A late date change, suggested by our lovely amenable hosts, meant our planned short dash to Pembrokeshire for a 4 night recharge, was still possible, having been just the wrong side of the deadline for self-catering accommodation to re-open in late March.
We expected, with sunny skies forecast and with travel once more allowed into Wales after several months, the lovely coastal scenes would be busy. A few photos show this wasn’t the case – the quietest we can ever recall in fact, and a real treat was discovering that we could take an 11 mile, there and back, fabulous walk from the cottage door to the beach at Newport, without meeting anyone until the last half a mile beside the Nevern estuary, in spite of the evidently well worn path. What a stunning walk!
We’d planned to call in at the golf club for a takeaway meal having seen their promotional menu blackboard propped in the car park the day before. We’d tried to ring in the morning to see if we needed to order, but got no reply, so sensibly Fiona thought to pack emergency provisions. When we arrived at the club, to order, we were told they were only offering this 5 days a week – a shame this wasn’t written on the board too! So, after resting on a vacant holiday home wall to munch half a pork pie, a piece of fruit, and a chunky Kit Kat – isn’t that a great thing to have tucked away in a rucksack – we returned through stunning celandine and wood anemone studded woods. A brilliant day, if our feet suffered a little.
Another delight was a trip to Tregwynt, with its wonderful mill cafe, the pebble beach at Abermawr, and the stunning spring displays of blackthorn and gorse blossom. Back home and the weather theme was maintained.
As now seems a regular feature of the weather here in recent years, we’ve flipped from a very wet winter, to worrying about water supplies. We thought last April was stunningly sunny, and dry, but was WARM! April 2021 is even sunnier, even drier, but exceptionally chilly for much of the month.
Across much of the UK, April rainfall so far is around just 10% of normal levels, and this has been combined with very cold conditions – a run of 12 consecutive night frosts here, down to minus 7 has been challenging for plants and other wildlife. It’s already shaping up to be the worst April for frosts for nearly 70 years.
The usual subjects for late frost damage, our Hydrangea aspera, have been hit hard, but in addition, this year’s early growth on some of the more exposed Saxifrage fortunei, above, has been damaged, and even the outer leaves of the greenhouse ‘Tomcot’ have been frost scorched, though the already swelling fruit seem fine. Even the mare’s tails, Hippuris vulgaris, have been frost affected in a beautiful way.
We’ve had only 19.2 mm of rain fall all month, the meadow grass is still barely growing, the soil is cracking deeply in areas of our lower meadows and thank goodness we still have significant stocks of hay left to feed to our sheep. The Met Office monthly summary captures just how unusual this April has been compared to long term averages.
The stream is still flowing, but we’re once more switching into early water conservation mode, and prioritising water for those plants in pots and anything recently planted, with at last a forecast end in sight for the static anti-cyclone which has been sitting over much of the UK, and diverting normal rain laden weather systems from reaching us. Monday should see a very welcome 20 mm of rain falling in just a few hours.
In the vegetable area, much sowing was delayed until 10 days ago, and I’m making full use of my homemade cold frames, enviromesh, and between row water bottles, both to aid warmth at night, as well as reducing water losses by covering maybe 30% of the soil with an impermeable barrier.
This has given really good germination of the first plants, though watering now is needed daily, using watering cans filled and allowed a few hours to warm in the sunshine, before application. Is this unusual April weather a one off, or a prelude to living with the impacts of “the cold blob”? Looking back, we’ve certainly had colder springs before, but this combination of cold, wind and drought is an exceptional challenge for plants to cope with.
Against all this, the benefits of the bright sunny weather and dry conditions have been immense, for these two winter light deprived souls. The winds are light, the birds are beginning to build their dawn chorus serenades to May’s peak, and at last this week our first pair of swallows (April 22nd), and two days later a cuckoo calling, really lifted the spirits. A single swallow at dawn’s first light on Monday April 19th was a fleeting prelude. Finally, a pair arrived to chatter away in the cloudless sky as we sat, wrapped in woolly tops, enjoying breakfast, again, outside on the magic terrace table on Saturday morning.
At this time of the year, and particularly in an April like this, the spring bulbs have been spectacular. Like the earlier snowdrops, the tulips and daffodils clearly posses the necessary levels of anti-freeze glycoproteins to stave off the effects of a night time plunge below freezing, which has happened multiple times. But the tulips’ large fragile flower petals seem particularly ill suited to recovery after frost created devastation.
You do need to get out there early to appreciate this. Just as the dawn chorus begins, around 6.15 am, and warm light reaches the petals, before increasing insolation from the rising sun melts those locked in micro-ice crystals and the petals begin to recover their poise. Definitely beanie, long johns and thick jumper over the nightshirt, conditions.
