Despite the bitter winds and rain showers, the recent sunshine has awoken the bumblebees. They’re everywhere, zipping around our plot, searching out pollen and nectar. Narratives about declining bee populations focus almost exclusively on honey bees, while Bumblebees seem quite neglected. Perhaps the development of bee keeping on an industrial scale and the potential for industrial-scale financial losses when colonies collapse is at the root of this preoccupation. Bumblebees are the most significant pollinators in the Northern hemisphere for field beans, fruit and tomatoes; however, according to research by Dave Goulson, there has been a serious decline in Bumblebeess and 13 species became extinct between 1950 and 2000.
Frequent Bumblebee nesting sites include holes in the ground, tussocky grass, bird boxes and under garden sheds. Their nests are quite small and don’t create a store of honey, hence are more sensitive to the availability of pollen and nectar-rich flowers. We can provide early flowers on our plots to help bumblebee Queens survive when they emerge in the early spring weather, when sources of pollen and nectar are often scarce. Without that early source of food, they can die.
The key is to have a succession of accessible bee-friendly plants that are rich in pollen and nectar flowering from early spring through to late summer. The greater the number of suitable flowering plants the better, with at least two bee-friendly plants for each flowering period, while the next wave of flowers are in bud, ready to take over. Highly bred cultivars with double flowers are not ideal as many have had the nectar and pollen content bred out, the plants are often sterile and therefore useless to pollinators; when they do produce pollen or nectar, the complicated petal structures are also difficult for insects to negotiate. Stick to flowers with simple structures, local wild flower selections often being the best choice, while annuals such as Nigella, Calendula and Limanthes douglassii (poached egg plant) are prolific self-seeders, ensuring there will be flowers next year without your labour.
Crucial times in the Bumblebee lifecycle:
- When queens emerge from hibernation in early spring, having spent the whole winter underground where they will have survived, for up to six months, on stored body fat. They need access to nectar to quickly rebuild their energy reserves, before they fly off in search of a suitable nest site.
- When establishing their nests in early spring, the queens collect pollen, which they mix with wax they secrete to form a mound in which to lay their 1st brood of eggs.
- While they incubate the eggs for several days, the queens survive on nectar stored in a pot-like structure they create in front of their nest mound.
- When the eggs hatch into larvae, they are fed on pollen and nectar; after 2 weeks of feeding the larvae spin cocoons before they develop into adults.
- In late summer, when the queens fatten up ready for hibernation.
With few other flowers available, hedgerow trees and shrubs, such as willows, wild cherry, hawthorn and blackthorn, are important food sources for emerging bumblebee queens in spring. Beneath the tree and shrub layer, key plant species include dead-nettles, knapweed and foxglove, phacelia and crimson clover. Winter flowering honeysuckle, early hellebores, pulmonaria and native primroses are good early food plants with alliums and English bluebells following on. Plants such as red clover, yellow rattle and bird’s-foot-trefoil are good pollen sources for queen and new worker bumblebees, while knapweed and scabious provide nectar.
In planning your bee-friendly garden or plot, about now (mid-spring) is a good time to plant out winter aconites and snowdrops for next year as they establish more strongly when planted ‘in the green ’, meaning in full leaf, after flowering. But, do ensure your plants are not wild gathered but from reputable cultivated stock. I’ve just planted out clumps of snowdrops ‘in the green’ to establish for next spring, and am mapping out what’s flowering where and when across our plot so I can ensure we’re providing successional pollen and nectar sources.
We have clumps of white and purple comfrey in the hedges, which began flowering in late February, along with primroses, daffodils and crocus. Daffodils are not a favourite with Bumblebees, which only seem to visit them as a last resort. Cuttings of winter flowering honeysuckle from our last garden are now scattered around the plot and in the hedges, and we noticed early bees visiting the flowers during warm late winter and early spring days. The Hellebores are still all in flower, along with the primroses beneath the hedges, while the flowering currants (Ribes sanguineum) are covered in flowerbuds opening into pink cascades, and wreaths of blackthorn blossom ripple up the hillside where the young hedging whips were planted last autumn.
We should give as much thought to the flowers we plant as we do to our food crops, planning successional flowering to sustain a healthy population of pollinating insects. Our plots and food crops will benefit from the resulting increase in beneficial insects.
Some useful websites:
We often see lone foxes drifting across this landscape, following familiar trails; ours is a large site situated in a valley, bounded by a wood on its western side. At the head of the valley there is a golf course and beyond that fields, stretching off towards Ditchling Beacon. And we’re happy for fox to take on the role of pest control. One of our neighbours further down the valley told us about a fox family living under an old shed on the plot bordering theirs. They didn’t have any problems with rats in their compost bins. Fox is welcome.
Yesterday was different; three foxes. The first, a dog fox, disturbed while collecting wood chip to cover paths; the second, a vixen, encountered while filling the kettle for tea; and the third, another vixen, sitting by the gate at the top of our plot. We’d walked up to the back of the plot to get bags of seaweed for the potato beds. Fox was sitting by the gate, watching; only when we got too close did she turn away along the top path.
