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Sunday 22 May 2011

The Black Queen, The Beautiful Bombus ruderatus from Lincs

Sometimes the coincidences that life throws up are both spooky and delightful, rather as if some good fairy has taken charge of things for a change. A while ago now I was reading the Bwars forum messages which come regularly into my inbox and noticed a message from Leslie in South Lincs. I don’t often see questions from my part of the Uk so I was interested in her report of her B ruderatus sightings.  That afternoon, I went out into the garden with my camera and there drifting slowly from one clump of Yellow Archangel  (Lamium galeobdolon) to another was a large velvet black bee. Very big and very black.  My bee knowledge is still slight but I knew it was a Bombus and not an Anthophora.  When I looked again at the books it could only really be Bombus ruderatus. A very odd occurrence as only that morning I had been reading about them.
blackb2black b4black b3
This is the dark form of the lovely ruderatus (var. harrissellus) which has, it seems, quite a few colour variations. She is carrying some yellow pollen  and had a dusting of pollen on her head from the flowers but apart from that I could not see any other coloured hairs. They don’t seem to be very common, but apparently have a bit of a liking for Lincolnshire. This is from the UK Biodiversity Action Plan site.
“Although this bumblebee was considered to be very common in southern England at the beginning of the 20th century, by the 1970s it was already considered a scarce but widespread species. The decline has continued since, with fewer than 10 confirmed post-1980 sites for this bee, mostly in East Anglia. There are no confirmed post-1960 records for Wales and no records for Scotland or Northern Ireland. This bee is widespread but declining in Europe.
In Great Britain this species is classified as Nationally Scarce.”
Buglife have a good “species management” sheet for more information here. and Bwars records have a distribution map here. If any other Lincolnshire readers see this bee, Alan Phillips ( norwegica blog) would like to know!
Being a long tongued bee it likes red clover which you really don’t see so much of these days. Another coincidence is that this beautiful long faced and long tongued bee was one of the hopefuls sent to New Zealand to pollinate the red clover crops in the 1960’s. Studies were made of their nesting habits in Lincoln .. but Lincoln, New Zealand not Lincs UK.
I have subsequently called in to see Leslie and to talk to her about her bees. Her lovely garden was just full of them with bee houses/ nesting sites and bee flowers everywhere. She has been recording bees for many years and her records are fascinating. Identifying this particular species is tricky because of the many different colour variations and its similarity to B hortorum to which it is related.  I think I am going to try to make a chart.
I saw the black queen just once more before we moved and  I think this is another bee I will have to add to the British bee set.

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Friday 20 May 2011

The Tool Tower (and Bee Home)

The small towers which are built into the walls of the Walled Garden at Easton are fascinating and very appealing little constructions. I wonder what they were first designed to be? They do have names. One is called the Apple Store and this one is the Tool Tower. It is also a tower of bees because, just like the humming cottage here, the Osmia rufa have taken advantage of the holes in the decorative brickwork and made it their home, lots of them!

tool towerside sm tool tower detail sm

A couple of sketches of the tower with its decorative brickwork.

brick notessm

There are different colours and sizes of brick and stone and quite an elaborate roof structure. The roofs have rather nice fishscale tiles which I should have made better notes of.

tool tower 

 The Tool Tower and Bee home

Nice home for bees!

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Thursday 19 May 2011

Easton Sketches

Since March, when I have had a free day I have visited Easton, to look for bees and to sketch. It is the most beautiful place where architectural remains blend with magnificent trees, and structured planting is softened by informal swathes of wild flowers. I have made a few sketches which I will be posting over the next few days

These first ones were done early in the year when the trees were still bare.

sweet pea sticks 2 

Neat tied sticks ready for the twining sweet peas, for which Easton is well known.


The stone wheatsheaf which is the crest of the Gardens can be found  in various locations. This one is above the door of one of the store buildings built into the walls of the big walled Garden.

bird on parapet

This is the decorative top to the wall of the out buildings in the main garden.  Below it the early plum trees are now setting fruit! There was a little robin on the top, his red breast has got a bit bleached out in the scanning..

More tomorrow….

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Tuesday 17 May 2011

Bombus hypnorum, here, there and everywhere.

The Natural History Museum list six bumblebees, “The Big Six” as being the most common bumble bees in the UK. But I think very soon they will have to add another because although this pretty bee is a relative newcomer to the UK, it is spreading fast. It’s the Tree Bumble Bee, Bombus hypnorum  which was first recorded in the UK in 2001.  It has very distinctive colouring, a ginger thorax and a  black abdomen with a bright white tail. Someone said it looks as though it has been dipped in white’s true. b hyp

B Hypnorum colour key from Paul Williams great interactive bee identification charts at the Natural History Museum here.

I saw it last year in London and I have seen them everywhere I have been this year. First in Dad’s garden in March. Then at Easton on the 15th April buzzing around the plum blossom on a sunny wall. 


B hypnorum Easton Walled Garden,  photo Val Littlewood

Then today I walked up to the Church in the village and saw one feeding on an arching bony cotoneaster, its flowers barely noticeable, which was crouching over one of the old graves there. It’s a lovely and slightly unkempt churchyard. I like to wander around there. The wild flowers and unmown areas are great for bees. hyp grafham church

The hypnorum above, accommodatingly showing its pretty white painted tail, was waving a warning leg at a little B Pratorum who had come too close. The diminutive flowers of the cotoneaster were humming with them. They are tiny and so bright, a brilliant acid yellow as opposed to  the tawny yellow of the hypnorum. I wonder if they are newly hatched. They were very busy and whizzed about rather too quickly for me to get a good photo.

 prat2 b prat

Bombus pratorum on cotoneaster, Grafham Churchyard
They are really delightful little bees.