Over the three weeks of April, the tulips transform this area of the garden. It always amazes visitors to discover that they’re all only one cultivar, Tulipa fosteriana ‘Flaming Purissima’, and as they age the hints of pink and red gradually diffuse away to leave a scene of increasing subtlety, helped by the white flowers of Narcissus ‘Thalia’ and later, N. ‘Actaea’. However, the different angles of sunlight, and viewpoint also impact hugely on the visual effects.
Even the stalwart few bulbs which remain from previous years, later, shorter, and typically redder than last autumn’s plantings progress through this colour change, before finally the petals begin to fall and litter the green understory, leaving the blue tinged, infertile ovaries topped with crumpled, twisted yellow stigmas, erect.
As I reviewed all the photos I’ve been enticed to take over the last 3 weeks or so, it dawned on me that this may indeed be the best display we’ll ever see of these. They get topped up annually, and I must remember to order about 300 for next year – I ran out this year, so the display is a bit lacking in one area, but unless the climate reliably repeats this combination of sunshine, frosts and cool temperatures with minimal rain, it’s unlikely we’ll see such a gradual decline and subtle colour bleaching, whilst the white daffodils fill in the background. So no apologies for so many photos of them!
I’m also going to include a selection of favourite daffodil images from the last month, to highlight that the late season cultivars have also put on their best ever display. Will this year’s sunny, but cold weather, power the bulbs to create equally good displays next year? We’ll have to wait and see, but all the 23 KWH days this April recorded on our PV inverter represent cloudless, sunny days, such a rarity here.
Light, and shadows are again key, as are even a couple of days of change. Some more favourite cultivars here, for anyone interested, are N. ‘Merlin’, ‘Oryx’, and ‘Trelissick’.
Following on from my mole comments last month, the dry weather saw us trying to remove the molehills from 3 of our fields – the 2 hay meadows, and cae efail, a sloping field below the house which had quite a lot of mole hills this year.
2 long sessions, with William’s help and equipped with whitewash tubs, saw us remove all the molehill soil, and store it in builder’s bags. The field is just over an acre in size, with mole activity in perhaps 40 %.
It surprised me to find that we’d shifted around 5 tons of soil, by the time we’d finished. That’s some serious soil shifting by the field’s resident moles. I needed a good sit down after each session, and I’m sure the mix of largely stone free soil and subsoil mix, will be invaluable as a potting medium in years to come. For now, it’s providing a good raised area in the shade for keeping some plants in pots going with reduced watering.
In the top hay meadow, we tipped it all onto our bonfire site and I have a couple of ideas of things to plant on this, depending on whether we ever get any rain to aid seed germination. You can see that although the sheep were removed from this field in the first week of January, there’s precious little new grass growth yet. Starting with spades to scrape the molehills into the tubs, we soon discovered that it was actually easier and more efficient to use a mole type hand scrape to propel the soil into the tub. And if I hadn’t used this method, I probably wouldn’t have spotted the first mining bees.
These were 2 male Ashy mining bees, Andrena cineraria, found in adjacent, close molehills on April 9th. They’re really attractive and distinctive bees. There’s more information on their ecology here, but I haven’t found any reference to them using molehills. This is a species of solitary, not social, bee which is univoltine – so there is only one generation per year, with the males usually emerging first in March to April, mating with the females which will then create a burrow or mine, often several centimetres deep, into which eggs are laid and larvae develop in cells provisioned with pollen. The larvae develop, pupate and will then emerge the following spring.
The uncovered males were right at the base of the molehills, as I scraped the last layer of soil away. So whether they were using the warm and dry soil as a refuge, after emergence, or whether they’d emerged beneath the molehill, I’m unsure. I did see one disappear into a tunnel and waited for ages for it to reappear, and then gave up, so I’m guessing it’s the first option. In this case, molehills probably represent a much easier tunnelling location than the undisturbed meadow surface, particularly in a very dry spring, like 2021.
Including this rather snazzy nomad bee, Gooden’s Nomad bee, Nomada goodeniana, which, it turns out, is a parasite of the Ashy Mining bee, so will target the burrows of Ashy Mining bees, and lay its eggs inside, so that the emerged nomad larvae will consume the developing mining bee larva.
In addition, the increasing numbers of Dark-edged bee-flies, Bombylius major, which are now an ever present, loud buzzing insect presence, around the garden in April and May, are also on the lookout for such burrows, where the female will flick her own eggs, after coating them in soil debris to weigh them down, and so make it easier for them to be kicked into the mining bee’s tunnel.
