I guess we’ve all played kick the can at some point, a great multi generational game though possibly needing modification in these days of social distancing – actual physical contact probably not being a good idea. But I’m now programming myself to remember a new usage for the phrase here, at least for me.
Over the years I’ve occasionally referenced my habit of recycling urine and the number of valuable uses it has around the garden and land – compost heap and leaf mould accelerator, rabbit, fox and badger deterrent being the most common. Frankly I rarely seem to be able to generate enough of it, and it has to be of male origin for deterrent purposes. Lest readers are appalled by this, there’s an interesting read by Mohi Kumar, entitled “From Gunpowder to Teeth Whitener: The Science Behind Historic Uses of Urine”, and beginning with the line – “There’s a saying that one man’s waste is another man’s treasure”. It illustrates that from both a historic and now contemporary perspective, urine is something of a wonder product – far too valuable to just flush down the loo.
However it does need collecting in a simple hygienic way, and for many years a watering can has seemed to me to be the best solution. Easy to pick up and use, and great for subsequently dispensing where it’s needed, though over time significant crystalline deposits akin to limescale in a kettle seem to accumulate. Regular local visitors know about this (one of many?) quirky habits of mine, and avoid this paticular can located conveniently near the back door, though it’s usually tucked away when we have visitors.
I’ve never had any problems with this system, although by the time it comes to be emptied, as happens with urine over time, decomposition of the urea it contains into very alkaline ammonia has well and truly begun, and if emptied en masse on to the compost heap, it does leave a very strong ammoniacal, rather than urine, type pong for 24 hours or so.
Perhaps because of the recent change in the weather, reverting to very grey damp gloomy conditions for days on end, or perhaps because we have more honeybees about the garden this summer (more later), I now have a significant safety issue with using this pee collection system.
Most days now, there will be one or two honeybees lurking inside the watering can. The first time I encountered this, as you can imagine, was a bit of a shock, since the bee exited the fairly narrow opening just as the collection process began. Suffice to say a sting anywhere, but certainly there is best avoided, so I now have to remind myself that before picking the watering can up and performing, I give it a gentle kick. This is usually all that’s needed to startle the bee(s) which suitably, but gently alarmed, speedily buzzes out and off. On occasion I’ve even had to rescue a bee, which unrelated to my kicking, has already slipped and fallen into the toxic brew, gently giving it the woody end of an ash seedling as a lifeline escape route.
The question which occurred to me though is why are the bees attracted to it, and what are they harvesting from the contents? Trawling on line, suggestions of diabetes kept cropping up on bee forums, but I’m pretty certain that isn’t an issue. However I do eat some of our home harvested honey most days. Might some olfactory cue from the honey be surviving passage through the kidneys and attracting the bees? It’s certainly well known that bee’s sense of “smell” is about 100 times more acute than than ours. Or perhaps they’re after some of the other minerals which will be concentrated in urine? In a paper titled “Salt preferences for honey bee foragers” there’s interesting consideration and assessment of bee mineral requirements for healthy larval development, and discernible forager worker bee preferences for sodium from different water sources.
I’d been pondering this when I sat down outside in heavy mizzle at the terrace table to write some plant labels, after potting on some of the many tiny Sorbus seedlings I now have, following our gardening club seed collecting trip to Hergest Croft last autumn. In a thoroughly miserable, wet, grey scene I was amazed to hear persistent loud buzzing. I’m now getting much better at recognising the pitch and nuances of different insect buzzes, and am also now quite used to seeing the local honeybees foraging whatever the wind strength, temperature, or rainfall. They’re a very tough bunch.
Looking around to see what flower the bees were exploring in such soggy conditions, it took me a while to actually spot the bees, which were systematically exploring the terminal tips of the Persicaria vaccinifolia where it was extending over the terrace gravel. This particular plant’s pink spires of tiny flowers are a magnet for honey bees later in the year, when the whole terrace buzzes with animated bee noise. But the flowers are only just beginning to open, and the bees were ignoring these. It then occurred to me that they might be after the salt, which I apply to all areas of hard paving and yard, mixed with washing machine detergent, to suppress weeds. I’d applied my mix, using a different watering can, to this area about 36 hours earlier, but we’ve had over 20 mm of rain since then and what’s more the bees were completely ignoring the gravel itself, or even other plants around the perimeter.
