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Saturday 25 February 2012

Easton Bees, my first 2012 bee photos

My first 2012 bee photos! Hurrah.  After a great drawing workshop at Stamford Arts centre with my lovely students I went up to Easton Walled Gardens to catch their Snowdrop event.  I am so very fond of this beautiful tranquil place and the gleaming snowdrops were everywhere,  and so many  different varieties, some tall and stately and other low growing and shallow cupped.  Their beauty for me lies in their delicate little nodding heads and  that pure whiteness set against the dark background of winter trees. I may get down to a sketch or two next week. In the class today we were looking at working with pen and ink and this would be a perfect subject.

sn bg

And then I saw just two big fat glossy Buff Tailed Bumble bee queens, Bombus terrestis, both on the crocus flowers. Here’s a short sequence of one bee as she moves from one flower to another, almost disappearing before backing out again. 

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Crocus are a very important early food source for all early bees and so are snowdrops.. but in all those acres of snowdrops I saw only one bee, yet two bees on the relatively few crocus.
I am wondering if, when a choice is available, they prefer a crocus?

It seems particularly appropriate and auspicious that I should photograph my first bees at Easton where, in June, I will be showing my hopefully expanded “Buzz” show, as part of their Meadow Days Celebrations,  and this time with a two day workshop. It is a week I am looking forward to immensely.

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Thursday 23 February 2012

First Bees… at last, a Butterfly and Arums

I am so delighted to report my first bee sightings of this year. Not in the empty garden of the Ugly Bungalow where as yet there are only 3 crocuses in bloom but in nearby Brampton Wood where, this morning, in glorious sunshine, a huge and very loud Buff tailed Bumble Bee queen zoomed past my ear. She came so close I had to duck. She flew off into the wood and I wondered what she will find to forage on?

Then further along, glowing such a brilliant yellow against the browns and greys of the leafless wood, a gorgeous brimstone butterfly flew past. It seemed quite magical to see this little piece of fluttering summer colour in the dark wood. It lifted my spirits even more.

I was in the wood to find some bits and pieces for my first drawing workshop on Saturday morning but also just to get out and enjoy the sun. It has seemed a long and dreary month. I am still unable to work but finding beautiful lichen-covered twigs, little acorn cups, old seed pods and new catkins cheered me up immensely. The birds were singing their little hearts out and pushing up through the mossy banks were tiny flat rosettes of primroses and everywhere, unfurling their elegant leaves were wild arums, some spotted and some plain.

arum maculatum bg

These curious plants, always viewed with some suspicion due to their phallic shape, their insect trapping mechanisms and poisonous berries, have many wonderfully descriptive names, Cuckoo Pint, Lords and Ladies, Adam and Eve, Jack in the Pulpit, Wake Robin, Snake Meat, Deadman’s Fingers and more. Some appear quite innocent until you look further into their derivation .. ie “pint” is from the Anglo Saxon, “pintle” meaning penis. I don’t think my mother ever enlightened me of this true meaning. There is a website compiled by Lynden Swift where you will find a list of regional names and more fascinating info.

fuchs botanical

Two woodcuts of this snaky little plant (interestingly almost reversed, by copying?) from Leonhard Fuchs herbals, the coloured one from 1542 from the Smithsonian collection of Renaissance Herbals here and the other from 1545 from Yale Library here. Fuchs was an advocate of the use of naturalistic images based on real observation which together with text gave double proof of identity. In the past when plants were mainly for medicinal purposes, the constant copying and re-copying of over simplified images led to some disastrous mistaken identities.

I thought I just might find some more bees in the local garden centre which has many more flowers than I do.. but all I could find were just two honey bees. Both had full pollen baskets one bright yellow and the other almost white. I would guess the first had been visiting the crocuses and the other, where I found them both, foraging from the Christmas roses.

In 1538‘ in The Names of Herbes’, William Turner writes of the Arum that it “groweth in euery hedge almost in Englande aboute townes in the sprynge of the yere.”

It think sprynge might well be sprynging :)

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Wednesday 15 February 2012

Hoverflies: Gardener’s Friends

I have been trying to learn more about pollination and have been asking myself and others the question “If bees are the No 1 insect pollinators who or what are No2 ?”  The broad answer seems to be “flies” and amongst that massive and sometimes unappealing group of insects, hoverflies are possibly number one on the pollinator list.

A couple of weeks ago I knew nothing much about hoverflies, except that since looking for bees I had begun to “see” them more, to notice quite a few different kinds, appreciate their delicate beauty and admire their sometimes expert mimicry of bees and wasps. 
Now, after attending one day of the Hoverfly ID course at the Natural History Museum I understand just a little more about them and know that, with over 250 UK species, they are a huge and complex group of insects.

A hoverfly from a walk here in Grafham in July last year. I think I can now confidently say it is Episyrphus balteatus or the “marmalade hoverfly”. It is very common in the UK and not only a good pollinator but its larvae eat aphids, lots of aphids. According to the Natural History Museum  “Each larva consumes more than 200 aphids during its development”, so definitely the gardener’s friend.

