With Bob Tompkins
UP one morning at stupid o’clock to take our very elderly Jack Russell out for a constitutional and the first thing that struck me as I climbed the steps up to the lawn with him was the noise. Every bush, every flower, seemed to have a bumblebee working on it and the sound was incredible as they buzzed from one blossom to another. They were little bigger than the honeybees working alongside them, as being laid first their queen had not been able to feed them well – hence their stunted size. In the few short weeks of their lives they will have to bring in sufficient food to ensure the next workers to emerge are bigger, stronger and better able to take advantage of the summer’s bonanza of nectar and pollen.
While on the topic of bees, two encounters this week show what unusual places this family of insects can be found in and the care that needs to be taken to preserve them and ourselves.
The first event occurred while out checking owl boxes for young this week. The box in question is in a large garden in a tall oak on the edge of an orchard. The ladders were carefully erected so as not to disturb the birds and one of the team went up to close off the entrance to prevent any of them from decamping. He came down much more quickly that he went up, because as he stuck his head over the top of the landing board he was confronted with a group of honeybees busy closing off the entrance to the nest they had established in the box. I popped up to take a look and it was clear that they were using a substance call propolis to close off the five-by-four-inch opening. The bees collect tree resins, which they then convert into a paste that we call bee glue. They use this to seal off any gaps in their hive or, as in this case, a large nest box. I made a mental note to advise the group to be extra careful now that Asian-hornet season has arrived, as they have been found to use small bird boxes to build their primary nests in and it is only a matter of time before we come across an owl box with a large secondary nest in it.
The second find again involved hornets, only this time it was as I visited one of the many traps we have set out to catch them. As I have already mentioned, it is now a time when the first worker bumblebees emerge and what I saw confirmed the need to visit these hornet traps daily to avoid trapping and killing beneficial insects. Along with two queen wasps and a couple of flies were 12 tiny bumblebees in a complete frenzy trying to get out of the holes we cut in the sides of the pots for smaller insects to escape from. Judging by their number there has to be a few of their nests nearby, so I moved the trap in the hope that it would take them a few days to find it again.
The prolonged cold, wet spell has meant that tree and plant growth has been held back and now seems to be playing a rapid catch-up. Walking the trackways and lanes this week two things struck me: firstly the wonderful growth and colour surrounding me and secondly the almost complete absence of butterflies. In all the years we have been undertaking transects to monitor their types and numbers we have never seen so few. Take the opportunity to get out and enjoy the colour and variety of flowers that can be seen along the banques and hedgerows while you can, for in the next few weeks branchage is coming and much of this growth will be cut back. I do hope that the various landowners, farmers and contractors will take on board the revised methods of cutting to ensure that only the lower section of any banque or hedge is cut not more than down to 10cm, leaving the upper slopes to set seed and provide cover for wildlife. There are areas in Grouville and St Martin where the revised methods of cutting already seem to be having an effect, with early purple orchids (Orchis mascula) appearing along several of the well-cared-for hedges – something I have not seen before.
There are many pluses to being part of the teams that care for the Island’s owls and one of them is the opportunity to visit sites not open to the public. One member of our group is very knowledgeable when it comes to tree species and as we were searching for a well-hidden owl box this week he spotted a Wollemi pine (Wollemia noblis) on the edge of a wooded glade. In the family Araucariaceae, it was only known in fossil records up until 1994 when a knowledgeable park ranger came across it in a remote canyon containing temperate rainforest in the Wollemi National Park in Australia. Although it is classified as critically endangered it has now been discovered that it can be successfully cloned, so a rapid program of cultivation is ongoing. The specimen we came across stood some 25-feet high, so has some way to go to achieve its ultimate 130 feet.
When Jill and I were looking online for details about this tree from the time of the dinosaur we burst out laughing when we saw that the name of the ranger credited with finding it has the same surname as our tree-expert team member and the same forename initial.
Some stunning finds
I set time aside on a Sunday to put stubby fingers to keyboard to try to think of what to put together for my JEP article and to spend time playing catch-up with inputting a range of data collected during the week. There are times when I regret certain decisions, and the one I made on Sunday morning resulted in me not being there when Jill and a close friend chanced upon a couple of stunning finds while walking the dogs.
They were coming back along the seawall side of Grouville Common and spotted a yellow-shell moth (Camptogramma bilineata) secreted among some drying grass stems on a sandy bank. It is found in a wide range of habitats and the caterpillars feed on chickweed, sorel, docks and dandelion. A short distance further on from that remarkable discovery was a fresh, emerging, small elephant hawk-moth (Deilephila porcellus). It was in the process of hardening off and unfurling its wings in readiness for its prenuptial dusk flight.
Along with taking pictures of the moths Jill and her friend took some of the surrounding plants and, as a result, were able to identify one of the food plants the hawk-moth caterpillar would have been feeding on. Ladies bedstraw (Galium verum) grows in short grass sward in calcareous chalk/ limestone grassland and the dunes on the edge of the common are rich in seashells that release lime as they break down.
The adult moth unsurprisingly favours habitat that includes commons, sand dunes and golf courses.