I feel very fortunate that we’re always kept busy here, even if much of what we do is repetitive, manual and mundane. It’s good to have elements of effort which are routine, even if conditions make them more challenging, so to get the mundane out of the way first, for the month since I last wrote anything, work has mainly focused around yet more hay making. 3 sessions, slotted into the briefest of dry weather windows, and all completed under what seems to be the standard two day, multiple manual turning regime we find necessary to move from the often sodden grass when cut, to dry enough hay to safely bring into the shed, before the next wave of rain arrives. Thank goodness the two fields we now tackle are for the most part producing much lighter crops than when we started the conversion to wildflower meadows 7 years ago – we simply couldn’t dry rank lush growth in this time frame with the conditions we’ve had for much of June, July and August this year.
In addition emergency track restoration was needed after all our track’s rain diverting chevrons were filled in by one of the tropical type deluges which hit a few days ago. This has never happened before and is a reminder of how just one extreme rainfall event can strip off surface layers of fine gravel when enough rainfall runs downhill at speed, in a very short time frame.
In addition on this particular day the light became so dark that our PV system actually shut down around midday, thinking it was already dusk…But it hasn’t all been gloom, we’ve had some dramatic sky and cloud scenes… Yet another, probably local “wild” or “native” honey bee swarm has taken up residence, and I’ve continued to try to take short video clips from each of the 6 hives now occupied, to build up a good record of what constitutes normal frequency and numbers of worker bee flight from the different colonies, pollen intake and any other interesting behaviour. Since the hives are all distanced around the property, this makes for a fun regular walk each day, which has developed into a sort of mundane activity. Yet it’s meant that I’ve been able to see (on screen) aspects of behaviour like ventilation fanning and grizzly, bouncer guard bee activity at the hive’s entrance which aren’t always obvious to the naked eye. More later.
And not really mundane, more reflective of the strangeness of 2020, has been the planning needed for a socially distanced visit from our younger son’s family of 7 which meant mustering all of our squirreled away tents some of which hadn’t seen the light of day in over 20 years, and trying to remember how to erect them.
We’d decided that although a real part of the genuine experience of camping is struggling to erect the kit, managing to complete this whilst maintaining social distancing was going to be impossible, so we’d have to do it for them at both ends of their visit. Having to complete this task as dusk approached after one of our tiring hay making sessions reminded us why, all those years ago, we’d decided to abandon camping in favour of cottage based holidays. Still the tents all fitted in nicely on the croquet lawn, and Fiona and I didn’t even have cross words throughout the process, in spite of pondering, with a few false starts, just which pole went where.
In the end the visit was very successful, save a little bit of rain, and a few flies in the tents overnight. The grandchildren were even interested in all the honeybee activity and were suitably respectful with avoiding the bees’ hives, and indeed the need to socially distance from Granny and Grumpy. Outside activities and a mass pizza evening with our brilliant little UUNI, (Finnish for oven) or as it’s now called OONI pizza oven run on wood pellets, worked really well, now that we’ve tweaked our cooking technique. I’ve never knocked out 9 pizzas from it in a row before, all made with slow risen organic dough, knocked into shape and topped to order, but it’s actually a very social and fun way to have a meal in the open air. For those who don’t know about this Scotland based company set up by a Finnish immigrant in 2012, it’s gone from strength to strength, and is now so successful as the world’s number 1 portable pizza oven company that when we last looked, you had to pre-order one of their diverse range of ovens and wait over 2 months for it to arrive. A shining beacon in the collapsing UK economy, (even if the ovens are currently made in China!) that’s recently been confirmed as one of the most severely affected globally by the Covid pandemic, with a decline in GDP of over 20% in the April to June quarter.
Finally, we’ve been really pleased to welcome 5 brave couples who’ve come and visited us to look around the garden under the NGS scheme, and so ended up with a very private and personal view of the garden over the last month. Not all have enjoyed the best of weather and views, but it’s been lovely to meet and greet them, and it’s kept us on our toes and meant that the garden’s been pretty ship shape most of the time. We hope we’ll continue to see some more garden visitors between now and the end of October, when we close our opening season for this year.
Now for some thrills …
In spite of the decidedly mixed weather, there was a thrill in finding for the second year running, a Purple Hairstreak butterfly at the base of the barn wall beneath our largest oak. The adult butterflies spend most of their time in the upper canopy of the oak feeding on aphid honeydew, so are difficult to spot. They’ve probably been here for years, and I’ve just been lucky finding them of late.
