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!
I was walking along the road outside my house last week and spotted this tiny miniature forest at the edge of the pavement. At a distance, you’d never even spot them and my first thought was of moss fruiting capsules. On much closer inspection, it was a colony of tiny whitlowgrass (Erophila verna) flowering away.
Whitlow grass, looking moss-like amongst the mosses, flowering at the base of a wall along the pavement near my house
These are members of the crucifer family – more commonly known as the cabbage family – named for their four-petalled, cross-shaped flowers. Each of the little flowering stalks was just a few centimetres high, and the basal rosettes were around 1cm across – these really are tiny little wildflowers.
I love these tiny ephemeral species which grab their chances un-noticed at the peripheries, whether this is the ‘weeds’ which grow at the edges of pavements or the ‘arable weeds‘ which brighten up the dull monocultures which seem to dominate the local landscape. The perils of appreciating such invisible botany is the concomitant confusion you create in those who pass you, exemplified in this case by the local police officer who happened to be driving past as I took the photo and wound down the window to ask what I was doing.
I brought one back for a closer look under the hand lens at home, and took a few photos. Rose helpfully gives you certainty in the identity in this case – ‘Whitlowgrass is the only white-flowered crucifer with notched petals and a hairless flowering stem‘.
Photograph of the plant showing the hairless flowering stems above the tiny basal rosette
Close-up of the flowers – you can see the white notched petals wrapped around the seedpod in the flower on the right, whilst the two on the left are less well advanced.
Around this time last year, we had cowslips flowering in our garden. No such flowers this year, but I did spot this little ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) still in bloom. This plant is also known as Kenilworth Ivy and it is beautifully adapted to propagating itself in walls and stonework.
The flowers are phototrophic – this means that they grow towards the light which puts them in a good position for pollinating insects to arrive and fertilise them. Following fertilisation, the petals drop and it becomes photophobic, growing then away from the light. Using this simple rule, the seedhead will be propelled towards a darker place, such as back into a crevice in the wall where will find the right conditions to germinate and develop a new plant.
I can highly recommend this video on Getty Images which has used timelapse techniques to illustrate this behaviour perfectly.