Later, on April 26th, I found a female Ashy mining bee patrolling a flatter site in the gateway entrance to this same field, though it was tricky to get a good video of her fast moving flight.
Finally, both at home, and on our long walk at the coast, I’ve some images of what I think is another common mining bee in meadows, the Grey-patched mining bee, Andrena nitida. I did find a female beneath the soil at the base of a molehill, but without the camera to hand, but separately found the more highly coloured female at rest, along with the male, and then a mating pair, near Nevern, on a dandelion flower.
The other recent bee observation, relates to honeybee water collection.
About 3 weeks ago, I was again alerted to honeybees visiting my pee collecting watering can, something I first observed last summer. A gentle kick, before use, is now a necessary safety measure. But before the last 48 hour’s very light showers, my attention was grabbed by the stream of honeybees visiting the still running water in the churned up ditch, where earlier in the year I’d managed to get the tractor stuck. This ditch is about 100 yards below one of the closest hives, (beneath the large sycamore above), and judging by the numbers of golden banded bees visiting the water, most, if not all these bees have come from that hive.
Water collection by honeybees is a fascinating and critical part of a honeybee colony’s existence, which is explored in a typically excellent review video lecture by Tom Seeley below.
To briefly summarise his lecture, which is in itself the result of many years of observation and research, water isn’t stored within a honeybee hive, other than occasionally as a temporary crop/stomach-based storage by specialist water receiver bees. And only then occasionally, if the hive has experienced a collective thirst episode recently – no water is ever stored in cells in the way that nectar is. In most situations, a readily available supply of water is ubiquitous in the landscape, so there’s really no need for stores, unlike, say the patchy availability of both nectar and pollen through the year.
However, the recent dry spell here, would have made this a bit more of an issue for our bees. Water collection, as with many aspects of a honeybee colony, is delegated to a particular group of honeybees, which in this case, tend to be older (20 days plus). Their sole task is to source and collect water, and bring it back to the hive.
On entering the hive, typically laden with a distended crop full of water (around 50% of the bee’s bodyweight), they are greeted by younger (14-20day old) specialist water receiver bees. These seek out the water collectors just inside the hive, and using extended tongues, the water is transferred in a matter of less than 30 seconds or so. The water receiver then moves on, around the hive, distributing the water both to other bees within the hive that beg for some, as well as using it within cells with developing bee larvae to smear the cell lining as a means of cooling the cell, and larva, down. (Evaporating water requires so much energy, it’s the best system the bees have, alongside fanning to create drafts, as a means of regulating brood nest temperatures within the very narrow band which are required for healthy bee larval development).
Seeley explains that the 2 periods when the collective and individual thirst of a honeybee colony are at their greatest are either in the depths of winter, when severe weather has prevented any external flights by the bees, or secondly towards the end of April. More water is needed around now, to satisfy the increasing demands for creating the food being fed by nurse bees to the hugely increasing numbers of bee larvae now developing as the queen bee ramps up egg laying to increase the colony size for maximum work during the summer months.
Once the rain had fallen, I found large numbers of bees much closer to the hive, focused around our stone seat, beside the greenhouse, and barely 20 yards from the hive. I concluded that this was a favoured site, since firstly it was out of the chilling Easterly/Northerly winds that have been such a feature this April, and secondly it received early morning, body warming, sunshine.
Bearing in mind that these water collectors can be out at work as early as 8.00am, when the air temperature is still only 6 degrees C or lower, with wind chill; that they take on board 50% of their weight of close to zero degrees C water; and then have to fly back to the hive, keeping their flight muscles around 36 degrees C to work properly, and their ability to source water close by, becomes critical, or they’ll never make it back.
Water collectors are also remarkably faithful to a good site, once discovered, and can communicate this to other collectors with a waggle dance, in the same way that nectar foragers share information about good foraging opportunities.
It’s interesting that this critical role is allocated to ageing bees, since when not required to collect water, they just stand around idly within the hive, doing nothing. Only springing into action when the water receivers start to beg them for water. Such water collection activities can be risky, and I often find bees in the watering can, and elsewhere which have drowned. Additionally, any insect regularly returning to the same spot, and remaining fairly immobile for seconds at a time remains vulnerable to predation, which is I think what the male House sparrow, below, Passer domesticus, has worked out.
As a note for posterity, I’ve been intrigued by the latest incessant slew of media coverage of what our Prime Minister Boris Johnson may, or may not, have said in rash moments about imposing lockdowns last October; or indeed exactly who and how, his flat refurbishments were paid for; or indeed the ongoing spats with his ex-advisor Dominic Cummings. I’m unsure where this will all end, but it seems unedifying, to say the least. It’s no consolation to know that Boris’ hero, Sir Winston Churchill, was also seriously and serially in debt, and living beyond his means. Perhaps ’twas ever thus?