After the tropical weather, with its oppressive heat, humidity and massive thunder and lightning storms during the second week of August, I found 2 dead pygmy shrews lying about 60 metres apart in our upper hay meadow. A new species for me to discover here, though they’ve probably again been around for a long time.
… as well as a freshly decapitated mole on the lower hay meadow, the same morning. I’ve never seen this before and so wonder if in some way such extreme weather affected their behaviour, which made them more vulnerable to predation, or some other cause of mortality? Who knows? The insectivorous pygmy shrew is unpalatable apparently, so will often be killed by a predator and then abandoned.
On the subject of unpalatability, after quoting a reference to the natural astringency of the milky latex sap of Opium poppies in my previous post, I thought I’d do a tiny tip-of- the-tongue test on a developing seed pod one evening… I should have known better – I’d tasted the nectar of Nectaroscordum siculum, (Sicilian Honey Garlic) flowers a few years back in similar tongue tip only fashion to see how garlicky they were, only to be left with a lingering garlic flavour for most of the day. I can indeed confirm that from the briefest and tiniest tongue tip taste, the poppy sap is unbelievably bitter and unpleasant. At least after spitting out many times, the taste dissipated quickly.
However… coincidence or not, the following morning after waking and going downstairs into the dim kitchen I suffered shimmering light effects in one eye, which took quite a few minutes to settle. Something I used to suffer occasionally several years ago, and which made me almost completely give up alcohol. Suffice to say I shan’t be sampling the poppies again, and will leave the delights of their fabulous fleeting flowers to the bees, which do indeed adore them.
There have been a few more sightings of what I assume are second generation Common Blue butterflies in the garden and around the upper hay meadow, and although no photos of it, two more sightings of a kingfisher on our stream this past month to add to those seen last year.
The annual Welsh Fifteen butterfly moment this year arrived on August 8th, when we had over 15 nectaring on the Buddleia bushes around the house but it’s so far been a challenging summer for many butterflies.
I’ve been thinking a bit more about blue as a colour after reading a recent blog post by Scottish beekeeper, Ann Chilcott, in her Bee Listener blog, in which she discusses how bees are thought to perceive colour and mentions in this regard the work of Adrian Horridge. He’s a 93 year old Professor at Australia’s National University in Canberra, who has spent much of his career studying vision in insects and particularly colour perception in honey bees. Click here for a fascinating radio interview with him, and here for a link to a book he has only just written and had published (at 93 !) on how the honeybee perceives colour and vision more generally, as well as the history of research into this topic.
He also explains how discovering the principles of the insect compound eye’s light capture processes paved the way for the critical use of fibre optic glass cables in allowing the hardware necessary for the world wide web to really take off in the 1970’s.
The interview begins with the startling response to the lead in question about the well known fact (amongst beekeepers anyway) that if you move a beehive more than just 3 feet from its original position, the bees can’t find it.
They’ll ignore where the hive now is, very nearby, and instead fly back to its original position. Horridge, a Fellow of the Royal Sociey, who qualified many years ago with a degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge, dramatically explains that this is because the bees “don’t ever “see” the hive at all ! ”
He goes on to discuss how easy he’s found it to train bees using the colour blue, but only blue, and rewarding them at simple sucrose feeding stations, since blue is the only colour that they actually “see”.
It’s been known for a long time that bees can actually detect light with 3 distinct photoreceptor types which respond to 3 different frequencies of light, the short wavelength receptor peaks in the UV (344 nm); the next receptor peaks in the human blue wavelength range (436 nm); and the final receptor is maximally sensitive in the human green wavelength range (544 nm).
However apart from the blue colour, the other receptors only seem to be used by the bees to detect lines of contrast, or edges between other colours or areas of contrast in a very different view of the world to our own. Bees thus see any mix of other colours as more or less blue than the amount of blue light actually present in the background vegetation or ground colour. They are also capable of adapting their vision tenfold in response to changes in light intensity within less than a second. And bees are also photo tactic, ( meaning naturally tending to move towards, or away from, light) although how this manifests itself can change in the lifetime of an individual bee. Thus queen bees, nurse and other hive bees are light averse in the hive, quickly moving away from light and towards dark areas, whereas when older worker bees leave the hive to become foragers they are attracted by lighter areas, though obviously still have to retain the ability to see in the dark of the hive on their return to it from foraging trips.
