Flipping Hydrangeas; Battling Bumbles and Jewelled Wasps; and Bonus Butterflies.

A fortnight for personal, novel observations. So what’s new – there’s always something different to spot without leaving the home plot.SDIM8805 (2)

We grew few Hydrangeas before we moved to Gelli Uchaf, though we did bring with us a cutting of H. villosa (above) from our Bristol garden – this original plant having been sourced after seeing a massive specimen in bloom at the lovely Dingle gardens near Welshpool. We had no idea Hydrangeas could be so spectacular, given time to develop – this one is probably now about 12 years old.SDIM9045 (2) Later on, regular trips with our children to Llangranog took us past the walled gardens at Pigeonsford, which for a time were open to the public and contained a variety of mature Hydrangeas with, even better, some home propagated ones for sale. The foundations of a Hydrangea studded garden were laid, well before I discovered that the speed of their autumnal leaf decay make them excellent shrubs for growing snowdrops underneath.SDIM9047 (2)

Later still I remember quizzing a local gardener with a fabulous garden, but lacking any significant numbers of Hydrangeas, why he didn’t have more. His answer was that he hated them after they finished flowering, because they resembled  sweets that had been sucked for too long and lost all colour. The opening section of this post is designed to counter such thoughts, and try to persuade anyone who can, to plant a few. More.SDIM9055 (2)

Continuing to work on my plant palette pages, I’ve realised that from mid summer onwards, they’re fabulous easy sources of colour, and that with careful cultivar selection, this can continue for months. But also that size, and length of flowering varies a lot between varieties, as well as leaf colour changes. And that’s before the additional range of flower colour changes over time – though I have to admit a couple of mop head forms are not reliable flowerers, and frankly there’s no point growing a Hydrangea which doesn’t flower each year.SDIM9057 (2)

In looking at these colour changes more closely, I discovered something that I’d never been aware of before – so apologies for all who take this as read… SDIM8966 (2)As the larger “petals” (actually sepals) age, and colour changes develop, they also flip over, or around…SDIM8965 (2)Usually through 180 degrees.SDIM9063 (2) Even in mopheads…SDIM9061 (2)

The question is, why? So far I’ve incorrectly used the term petals, since Hydrangeas, like Clematis, do not have petals. What appear to be these parts of the flower are, in fact, modified sepals. Which in many flowers form the insignificant green structures at the flower’s base.SDIM9043 (2)

Whilst I’ve discussed plant movements before in flowers – orchids’ flower buds, cyclamen seed heads, and Viola seed heads spring to mind – in each of these cases, I can think of a rational functional reason for such a change in direction, or positioning, of a flower’s structure.SDIM8959 (2) But for the Hydrangea sepals, my mind has drawn a blank. Several differently worded google searches for more information on the subject, have proved equally unsuccessful…SDIM9068 (2) So if any reader can supply some useful links on how, or why, Hydrangeas are busily flipping sepals, when most true flowers simply shed petals once the flowering period is over, then do let me know.SDIM9048 (2)

In the meantime I hope that you just enjoy the pictures and, like me, think that this change, once noticed and appreciated, adds an additional charm to these plants, many of which have an oriental origin. (The changing faces of H. “Blue Zorro” below)SDIM9067 (3)SDIM9058 (2)SDIM9060 (2)SDIM9071 (2)We don’t now open the garden at this time of the year, but you can enjoy spectacular examples of many varieties of Hydrangeas, at the nearby gardens at both Aberglasney, Picton Castle and The National Botanic Garden of Wales. ( And H. “Tiara”, below)SDIM8326 (2)SDIM9049 (2)SDIM9051 (2)

In the last post, I mentioned the Bombus pascuorum nest which I’d come close to inadvertently damaging with the power scythe in our hay meadow. Since then the poor bumbles have had a torrid time.S1000021 (2) Twice more the bees had to rebuild their nest after having it partially excavated by a nocturnal predator. In one case they toiled through a day of incessant drizzle tending damaged cells, and lastly combing over the mossy top.S1000039 (2) On one sunny morning they managed to complete this latter process in less than 3 hours.S1000045 (2)S1000061 (2)

Rather belatedly I opted to cover the nest with a metal grid tray. The bees fly through unhindered and it has stopped the nest being damaged again, so I don’t think that a badger is responsible, since it could have easily shifted this.SDIM8847 (2)

This is the second nest I’ve come across this year. The first was located, rather inconveniently beneath our large oil drum, used as a firewood kindling store.S1000056 (2) Once I was certain bee movements had ceased. after the colony had naturally come to the end of its lifespan, I rolled out the drum, to find the rudimentary nest beneath the far rim. Nothing like as large or sophisticated as honey bee combs, but nevertheless a functional system for rearing workers in our wet climate.S1000054 (2)

Last week saw me pausing from hay shifting for a drink on the terrace, when a small insect alighted on the wooden table top. Vibrant blue and red are unusual combinations, and I was wondering what it was, when it flew off. SDIM8948 (2)But fortunately it returned a little later and hung around for long enough for me to nip in and grab a camera. What an amazingly beautiful insect – a parasitoid wasp, which was new to me, and perhaps, the garden.

