One of the earliest bees to appear in the garden is Anthophora plumipes – also known as the feather-footed or hairy-footed flower bee. These are almost bumblebee-sized solitary bees which buzz at high speed from flower to flower. The lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.) in the garden seems a particular favourite!
The males and females are easily told apart by their colour – the males are a gingery brown whilst the females are almost jet black.
I have often seen them visiting flowers, but have never before come across a nest site. At the Barrington Court National Trust property in Somerset, I spotted several of the females investigating holes in the wall of an old stable. There were lots of nooks and crannies in the old pointing of the wall and the bees were flying into these to investigate. If they liked the site, they stayed and began work on excavating, pushing tiny fragments of material out of the hole to create a nest chamber. Often however, the hole seemed not to their liking and they tumbled back out and continued their search.
One of my favourite uses of modern technology is to gain little insights into something usually difficult to perceive – I think this is a nice example. Using the iPhone camera on slow motion video, I managed to get a few shots of the bees leaving the holes. They seem to tumble back and away from the hole and pause for a moment before continuing their search. Whether this is to steady themselves after their rather ungracious exit, or whether this is to conclude their inspection I am unsure, but the behaviour was quite consistent with different bees. The clip also shows how easily these powerful little bees can deal with the cobwebs of spiders which seem to share their taste in residences!
Highlights of an early autumnal walk around Petworth National Trust property in West Sussex included fallow deer herds, flocks of waterfowl on the Capability Brown designed lakes, and jackdaws in skeletal standing deadwood. But first amongst them were the ancient trees within the parkland including oaks and sweet chestnut.
This sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) specimen was a particular favourite – it’s short stature concealed it behind a larger, younger specimen so it presented as a surprise when we stumbled across it. The gnarled trunk has the characteristic twisted bark which this species develops with age, and the boughs were decorated with cracks, fissures and splits.
This is the kind of tree which provides a habitat in its own right – the cavities in the timber create nesting sites for birds, roosting sites for bats and resting sites for squirrels and mice.
There is a book called ‘Meetings with Remarkable Trees‘ by Thomas Pakenham which illustrates a selection of distinguished and incredible specimens. This has become a stock phrase in my mind which loops like a tune when I come across trees such as these.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Aristotle observed that the natural world falls over itself to ensure that every space is filled with something, even if it is nothing more than air.
Stepping into a darkened place, my first instinct is to look up, to seek cracks and crevices where bats might dwell. An autumn shower at a National Trust property made an appealing shelter of an icehouse entrance and I took a moment to explore whilst raindrops dripped from the entrance. There were no bats to be seen, but life was far from lacking.
Drone flies – the common name for the hoverfly Eristalis tenax – are gathered into a deeper crevasse in the ceiling; most unmoving, but one seems to have arrived later to the slumber party and is apparently still settling in, grooming and shifting. As important as shelter is stability, constancy of temperature allows a long winter to be slept in peace without early awakenings to continued inclemency.
Yellow slugs and oxychilidae snails secrete themselves into indentations where the dampness suits their delicate skin, where they can spend a day without desiccating, waiting for their time to emerge and forage.
A birds nest – a robin or a wren perhaps – occupies one of the larger cavities just inside the icehouse entrance, just beyond the reach of the sunlight. A thick electric cable runs past as though it were a barrier rail to keep the chicks in check.
Arachnaphobes may appreciate the darkness which conceals the spiders dwelling just above head-height. Metellina merianae, the shaded orbweaver, is a specialist of damp, dark habitats where it spins its web, retreating to a cavity to return later and check its traps for a successful catch.
Nature adores a vacuum, the hole over the whole, the cavity over the continuous. Age pits and scars everything from the living tree to the lifeless rock but our desire for neatness, for smooth surfaces and perfect condition can lead us to render structures inert and lifeless. And yet a crack in the brickwork is all it takes to allow a self-constructed community to thrive.