The tips of the plant where it’s spreading across the gravel are consciously also wetted by me with the hot salt/detergent mix as a means of defining margins to the path. As a result within 36 hours some of these tips were starting to show signs of wilting and damage. What if in the process the plant cell walls become leaky and start to ooze plant fluids? Which in turn have a similar sort of attractive, or nutritious content as the Persicaria flowers? Might the bees now be able to detect and harvest this “sap” or tissue fluid from the damaged shoots?
I guess I’ll never know, but it prompted me to read up and discover that bees not only have a highly developed and sensitive sense of smell (through huge numbers of olfactory receptors in their antennae), but also have separate receptors for taste, although these are found not only in their mouths, but also in their antennae and in their feet! Interestingly their sense of taste isn’t so acute – they can’t apparently specifically detect and avoid bitter substances directly, even if the presence of a bitter material in a mix with a sugary material like sucrose will slightly modify their enthusiasm for it.
Another question therefore is do the bees “smell” these leaky plant tips first from flying nearby, or land on them and “taste” them through their feet? I’m guessing that they must.
Once one starts exploring the research conducted to explore the physiology and biochemistry of honeybee taste, you discover some probably necessary, but frankly unpleasant sounding lab techniques. Including chilling individual bees down so much they become immobile; securing the chilled bees in special metal tube braces, with taped extended legs so that they can then be subjected to various chemical (taste) stimuli being applied to their antennae; or feet; or electrical shocks being applied to them; or even having their antennae cut off to confirm that it’s just their feet that are detecting the taste ( since they can taste through their antennae receptors as well)! Bees that fall out of the range of compliance parameters are “eliminated” or “discarded” from the experiment and data sets.
Science has often progressed through such experimentation, but elements of this work read like something from a CIA torture manual. Much of the assessment relies on the fact that even when confined and restricted in such a way, the poor bee will reflexly extend its tongue (proboscis – Proboscis Extension Reflex) when a “favourable” taste is applied. See here and here for examples of some of this quite recent work, and in the image below the red arrow indicates a drop of sucrose applied to the tarsus (foot) and the proboscis being extended. ( From “ The tarsal taste of honey bees: behavioral and electrophysiological analyses” – Maria Gabriela de Brito Sanchez, Esther Lorenzo, Songkun Su, Fanglin Liu, Yi Zhan and Martin Giurfa.)
Another recent example of honeybee smell or taste preference witnessed here in the garden, is for the flowers of the Opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. This particular gorgeous form was given to us years back as unnamed seed by a gardening friend, though I see that it, or one very similar, is currently available as P. somniferum “Black Single”, from Sarah Raven – frankly an uninspiring name for such a stunning flower.
Years ago I attended a multidisciplinary symposium at London’s Royal Society of Medicine in Wimpole Street, London on current developments in analgesia. And was somewhat surprised to hear from the medics then at the cutting edge of human pain relief research, that no new drugs had really improved on the analgesic properties of morphine. Which is, of course, derived from latex harvested from the seed capsule of the Opium Poppy, and has been in use for centuries. Sitting in a large audience I was too timid to put up my hand to ask a question which intrigued me. What did the speaker think that the opium alkaloids were doing in the plant? Just waiting to be harvested and used for mankind’s benefit? Or maybe more likely as a fix for pollinating insects? Does poppy pollen contain traces of these alkaloids and if so, what effect, if any, does it have on the behaviour of the collecting bees? As a possible explanation for some of these questions I found this:
“Consider the role of plant opiates. All plant alkaloids (including opiates) are potent astringents, even toxins to many vertebrates. Such compounds were originally synthesized as protection from potential predators – not as medicinal or recreational drugs for human beings. The fact that most poppy opiates infuse the walls of the developing seed capsule indicates to me that their primary goal is to protect the huge load of seeds that are responsible for a future generation. Why lace pollen? After all, pollen must remain alluring – indeed, safe – for pollinators.”
Interesting insights, I thought, though difficult to prove.