At first (after a lot of googling) I thought it was Pseudomalus auratus – click here for more, but after contacting WWBIC, Kate passed my photo on to Ian Morgan, who kindly suggested it was Chrysis ignita, a ruby-tailed wasp. Click here for more on this species, which is a cuckoo wasp.SDIM8954 (2)To quote from the excellent review on Wikipedia:
Chrysidid wasps are parasitoids, meaning that their parasitic activity, in most cases, kills their hosts. Some species are also cleptoparasites, meaning that they also use the host species’ food supplies as resources to sustain themselves. Chrysis ignita is both a parasitoid and a cleptoparasite. The female wasp possesses a long, telescopic ovipositor, which evolved from the reduction of the usual Hymenopteran stinging apparatus. It uses this appendage to deposit its eggs inside the nest of the host wasp. The female ruby-tailed wasp will hide nearby, waiting for an ideal host. She will look for wasps that are in the process of digging burrows or dragging prey or bringing food back to their nests. She will then observe the nest until the host leaves or hitch a ride on the prey to slip in.

SDIM8956 (3)
There are two basic strategies for parasitizing the host. In the first strategy, the wasp eats the host egg or host young larva as soon as it hatches and moves on to eating the food resources in the nest (cleptoparasitism). In the second strategy, the Chrysidid waits for the host larva to reach its prepupal stage, and it kills it after clearing the nest of food sources. Each strategy has its advantages. The second parasitoid strategy is generally utilized when the host wasp species is a nectar and pollen gatherer. These host wasps stock up their nests with food sources that contain nutrients the Chrysidid wasp cannot synthesize itself. Additionally, if the host mother wasp is able to accumulate enough food resources for both her kin and the host larva, the parasitoid wasp can remain undetected by not killing and eating its adopted siblings.

There are many other fascinating aspects to their natural history outlined in some detail on the Wikipedia link provided. Their extremely tough exoskeleton beneath all those iridescent colours, (since they lack a sting), means that attempts by the “host” wasp to chew or sting it, sees the ruby tail curling up into an impenetrable ball which resists all attacks. The host may then resort to rolling this ball out of the nest – where the ruby tail will patiently wait, and then unroll and crawl back in at a later time. We certainly have lots of solitary bees in the garden now, so maybe I’ll get to glimpse another one of these colourful wasps in years to come.S1000084 (2)

September 2nd saw the annual Welsh fifteen moment easily surpassed (actually probably on September 1st, but we had no free time to observe), when there were more than 15 butterflies around the Buddleia. S1000094 (2)2 warm days with sunshine saw an explosion of butterflies in the garden, probably well over a hundred, with Buddleia davidii, Sedum “Autumn Joy” and Eupatorium maculatum all favoured as nectar source plants.S1000084 (2)

Pristine Red Admirals…S1000104 (2) Peacocks…S1000106 (2) and Small Tortoiseshells sharing flowers with many Painted Ladies…S1000107 (2)most so unblemished that I wondered whether they were local, second generation insects.

Always a delightful time in the garden, and one which confirms that although it looks like 2016 will be the gloomiest year here for a long time, the warmth and lack of rain has meant it hasn’t been as disastrous for garden butterflies as 2015.S1000101 (2)

If we hadn’t had so many butterflies suddenly appear, I wouldn’t have bothered to dead head the Buddleia bushes. SDIM9022 (2)And if I hadn’t done that I would have missed finding this stunning Cyclamen hederifolium, grown from scattered seed in the shrubbery and lurking in deep shade beneath a Weigela and Buddleia. SDIM9010 (2)I’ve never seen so many flower buds on a single tuber in the garden before, and can’t work out why – if it performs as well next year, I shall have to save lots of seed from it!SDIM9026 (2)

22 thoughts on “Flipping Hydrangeas; Battling Bumbles and Jewelled Wasps; and Bonus Butterflies.

  1. I love your Hydrangeas but I had not noticed that they turned their sepals, I will look out for that now. We have had more butterflies in the garden this year but I feel it is more quantity wise rather than more variety. I can tell my Map is second generation because it has a different colouration so I presume the pristine ones are second generation too. I find the “shiny” bees/wasps very difficult to photograph and I’ve been hoping to get the Ruby-tailed wasp for a while but you have beat me to it. I am also jealous of your Carder nest. I had always thought of the Queen building the nest and I never realised the colony would pitch in and rebuild as you have observed. I am glad you covered them with the grill. It is quite a crucial time for them when the new queens will be born. Amelia

