Bee ‘n’ Bees

We have always tried to make our garden as bee friendly as possible – we garden organically, there are plenty of weeds providing nectar through most of the year and we put up bee hotels. We’ve had these regular bee hotels dotted around the garden for a few years and they’ve proved very popular with a few species, but most noticably the Red Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis). Every spring they are buzzing with bee activity and every spring I try and photograph/video them with mixed results. The Red Mason Bees have an ingenious system whereby the females lay female eggs at the back of the tubes first, followed by eggs destined to be males at the front. Because they are at the front the males emerge first and will initially feed a bit then they head back to the nest or bee hotel to wait for the virgin females to emerge.

The airways can get a bit congested as many males, desperate for their chance to mate with the females, jostle for position. Here’s a short video of a bunch of males doing just that – buzzing around, ever hopeful.

 

Red Mason bees are medium sized, solitary (despite the crowds around the bee hotel) bees with as the name suggest bright red hairs on their bodies. As they get older the hairs can fade or get worn away and they lose their bright red colour; the one in the photo below is probably fairly recently emerged.

The males can get so excited at the prospect of the new females, that they will pounce on virtually anything roughly bee sized that appears, including each other. I found the trio in this next video on the path beneath a bee hotel. The female is the one on the bottom with two makes stacked on top of her. One of them is going to be very disappointed!

 

The mason bit of their name comes from their use of mud to form individual nest chambers for the larvae to develop in. Each tube in a bee hotel may contain several muddy chambers and the end of the tube is sealed off with damp mud, which then hardens to form a solid plug. Here she’s just deposited a fresh blob of mud which she works into position with her feet.

The Red Mason bees aren’t the only spring species to use the bee hotels, we also saw some Blue Mason bees (Osmia caerulescens). These were smaller than their red cousins and so tended to use the smaller tubes. I think this is a male which has more of a metallic green body with pale brown hairs.

Beneath one set of bee hotels is our bench set on slabs, which in turn are set (somewhat unevenly it has to be said) on sand. While videoing the mason bees, we realised that there were also bees burrowing into the sand beneath us (I will blame them for any unevenness of the slabs). I’m not sure whether they are also mason bees, or something different, they didn’t stay still long enough to get a decent photo. But they were certainly busy bees.

 

So I’ve always been very happy with our bee hotels and then I saw this, the absolute Ritz of bee hotels.

The inner section can be removed for storage and cleaning and the side panels can be removed to reveal a Perspex panel so that you can view the bees working away. So of course we had to get one! I waited patiently until the end of March then up it went on the fence wall ready for bee season. I got very excited when I spotted the first bee in one of the chambers.

Unfortunately the bees didn’t seem quite so excited by my deluxe offering and most seemed to stick with the old bee hotels. This may be because the old hotels with last year’s bee chambers in would have smelled of bees and so attracted the new generation back. In the end though I did get a few bees using the new box, although annoyingly most seemed to go for the tubes either above or below the viewing chamber. I did manage to get this video of one female stock-piling the pollen for her egg. She starts by rearranging the pollen that’s already in there and then turns around and uses her legs to brush the pollen off her body and add it to the pile.

 

Once there’s enough pollen in there, she will lay an egg in it and then seal that chamber and start work on the next.  By the end of the red mason bee season, I had several tubes full of developing larvae.

The eggs hatch into larvae and feed on the pollen that the mother bee has provided for them.

Once the larvae have eaten all the food they will spin a silk cocoon and pupate, turning into adult bees. They then stay in the cocoons like this through the winter, until the warmer spring days tell them it is time to emerge. Hopefully I will be able to get photos of these cocoons when the time comes. For the time being, the inner section of this deluxe bee hotel has been removed (complete with developing larvae) and is being safely (I hope) stored in the garage away from parasites. A new inner section has been put out which will hopefully attract the next season’s bees – the Leaf-cutter bees. Watch this space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Video of ones nesting in sand – yes

 

 

Video of red mason in tube yes

photos of tubes – yes

photos of grubs – yes

video of trio – yes

video of males buzzing round old box – yes

 

Red Mason Bees

The fabulous weather over the Easter weekend brought the blossom out in full force on our apple tree and with it a flurry of bees all around the garden. The tree is of the Discovery variety so produces early blossom for early apples and the bees certainly seemed to appreciate it.

