Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae) - a newcomer fond of Ivy

If you live in the South of England in an area with light soils and large stands of Ivy (Hedera helix) you may well get lucky and see the pretty Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae). The Ivy bee is a species of the plasterer bees (Colletes) and has quite a distinctive appearance with orange brown hair on the thorax and several orange brown hair bands on the abdomen. The bees are quite large (honeybee size or larger) with the female bees bigger than the males but otherwise looking the same. 
 The Ivy Bee was first described as a distinctive species in 1993 in Southern Europe and has since then been found all over Central and Western Europe. In Britain the species was first recorded in 2001 in Dorset and can now be found all along the South coast, on the Channel Islands, Isle of Wight and further North in the Bristol, Reading and London area.  One of the most northerly populations at the moment is located near Abingdon in Oxfordshire.
Breaking news: The Ivy bee has now also been seen in South Staffordshire and Worcestershire. Have a look here for more information. 
Ivy bees are very fond of Ivy
The adult bees emerge late in the year coinciding with the start of the flowering season of their main food plant (Ivy). The males normally emerge a little bit earlier from the end of August followed by the females starting to emerge from early September. They are usually on the wing until early November.
Ivy bees forage mainly on Ivy (Hedera helix and H. hibernica ) but if the flowers are scarce they will also forage on other plants, especially on yellow daisy flowers such as Autumn hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis), Dandelion (Taraxacum agg.) and Catsear (Hypochaeris radicata). But even if the adults can survive on nectar from other plant species the larvae are almost exclusively supplied with Ivy pollen.

If Ivy flowers are scarce the bees forage for nectar on other plants as well

A typical Ivy bee nesting site
The bees like to nest in light, often sandy soils with sparse vegetation such as south facing banks, soft-rock cliffs or even in front of south facing house walls. Despite of being a solitary bee they like to nest in dense aggregations sometimes numbering tens of thousands of bees.  The presence of large stands of old Ivy in the vicinity of the nesting sites is important for the success of this species.
A south-facing cliff with nesting burrows and swarming Ivy bees

During mating it can occur that emerging female bees get bounced upon by several males trying to mate which is called a copulation cluster. They often roll down the bank or cliff like a little ball and will disintegrate after hitting the bottom.
After mating the female bees start digging their underground nest (or reuse an old nest) which will contain the eggs in separate cells and a provision of Ivy pollen for the resulting larvae. The bees line the cells with a cellophane like plastic-material (hence the name plasterer bee) which makes the cells water-proof. The young larvae overwinter to grow on and pupate in the next year.

A copulation cluster with the female bee in the middle
Two males trying to mate with a female bee
An Ivy bee in front of her nesting burrow in a cliff
A female bee looking out of her nest entrance
Digging and improving nesting burrows is hard work for the female bees
Three male bees having a little fight
You can encourage the bees to forage and nest in your garden if you leave old stands of Ivy untouched and keep the vegetation short on south facing banks with light sandy soil. 

Leave Ivy flowering to attract the Ivy bee
If you find Ivy bees nesting or foraging in your area please let the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) know as they map the distribution of this species. You can submit your sighting here.

To learn more about the Biology of the Ivy bee you can have a look at this interesting paper: On the Biology of the Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae) Schmidt & Westrich 1993 (Hymenoptera, Apidae)

Watch this video I took recently at a large Ivy bee nesting aggregation near Wallingford: Observations at a large Ivy bee (Collletes hederae) nesting aggregation


Thursday, 19 September 2013

Reading Flower Meadows in September 2013

Autumn is upon us and the flower meadows are drawing to a close now. There are still a few flowers left which attract pollinators but apart from a few bumblebees, hoverflies and solitary bees there is not a lot flying around anymore with the colder nights getting more frequent now.

As this is the last year of the Urban Pollinators Project the future of the Reading flower meadows is still uncertain. It will depend a lot on how much money Reading council can spare to resow (annual meadows) and maintain the flower meadows in the coming years. If you liked the flower meadows in Reading why not write to Reading council and let them know about it. With a lot of positive feedback there may be a greater incentive for them to find a way to bring at least some of the flower meadows back next year.