This is from a great article here by Gary Ross, (a retired American professor of biology) “TREAT YOUR BEES TO A BANQUET OF POPPIES” on the merits of poppies, particularly P. somniferum, as a pollen source for honey and other bees. In this piece I also learned that all poppies lack nectaries, so the bees are only visiting the flowers to collect the pollen. I’ll certainly aim to sow more of these stunning flowers next year, having had just two plants randomly pop up in 2020 after an absence of several years. I haven’t noticed Californian poppies appealing to bees at all here, though maybe we don’t grow enough of them to feature on our bees’ preferred flowers. Our native Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica, is certainly popular, particularly earlier in spring, though a second flush now still appeals.
Finally I must mention the flowers of Eryngium alpinum which seem to be a honeybee magnet, even in damp and dreary weather – the poppy really needs sunshine to open its flowers. This alpine form of the sea holly has sown itself into the gravel of the yard, having jumped across the track from the spiral washing line bed. Here it flourishes beneath the shadow of a large oak and along the drip line from our barn roof. Not perfect conditions for it, if you read about its apparent preference for full sun and limited rain! Along with a self sown Erodium manescavii growing in amongst the Eryngium, they’ve become another example of a really appealing self sown combination which I’m now trying to replicate along the whole of the base of this barn, to add colour and an insect larder to an otherwise redundant, marginal spot. But it’ll take a year or two to achieve, since sowing seed or transplanting young plants into such inhospitable terrain is a little challenging.
In the many years of writing this blog, my general approach is to try to combine words and still images of the same theme. Sometimes still images just don’t work, and video clips paint a better picture. Occasionally special moments are unique or so rare that a camera isn’t to hand or can’t capture that unexpected fleeting moment. Words alone, maybe even poetry, are then my poor attempts to communicate such episodes, incidents, or maybe even just thoughts.
In the 25 years or so of owning Gelli Uchaf, swallows have been constant co – residents with us over the summer months, but perhaps on only half a dozen or so moments have I witnessed them playing feather tag, where usually just a pair, but sometimes more, will chase around the buildings and above the garden with the lead bird carrying a feather in its beak. Then losing it, or letting go deliberately (?), the race is on, given the speed they’re flying at, to see which can grab the lost feather first and take up the challenge. Usually a camera isn’t to hand but this time I was close enough to the back door as they whizzed along behind the house, so grabbed the camera, and they were still playing out over the apple trees and then back around the yard. The beauty of a bridge camera is having the ability to quickly switch to zoom, multiple exposure, tracking focus, low aperture (hence shorter exposure time) and swing the camera up, as they swept above me, before diving in through the barn door.
Game over.So this is it readers! My only to date photo of swallow feather tag, I think, and you’ll have to look really closely to spy the feather in the lead, upper bird’s beak, but it is there. Honestly!
However, I’m really grateful to Andrea Gabriel, an American artist who’s captured this special moment perfectly in one of her beautiful paintings, and very generously given permission for me to reproduce “Barn Swallow Feather Game” above. Which communicates so much better than my image and 3 paragraphs before it, the evident delights and flying skills of swallow tag.
Thanks very much Andrea! Do click here for more of Andrea’s wonderful work, which is also available to purchase on line.
I should record that in spite of the poor weather, (80 KW hours of PV generation in the long daylight hours of July shows just how little we’ve seen of the sun recently), the 3 weeks or so since my last post has seen two more honey bee swarms take up home in the vacant insulated “hives” or simple boxes which I’d placed around the property. Allowing for the earliest swarm which moved in and for some reason, probably the cold and wet conditions, succumbed after just a few days, this means 4 out of 5 boxes have been selected as suitable homes, in their first year. (The remaining sixth hive was filled with a collected swarm from Tony’s apiary). This was frankly more than I could have hoped for, and so the one hive which was also scouted out several times but not chosen by a swarm has now been dismantled.
A significant issue it’s really difficult to find good advice on is just how many honeybee colonies can thrive within a given area. There are so many variables it’s understandably difficult to estimate. My main aim isn’t to produce vast amounts of honey – just sufficient for personal use – but rather to monitor how viable such colonies are in this wet upland environment when “managed” with almost no intervention. Much conventional bee keeping advice seems to confidently predict that I’m doomed to failure – the bees will all die out within a year or two from untreated Varroa mites, or the viral diseases that the mites can transmit. Time will tell, but in the meantime I’ll have the immense pleasure of seeing them at work around the property, continuing to assess which flowers they prefer, and being able to record interesting aspects of their behaviour. As well as aiding excellent flower pollination and seed set.