I have two bee hotel boxes on the garage wall just a few feet away from the apple tree. These were used last year by both red mason bees and some leaf-cutter ones. So far this year it has mainly been the red mason bees buzzing around it. Initially all I could see were several red masons flying up to the holes, checking them out and rapidly flying away again. They were not only really quick, but the bee hotel is quite high up on the wall which meant I had to wobble about on a chair to try and get a photo – all of which goes to excuse this blurry shot!

I couldn’t understand at first why they kept coming and going, without actually going into any of the tubes. They would repeatedly check out the same tube. A quick google revealed that they were probably males, who emerge first. The females emerge a bit later having been laid further back in the tubes and the males were hovering around waiting for a fresh female to emerge. Having failed to get a decent still photo, I tried to get a video of them using the GoPro on a stick (more wobbling about) with mixed success:

The females must have started to emerge a few days ago. The males clearly don’t hang about or spend a long time “wooing” the females, as I found this happy couple immediately below the bee hotels. It looked as if the male had grabbed the female immediately as she emerged and the pair had dropped to the ground.

A bit of grovelling on the ground and I managed to get a video of the loved up pair.

The males are a good bit smaller than the females and he does look a bit like he’s hanging on for dear life. She also doesn’t look that impressed and seems more bothered by washing her antennae!

With the apple blossom so close to the bee boxes, it provides plenty of pollen for the bees right on their doorstep.


The red masons obviously aren’t the only ones making the most of the blossom while it lasts.  I’ve counted at least 8 species on the tree in the last week, but here are just three – a Nomada bee, an Ashy Mining Bee and a Red-tailed Bumblebee.

We already have the two bee hotels on the side of the garage, one on the front of the house and one old one just lying in the garden. The spring sunshine seemed the perfect opportunity to get the old one back up and add a new one to the bees’ property portfolio. The neighbours had replaced the fence between us last year and it catches the sun for a lot of the day, so it is the perfect place for more bee hotels. So the old one went up along with this new beauty. There may be more to follow as the fence looks very bare and basically – why not?


I’ve not managed to get photos yet of any bees using the new one, but within hours there were a couple of red mason bees checking it out.

Bees of course were finding places to nest long before we started thinking of providing bee hotels. This, I think, is the entrance to a ground nesting bee’s nest – possibly one of the Andrena species. There are a few of these little holes dotted around our so-called lawn.


Every garden must have space for at least one bee hotel/bug house. Even if you don’t really have a garden you could put one on an outside wall. So why not give a home for nature and put up a bee hotel?

 

Spring & Surprises at the Lottie

Spring has well and truly sprung down on the allotment, bringing with it some old favourites, a new generation and a big surprise.

Being fair-weather gardeners we’ve not done much down the lottie over the winter, but when we have been down a pair of robins tend to follow our every move – always on the look out for a freshly unearthed worm.

I’ve been going down more frequently for the last couple of weeks to check on the pond – it’s frog spawn season! So I was very pleased when on 2nd March I spotted for the first clump of spawn in the pond. It could only have been laid a day or two before, making it about 10 days earlier than last year.

So out with the camera and the GoPro to record the start of a new amphibian generation.

 

By the 9th of March 3 more clumps of spawn had been laid – you can see the difference in size of the embryos and jelly in the photo and video below.

The GoPro did catch a blurry image if what I assume is a pair of frogs in a passionate embrace underwater. Having said that the smaller one does look a bit toad-ish to me, but there’s been no sign of any toad spawn in the pond so far. I read somewhere that 80% of toads return to the pool they were born in to breed, so it may take some years before we get any toad spawn.

In the hope of getting some froggy action on camera, I left one of the trail cameras running on the allotment for a few days. I ended up with a lot of videos of cats walking by, but eventually got this one – a stand off between a cat and a floating frog. Thankfully the frog has enough sense to dive when the cat makes its move.

I did have hopes of getting a fox on camera as I know we have them on the allotment. But what I did get next was a huge surprise – a badger drinking from the pond!

We’d no idea we had badgers down there, so this was a real bonus. It looks like another pair of frogs get spooked by the badger and also dive for cover. Needless to say the camera has been left down there in the hope of getting more footage – but so far nothing but more cats.

Hopefully in the coming weeks I can get footage of the frog spawn developing into tadpoles. Fingers crossed the newts return soon too and maybe even a toad or two. All this does show the  benefit of putting in a pond – this one only went in 2 years ago when we first got the allotment. We’d expected frogs and newts would use it and maybe birds would drink from it, but never dreamed that we’d get a badger. I guess “Build it and they will come”!