Update: We received the great news that Reading council will keep 11 out of the 15 wildflower meadows in Reading. Three of the perennial meadows will be maintained for the coming years and 8 of the annual meadows will be resown around Reading next year.

Perennial meadows

A garden spider caught herself a meal
The perennial meadows have finished flowering (there are just a few flowers left here and there) but an abundance of seeds, especially of Wild carrot (Daucus carota), provides food for birds and other seed-eating animals. The meadows also provide shelter for insects and we have seen caterpillars, beetles and earwigs hiding in the birds nest-like seed heads of Wild carrot. Spiders use the meadows as a hunting ground and especially the Garden spider uses the tall plant stems to build its net to catch any passing insect. So even without lots of flowers the perennial meadows are still very in demand for all sorts of wildlife.

 A highlight for us was to find the Ivy bee (Colletes hederae) in several of our meadows and watching it collecting nectar from yellow daisy flowers such as Autumn hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis) and Dandelion (Taraxacum agg.). The Ivy bee was first described in 1993 and was found for the first time in the UK (Dorset) in 2001. The bees are now slowly spreading North with one of the most northerly populations found near Abingdon in Oxfordshire. Read more about the Ivy bee here.

Ivy bee collecting nectar from Autumn hawkbit

In October the perennial meadows will be cut to give the plants light and space to regrow ready to flower again next year.

A Common Carder bee visiting an Autumn hawkbit flower

Annual meadows

After the annual meadows have suffered a lot in the heat wave in July they have finished flowering earlier than usual and most of the meadows look quite spent now. But there are still flowers left especially in our Prospect Park meadow which has lots of Cosmidium and Golden tickseed (Coreopsis tinctoria) flowering. We have also seen quite a lot of hoverflies in the annual meadows which seemed to be very fond of the poppy flowers.

The last flowers in the meadow in Caversham Cemetery
Eristalis tenax, a hoverfly which pretends to be a honeybee
The last poppies ...
Two hoverflies meeting in a Californian poppy flower
Pot marigold and Sweet alyssum flowering in abundance
A self-sown sunflower
Lasioglossum calceatum male in a Pot marigold flower
A red variety of Golden tickseed (Coreopsis tinctoria)
Golden tickseed and Cosmos
Common Carder bee in a Cosmos flower

Friday, 13 September 2013

Comfrey (Symphytum sp.): a useful plant for your allotment or vegetable plot

Comfrey is a great plant to have as the flowers look not only pretty and are very attractive to bumblebees but it is also a good compost activator and can be made into liquid fertiliser as well.

Belonging to the Borage family (Boraginaceae), Comfrey has nodding tubular cream to purple-coloured flowers and big bristly leaves. The plant has a tap root which can access nutrients and water from deep in the soil. In the wild Comfrey likes to grow in damp places with rich soil such as in damp meadows, along river banks and ditches.
Common Carder bee visits Comfrey flowers
Several species are planted in gardens and allotments: Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and more commonly Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) which is a hybrid between Symphytum officinale and S. asperum. To avoid the plants seeding around there is also a sterile variety of Russian comfrey available which is called Bocking 14. But I have to say that in the 3 years I have planted normal fertile Comfrey I have found only 3 seedlings which are easily removed when still young. Propagation is easy as you only have to divide a strong and healthy plant with a spade and replant the "offsets" with the growing points just below the soil surface.

A good place for Comfrey is the comosting area
Comfrey needs to be planted in a sunny position on fertile ground which never dries out completely in summer. A good place is around your composters as the Comfrey plants will absorb any liquid from your compost which drains into the ground and would otherwise be lost. It is a vigorous plant so give it enough space.

The leaves can be harvested several times a year and used as compost activator (mixed in with your composting material) or made into liquid fertiliser. You can also use the leaves as a mulch between your vegetables or fruit bushes where it breaks down quickly and releases nutrients into the soil. Comfrey is an excellent source of potassium and is great to use for flowering and fruiting plants.