Of much more interest was my chance discovery (I only say chance, because I heard no radio coverage of this news item – do let me know if this was a major news story on TV), that on the very day that considerable coverage was given to the tragic death of a 59 year old solicitor, from blood clot complications from his first dose of the Oxford Astra Zeneca (OAZ) vaccine (BBC story- Covid: Blood clot victim’s sister urges people to get AstraZeneca vaccine), came some surprising news about the OAZ vaccine and who was behind its development.
“Sarah Gilbert, Adrian Hill and Oxford University to get windfalls when Covid vaccine firm Vaccitech goes public.” This piece in the Guardian was an eye opener for me.
Probably naively, having heard the BBC Radio Four profile of Professor Sarah Gilbert, by Mark Cole last July, I’d mused on how wonderful it was for Oxford University and its Jenner Institute to be ahead of the game on this research. “Mark Coles profiles the scientist leading the Oxford University vaccine team”. But hang on a minute, I don’t recall any mention of a private company involved in this. Did I miss that section?
Nope. I’ve just re-listened to the whole glowing endorsement of a clearly very bright and very hardworking research scientist. There’s no reference to privately owned Vaccitech. A strangely curious omission you might think, or one which didn’t fit with the portrayed narrative of academic scientific research, driven by curiosity alone. But heck, surely there might be just a smidgin of conflict of interest, or irony, if you stand to make the estimated 20 million quid from floating your private company asap on the Nasdaq, just as news of possible blood clot issues were surfacing, mightn’t there?
I probably wouldn’t have included this, were it not for the other information about this forthcoming share sale. Professor Gilbert, who became a household name as a result of her work creating Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine, owns 5.2% of Vaccitech, an Oxford University spin-out company that owns the biotechnology behind the AstraZeneca vaccine, as well as others for Mers, hepatitis B, the virus that causes shingles, and a range of cancers.
The company, was founded by Gilbert in 2016, along with another regular on the radio news last year, fellow Oxford vaccine scientist Prof Adrian Hill. Vaccitech has just filed the necessary submissions before an initial public offering on the Nasdaq (New York) tech company stock exchange. The report suggests a guideline valuation for Vaccitech, and flotation price in excess of £425m valuation. If so Gilbert and Hill’s stakes could be worth around £22m each. Oxford University will also collect a big windfall, as it holds a 5.4% stake directly. It also owns further stakes through the university’s spin-out holding company, Oxford Sciences Innovation (OSI). The backers of OSI include several Chinese firms, such as the investment arm of Huawei Technologies, the telecoms company accused of posing a national security risk to UK and US infrastructure. Google’s parent company, Alphabet also owns 12% of Vaccitech through its venture capital fund GV, and finally Sequoia Capital, a venture fund known for making millions from early funding of Apple, Google and YouTube, also owns 10%.
Perhaps Boris’ other recently leaked, and then retracted, comment to a private meeting of Conservative MP’s about capitalism and greed being the key to Britain’s successful negotiation of the Covid crisis, was nearer the mark than we’d imagined? I won’t even begin to explore the Chinese connections.
Again, perhaps most will view all this as an irrelevance. Although I suspect it’s just at the very tip of a global iceberg of Covid intrigue, whose depths will never be accurately plumbed.
For me, I keep churning these posts out, as was my initial stated aim when I began in 2011, both to keep the brain cells active, and with not a bean of recompense. I’ve always felt a value in doing this, and the freedom it gives me to range over diverse topics, as in this particular post.
Anyone interested can also now watch the recent Zoom recording, of my previously flagged talk by clicking below – I hope you might glean something of interest from a topic I’ve been thinking about for years. If I seem more tired early on, than later, it’s because a minor technical glitch meant Fiona asked me to re-record the opening section, after the meeting had closed!
Finally, the answer to the mystery easels and white boards on the beach was that the man was completing part of an assignment of his photography course at Carmarthen college. He had a special small camera on a tripod in the centre of the white boards which had 2 lenses, each capable of taking images in 180 degrees, so that when stitched together with snazzy software, he’d be able to create a 360 degree single, seamless image, in 2 planes of the scene on the beach and sky above. He needed a bit of assistance with taping down the white cards in a bit of a breeze, and these simply served as markers to help line up the 2 halves of the image later on in his software. He’d then erase them and himself from the final picture.
Amazing what technology and human ingenuity can achieve these days isn’t it?
Though frankly it seemed like a huge amount of hassle to create an oddly unnatural perception of the scene. Which is what he’d spontaneously suggested to me. But without doing it, he wouldn’t be able to complete his project.