Shared Pleasures and Treasures, Startling Starlings and Busy Bees

Over a week without rain, so the blogging takes back seat to the logging. A long winter has taken its toll of our wood stocks. But a huge amount has happened in the last 2 weeks. SDIM7964 (2)Can anyone tell me whathas happened to the tepals (petals) of the Crocus “Snow Bunting” at the top left of the image, which are rather attractively ragged. Is it some form of fasciation? Or the result of a virus? Or a novel seedling?

We had our first garden visitors last weekend when Keith and Moira came with friends for tea and a quick tour. Keith and Moira are fellow NGS garden owners, who we’ve got to know through the National Garden Scheme, and they have their own gorgeous garden in a beautiful setting on the Southern edge of the Towy valley about half an hour away from us. Click here for some images and description of their garden. Keith generously came bearing an armful of carefully selected and home propagated plants to add to the Gelli mix, including a very special looking Clematis ianthina, grown from seed from his garden. It wasn’t until after they’d left that I opened a plastic bag containing some of the Hellebore flowers he also brought along for us. SDIM7754 (2) Keith’s Hellebore Tiffany Lampshade. WOW.

We grow quite a lot of Hellebores, and most are home grown variants on the common Hellebore colour themes, but Keith’s were so beautiful and diverse in colour and form that I thought I should photograph them, and I include a couple of images taken in early morning light. SDIM7748 (3) SDIM8031 (2)Our own favourite grouping of Hellebores is on our amphitheatre bank where they’re inter-planted with snowdrops, primroses and Chrysoplenium davidianum. Many thanks indeed for Keith and Moira for sharing these treasures with us. Keith was fascinated by our exhibition of garden moths images, which is open to all our garden visitors, and since I couldn’t tempt him with any of our limited range of favourite home propagated plants I was pleased to be able to offer him a copy of my garden moth identification DVD-ROM Guide ‘In A Different Light’.

Any readers who are interested in this subject can check out my garden moths pages, click here, where I’m gradually managing to upload some of the images from this DVD-ROM, albeit at a lower quality, (because of satellite internet upload limitations). These images do give a flavour of what the DVD-ROM is like, and more importantly the huge numbers and diversity of these often secretive garden inhabitants. L Small Elephant Hawkmoth The company, friendship and generosity of gardening friends and NGS County organisers, made whilst we’ve been part of the NGS scheme, has been a huge bonus for us, as well as the satisfaction of raising funds for worthwhile causes, and the simple pleasure of sharing one’s own plot and local knowledge with any visitors. We’ve learned so much and had so much fun already over just 3 years. Similar in some ways to the shared pleasure I derive from writing the random musings that constitute this blog stream.

Before we retreated inside to warm up and enjoy some tea and cakes, we were treated to some fantastic swooping displays from the large starling flocks that regularly seem to build through February, swollen by the Scandinavian winter immigrant influx. Our native starlings have apparently declined by over 80% in recent years, but there are obviously rich pickings from the small permanent pasture fields that make up the local landscape round here. Often you’re alerted to their imminent appearance by the rush of sound that accompanies so many synchronised wing beats. If it’s a still day, your initial brain reaction is to wonder where that sudden gust of wind has come from.

Then you see them. SDIM7574 (2)Still photography rarely captures the sheer scale of the flock displays, and we never witness the really spectacular swooping murmuration displays that occur each dusk time, just before the massed flocks settle for the night at their regular roosting sites. S1000002 (2a) (2)

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But a marked difference this year, is their flight path. Every previous season has seen them flying up the valley, roughly due North. This year, at dusk, they fly almost due West heading for Mynydd Llanllwni (mountain), and presumably a roost on the other side of this, beyond or in, the Teifi valley. On a couple of mornings, I’ve nipped outside around 7 am and caught the even bigger flocks, probably several thousand strong, heading directly over our house and further inland. So, it’s not just the RAF’s helicopters, jets and Hercules planes that seem to use the long white building at Gelli as a navigational marker.

However the return to freezing ground and bitter Easterlies, has stopped the show for now.