 

A Day-Flying Moth Hunt

We’ve had some glorious weather here in Malvern this week; it really felt as if spring or perhaps even summer had arrived early it was so warm. Not only was the warm weather tempting softies like me outside, it was also apparently tempting some of the early day-flying moths to get out and about too. I’d seen reports of a particularly attractive moth – the Orange Underwing – being seen locally at Gullet Quarry, so this seemed the perfect excuse for a walk.

The not-too-attractively named Gullet Quarry is much prettier than its name suggests. With the sun shining and clear blue skies, the rocks were reflecting nicely in the water. Sadly due to some terrible accidents at the quarry, it is now fenced off and you can no longer get down to the water’s edge, so I had to view most of it from a distance.

I could just about make out a flash of yellow on the far side of the quarry – a Grey Wagtail flitting up and down catching insects. I tried zooming in on him (not very effectively) and only realised there was a pair of ducks sitting next to him when I downloaded the photos later! The wagtail is just about visible as a yellow smudge on the rock to the right of the ducks.

As I arrived it seemed like looking for a moth around the quarry was a bit of a needle in a haystack type mission, so I was amazed when one flew right passed me almost immediately. I set off in pursuit (incurring unfortunate contact between my boot and a large sheep deposit as I wasn’t looking where I was treading!) and tracked him to a high up twig.

He then sped off again and settled amongst the grass. Despite repeated attempts I couldn’t get a clear shot of him without a blade of grass in the way. But at least his lovely orange underwings are clearly visible. Mission accomplished.

Since it was such lovely weather I spent another lovely half hour pottering around enjoying the first signs of spring. A male Brimstone butterfly shot passed me, as usual way too fast to get a photo. Catkins were dangling all around and the gorse bushes were in full flower.

I wasn’t the only one watching the wildlife. High up on the rocks above the quarry, several crows were looking down, presumably on the look out for the next meal.

All in all it was a lovely short walk in the early spring sunshine,  whetting my appetite for the summer to come!

 

It’s a Frog’s Life

I’ve been virtually staking out our allotment pond since the middle of February, hoping for frog spawn.  As it turns out, it was probably a good job we didn’t get any spawn that early, as the heavy snow at the beginning of March would probably have wiped it all out. But in mid-March there were squeals of excitement down the lottie, when we spotted the first magical clusters. We had frog spawn! We’d put in the pond too late for spawn last year, but we did get several frogs and newts using it throughout the summer. So it was great that the frogs at least deemed it suitable for spawning in. No sign of any toad or newt spawn yet, but I live in hope. As I’d just got a waterproof GoPro camera a month or so ago, the arrival of the frog spawn seemed the perfect opportunity to test it out. So here’s my very first underwater video, taken on the first day we spotted the frog spawn – 11th March.

Since then I’ve been down the lottie regularly to check on progress. We can’t be sure exactly which day the frog spawn was laid, but I would guess it was only a day or two before we saw it. At first there was only one clump, but two days later there were three. So I’ve been trying to keep a video/photo diary of the development. I’m still getting the hang of the settings on the GoPro and also on getting things in focus, so apologies if the images are sometimes a bit blurry. So first up here are the eggs on Day 2 – pretty much perfectly round dots in their jelly bubbles.

No real changes were visible to the naked eye for the first week or so, but by day 11 they were starting to change shape. No longer perfectly round, the eggs were more like fat commas.

Two days later and the comma shaped were definitely elongating, with the suggestion of a tail.

By day 15 there were definitely mini tadpoles inside the jelly blobs. No sign of movement yet, but heads and tails were clearly visible.

Day 18 (28th March) and the tadpoles had started to hatch. Some were still in their protective jelly, but quite a few were clearly visible stuck to the outside of the eggs. These were all on the first clump of spawn we’d seen, the tadpoles in the other two clumps were not surprisingly a few days behind, having been laid later.

Day 20 and most of the first clump had hatched. They were starting to move a bit more now and had got a bit bigger so that gills were just about visible on some of them. They were still feeding off the jelly of the spawn.

 

Day 24 (3rd April) and some of the slightly larger tadpoles were starting to move away from the jelly clump. Some of the tadpoles on the other two clumps of spawn were now starting to hatch too.

Day 29 and they were free swimming – the pond was alive with wriggling tadpoles. They were grazing on the algae growing on the sides of the pond and on the rocks.