The course was led by Roger Morris author of “Hoverflies of Surrey”, who jointly runs the national Hoverfly Recording Scheme with Dr Stuart Ball.If you are interested in getting to know more about hoverflies go to their website where you will find more info and also details of courses and events coming up. Roger gave us a brief outline of the different species and then it was on to identification of specimens, using “keys” and microscopes. It was my first time for both. It is not easy!

The adult hoverflies are fascinating, beautiful and ancient creatures. It is such a shame that some people think they are wasps and kill them when really they could not be more harmless. I hope to include a couple of paintings of them in this years exhibitions to try to encourage  people to appreciate them more. But it’s not quite so easy to do PR for hoverflies as it is for bees. An insect called a “fly” of any kind has a bad start and it is best not to dwell on some of their questionable choices of accommodation or that that some of the larvae are referred to as “rat tailed maggots”. Not very cuddly, is it…but, of course, what we call them is not their fault

As I am still laid up with a sprained shoulder (not to be recommended) and unable to work, I looked through some old photos and found I had taken quite a few of hoverflies which I am attempting to identify.. with mixed success. I may or may not be right!
I think this below is the beautiful bee mimic hoverfly Volucella bombylans taken Heligan in June.


and this one from later in the year at Brampton Wood in October is, I think Helophilus pendulus on Devils Bit Scabious.

 This one from Dads garden in September I think  Volucella pellucens


This one I think could be Eristalis tenax taken late in the year in November when all that was flowering by the lake was the Bristly Ox Tongue.


and another one with slightly different markings

Scaeva pyrastri  I think, from July.

and another which I can’t identify on the brambles


and as I am finishing this Sarah Raven is enthusing about hoverflies on the telly, see “Bees Butterflies and Blooms”.. BBC2.

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Monday 6 February 2012

Some Thoughts about Steam

Everyone seems to have a cold at the moment.. and I am no exception. When it started, well over a week ago it seemed innocent enough. You know the kind, three days with a throat full of barbed wire and another three days with nose full of glue and then it’s over, but not this one. This one has quietly and slowly developed into a real horror ( I don’t get many colds so am whining) A week on and I still have broken glass in my joints and lead in my limbs. Sometimes you think a nice little cold will give you an excuse to snuggle up in bed with a good book and comforting hot drinks but mine seem to rob me of all brain activity so reading has also been impossible. It’s all VERY FRUSTRATING.

Add to that an injured shoulder which is, currently, making it very painful to type or draw and I have been thoroughly miserable. However on Saturday I dragged myself out of bed and wedged my aching arm into the corner of a railway carriage and went to London for a day of Hoverfly Identification at the Natural History Museum.

It will take me a while to get my thoughts and discoveries about the wonderful world of hoverflies down on paper, but the journey to London was rather, unexpectedly, lovely.

Huntingdon to London on a Frosty Saturday Morning
At 7.30 am, when we left the house, the morning was very still and very cold with a full red sun on the horizon cut in half by just one single sliver of cloud. All other colours were frosted and pale. The novelty of seeing a frozen countryside after the eternal green of Florida has not yet worn off. Everything seems so fragile and delicate in comparison. Here tiny twiggy birds nests nestle in bushes or are strung hammock like between branches. There, lines of infinitely varied little naked hedgerow trees are ranked and silhouetted against a rusty sky.

At 8.00am I am on the train travelling South. If I look East everything is back-lit by the sun. If I look West there are long cast shadows. The colours are the palest terre vertes, silvers, lilacs, and oranges. The buildings are black.

This early on such a bitterly cold morning very little is moving, except this train and steam.
Steam is everywhere, taking on many different shapes, sizes and directions. In the stations restless, cold, people, huddled and muffed in scarves and gloves exchange puffs of steaming words. As we travel though the countryside thick steam spirals up from clamps and muck heaps, one has ignited and there’s a rush of scarlet flame. In the fields we pass some stocky gypsy ponies. Haloed with light, they are motionless, their long coats bristling with frost. They blow streams of hot breath from velvety icicle-whiskered noses. They could almost be smoking pipes.

Coming to a light industrial area, tall towers of steam rise straight up from tall chimneys. White cartoon exhaust rings link waiting cars at the crossing gates. Here is a housing estate where the mock Victorian street lights, switched off an hour ago, are fleetingly reignited by a low, now golden, sun and all the identical houses in the identical streets have identical chimneys where all the short bursts of slanting steam are conforming to the will of a slight breeze.
Exuberant bountiful steam from one chimney casts busy shadows onto a nearby wall and light airy-fairy back lit steam drifts up from a square black chimney and evaporates in the morning haze. Higher, much higher up, dead straight vapour trails of planes criss-cross the clear blue sky.

Steam is fascinating.

But as we reach London, where once smog and fog would have choked the life out of you, the rows of Victorian chimneys are quiet and unused. And I remember that long ago, I arrived at Kings Cross, not scurrying in on a little four coach electric train but making a much grander entrance, enveloped in clouds of steam, deafened by noise and giddy with excitement about a day in London, little legs climbing down from a magnificent snorting beast that surely must have been the Flying Scotsman.


The Flying Scotsman steaming out of Kings Cross in 1968 from the Museum of London Collection

Exciting hoverfly info to follow!

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