That’s a wrap

Leafcutter bees are remarkable insects. Not only are they excellent pollinators but their nesting habits are truly extraordinary.  Frustratingly, evidence of their activities, rather than sight of the bees themselves, are the nearest many of us get to them. Maybe it’s a bit like Oberammergau’s Passion Play, you know it’s there but seeing it is pretty tricky.

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Patchwork Leafcutter Bee. Courtesy and copyright of gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

As with most solitary bees there is no maternal after-care for young leafcutter bees. Each spring the newly emerged females begin the job of preparing for the next generation almost immediately. Once mated, they select a potential nest cell in a hollow plant stem or similar cavity and, as their name suggests, the initial stage in preparing their nest is lining this with sections of leaves they have cut with their mandibles from plants. The structure has been said by many observers to liken the structure of a cigar or a small wrap.

This is the nest in which they lay a single egg and surround it with a nectar-pollen mix which the larva will feed on when it hatches.  They will repeat this process until the hole is filled with multiple well-provisioned cells. And with that the adult females are off; job done.

The eggs hatch and the well-fed larvae will then pupate and overwinter in this individual cell until emerging as an adult the next spring or early summer.  At that stage the whole process is on the cusp of starting again and once mated the females will live up to their leafcutter name with some urgency.

The fact is that the leafcutter bee’s handiwork, rather than they themselves, is most often seen. Think back to spotting little sections cut out of the likes of lilacs and rose leaves and what you probably observed was the work of the leafcutter bee. Now that you know, you can keep your eyes peeled for their neat, crescent-shaped trademark.

Gardeners should not fret if they stumble across evidence of the leafcutter bee at work. Misinformation and mistrust often stalks the common perception of insects. However, the amount trimmed is so small as to be of negligible impact on a healthy plant, certainly far less than a vigorous gardener might take in the course of enthusiastic action with a pair of secateurs. Plants don’t succumb in their wake.

So to the bee itself, or rather any one of the seven species you might encounter in the UK. They are dark coloured bees, often with orangey coloured hair, and they aren’t big with a wing span that never exceeds 1.5 cm.

If you are lucky enough to see a female carrying her prized leaf cutting back to her nest the sight is memorable as the leaf section is cleverly carried between her legs. It’s an incongruous site and one of nature’s moment that inevitably draws a smile from the watcher.

At Battleby we have had success with red mason bees using our bee houses, here’s hoping that perhaps leafcutters will be tempted as they are known to use man-made bee houses.

The pollination service provided by leafcutter bees is increasingly recognised. In North America they are known to pollinate alfalfa crops and it is said that they are more effective than the much better known and popularly revered honey bee. Their pollination service extends to garden plants so the presence of leafcutter bees in a garden should be celebrated rather than feared.

Leafcutter bees are indeed remarkable and one of the most engaging of our many solitary bees. But this is no Passion Play, and with luck you can view this spectacle every year.

A colourful banquet

After several months of the cold and prolonged darkness of winter it’s an eagerly anticipated delight to see the first sparkling flowers of the year emerge.  Amongst the highlights are surely twinkling snowdrops, glossy winter aconites and vivid crocus.

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For many people the first glimpse of snowdrops is a sure sign that spring is coming. The dazzling white flowers are a boon for insects and this is a plant that requires absolutely no maintenance.  There was a misconception at one time that snowdrops didn’t produce seeds, but they can if there are pollinators about and for any emerging queen bumblebee snowdrops could be a life-saver. Bumblebee Conservation Trust point out that in some areas the buff-tailed bumblebee is active in winter and that snowdrops can be a great source beyond the likes of Mahonia and winter-flowering heather.

 

Snowdrop have another endearing quality, they frequently evolve into patches or drifts. As you might expect given their eagerly anticipated early flowering they have an interesting social history. Once strongly associated with Candlemass, which falls 40 days after Christmas, they had a less celebrated association with churches as they were often planted around graveyards which for some meant that snowdrops were associated with death.

 

From the white of the snowdrop to the golden yellow of the winter aconite. This low plant can create a stunning display of yellow at what is often a grey time of year.  It certainly lifts the spirits of many and it isn’t uncommon to see it flowering next to snowdrops making for a lovely sparkling display.

Winter aconites. ©Lorne Gill

The winter aconite, is reckoned to be a native of south west continental Europe and, just like the snowdrop, is naturalised in the UK.  It has nothing to do with the ‘real’ aconite.  Instead it’s a member of the buttercup family and loves deep deciduous woodland where it flowers before the tree canopy opens.

 

Without tree leaves “getting in the way” light can get down to ground level even at this time of year making the flowers very visible.   The flowers reflect UV light suggesting that they are adapted to attract pollinators which can see the UV spectrum. As an early source of nectar winter aconite has a role in helping insects that venture out before spring is fully in swing.