It also turns out that what we perceive as the colour white is actually perceived by bees as being a very strong blue colour, (this whole subject is fraught with conceptual challenges for me!) and so by a pure fluke, my decision to paint simple different patterns with white paint onto the dark cork exterior of most of my bee “boxes”, may mean I’ve actually created something which the bees might be able to “see”, and recognise easily from a distance. I’d figured that to reduce the chance of bees returning to the wrong hive, which creates the potential for all sorts of aggression and disease or parasite transmission, having a clear visual distinction between boxes might be helpful. However I should have spent more time researching this subject earlier on, since many and various experiments into honey bee recognition of coloured patterns and shapes was explored over a century ago, and pretty much ever since!
If I moved these pattern marked hives further from their existing position by more than 3 feet, would the bees locate them more easily? Maybe something for a small scale practical experiment for me in due course, if they survive the winter.
However having finally found what I think is a somewhat garbled format version of the complete Horrabridge book on line, click here, a quick scan read left me admitting I’m completely out of my depth. A hundred year’s worth of studies of honeybees’ visual perception by numerous researchers, all documented in detail by Horridge, seems to result in proposals for how bees really see the world which I simply fail to understand, let alone be able to communicate to any reader of this blog.
I remain in awe of the roll call of researchers who’ve spent years, even lifetimes, investigating these topics, but as yet can’t seem to communicate them in a simpler way to a layman like me. Have a quick glance at this contemporary paper to see how detailed and impenetrable much of the painstaking research still is. Published in 2018 under the title “Opsin expression patterns coincide with photoreceptor development during pupal development in the honey bee, Apis mellifera” it outlines the sort of experiments used to assess honeybee vision in the lab, though these researchers use the aversion form of training by giving bees electric shocks, rather than the reward form of training with sugar solutions favoured by Horridge.
I’m not even attempting to be distracted by how our local ant species’ visual system works, but after reading about bees’ vision being influenced by light in the UV range, which our eyes can’t detect, and blue (and indeed white perceived as strong blue!) possibly ants may perceive the world in a similar way to bees.
This could certainly help to explain what we’ve noticed over many years. On ant swarming days, and this year we’ve had vastly more of these events than ever before, the flying ants nearly always settle on, or very near to white surfaces, and typically mainly the white washed, East facing wall of our main barn, in late afternoon. I’ve struggled to understand why this should be, and this year took surface temperature readings from this wall and compared it to North, West and South facing white walls which rarely get any ants settling. But found no major temperature differences. Perhaps being shaded from the late afternoon sun in the West, this particular East facing wall would be exposed to different levels of UV light at this time of day?
In any event the ants also always settle on us if we’re wearing one of our many blue or white tee shirts, as they do on the white sides of the builder’s bags which we use for dragging hay off the meadows, and indeed our sun hats.
Having failed miserably to capture anything really special photographically from last Tuesday night, I’m now left with the challenging task of having to put an amazing and possibly once in a lifetime experience into words.
After a celebratory and bubbly supplemented (very rare for me as mentioned above) meal and evening which left me dripping, and having already let the bath water out, I decided to nip outside to try to cool off and to see if I could see any of the annual Perseid meteor shower before bed time – they always reach their peak display around August 11th. One of the delights of living here is that I could contemplate walking out of our front door at 11 pm, uninhibited and completely starkers – I should add that this was a first for me and possible only because of the uniquely tropical weather – to see if the clouds had dissipated on this balmiest of nights.
I immediately noticed the bright but oddly flashing lights from behind the trees on the skyline of the farm opposite us across the valley. The night was completely quiet, warm and still, with no wind. You could have heard a pin drop, or as I sometimes say more appropriately here, a leaf being munched by a slug. The stars were amazing, I immediately saw a meteor trail and then I realised what I was seeing towards the horizon were numerous distant lightning flashes. But very few streaks, more cloud illuminations, every second or so, and sometimes of a distinctly orange hue.
So after quickly summoning Fiona from upstairs to come and have a look, we both climbed the hill, scantily clad, above the house in moonless but all enveloping myriad starlit illumination to watch the near continual lightning strikes which lasted well over half an hour, over about 60 degrees of the Eastern skyline – above the distant Cambrian mountains, we assumed. But weirdly so far away there wasn’t a hint of sound, or maybe there just wasn’t any sound being generated at the storm’s epicentre ? Others later seemed to report this strange thunderless feature of the awesome storm that night.
