We’ve now moved past the brief period when although midsummer has passed, the evenings seem to hang on to their long daylight hours. Over the last fortnight the day length seems to be shortening fast. I love this time of the year, with much to harvest, new autumnal flowers and colours, and cool nights preluding the first fog for a while. Perched as we are on a hillside, we’re sometimes above the mist in the valley floor, but a couple of times recently it’s been thick outside the kitchen windows, and has lingered for a couple of hours.
This morning it cloaked the hard nocturnal work of countless spiders, their skilful constructions plain to see.
With a light breeze blowing and billowing the orb web spider’s efforts like pulling spinnakers, I was actually more struck by some other species’ efforts, which by creating concave sheets of fine mesh seemed to me to have potential as inspirational ideas for contemporary architecture roofing designs. One in particular caught my eye as it overlaid tiny yellow torches of colour which on closer inspection turned out to be the developing spore capsules of a clump of moss.
Before this glimpse of autumn, we reached last week the Welsh fifteen moment, the day on which I was able to count more than 15 butterflies simultaneously on our Buddleias. This nearly always comes so late in the year that one has by then despaired for butterfly survival, but starting with a Comma, then Red Admirals, Speckled Woods and finally a half-dozen Peacocks, all the usual suspects have appeared.
Except the Small Tortoiseshell, which was present in abundance last autumn, and even earlier this year, but to date, not a single one has been spotted this month. I did a search for Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly count, and discovered that again this year it pretty much excludes data from the Welsh Uplands, since the cut off date for records of butterflies seen was August 7 th (which was in any case an extension by one week to allow for the poor weather this summer).
With lots of marjoram in flower right now in the garden, as well as Buddleia, Sedums and Asters still to come, there should be plenty of nectar to keep the butterflies going for a few more weeks, provided we get a bit more sunny weather.
Along with the arrival of the butterflies, there’s also been a noticeable pick up in the number of bumblebees in the garden again. I’ve mentioned this dip in their numbers before, and in trying to find a bit more information on the topic, came across an excellent article from the Natural History Museum on the general decline in bumblebee numbers recently in the UK. It made the point which I’d never thought about before, that bumblebees are mainly insects of the temperate northern hemisphere, and their life-cycle is designed to cope with this environment. They survive through the hibernation of single mated queens to survive the harsh winters, followed by rapid new colony development and build up in spring. But always limited to a relatively small number of adults within a colony (a few hundred maximum).
In contrast, the honey bee life cycle requires the maintenance of the complete colony, throughout the winter. Although within the hive the number of bees reduces to just a few thousand, maintaining a core temperature of about 30 degrees C to sustain this nucleus of bees is clearly a big challenge. Honey bees and other bee species of this type are therefore more common throughout the tropical and Mediterranean climate zones of the planet. Indeed although we’ve had a few honeybee workers visiting both white and blue borage flowers recently, there have been no signs of scout bees around the hollowed out tree trunk at all this year. Perhaps I’ll give it one more season, and then decide whether to abandon the plan of having honeybees up here, or bite the bullet and shell out for a nucleus of bees to try to populate the homebuilt hive with.
The return of significant numbers of bumblebees after the July dip always seems to coincide with the flowering of Common Knapweed in the garden, and this is a magnet for many species, as well as hoverflies, moths and butterflies.
I spotted what I think was a new (for Gelli) species of solitary bee feeding on Knapweed flowers, striking not just because of its pale ventral abdomen, but also the way it aggressively plunged near vertically into the base of the flower in a very determined feeding style.
For a couple of weeks now the vegetable garden has been providing a nice bit of variety without yet any real gluts. A huge success has been the Pak Choi from Real Seeds which, sown with Florence Fennel into Dumpy Bags as a follow on crop from peas and broad beans, has cropped really well, and quickly.
The runner beans are about to crop, but the adjacent ‘Cobra’ Climbing French Beans have all been neatly severed at ground level by some rodent. The suspicion is that it may be rat damage, since for the first time this year we have occasionally seen a rat at dusk.
I remember hearing a couple of years ago that on the Asian subcontinent there is a recognised phenomenon of a population explosion in rat numbers which coincides with the flowering and setting seed of bamboo species. For a particular species of bamboo, this is a fairly globally synchronized event and since bamboos are monocarpic, after flowering, the mature plants all die. The sudden extra protein supply in the environment as a result of the bamboo seed setting allows a massive population explosion leading to plague numbers of rats.
I mention this, because for the first time that I can recall, this year has seen a huge number of acorns germinating all round the garden. I would not have associated this with rat numbers, but earlier this year read an article by Ken Thompson which explained that many deciduous trees including native Beech and Oak have many consecutive years of relatively poor seed production, followed by a synchronized glut of seed by all trees in a location, in an attempt to overcome (principally rodent) predation of the fallen seed. So perhaps this year a glut of acorns is, like the Asian bamboo seed, partly responsible in providing the rats with a good food supply early in the year. Whatever the explanation, yet another example of how the natural world, and our gardens rarely follow a linear predictable route from one year to the next.
The courgettes have finally recovered from a very sluggish start, the carrots are better than ever, and we’re eating delicious tomatoes every day.
The autumn raspberries are beginning production, and I’ve finally worked out that I only need to net the earliest (and juiciest) of the blueberry bushes to escape bird predation – like the autumn raspberries, provided that they’re picked every day, the birds here have enough alternative wild food sources right now, not to become a real pest with these later soft fruit.
Finally, all the ‘George Cave’ eating apples are now picked, and nearly all eaten, as are the first cookers – ‘Grenadier’, and ‘Royal Jubilee’. and at last there have been sufficient early eating apples to get us through to the next wave, with ‘Bardsey’, ‘Katya’ and ‘James Grieve’ nearly ready for picking.
Finally a trip last week to Birmingham to visit our recently arrived third grandchild Adam, for the first time, reminded us as we passed the parched verges beginning in Monmouthshire, just how fortunate we are to have such an equable gardening climate here. A lovely sunny day in Birmingham allowed us to sit outside in the small urban garden backing onto a railway cutting, and along with a pair of visiting Speckled Wood butterflies I spotted another new insect for me. A glorious exotic looking small wasp, about a cm long, appropriately called the Ruby-tailed wasp. No photograph of it to upload, since my macro lens was behind in Wales but do google it to see what it looks like. It’s really exotic, with a metallic turquoise thorax and ruby abdomen and has a fascinating life-cycle. I spotted it exploring the pockmarked Victorian brick wall of the house searching for possible egg laying sites.
P.S. Just to prove me wrong again, after typing this today, 23/08/11 I spotted a Small Tortoiseshell for the first time this autumn!