I’m guessing the flocks are choosing to head to warmer conditions near the coast. 3 days ago in this run of dry days, the sun shone, and the wind dropped. It wasn’t really warm, but by 10.30 am the first worker honeybees had decided that it was indeed a suitable day for working. There had been several about the previous slightly windier day, but with brash burning bonfires to start after the recent hedge laying, I opted to leave the distraction of further observation and photography until lunchtime. SDIM7954 (2) I’m glad I delayed. Firstly, because it’s an extremely addictive way of passing the day, watching these eager insects beavering away. And you feel slightly guilty afterwards with an always huge list of ‘still-to-do’ jobs. But also, I would probably have given up earlier on in a long photographic stint, and then missed seeing the first 2 bumblebee queens of the year visiting our Crocus flowers. The white tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, and Early bumblebee, Bombus pratorum, (probably) were about a week earlier than last year (here shown on Crocus ‘Cream Beauty’ and C. sieberi ‘Firefly’. The last clump has had flowers for nearly 6 weeks, waiting for a pollinator to turn up).SDIM7933 (2) SDIM8072 (2) SDIM8088 (2)It’s also interesting that in contrast to most early bumblebees last year, neither of these queens appear to be carrying any mites.

As in previous years, their preferred flower in the garden this early in the year is always the Crocus. I speculate this year that this might be because not only is it a potentially good source of both nectar AND pollen (more on this later), but these pretty large and heavy bees can straddle the flowers without them collapsing. So far I’ve never seen a bumblebee visit a snowdrop, Cyclamen coum or Scilla mischtschenkoana, though they will visit Pulmonaria and Hellebore flowers. Observing their early afternoon antics where they were collecting nectar as a food stuff and store for what will be their new colony, and pollen as the foodstuff to sustain the larvae which will form the new colonies’ workers, I realised how vital it is to plant the right sort of Crocus in a part of the garden where it will catch any sunshine that there is, between about 10.30 am and 3 pm. SDIM8042 (2) Outside these hours, and the bees are unlikely to be on the wing, since temperatures will be too low. No exposure to sun because of poor siting of the Crocus, and the flowers will remain firmly closed and inaccessible to the bees. Closing the flowers in this way is of course a sensible strategy by the plant to protect stamens and ovaries from weather extremes. SDIM8092 (2)The Scilla mischtschenkoana flowers must have a hardier constitution. They remain open, once the buds have matured and opened for the first time. SDIM8036 (2)This strategy has the big advantage that any insect which emerges early in the day can still visit the flower. And Andy’s honeybees seem to love them. SDIM7917 (2) This is also interesting, since we had no bee visits to them at all last year, and I suspect that the difference is that they are now readily accessible to the hive’s bees without them having to fly long distances to reach them – a strategy which would likely be perilous at this time of the year. My impression is that the honeybees are visiting primarily for the abundant pale pollen that they produce – there may be little nectar on offer? The honeybees also visit our many snowdrops for orange pollen (again hardly ever recorded before the hive was placed on site). SDIM8007 (2)As well as the Crocus flowers.SDIM7940 (2) But another interesting observation was also made. Although none of these short lived insects will ever have experienced any of these flowers before, firm preferences seem to become established really quickly. A cohort of bees preferred the Crocus ‘Cream Beauty’, where the principle goal was nectar gathering, judging by the upended duck like position adopted by the bees in the Crocus flower, straining to reach the nectaries at the base of the flower with their relatively short tongues. SDIM7937 (2) SDIM7949 (2) SDIM7923 (2) As I noticed last year, these C. ‘Cream Beauty’ are vigorous in our garden and multiply well, but set very little seed, and if you look closely they seem to produce little if any pollen. Interestingly the RHS have given Crocus ‘Cream Beauty’ an Award of Garden Merit, AGM, and list it as a ‘Perfect For Pollinators’ plant. We can concur with its merits as garden worthy and insect friendly, though semantically, is a flower which produces virtually no pollen, “Perfect For Pollinators”?

