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!