 

And so to crocuses, where the colour range increases significantly. Spring-flowering crocus is a great source of early nectar and pollen for foraging bees and flies as the days begin to warm up. Indeed the sight of pollen-sprinkled bumblebees on purple crocuses with their vivid yellow stamen is an increasingly popular macro photograph these days.

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As with many plants we can’t be 100% sure of how the crocus made it to Scotland, but it is reckoned that the bulb originated from parts of western China, the Middle East and Mediterranean parts of Europe. Again this isn’t a difficult plant to care for and provided the bulbs are not sunk too deeply they have a chance of doing well, and you certainly don’t need to tidy up after them once they have flowered. I do however note that I get the odd squirrel digging up the bulbs!

 

If you want to get your garden or container buzzing, these popular plants might be just thing for you. They will add a dash of early colour, and our pollinators will certainly benefit.  Enjoy them this year if you have them, and perhaps plan for next year if you don’t!

The Grayling – a master of disguise

Many butterflies are brightly-coloured, from the azure glint of the Common Blue, to the burnt orange of the Small Copper. But one of our most intriguing species is a complete master of disguise: the Grayling, as Anthony McCluskey explains in our guest blog today. When they are in flight it’s easy to see this butterfly, as the wings are brown and orange, and the butterflies are often engaged in energetic courtship flights or defending their territories.

Grayling at Holyrood - AMcCWhen they land though, the wings snap shut and the butterfly can literally disappear in front of our eyes. The undersides of the wings are a mix of grey-brown and light-coloured speckles that look just like gravel or stones. This corresponds incredibly well to the dry stony grasslands that this butterfly breeds in. There are even several recognised sub-species of this butterfly, some of which appear to be adapted to the particular types of plants and rocks of their habitats.

Graylings are now mostly a coastal butterfly, and many inland sites for this species have disappeared. Inland they can still be found in quarries, former industrial sites and along train tracks, where the mix of sparse grass and rocks is perfect for them.

But all is not well for the Grayling; populations have crashed in recent times, and in Scotland it is estimated that the butterfly has declined in abundance by almost 90% over the past thirty years. The story across the UK is bleak too, with declines in abundance of almost 60% in the past forty years reported.

Despite this, it’s still possible to find this butterfly in what seems the most unlikely of places: the heart of Edinburgh! Around Edinburgh there are the remains of ancient volcanoes – Edinburgh Castle is built on one, and Arthur’s Seat is another. The rock that make up these features is hard, and the soil is thin – a perfect home for this elusive butterfly! Similar rocks can be found at Calton Hill, and the ridge of rock faces running parallel to Calton Road. And despite the butterfly’s camouflage, it’s easy to see them there in the summer. They mostly fly from early July to mid-August here, and if it’s a sunny day you’ll see them in this area. I’ve even spotted them drinking nectar from Buddleia bushes on Regent Road!

Calton Hill Work Party (11)

The habitat of the Grayling and other butterflies is threatened by shrubs like Gorse, which can get a hold on the thin soil and shelter out the low-growing wildflowers and grasses. So to help Graylings at Calton Hill and Holyrood Park I’ve been working with volunteers to control the gorse. It’s a prickly job, but a good one to warm us up in winter! Volunteers have also been recording Grayling numbers at Holyrood Park and Calton Hill, and in 2019 they had a real bumper year, with twice as many recorded.

Our next outing to Holyrood to control gorse will be on Sunday 1st March, and you’ll find the details of it and all our events on our events webpage, here: https://butterfly-conservation.org/events/scotland

 

Anthony works for Butterfly Conservation as the Helping Hands for Butterflies Project Officer. His work to support volunteers recording butterflies, and to create and maintain butterfly habitats, is supported by funds from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Scottish Natural Heritage. The work at Holyrood Park and Calton Hill has been supported by Historic Environment Scotland and City of Edinburgh Council.

Insect inspiration

Insects and football don’t often mix. An influx of flies when England met Tunisia in Volgograd during the 2018 World Cup was a rare occasion. It wasn’t warmly welcomed by players or spectators. Two years earlier at Euro 2016, Silver Y moths were clearly visible as Portugal and France contested the final. But there are a few insects embedded in ‘the beautiful game’ in a more celebrated fashion – in club nicknames.

The recent televised FA Cup tie between Brentford and Leicester City featured several shots of the London club’s badge – which features a bee. Brentford are nicknamed ‘The Bees’ and football writers have long loved the opportunity to craft match headlines centred around that favourite old phrase about a game having a ‘sting in the tail’. A late goal at Brentford is almost sure to provoke this phrase in some guise or other.

At one time the Brentford crest resembled a shield, and featured a traditional skep hive and a couple of impressively stout bees.  A recent make-over has delivered a modern round badge featuring a single bee which is now the proud focal point.

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Brentford are pushing for promotion to the top flight, about to move to a sparkling new stadium, and football headline writers may go into overdrive if there they were to meet Watford who go by the nickname of ‘The Hornets’.