In marked contrast a different cohort of honeybees will seek out the Crocus tommasinianus flowers which are laden with pollen and any bee, honey or bumble, will emerge with an all over dusting. SDIM7986 (2) SDIM7930 (2) Trying some time lapse photography with a Camcorder upgrade indeed confirmed this selective feeding by different groups of bees from the same hive. SDIM7989 (2)Part of the time lapse trial area. This division of labour is probably a very efficient strategy. As with a bumblebee colony, a honeybee hive needs both carbohydrate rich nectar to feed the colony (and eventually produce honey from any surplus) and oil and protein rich pollen as a food for the larvae which will hatch from eggs that the queen honeybee is probably already laying (she never leaves the hive at this time of the year). The hive’s number of active workers will grow rapidly as spring progresses into summer.

This observation again persuaded me that flower selection, placement and numbers can be a hugely important factor in whether a colony of either bumblebees or honeybees is likely to survive and thrive in your area. I also discovered that (many populations of honeybees’ reluctance to fly in any rain or drizzle, in contrast to the tougher bumblebee, can be compensated for by the ability of the hive to gather nectar in profusion, if the weather and food source are suitable. An American study showed that the weight of a hive could increase by a massive 6 kg in just 24 hours, largely as a result of nectar gathering, given optimum weather and available nectar sources. 

The one disappointment after this very successful period of bee watching was that in spite of having hundreds of wonderful and permanently open Cyclamen coum flowers, the bees largely ignored them. So my hand pollination will have to continue to ensure seed production. The image below is the only time I saw a honeybee of Cyclamen coum flowers in nearly an hour of looking, in spite of hundreds of open Cyclamen flowers. Ninety nine out of 100 bees clearly expressed a preference for other flowers!SDIM8068 (2) Equally this apparent lack of insect appeal is probably the reason that the Cyclamen coum season lasts for so long in our garden. SDIM8097 (2) I’d planned a major snowdrop blog for today, but all this unexpected bee activity pushed it out. So just a couple of photos for now. SDIM7734 (2) SDIM8101 (2) This time last year, I recorded a near hat trick of sunrises through the prominent hill top copse across the valley. Lest you think from the sunny images included this week that we’re permanently blessed with sunshine I’ll include a sunrise from this week. This was the first one we’d had for nearly a fortnight. You can see how far the sun has moved along the horizon in that time of absence. From roughly between the central copse and the lower one to the right (the previous sunrise), and its position this week. S1000018 (2) Finally, I shall record with many thanks the lovely write up that the garden received in Amateur Gardening magazine this week, the UK’s only weekly gardening publication. I’m particularly indebted to Naomi Slade who not only wrote the article but who also took some great pictures last June to illustrate it. I shall quote with permission a brief piece from Naomi’s text, since she has captured really well what we’ve tried to create over many years working at Gelli Uchaf, and are still refining! Never mind painting with oils being a slow process – layered, sequential and intermingled planting effects take us years to develop. And then you only glimpse the results for a relatively brief period annually! SDIM7997 (2) “They have used colour densely and vibrantly as an impressionist painter might. Drifts of small flowers mimic painting techniques such as pointillism – painting with small dots of colour; foliage patterns resemble short, distinct brush strokes while the changing light, shadow and the moving season is a constant feature, making the garden as fresh and original as the ground-breaking French impressionists themselves.” Naomi Slade –  Amateur Gardening Magazine 23rd February 2013 SDIM8063 (2)

4 thoughts on “Shared Pleasures and Treasures, Startling Starlings and Busy Bees

  1. Julian, what a wonderful display of spring flowers you and Fiona get to enjoy! I loved the bee closeups too. We have some spring flowers – but I have not spotted any bees on them yet.

    Blessings ~ Wendy

    • Hello Wendy,
      Thanks for the comment. We’ve indeed been lucky with the spring flowers this year, but right now everything in the garden is looking freeze dried – strong winds, low humidity and sub zero temperatures for several days. I’m guessing you’ll have a whole range of different native bee species where you are … hope that they’re out and about with you soon – they’re almost more of a harbinger of spring proper than the flowers I think,
      Best wishes

    • Hello Christine,
      Thanks for the comment. I must admit I hadn’t considered bird damage, the petals look a bit too uniform. But I’ll keep my eyes peeled for blackbirds… right now we’ve discovered that the Snow Buntings are the favoured Crocus for our resident bunnies, which I’m constantly doing battle with! Am still planning a Snowdrop post, but bees, turkeys and lambs have all intervened…we need rain!
      Best wishes

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