For an in depth look at UK “feral” honeybees, their long term survival, and a glimpse at their genetics, there’s an excellent discussion which I discovered just before publishing this post by Catherine Thompson of the University of Leeds in her PhD thesis, titled “The health and status of the feral honeybee (Apis mellifera sp) and Apis mellifera mellifera population of the UK”.
I was fortunate to once again witness and film the second swarm taking up residence, even though this one moved in before 8.00 am, and I just missed the main body of bees of the third swarm, which moved in as I was having lunch. However I did manage to film the last several bees of the final swarm exhibiting a classic piece of honeybee behaviour.
Once the bees have arrived at their newly selected home, several bees will stand with their abdomen tips raised and expose special scent glands located beneath the abdominal scales, releasing what are known as Nasonov compounds into the air. This complex mix of chemicals is further distributed into the air by the bees fanning with their wings, so creating a scent stream from the new hive’s entrance which guides any workers in the airborne swarm to the new home’s entrance. Interestingly this complex mix of 7 different volatile chemicals produced by the Nasonov gland, includes geraniol, geranic acid, and 2 forms of citral. As a way of alerting bees to the presence of my empty “hives”, I’d smeared a mix of olive oil and beeswax, mixed with just a few drops of Geranium oil, and Citronella oil around the entrance. Another example of the links between plant and insect biochemistry. Click here for an in depth review of “Chemical communication in the honey bee society” by Bortolotti and Costa.
The final point I wanted to touch on is where these honeybees have come from. The original colony came from about 3 miles away, having in turn been sourced from a very local apiary a few years before that. So no imported queens in their recent breeding history. Yet this year our sheep shearer, who’s spent his whole life living a couple of miles away, told us that his grandfather who had kept bees at the same property, had in the middle of last century imported honey bee queens from Russia and the Caucuses. There’s historically been a huge debate about whether a sub species of honey bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, the so called Dark European honey bee still exists in its true form. Or whether its been hybridized into extinction. An interesting paper by Norman Carreck : ” Are honey bees native to the British Isles?” discusses the history of the honey bee in the UK, explaining that as a species it was probably present over 4,000 years ago, and certainly way before the Romans had begun to manage colonies in a semi domestic way for honey production. In recent times it’s become common for queen bees of other Southern European sub species to be imported to cross with local UK bees to “improve” the honey production efficiency of colonies.
But generally speaking in more out of the way parts of the UK this probably hasn’t taken place to the same extent – my reference to what were presumably tougher Russian/Caucasian origin bees may have been an attempt to add more hardiness. The arrival of the parasitic mite Varroa destructor in the UK in April 1992 from its origins in Asia certainly caused many colonies to fail, and has been a much discussed curse for modern beekeepers.. However there’s evidence from around the world that left to their own devices “wild” honeybee colonies can evolve strategies for successfully mitigating mite infestation within a decade or so. There’s a recent in depth review of a long term experiment in Sweden, which demonstrates that the now mite adapted bees in the isolated island of Gotland also now seem to have lower incidence of several varroa associated viral conditions. (Temporal changes in the viromes of Swedish Varroa-resistant and Varroa-susceptible honeybee populations).
I’m inclined to think that several if not all of the swarms that moved in to the hives this summer may well have come if not from feral local colonies, then certainly from colonies where genes from feral colony drones will have had a significant effect on the genetic make up of the bees in the swarm.
With my gardener’s hat on, I’m very much in favour of developing a population of any plant or animal that’s adapted to one’s own particular climatic and other environmental conditions. I guess only time will tell just how hardy these particular bees really are in the long term, though I do think that our on site bees have a huge advantage in access to such a very varied, diverse, uncontaminated and nearly year round availability of forage options. Both from the unspoiled, and in places “neglected”, local environment as well as our garden and meadow plants. It always surprises me that discussion of honey bee diet, or diet diversity and its importance to bee health is given such minimal attention in most honeybee literature that I’ve read.