We can presume Watford’s nickname is intended to denote a menacing and powerful force. The connection can seem confusing when the club badge is clearly dominated by an image of a ‘hart’ or stag. Their ‘hornets’ nickname appears to date to the 1960s and is likely based simply on their predominantly yellow and black colours; there was only a brief window when the badge on their strip actually featured a hornet.

England doesn’t have a monopoly on insect nicknames.

In Scotland championship club Alloa Athletic are well known as The Wasps and their vivid gold and black hooped jerseys make the choice of this nickname an easy one to appreciate. Their Recreation Park home enjoys lovely views of the Ochils and Alloa may have had their nature inspired nickname since around the 1880s.

Perhaps not surprisingly the current Alloa club crest prominently features a wasp. It’s not a slavish representation by any means, and indeed has a cartoon element with the wasp depicted in a ‘superman’ pose complete with bulging muscles.  But the nickname has stuck over the years, as have the club’s colours, and as a consequence Alloa have a distinctive identity.

Football is game steeped in tradition, and the retaining of insects in these nicknames and club crests is evidence of the importance of history to many football clubs. It also shows that folk notice insects in many different ways.

It is one thing to have an insect nickname, what about when the actual club is named after an insect?

Since 1886 that’s been the case in the Swiss city of Zurich, where one of the local football clubs is called Grasshoppers. It’s a fitting note to end on as they were in fact formed by a Scotsman – albeit going by the rather Welsh sounding name of Tom Griffiths. The name Grasshoppers is said to have reflected an energetic style of play and lithe athleticism. They visited Scotland in 1958 to play a floodlit friendly match in Glasgow, but apparently it was so foggy that evening it was hard to see from one end of the pitch to the other, let alone determine if the Swiss side lived up to their ‘springy’ name.

So insects and football.  Not an obvious relationship, but there nevertheless.

 

 

Small Blue success

The Small Blue is a rare butterfly in Scotland and often exists in isolated pockets, particularly along the east coast of the country, writes Apithanny Bourne. As our smallest resident butterfly species and a habitat specialist, the Small Blue can be particularly vulnerable to changes in land use. Thankfully, a dedicated group established by Tayside Biodiversity Partnership and Butterfly Conservation – actively supported by Carnoustie golf course, is helping to shape the fate of Small Blue along the Angus coastline. What began as a five year project in 2012 is now entering its eighth year – well supported by an enthusiastic network of volunteers.

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Small Blue (Cupido minimus)

The initial aim of the project was to improve understanding of Small Blue distribution and that of its host plant, Kidney Vetch. Healthy populations of Kidney Vetch are essential to the butterfly’s success, as it is the only food plant used by the caterpillars. To achieve this aim, efforts to record both species were consequently stepped up – with volunteers performing annual surveys along the coast and also at potential inland sites. Training events and a postcard campaign were helpful in recruiting transect walkers and raising awareness. To date, nearly 100 volunteers have been trained to survey for the butterfly.

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Small Blue identification training day

Golf courses are not often associated with biodiversity, but Carnoustie Golf Course was identified during surveying as being one of the main Small Blue strongholds in Angus. Expanding suitable habitat from this area to encourage butterfly dispersal therefore became a priority. Although the original project was coming to an end, it naturally developed into a new initiative to plant Kidney Vetch. With plants kindly grown by Celtica Wildflowers and volunteers, the Small Blue interest group have been able to distribute hundreds of Kidney Vetch plugs (see images below) to create new patches of habitat at Monifieth, Blamossie, East Haven and Carnoustie.

Green manager at Carnoustie Golf Club, Craig Boath, has been proactive in ensuring the course remains a safe haven for this lovely butterfly. A substantial wildflower area has been created around the club house to support pollinators generally, whilst kidney vetch plugs have been planted along the coastal paths. Involving Woodlands Primary School in Carnoustie with the planting has allowed many children to get outdoors and champion the special wildlife found on their doorstep.

 

In 2019 the project received the exciting news that it had been awarded the RSPB Nature of Scotland ‘Community Initiative Award’ – in recognition of its dynamic and community focussed approach. This was shortly followed by a ‘Local Government Biodiversity Project award’ at a ceremony in London. Eager to share these impressive achievements, Carnoustie Golf Club generously hosted all involved at an event to celebrate the project’s success and share plans for the future. This year will see continued planting at existing and new sites, whilst interpretation boards about the butterfly will be installed on the course.

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Butterfly facts created by Woodlands Primary School pupils to decorate the celebration event

Nature of Scotland awards on display at Carnoustie Golf Club

Nature of Scotland awards on display at Carnoustie Golf Club

The Angus Small Blue project is proof that support from local businesses and communities is an ideal framework for a successful conservation project. In a sector where resources are often lacking – enthusiasm from local people is often key. Whilst there are still many challenges facing the Small Blue butterfly as our land comes under increasing pressure, it’s clear that colonies in Angus are being given the best chance possible.

Images 1, 7 and 8 – Apithanny Bourne; all others Catherine Lloyd