I felt ridiculously proud of them that they had managed to make it this far, despite the rubbish weather spring has thrown at them! But they’re not out of the woods yet – as the next video shows there are still dangers lurking in the pond!

 

Newts will eat tadpoles, so the chances are that not all of these will survive, but hopefully there are enough of them that some at least will make it. The newts have to survive too. With a bit of luck maybe we’ll get some newts laying eggs too – the newt in the video appeared to have a bit of a frilly ridge so is perhaps in breeding condition.

So that’s the progress so far in the first month of our tadpoles lives. Hopefully enough of them will survive that I’ll be able to do an update in a month or two’s time, as the tadpoles develop into baby frogs. Fingers crossed!

 

Spring Is In The Air (and in the Pond)

It is now a couple of weeks since the official start of spring, but it’s felt like it’s been a bit slow actually happening. But having looked at some of the animals we’ve seen in the last few weeks, maybe spring is slowly, tentatively, making itself known after all.

So first up, one of my all time favourites and the first bee of the year – the Hairy Footed Flower Bee. As is so often the case with these, I heard it before I saw it – a male buzzing energetically around the primroses. No sign of any females yet, I think they emerge slightly later.

March also sees the start of the annual Garden Moth Scheme. It’s been a particularly cold and wet start so I’ve not had a huge variety, but numbers are slowly picking up. Here’s a nice trio of the Orthosia genus – a Common Quaker, Clouded Drab & Twin-spotted Quaker.

The moths may be trickling in, but the butterflies have been very slow – not seen a single one in the garden yet this year. But we went for a walk in nearby Priory Gardens a week or so ago and spotted quite a few. A bright yellow Brimstone (way too fast to get a photo), several Commas and at least half a dozen Small Tortoiseshells – all basking in the sunshine.

One thing I’ve been particularly looking forward to is the arrival of frog spawn in our allotment pond. We put the pond in too late last year to get spawn laid, but this year we were good to go and the frogs didn’t disappoint. Here’s a quick video using the new GoPro camera. More froggy updates to follow in the next blog post as the tadpoles develop.

 

We didn’t see any frog spawn in the ponds at Priory Gardens, but there was plenty of bird activity. A couple of moorhens and lots of ducks, including this splendid looking mallard. There’s something about watching ducks on a pond in the sunshine that is not only really relaxing, but feels very spring-like to me.

The previous blog post was all about the peregrines up on the hill, but they weren’t the only birds we saw that day. This male bullfinch looked to be enjoying the spring sunshine sitting on a wild cherry tree (cherry blossom buds being one of their favourite foods apparently).

We also spotted jackdaws that had found some crevices in the rock face to nest in. The hole didn’t look that big, but they were taking quite sizeable twigs in there, so perhaps it opened out inside.

I don’t know if this dunnock was sensing spring or just feeling a bit odd, but it was behaving very strangely. It spent about 10 minutes sitting on top of the hedgehog house (not a safe spot since the neighbour’s cat often sits there), fluffing up its feathers repeatedly and shuffling about. It looked almost as if it was incubating eggs but there was no nest there (I did check it hadn’t laid anything). It stretched its neck out a few times and gaped its beak as well. I know dunnocks have some weird mating habits, but there didn’t seem to be another dunnock around for it to impress with the behaviour. Whatever it was doing it got fed up eventually and flew off into the bushes quite normally. If anyone can shed any light on the behaviour, it would be very much appreciated.

The dunnock may have been behaving strangely, but it was perfectly obvious what this blue tit was up to – gathering nest material. I saw someone suggest recently that you could provide nesting material by tying two hanging basket frames together to form a rough ball and filling them with moss and the like. Apologies to whoever’s idea it was, as I can’t remember where I saw it to be able to credit them properly – but it was a great idea, thank you. We had some old hanging baskets kicking around the garage and the “lawn” is full of moss,  so this was an easy idea to achieve. And the blue tits seem to appreciate it as almost immediately they started taking great beakfuls of moss and flying off with it.

Once it had got a beak’s worth of moss it would then stop on a twig to rearrange the moss a bit more tidily (presumably so it could see where it was flying), before taking off.

If only these blue tits had taken the moss back to the lovely nesting box with camera in that we’ve now had up for 2 years in exactly the spot where they used to nest! But no, they must be nesting elsewhere and all we’ve got on the nestcam is a spider’s web! Still at least we know they are nesting somewhere and that we’ve helped a little bit.