Our neighbour’s unimproved wet meadow above and below are full of Valerian, Willow herb, Meadow Thistle and Meadowsweet flowers, as we move into July, and the latter is certainly a firm honeybee favourite. Revisiting the bee-plant biochemistry theme, might honeybees benefit from the effects of the salicylic acid, or salicin, it contains, or might Meadowsweet honey contain traces? The drug giant Bayer marketed their new wonder drug derived from an acetyl modification of Meadowsweet’s salicin in 1897, as “a- spirin”. Meadowsweet was then called Spirea ulmaria, since changed to Filipendula ulmaria.
Just to show it’s not all been bee related thought of late, the Five-spot Burnet, Zygaena trifolii, moths have seemed to have enjoyed a really successful year, with more in both upper and lower flower meadows than I can remember for a long time…Work’s continued in the damp conditions with sowing more seeds using an edging spade, into the already hay harvested sections of the upper meadow. I’m concentrating on the more special hand collected seed – so far this year pignut and snakeshead fritillary, in an attempt to get more universal coverage.
I don’t envisage continuing this for more than a couple of years, since it’s frankly tedious and tough on the knees and back, but by then I should have achieved my aim, and can allow natural seed fall to continue the process. It would be much simpler to just hand scatter the seed as it would fall during hay making, but it’s likely to give better germination rates since another trend this year is the increase in evidence of small mammals in these fields. Obvious vertical drop tunnel holes in the sward, a couple of carcases found after the hay’s been cut, and at least five voles so far seen scurrying away in front of the power scythe as I slowly move across the field. I’ve not seen any voles in the previous 7 years of cutting, and perhaps yet another example of how the meadows are becoming more diverse and thriving habitats.
In addition I’ve been planting out some small plug type plants of both Geranium sylvaticum and Cirsium heterophyllum, Melancholy Thistle, which I’ve grown on from a very few salvaged seeds from our trip to Northumberland last year. Both species are recorded in Wales and I think have potential garden merit here, if I can get numbers up and harvest seed from any plants that actually survive to flowering time here.
I began writing this with the prospect of two tough days ahead of us as we’re finally back on haymaking – with the usual scenario of weather forecasts changing from three dry days, to just two dry days immediately after I’d cut quite a lot more hay, with our usual visit from our Red Kite. Typical fare for West Wales haymaking, I’m afraid. Finally completed in 48 hours to clear the hay by 8 pm. 1 cut, 4 mechanical turns, 1 mechanical windrowing, 2 hand windrow turnings, and then this… to fill 24 big bags.
We collapsed into bed later. How much easier to do it the usual way round here in a single day, then wrap the barely wilted grass in plastic…
But slow haymaking has its compensations…The weather forecasts now look a little more benign than over the last month or so, and since Wales is at last emerging from lock down, I can point readers to our finalised new arrangements for visiting the garden, which are all laid out in detail on the Visiting the Garden web page. All garden visits will now need to be individually made by arrangement with us, preferably by email. And we’re potentially open from now on until the end of October, so hope to welcome a few visitors to Gelli Uchaf’s garden and meadows in due course for the rest of 2020.
Readers might be interested to check out another free and apparently highly regarded weather app, Ventusky, which we’re still assessing for local accuracy, but it already looks promising, even if West Wales seems challenging for all weather forecasting. Ventusky has several real advantages over our previous sources of weather forecasts with attractive visually colour coded maps, clarity, an ability to easily switch between various weather parameters, advance forwards and backwards in time, and best of all to be able focus the display on any particular location, like Rhydcymerau, from around the world. Worth looking at to assess the peculiar vagaries of our micro climate before planning a visit!
As an addendum purely for historical interest for me, here’s the latest data on the Covid 19 pandemic from WHO, to compare with my notes under the post “Overwhelmed?” which I published on January 31 st this year :
“Life for a time could change very dramatically as we can already see is happening across China.
Figurative sense of “to bring to ruin” ?
Let’s hope this isn’t how the (new) roaring twenties begin.”
Current figures (31/01/2020) are 9826 cases, 213 deaths, 20 countries with confirmed cases – WHO Novel Coronavirus 2019-nCoV Situation Report – 11, click here.
Current Figures Situation report 174, July 12th 2020 :
Globally – 12 552 765 cases (230 370 new cases last 24 hours); 561 617 deaths (5 285 last 24 hours).
The twenties do indeed seem to be off to a roaring start, but perhaps not as many would have hoped for…