has been well-occupied by several species of cavity-nesting solitary bee.

Mason bee and leaf cutter cocoons
I could just leave the nest in the garden all winter, but it is instructive to open the tubes and identify the contents. That also gives me the chance to remove any parasites and pests. When I have done that, I identify the individual cocoons by placing them in marked tubes and place them in the fridge until spring, as in the second photo.
Cocoons in tubes for over winter storage in fridge
In my next blog I will show the results of opening this nest and discuss winter management.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Old Friend

I Get Confused…….

My friend Serendipity has not got involved in the blog this week, but let me introduce you to another character, the late great Rocky, our previous dog. The possessor of long legs and good lungs, Rocky needed plenty of exercise. (After he died, I calculated that I had walked somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 miles with the dog. Thanks for that, old pal.) I digress. One of our regular walks was in Fleming Park, now a public park, previously a golf course, and prior to that the grounds of a stately home (North Stoneham Park) with extensive landscaping by Capability Brown.

I would entertain myself by looking at the trees, some familiar, some exotic, while the dog was doing disgusting dog things. In the winter there was one tree that was remarkable for the amount of mistletoe it supported, much more than any other specimen in the park, and I was puzzled as to why that should be. What was the reward for mistletoe that it thrived so well in this particular tree? Anyway, without leaves, there was no way I could identify the species, so I had to wait until spring. I forgot of course, but Rocky inadvertently reminded me the following year when he led me to that particular corner and was snuffling around in the undergrowth. Following him, I came across flowers I had never seen before in patches all round the trunk of this tree, pale strange flowers with a purplish tint. I identified them when I got home. Toothwort is a great name, but totally outclassed by its delicious nickname of corpse flower, so-called because of the belief that it only grows from corpses.

It's another parasite, which takes all its nourishment from the roots of other plants. It needs no chlorophyll, so has no green parts, just ghostlike pale flesh and flowers, very spooky. I have found it nowhere else in the park. So what is this tree which carries a heavy parasite load on its high branches and a heavy parasite load on its roots – and yet looks in such good condition? Well, before I try to answer that, let me digress again….

I have done quite a lot of work with solitary bees in the USA. I recall one year being advised that a particular bee would be active ‘when the box elder is in flower’. That was a new one on me, so I asked to see such a tree and it sure was neither a box tree nor an elder. It is in fact a maple (Acer negundo) which was given its name because the leaves look like elder (a bit) and the wood is used for making boxes.

Leaves of silver maple Acer Saccharum

That was one confusing maple. Back to England, I checked my books and reckoned that my mystery tree is Acer saccharinum, going by the deeply serrated leaves Ha! I said, leaping to unjustified conclusions, obviously the sugar maple which gives us maple syrup, and clearly the reason why the parasites thrive on it – the sap is high in nutrients. Well, the second conclusion may or may not be true, but the first isn’t. The maple tree in North America which is harvested for syrup is in fact Acer saccharum. Saccharum, saccharinum? I expect I shall forget the distinction as soon as I close this laptop. Anyway, here is a picture of Rocky’s tree, otherwise known as silver maple.

Thriving silver maple, despite parasites above and below ground

But what about bees? I hear you ask. Let me update you on this year’s nesting of mason bees and leafcutter bees in the various nests we put up. Despite having some locations with great results historically (such as Granny’s garden in rural Suffolk), and despite ‘seeding’ the nests with plenty cocoons due to emerge bang on time, we had very poor results, the worst for sure in years and years of this work. I estimate we have about 5%, if that, of our normal population. I am not clear why, but I have just loaded the car with nests and will be examining the contents in the next month. I will share my conclusions. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the last of the summer ……..

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Tales from the allotment

My achievements down at the allotment are modest compared with some of the retired enthusiasts who devote many hours to their plots each week. Nevertheless, I get a lot of fun from it, along with abundant fresh fruit and vegetables. Each year there are successes and failures – this year I was so excited to be growing cauliflowers with heads bigger than table tennis balls, but in the last week, the heads seem to be rotting away, all blotchy and grey and brown. Huh! Maybe next year ……

Anyway, I get plenty pleasure with or without the cauliflowers, watching the visitors to the plot. There are always slow worms in the compost heap, and the ornithologists a few plots along point out any unusual birds. And of course there are always plenty bees. We inherited a fine bed of globe artichoke. I like artichokes, but have to admit that it is a lot of work getting the edible bit to the table, and as for the blackfly – quel horreur, mes amis! But the real payback comes with the flowers, which are the most glorious and stately thistle-type purple blooms. They are a magnet for bees. Sometimes you will get ten bumble bees on the same bloom, burrowing deep into the flower head to get their reward, a sight that I look forward to every year.

And as usual, my friend Serendipity injected an extra note of interest this year when the tenancy of an adjacent plot changed. Our new neighbour is Chinese, with interesting ways of gardening and novel plants. For instance, he grows bonsai trees on the allotment – true – and explained in detail the difference in philosophies between Chinese and Japanese bonsai. (I didn’t point out that this year I am specialising in bonsai sweet corn.) I also remarked on a fine bed of evening primrose on his plot, and asked what he used it for. Nothing, was the answer, he just likes growing it. And so do I. It grew more or less wild in our garden for years, and on summer evenings as the sun was going down, I used to wander down the garden to watch the flowers open. The flowers are big and yellow, and during the day are rolled up like little umbrellas. As the evening approaches, one by one the flowers unravel and open in front of your eyes. You can easily watch the whole process in a few minutes. It’s fantastic. Bees will visit it, but it is a moth-pollinated plant, and the pollen is not bee-friendly. It comes off the stamens in sticky hairy strands which the bees really struggle with.