Fox wanders through our lives, elusive, disruptive, its classification problematic. Although its behaviour patterns and anatomical features identify fox as a member of the family Canidae, it also shares several features with cats, creating difficulties for the naturalist, the red fox’s long, very thin canine teeth and its ventrally slit pupils with their well developed tapetum lucidum are extremely obvious cat-like features. […] One other cat-like behavior, though, that is not so easily explained is the lateral threat display used by foxes in aggressive displays (stand sideways, back arched, fur erect etc). This very classic “cat pose” seems out of place in the behavioral display of a canine. David J. Henry suggests that fox’s fluid nature can be accounted for in evolutionary terms.
This ambiguity, that vexes scientific certainty, is also central to the fictional fox. The European tradition begins in antiquity via writings of natural history by the Elder Pliny, Aristotle, and Claudius Aelianus, and through writers of comedies such as Aristophanes, or historians like Herodotus (Uther, 2006: 134). For Martin Wallen, the problem begins with Aristotle:
For a systematic observer like Aristotle, an animal that conceals itself from plain view is wicked, since it represents the limit beyond which empirical observation cannot reach. […] The identification of the fox as wicked and belonging to some primordial chthonic order reverberates throughout descriptions and stories of all centuries and cultures (Wallen, 2006: 11-12).
A creature of the earth, fox is associated with primordial chthonic forces. Aesop’s fables developed and focused these powers into fox’s defining characteristics: intelligence and cunning, it’s ability to work outside the norms of society. Early Christian and Medieval thought condemned fox’s fluid nature, associating it with the Devil; an association transmitted in part, through Bestiaries, allegorical texts that articulated a world view with God at its centre. These often lavishly illustrated books, attributing moral and symbolic qualities to animals, exerted a profound influence on Medieval art and literature. The Physiologus stands at the beginning of this tradition. As Hans-Jorg Uther points out: The equation fox = heretic, as it is transmitted through the Physiologus (a work of the fourth century CE), for example, has had a particularly long term effect.
But, then there is Reynard, who, for almost 800 years […] provided a distinct mythos for literature, drama and ecclesiastical allegory depending on whether the poet, scribe or woodcarver saw the fox as entertainer or as allegory of Satan (Wollen, 2006: 52). Reynard’s subtle nature has proved extremely durable, but the negative associations persist, the crude equation still has currency, the heretic still a disruptive anti social element, a creature to be hunted.
The relationship is curious; wild creature, adversary, vermin, a pest to be controlled, not exterminated. Intimately enmeshed in the rural economy, fox is managed & bred to maintain its presence for the hunt. Viewed through this lens, it’s not too difficult to imagine the significance of the ritual role attributed to fox hunting, by the ‘custodians of the countryside’, in symbolically maintaining the social hierarchy of the rural environment. And when the hunting lobby points out that hounds, not humans, kill foxes, they deny the obvious, humans train fox hounds to pursue and kill foxes.
So, fox remains an outsider, populating our imagination as much as the environment we often share with it. It therefore seems fitting that fox should be a welcome transient, drifting across an allotment landscape characterised as marginal, under the constant threat of development.
Yesterday it felt like spring; mild air, a gentle breeze blowing up from the sea, buds beginning to burst on the flowering currants (Ribes sanguineum). A solitary bee drifted past. But, that was yesterday; deceptive. A cold northerly is blowing across the valley today, bringing with it sudden heavy showers. Definitely early spring.
We’re continuing to build a frame, up the valley side, for the roses & honeysuckle to ramble over, & wild pea, once they’re ready to plant out. The allotment association have had pallets delivered to the site recently & we’re using these, but keeping hardwood ones to build a shed. Slowly, we’re gathering these together & we’ll hopefully be able to start building soon. The aim is to use the small shed for tools & ‘bits’, the new one, complete with a wood burner made by one of our sons, for working in & drinking tea.
For now, I’ll sit here on the valley side with my tea & snacks; I’ve made a variation on my bread/cake. The birds are noisy this afternoon, the Robin loud and insistent, crows calling from the woods bordering the western edge of the site. The temperature is dropping and there’s a scattering of snowflakes.
Wintry showers spreading south during the morning…
There’s never a moment of inactivity on this allotment site, even on the bleakest of days. Yesterday was sunshine, wind and rain, sleet too, but still there were people working their plots; our neighbours across the valley stacking boards to replace rotten ones they’re using as terracing. We’ve continued to use felled sycamore to repair our beds through the winter; the results, a softening of outlines, an irregularity after the severe regimentation of scaffolding boards. The beds meander rather than sit grid-like across our plot, but then again we were never ones for squaring off, so the felled logs continue an arrangement that has evolved over time.
We often find the seaweed mulch scattered across the paths bordering the fruit beds. Sitting quietly by the shed drinking tea, we watch a blackbird root through, then select a strand of seaweed from a pile ringing a gooseberry bush. The seaweed is pulled away and the blackbird methodically picks at the strand. A Robin scratches and pecks at the wood chip on the path.
Then the rain sets in again & we decide to take shelter in our ‘new’ greenhouse. The frame was given by a neighbour on our site, the glazing we acquired through Freecycle, and where it didn’t fit we cut and patched with scavenged polycarbonate, securing it in place with gaffer tape where necessary. It withstood the wind yesterday, which is a good sign. Now it just needs plants.
Between showers we managed to weed and began to prune the sage bushes, but then we were engulfed by a hail storm and decided that we’d done enough for the day.