And finally spring must surely be on its way because our hedgehog is back! Whether it is Fat Sam from last year emerged from hibernation or a completely different hog, I have no idea. But it looks big and healthy and has a good appetite.

None of these signs of spring maybe big newsworthy events,  but sometimes it’s spotting the small things in life that gives the most pleasure. And we’re certainly very happy that spring is finally on its way to Malvern.

 

Easter Peregrines

We woke up this morning to a surprise – the sun was actually shining! We hadn’t been expecting to do much wildlife watching today, but headed up the Malverns as quickly as we could, before the weather could change its mind. We’ve been wanting to head up the hill for a week or so now, since a fellow Malvern resident (Jude thank you so much) mentioned Peregrine Falcons, but the hills have tended to be shrouded in mist. Not ideal for bird watching, so we grabbed the chance today.

So we headed up to what we hoped was roughly the right area. A friendly dog-walker assured us that yes, he heard them almost every day, then paused and said “but not today”! Undeterred we carried on and almost immediately heard the distinctive calls. Chris then spotted this one circling above us.

We would have been perfectly happy with this outcome – one falcon seen and heard, but then it got even better. High up in a tree we saw it land and there were two! (You wait all your life to see one peregrine then two come along!) Not only two, but judging by their next activities they were clearly a male and a female. We were a long way away and really at the limit of our lenses, but Chris caught “the action” on camera.

It didn’t last very long then the male perched on a branch above her. The female looked a bit rumpled by all the activity.

Since we were such a long way away, we found another path and headed further up the hill. Chris left me puffing and panting in his wake as he sprinted (a bit of artistic licence there) up and found a better vantage point. The pair were still sitting in the same tree – I think the female is the one on the left and the male is on the right with his back to us – but happy to be corrected on this.

They stayed there for another 10 minutes or so, allowing Chris to get some half decent shots of the one facing us. You can really see the size of those talons!

So a lovely surprise on a Sunday morning – two gorgeous falcons almost on our doorstep. Now we know to look for them, I think this will be the first of many trips to see them. Fingers crossed, given today’s activities, that they build a nest and produce eggs in the near future.

Spring Cleaning

There’s been a lot in the press and on social media lately about the importance of cleaning your bird feeders. This is something we all probably know we should do, but don’t get around to as often as we should – I know we are definitely guilty of this. So with the first day of spring last week, what better time to have a spring clean for our feathered friends. Armed with a bucket, rubber gloves, scrubbing and bottle brushes I set to work.

I hadn’t really noticed how many bird feeders we’d actually got, until I came to have to clean them! It seemed best to do them in 2 lots, not only because there were quite a few, but so that the birds still had something out there left to eat while I slaved over the bucket. All washed, the two batches got hung out to dry in a rare spot of sunshine.

The bird baths got a good scrub too, since the  birds seem to use them for all manner of bodily functions, not just drinking and washing! It might just be a coincidence, but having cleaned the birdbaths, I’ve seen goldfinches using them for the first time – they must be fussier than the other birds!

I was a bit concerned that the birds might have been put off by me interfering with their feeders, but I needn’t have worried. They were back on them in no time. I must have hung the suet balls in a slightly different position, as the starlings could now reach them from below rather than balancing from above.

The blue tits were equally happy with a nice fresh supply of peanuts.

There are plenty of vantage points to reach the suet logs, but for some reason our female blackcap preferred to contort at this odd angle to reach a particular bit.

The male blackcap took a much more standard approach.

The goldfinches have been regular visitors to the niger seeds for a few weeks now, but the siskins’ visits are much more intermittent. So it was great today when this male siskin turned up and stayed long enough for me to grab the camera and sneak out the patio doors to get some photos. I had hoped it would sit facing the goldfinch so I could get profile shots of them both, but you can’t have everything!

So the feeders are all clean and the birds seem happy with my efforts. I’ve made a note on the calendar to try and clean them a bit more regularly from now on.

Although I was happy with the bird feeder cleaning, last week was actually a very sad one for us. We had to say goodbye to our beautiful Norwegian Forest Cat, Puddle. She’d been with us for the last 13 years, since she was a kitten and we are devastated to lose her – far too soon. Although an indoor cat, she loved sitting watching the birds with me from the comfort of the sofa. She was the sweetest natured cat I think I’ve ever known, and I will miss her for ever.