I had planned to get a painting of the Hypnorum done for this summer’s shows because people will be able to see them in many areas of the UK and they are very pretty.  I have just sketched it out for now and plan to show it feeding on the early plum blossom at Easton.

 Easton Hypnorum sketch

Bombus hypnorum sketch sm

Meanwhile the Humming Cottage here is still humming, but our charming little Osmia rufa mason bees are slowing down. A few faded and balding bees are still getting into the house. I put them on the chives outside the back door.  osmis rufa faded

They bury their heads in the flowers and then, suitable revived, fly off. I will miss them.

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Monday 9 May 2011

The Beautiful and, Unexpectedly Gentle, Giant Hornet, Vespa crabro

I found a big hornet yesterday, a magnificent Vespa crabro. It was lying on the car parking area in front of the house and I think it may have collided with a car. It was showing some slight signs of life and so I laid this beautiful creature in an open jar with some leaves, honey and water.. just hoping that it would revive but sadly not.

I saw and heard one the other day flying by the water and have seen a couple more this year up in Lincs. They are hard to miss.

Before I started learning about bees and wasps I gave all buzzing things a wide berth. Now I am beginning to understand more about them and much of the fear has gone… but such a big wasp is something to be reckoned with. I would not normally be willing to be so close, as  I, like most laymen, assumed that these were ferocious creatures, but it seems not to be the case. 

Dieter Kosmeier in his site pleads for more understanding.

“Outside of the nest area hornets never attack groundlessly. Few people realise that hornets are amazingly peaceful animals, even shier than honey bees, which prefer to evade conflict. Scientifically it has been shown that stings of hornets are not more dangerous than bees and wasps. It is their considerable size (queen to 35mm) and loud flight noises that induce unnecessary fears. Those striking out in fear are those that may be stung”

So remember not to strike out in fear when this gentle giant happens by. It is probably on its way somewhere important and has not the least interest in us.

This one I think was a female judging by the big square head. It is beautifully marked and worthy of a good painting, but I am short of time so a few sketches will do for now.

The Peaceful Hornet Vespa Crabro 

hornet smhornetcol

Sketches on watercolour paper.

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Saturday 7 May 2011

“Buzz” at Easton Walled Gardens at Bank Holiday …and thanks to Woman & Home!

And thanks to my friend Ruth for the heads up that Woman & Home Magazine have kindly given Easton Walled Gardens and “Buzz” a mention in their June edition.

It’s a small but beautiful mention and I think it’s the only time in my life that I will be in print on the same page as Johnny Depp.

I have customised the page a bit!

w and h 2

But yes, the Bees and I will be there along with the “Unusual Plant Fair”  on 29th and 30th May, 11am to 4pm. I will be fascinated to see what the plantsmen and nurseries have to offer. I can’t think of nicer companion planting than Buzz and Unusual plants :).

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Thursday 5 May 2011

Shoreline Things at Grafham: Spiders, Snakes, Swans and Shelly Fauna.

The  reservoir shoreline is being exposed a little more every day as the warm windy weather continues. Rocks are left high and dry and thistles are edging relentlessly into fish territory. The crusty edge of the land is developing the flaky cracks and deep fissures of a high baked loaf. Big sandy rocks interspersed with pebbles and shingly sand are splitting and crumbling. The graceful weeping willows barely brush the retreating surface of the water.

 crust DSC02855

On the land side the bleached white world of shoreline stones and pebbles is patrolled by many tiny black spiders .. what they eat I cannot imagine? They are skittish and shy and scamper about their mountain ranges casting spidery little shadows and stopping to bask in the sun from time to time.

spider 2


There are occasional well disguised little jumping zebra spiders too. zebra spider 

They, of course, pay scant regard to their ancient landscape but some of the intermittent shingle beaches seem to be almost entirely made up of lumpy fossil gryphaea, bivalve shell relics of another unimaginable age.

I read that the shore line of Grafham water exposes Oxford Clay which is comprised of :

…mainly brownish-grey, fissile, organic-rich (bituminous) mudstones with shelly fauna dominated by crushed aragonitic ammonites and bivalves, including nuculoid and meleagrinella shell-beds”

shelly shingle

It was in one of these shell beds I found a fossilised twiggy thing of some kind. It is curiously beautiful. The pith inside whatever it was is clearly visible and there is a leaf scar of some sort.  I know nothing about fossils at all but I do find it incredible that I can hold something in my hand that may date back some 154 to 159.4 Million Years.


A rock had split to expose this beautiful frondy pattern.. How long has it been hidden?

split rock

Off shore there are lots of these: swan 1

Sometimes regal and graceful and sometimes not.


And one day last week we saw a distant swimming snake. It’s a startling sight, seeing this curious creature, one minute gliding through the water, the next slithering along the ground. It makes you catch you breath.
It was just a pretty banded grass snake equally at home zigzaging silently through water, as coiling around the rocks and pebbles on the beach. It was quite difficult to see, with just its head above the water. Sometimes it swam completely submerged.



I was even more surprised to see it later that day but much further round the reservoir. Both of us were startled.  I was photographing a bee which was investigating an old tree stump by the water when the snake suddenly appeared, winding itself round the base of the roots.

grass snake

I wish I had been quicker and been able to take a better photograph. I have not see it since. 

Shore lines are so fascinating and, yes, there are bees as well. Taking advantage of the sandy banks for a nest site, an Andrena of some kind disappears down a hole, stalked by a ubiquitous, opportunist and sinister Nomada bee.

andrena bee nomada sm

And we are still lulled to sleep by the humming house, the Mason bees are still busy.

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