You can see how easily distracted I am. Instead of seriously tackling the bindweed a few days ago, which was my intention, I had more fun with a swarm. I know what you’re thinking – bees again – but no. This wasn’t my bees about to move into a neighbour’s chimney, or someone else’s bees moving into some equipment of mine. These were ants. It was the shimmering that caught my eye. The nest was under the well-trodden pathway where winged males and females were crawling to the surface, having a few minutes crawling in the grass then taking to the air. Unlike bees, this is not a colony moving en masse to a new home, but rather it is the emergence of a sexual generation, a mass mating flight. Successful females will shed their wings and found new colonies; successful males have done their work and will die shortly afterwards. And life on the allotment continues its cycle……….

Next year will be my cauliflower year.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Birthday Bees

Sunday was my birthday, and what a treat it was. Botanic gardens for a family picnic - not just any old botanic gardens, but the jewel of them all – Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The family gathered at the Victoria Gate, where we found – treat upon treat – that a three day science festival was taking place. What could be more fun?

First things first, the picnic, followed by a chat with ‘Charles Darwin’ who talked about his time on the Beagle, and the publication of his great books. Then it was time to visit The Hive, which is an extraordinary and beautiful thing. I’m not quite sure of the best word to describe it, whether building, sculpture, installation or structure. It’s all of them really. You walk inside and underneath a steel lattice which represents the inside of hive. It is wired up to a real colony in such a way that the activities of the bees influence the sounds transmitted through the Hive, and the lighting. It is very striking and immensely popular.

And everywhere there is information about bees, and enthusiastic staff talking about bees, plus a sweet demonstration of the sounds that bees make. What you do is grip a wooden stick between your teeth and press it against a contact in a display, as you can see in the photo. The stick vibrates the sounds to you, so you ‘hear’ in the same way as bees. You hear (a) the sound of one bee begging food from another, (b) the sound of the waggle dance, (c) a virgin queen proclaiming her presence, and (d) two queens challenging each other. I loved it. But the geek joy was far from over.

Next we sat in on a demonstration of a scanning electron microscope. When I was a student they were the size of room and unbelievably expensive. Now they are the size of a desktop pc, and although not exactly pocket money, much much cheaper than before. When we left, a pensioner couple were chatting with the demonstrator, seriously considering buying one just for the pleasure of having such an amazing piece of kit.

The images it produces are breathtaking and simple to produce. We looked at bees, ants pollen and plants. shown here is bee (coated with platinum) ready for use in the microscope.

It was a fabulous day out. Even without the special attractions, the borders are a real joy, and magnets for bees of all sorts.

On the train home, I recalled an earlier birthday, 14 years ago, on the Isle of Arran, where we picnicked by the beach on a gloriously sunny day. We were sitting on the edge of a stream flowing into the sea, and became aware of vigorous bee activity at our feet. The bank was alive with bees tunnelling out of the bank. I think the species was Colletes succinctus, but cannot be sure. Scores, I guess hundreds, of male bees were excitedly darting at the bank as females were coming into the daylight. Any female that emerged was immediately pounced upon by a gang of males, so that each female was surrounded by a ball of bees. Each ball then rolled down the bank to the sand where vigorous mating took place until the female could extricate herself, and fly off to get on with life. My friend serendipity in action again – what a birthday present!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016


Serendipity (otherwise known as Hayley) sent me an email as I was pondering how to start this bee blog, and provided me with a perfect topic. (Thank you!) ‘What are these bees doing in the windchimes?’ was the query, referring to a couple of attached photos. Well, I muse, how lucky you are to have them in the windchimes. The pictures show a mother solitary bee building a nest for her young, but let’s backtrack a little first.

Mention the word bee and the first thing that comes to mind is honeybees. They live in a family, cooperating over housekeeping, rearing young, building comb, looking after a queen, and collecting pollen and nectar. They produce honey which keeps the whole colony alive over winter.

Alternatively you may think of bumble bees, big, fluffy, colourful creatures. They have a lot in common with honeybees, living communally, supporting a queen who lays all the eggs in the nest. The colony does not survive the winter however. At a certain stage in the summer, new queens are produced, along with some male bees, and the colony declines. Only new queens survive the winter by hibernating. In spring a single queen starts the whole process single-handed.

But by far the great majority of bees are solitary, with very limited if any communal life. The bee in the windchimes is a leafcutter bee – an appropriate name. (The species is probably Megachile centuncularis or Megachile willughbiella – I would need to ask an expert.) This female emerged from the nest maybe a month ago. She mated fairly soon after and searched for a cavity suitable to lay eggs in. The windchime is perfect, but they will use any convenient hole – a beetle boring in a tree, a woodpecker hole, hollow plant stems, and so on. I have seen them fill nail holes, holes in garden furniture, locks, hose pipes and outdoor taps.

She remodels the cavity to her satisfaction. First she cuts discs of leaf from whichever plants the species favours. These discs are pushed to the far end of the cavity, so they form a pad. Next comes a spectacular feat of muscles and dexterity. She precisely cuts long pieces of leaf with her jaws and flies back trailing each piece, which she wrestles into the hole to create a cigar-shaped roll. Inside that she puts pollen and lays an egg. Then she seals the cell with many more round pieces. She repeats the process until the tube of the windchimes has anything up to twenty young. She never sees her young, as they remain in the cells, slowly developing over the next eleven months. Next year the young will bite their way out of the nest, ready to start the cycle again. 

What a bonus to have in the garden. I look forward to reporting on their progress.

Matt Beewatcher