Here is how I make my Comfrey fertiliser:

1. Fill a bucket, dust bin or any other watertight container with Comfrey leaves nearly up to the top (you can also mix your Comfrey leaves with nettle leaves to make a more nitrogen-rich fertiliser).
2. Fill the container up with water, stir well and cover with a lid.
3. For the next 3-5 weeks stir well every 2-3 days. You will see some foam and bubbles rising and after a few days it will start to get quite smelly. As warmer the weather as more quickly the leaves will break down.
4. Once the Comfrey-water mix turned into a thick dark liquid your fertiliser is ready to use.
5. Dilute the Comfrey fertiliser 1:10 with water (1 part fertiliser, 10 parts water) before using it, otherwise you will burn the leaves and roots of your plants. Also as a general rule never use fertiliser on dry soil, water first before you apply the fertiliser.

Comfrey fertiliser is a great natural and cost-free source of nutrients for your plants and it helps with maintaining healthy soil.

A nectar-robbing Buff-tailed bumblebee
The Comfrey flowers are very attractive to bumblebees so always leave some of your plants to flower. The long tubular flowers can only be pollinated by long-tongued bumblebees such as the Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) but cheeky short-tongued bumblebees such as the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), which can not access the flowers in the normal way, have found a way around it and are often robbing the nectar trough a little hole they bite into the base of the flower near where the nectar is stored. Once the hole is there it will be used by other nectar-loving insects such as honeybees and wasp.

So next time have a closer look at Comfrey flowers and if you see a little hole near the base of the flowers you will know that nectar robbers have been active.

A Garden bumblebee accessing the flowers in a normal way

Monday, 9 September 2013

Bristol Bee and Pollination Festival

The University of Bristol Botanical Gardens hosted their annual bee and pollination festival at the weekend. The event was a roaring success attended by hundreds of people from both the local community and further afield.  Staff and students from both the Urban Pollinator Project and the UoB Ecology Group had a great time working on our 'Forgotten Pollinators' stand where we explained the roles of the many different pollinator groups to the public.

The University of Bristol Botanical Gardens 
Jane and Talya getting ready for the start of the event on Saturday
Plants from around the world pollinated by a wide range of species
from hummingbirds to beetles
A very popular part of our stand was the crocheted bumblebees 
Kath entering the 'guess the honey' competition
A live honeybee colony
The 'Make a Bee' stand proved a hit with the kids
All of the different bees drawn by the children
Our neighbours Eric and Bernie with the Bristol City Council allotment owners.
Eric is the allotment rep for St Giles allotment which is one of our urban survey sites. 
One of our favourite stands!  Bramble Farm and their 'exceedingly'
good cakes
Bramble Farm is a fantastic community based project based in the Knowle West area of Bristol. The project was started in 2008 with the help of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (River Cottage) and has been going strong ever since. The farm is run by local families who reclaimed an area of wasteland and now grow their own produce as well as keeping chickens, ducks and pigs.

On Saturday The Mad Apple Cider Company click here provided everyone with free samples of their finest ciders made from traditional Somerset apples.  While on Sunday Mike Feingold, a tutor on the Bristol Permaculture Design Course, gave a demonstration of apple pressing and mashing.

The apple masher in action
Writhlington Orchid Projecclick here displayed a wonderful array of orchids all grown by the students from seed using special sterile techniques.  The project was started as an after-school gardening club and has now been running for over 20 years.  The award winning project has generated a lot of publicity and has featured on programmes such as Gardeners World as well as winning two gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show.

A selection of the orchids displayed by
 the project

Just one of the many orchids on show 

Friday, 6 September 2013

Leeds Flower Meadows August 2013

With the fair weather continuing into August, our urban flower meadows have flourished under the sunshine this summer. 