Save for a single tawny Owl which started kerwicking appreciation in the nearby oak, the scene stayed wondrously still and silent. A single vehicle passing on the road across the valley in all that time was the only sound to disturb the peace and many of the flashes (interestingly the only ones which featured at all on my camera), appeared orange, like explosions, not typical white streaking forks. The only thing it reminded me of was wartime scenes of carpet incendiary bombing explosions.
I can’t recall ever seeing anything like it.
We both saw quite a few Perseids, as a bonus, arrowing swiftly between the stars in the same North Easterly segment of sky. In all this time we stood nearly naked and rooted to the same spot of dewy grass, still so warm it was completely comfortable, with not a single midge to bother us. This was indeed another tropical night in this odd weather run here in upland West Wales.
So far this month, according to The Met Office, there have been five such tropical nights somewhere in the UK (defined as having a minimum temperatures remaining above 20 degrees C all night) on the 8th, 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th, and there was also one on June 25th. In the 30 years between 1961 and 1990 there were just 44 such nights, between 2008 and 2017 there were 12, five in 2018 and four in 2019. By morning the temperature at 9.00 am was already 25.5 degrees C – novel territory for us here.
What was also a strange coincidence was that this extraordinary “heat” lightning display occurred just a few days after the premiere airing of a short film commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, to commemorate the 75 th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th 1945. Created by Es Devlin and Machiko Weston ” I Saw The World End”. is well worth watching as a very moving ten minute production (click on the title) and reading about how it came to be made, click here.
And also that the lightning storm came just a week after the appalling ammonium nitrate fuelled explosion and subsequent mushroom cloud which devastated Beirut.
It seemed from here as though the Gods, or nature, or should it just be Gaia, were demonstrating that lest mankind thought we were the real experts when it came to explosions and destructive mayhem, they, or she, were pretty good at it too.
As a final thought on very sophisticated evolved design, whether intelligence led or not, the relatively tiny honey bee eye can apparently absorb, process and register as little as a single unit of light energy, a photon, thanks to the design of the light capturing funnel system of its multifaceted compound insect eye and its photoreceptor rods (rhabdoms and rhabdomeres) containing light sensitive proteins and pigments (opsins and chromophores).
Our own eyes could even very clearly take in the multiple short duration flashes amongst very distant clouds on a dark night, with our different class of light detecting retinal photoreceptors, and our brains created from these light induced electrical impulses a phenomenal visual impression of the drama of this distant storm.
Yet both my cameras with sophisticated digital sensors failed miserably, even using their special night time exposure settings, to capture anything with their digital electronic technology but for a blurred orange smudge.
The only coverage I’ve found so far suggests there were around 50,000 lightning strikes across the UK on Tuesday. Click here for some truly amazing images taken by clearly far more competent photographers than me, to confirm that I wasn’t imagining what I’ve just tried to put into words.
Or indeed lest you think that I’d been sampling the poppy sap again…
(From Wales On Line under the headline “The baffling heat lightning storms that could be seen 100 miles away despite no rain or thunder”.)
I’ll finish this monthly round up with some pictures from around the garden and 2 short video clips of one of the final significant moments of observed honeybee activity this season (probably). In a previous post, I’d shown the huge waves of male drone bees returning to the butter churn hive after trips made to the mating aerial drone congregation areas in June. The swarm season now having largely ended, hopefully, and with food supplies available to workers beginning to decline, there comes a time when the colony determines that it’s time to get rid of the vast majority of these otherwise non productive male bees, which require food, yet contribute none to the colony, since they don’t collect nectar or pollen.
I’d read that this process can begin quite suddenly so was really pleased to be able to capture this moment on the morning of August 11th, the same day as the storm, when the much smaller female worker bees begin to grapple, drag and force the drones from the hive entrance. The poor drones, in spite of their larger physical size, can’t seem to resist the onslaught. I’m not sure whether the workers are using their jaws to chivy the drones as well.
Though the workers obviously possess a single use sting, they won’t want to use this, since it would result in their own death, but standing beside the hive allowed me to watch a continuous stream of bees involved in this battle of the sexes in which there was only going to ever be one eventual winner. The set up of my hive with a sloping metal sheet beneath the hive entrance allows the determination of the harrying worker bees to be clearly seen.
The evicted drones will quickly starve to death, or suffer from hypothermia outside the warmth of the hive, and many will be approaching the end of their short life anyway. Yet another facet of the life cycle of the honeybee finely honed to optimise survival of the colony and species, over the individual.