    • Thanks Amelia. Pure fluke with the wasp of right place, right time, but spectacular colours. The bumblebees were amazing – the stills are screen captures from video clips, which show how industrious they all were, constantly active in an apparently aimless moving mass, but achieving nest restoration nevertheless- as well as how variable in size the workers are within a colony – apparently this is typical for bumbles. The queen was obvious in some of the footage as being even bigger, but with a very worn thorax – what surprised me was that at no stage was I threatened by them, in spite of the obvious traumas they had suffered – after my experiences with honeybees last year, this was a pleasant surprise – but I guess that I didn’t smell like the nest trasher, whereas I maybe did smell more like the beekeeper! A fellow meadow’s member has told me that in a study of bumblebee nests he once was involved with, something like 80% got trashed by badgers, so I guess that their ecology depends on producing fertilised new queens fairly early on, to ensure survival next year?
      Best wishes
      Julian

      • According to Sladen, terrestris and muscorum nests can be aggressive if they are large but you would have to be disturbing them to get them going. The Humble Bee by FWL Sladen is the book to read about bumble bees. It is delightful and I must read it again. It has not helped me with ID or though it should have.

      • Thanks for the suggestion, Amelia, about the Sladen book. Also the point about terrestris being aggressive – last year I was stung by 3 0r 4 bumbles after disturbing the kindling barrel – which they nested underneath that year as well, though I hadn’t noticed the comings and goings before I was stung! So I was alert to their presence this year, and much more careful around the barrel,
        best wishes
        Julian

      • I have never known anyone who was actually stung by a bumble bee! I think that is a real claim to fame. I’ve read they can repeat sting because they do not have the barb so you were not the cause of any bumble bee massacre.

      • Thanks Amelia…actually as when I was stung by the bees, I viewed it as very efficient nest protection. Th only time I’ve been stung by wasps recently was exactly the same – a few years ago I was weeding amongst dense foliage in our tyre garden and inadvertently kicked against a tyre wall inside which a wasp nest had been built. Almost instantly I had 4 stings on my lower calf so maybe vibrations which disturb/rock the nest structure are particular triggers for defence behaviour in such insects?
        Best wishes
        Julian

      • I think if anything upsets the equilibrium of a nest that it will be sting first and deal with whatever follows. Unfortunately, nests are often shaken inadvertently while cutting hedges etc.

  2. Your hydrangeas are beautiful with such a range of colours. Aberglasney hydrangeas today were also in full bloom but very wet and droopy after yesterdays downpours! I’m trying to dry some hydrangea heads for flower arranging – any tips? I think all the butterflies in Carmarthenshire are in your garden and I’m not surprised with all those lovely plants to tempt them in! Love the wasp, hope it flies over here soon and those cyclamen are just delightful.

    • Hello Marianne,
      Fiona has dried Hydrangeas over the years, and usually hangs them in the inglenook alcove above the wood burner – but sometimes it works, sometimes not, and she reckons the key is not picking in full bloom,. but waiting until the flowers have just started to dry on the bush – maybe using colour changes , or perhaps even sepal flipping as a guide to when this is? Good luck – she’s tried putting them in glycerine as well, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. No butterflies here either over the last 2 days – but at least we did have loads – interestingly a friend who takes professional nature photos visited us on the 2 sunny days, and reckoned he hadn’t seen as many butterflies anywhere else this year – I’d like to think it’s because we’ve masses of insect friendly flowers planted in the garden, but your comment prompts me to check what distance butterflies can detect scents over – I’m sure I remember reading asparagus beetles will fly up to 17 miles, following a scent trail… Good luck with the flower drying,
      best wishes
      Julian

    • Julie at Peonies and Posies has given excellent instructions for drying hydrangea flowers, I don’t have the link but I’m sure a search of her blog will find it.

  3. I particularly enjoyed the pictures of the bumblebee nests, you are very fortunate to be able to see them. The closest I have come to seeing one was recently behind Glastonbury Tor when I detected a hole by an old drain cover and saw a red-tailed queen and a worker entering the hole and was buzzed by another worker.

    Are you aware of the hydrangea thefts in Northern France for marijuana-like smoking?

  4. A beautiful collection of Hydrangeas; I don’t grow them in the ground her in Italy as it is far too hot and dry for them but I’m beginning to find them useful in pots on the shady terrace.

    • Thanks Christina. We’ve often admired Hydrangeas in pots in France, and I’m sure some of those which have failed with us – in the sense that they don’t flower reliably, perhaps because of lack of light/frosts, may well perform better in your (probably) much brighter conditions. But they do generally seem to thrive in the wet West,
      best wishes
      Julian

      • Almost everyone grows hydrangeas here because they flower for so long but they are really most unsuitable because they need so much water. I would grow them in some shade here which is often brighter than an English or Welsh full sun!

      • Thanks Christina – responding in real time we, at last, have a fabulous sunrise here, with golden light colouring mists in the valley – the first sunrise for ages, and temps even forecast to hit the mid 20’s for the first time in ages – not really ideal for me heading off today for a manual scything course! Dehydration beware – for scythers not Hydrangeas,
        best wishes
        Julian

  5. Enjoyed your post. I too don’t know why the sepals flip downwards, and hope someone will explain it in the comments 🙂 I admired the wasp, and the butterflies. Beautiful photography and a great read.

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