Our perennial meadows are past their best in terms of aesthetic appearance for us humans, but the insects are still utilising them for valuable pollen and nectar resources. Wild carrot (Daucus carota) is still going strong in most of our 5 meadows, with yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) being fairly abundant too. More information on the wildflower species in our perennial meadow mix can be found in the Reading team's blog post hereAs well as being beneficial for insects, once the perennial meadows have mostly flowered and reached these later stages, they can provide important food sources for birds from the wildflowers that have gone to seed. Here are a few of our best snaps of the perennial meadows...

Burley Park meadow (Burley), late July
Bombus terrestris on wild carrot
Eristalis sp. hoverfly on carrot
Surveying at Burley Park
Burley Park meadow, mid-August - looking more bare now
Cuckoo bumblebee on field scabious 
Cross Flatts Park meadow, early August
Interesting parasitic wasp at Cross Flatts Park
Ebor Gardens meadow (near Osmondthorpe), late July
Ebor Gardens meadow, mid-August 
Brilliant, beautiful wild carrot
Volucella inanis hoverfly on wild carrot
Musk mallow has finished flowering in most meadows, but aren't the seed pods pretty?
Scott Hall Pitches meadow (Potternewton), early August
Scott Hall Pitches meadow, early August 
Scott Hall meadow, late August - what a difference a few weeks make
Hedge bedstraw is still going strong in some meadows 
Stanhope Recreation Ground (Horsforth), early August
Stanhope Recreation Ground, late August - not many flowers now

Our annual meadows are looking fantastic right now, and have been doing all month. Now is the time to visit them if you want to see them at their best - for the locations of all our Leeds meadows, click here. The annual meadow seed mix is full of bright, colourful nectar and pollen-rich flowers. Each of our 10 annual meadows vary with which plants are the most dominant - some full of corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas), others are dominated by Cosmos, and some which are further on in their flowering season are now covered in Cosmidium. We just love taking photos of these meadows as they are so photogenic - especially when the sun comes out! - so here are a few of the best...

Armley Park meadow (Armley), late July - dotted with scentless mayweed and poppies
Armley Park - poppies, cornflowers and  mayweed
Mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum) is not in the seed mix but proves great for pollinators like this solitary bee
Armley Park, mid-August - more colour but fewer poppies
Armley Park - now dominated by redshank (Persicaria maculosa)...
...which is also popular with pollinators like hoverflies
Chapel Allerton Park (Chapel Allerton), early August
Bumblebee on Cosmos
Can you spot the honeybee enjoying this poppy?
Hoverfly on sweet alyssum
Chapel Allerton Park, late August 
East End Park (Osmondthorpe), late July - poppies galore

Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) on Cosmos
East End Park, mid-August
Hunslet Moor meadow (Hunslet), early August - the fun fair comes to town!
Hoverfly checking out the marigold
Hunslet Moor, early September
Hunslet Moor - looking fantastic
Honeybee buzzing off to her next flower!
King Lane meadow (Moortown/Adel), early August
Eristalis sp. hoverfly on Virginia stock
King Lane: a riot of colour
Small white butterfly on sweet alyssum
King Lane meadow, late August - a great shot of an "urban" meadow!
Middleton Park meadow (Middleton), early August - dots of colour here and there
Male white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) on cornflower
Middleton Park, early September - now it's bursting with life 
Sunny Cosmidium
Episyrphus balteatus hoverfly on Cosmidium
Queen's Park (Pudsey), late July
Poppies, Cosmos and Cosmidium looking great
Queen's Park, mid-August
Seacroft Ring Road meadow (Seacroft), late July
A splash of colour to the Leeds Ring Road
Seacroft Ring Road meadow, mid-August - a beautiful sight for the lorry drivers!
Stanningley Park (Stanningley), early August
Helophilus sp. hoverfly on Cosmos
Stanningley Park, late August
Hoverfly on poppy
West Park Playing Fields meadow (off Spen Lane), early August
Cornflowers and Cosmos - beautiful!
West Park Playing Fields meadow, mid-August - glowing in the sunshine
Honeybee on Cosmidium