New bees in town

‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly‘ – mid 17th century bee-keepers’ saying, meaning that the later in the year it is, the less time there will be for bees to collect pollen from flowers in blossom.

The first swarm to arrive

May is the start of bee swarming season and we saw a good deal of it without even needing to leave home. Late on Monday afternoon, I heard a familiar sound. There was a loud buzzing coming from the garden and I looked out to see bees swirling around the top of the Magnolia tree. Sure enough, just like last year, they settled on a branch near the top of the tree. We could have left them there and they’d have moved on after a short time, but we know of a bee keeper who is on the look out for extra colonies, so we caught it and put it in a temporary hive. Swarming bees want nothing but a new home and to protect their queen and they settled into the box right away. They are healthy looking bees, dark in colour and lots of them.

We thought that might be it, but the weather was warm and calm, ideal for swarming. So it turned out, for late afternoon on Wednesday another swarm arrived and that too settled in the Magnolia. This one was too high for us to reach without great difficulty and since catching a swarm often means cutting branches we decided to leave them alone. They moved on the next morning.

Wednesday’s swarm was heart-shaped

The warm weather continued, encouraging bees to move house and on Friday afternoon yet another swarm arrived, once again settling in the Magnolia. Again it was too high to reach and, as on Wednesday, it moved on after a short time.

Friday’s swarm

By now the week was starting to feel slightly surreal. A swarm every other day. What next? We had a feeling that another swarm was going to turn up and if things happened as they had been doing, it would probably arrive on Sunday. The number of bees passing through means that they would have left pheromones on the tree, which would attract other bees. We didn’t want to cut any more out of the tree and wanted to come up with a plan.

We’d already found out about swarm boxes – wooden boxes put into trees that the bees find and, hopefully, move into on their own. Once settled they can then be transferred to a permanent hive, easing the stress of having to shake them into a hive off a branch. Attracting them in this way also means that the colony is quickly housed and less likely to cause upset if it moves on and doesn’t find somewhere to settle. We quickly made a swarm box out of various pieces of old wood (plans here). It was fixed into the tree, held in place on a hanging basket hook and kept from blowing about with rope.

The swarm box in position 

Within hours, scout bees were investigating and, par for the course, within a couple of days they had moved in and taken up hive activities.

Here they are fanning pheromones at the doorway to let the rest of the colony know where they are.

There you have it. If you’re after a colony of bees to give a home to and take care of, this could be worth a try.

Bees scratching at damp compost

The bees are making their presence known again this year and forcing us to question what they’re doing and to learn from their behaviour. As is so often the case when looking at wildlife, I have a puzzle and a burning question in mind. A few weeks ago I potted up some rooted cuttings and some bulbs that I’d forgotten to plant out last autumn and the pots are standing together in a large tray outside. It has rained and the tray has water in it. There are pots of herbs, irises, Heucheras and ornamental Alliums all coming along nicely. The puzzle is that three of the Allium pots have bees visiting and scratching at the compost.

This has been happening every day for about a month now and none of the other pots appear to attract them, though all have the same compost and they receive the same amount of water. What are they doing?

Having watched the mycologist Paul Stamets talk about bees seeking out fungal mycelium for its sugary secretions, my guess is that these three pots contain mycelium. This probably means the compost is a bit damp for the bulbs but I’m loath to change that because I want to see what the bees do. Stamets says he first noticed bees scratching at compost when he grew Stropharia rugosoannulata and noticed bees coming to sip at the sugary droplets on the mycelium. Well, we can grow mushrooms here, too. They could grow in big tubs in the garden, or even in the bark mulched borders, and we could watch to see what the bees do.

Oxfordshire Art Weeks 2017 at the Whispering Knights woodland

The woodland is open again this year for Oxfordshire Art Weeks, which runs from Saturday May 6th until Monday May 29th 2017. We’ve already had lots of enthusiastic visitors who have enjoyed browsing around the new structures. They’ve given us some great feedback too, which is very encouraging and welcome!

You can check out the latest updates here – there are new videos and a look at how the woodland ecosystem is developing.

We look forward to seeing you!

Directions and details

 

Morello cherry renovation project

Slow project – renovating a Morello cherry to bring it back to better shape and with improved flowering and fruiting. I first met this tree in 2015.

Before work started – late summer 2015 after fruiting. Most of the growth was at the top with bare areas lower down. Some stems had been bundled together and had wire wrapped around them, leading to congestion and damage, and the fan shape was starting to be lost.

Later the same day. We decided to do the job gradually over a few years, as advised by the RHS, in order to not encourage excessive unfruitful growth. Their advice refers to renovating old apple and pear trees, but the principles are much the same.

Working together, we took out some of the older stems, unraveled those which had been tied together, spread the branches out, put up news wires and re-tied them in their new positions. This sounds straightforward, but freeing the stems from their binding wires and untangling the congested growth took some time and we then spent a good while staring at it and discussing the matter before deciding where to begin.

June 2016. It flowered better in 2016 than it had the previous year, but there is still too much bare stem showing.

After fruiting, late summer 2016. More wood removed and some branches shortened to prevent the tree out-growing its allotted space. Note the new growth coming up at the base – we’ll make use of this in the coming years.

Early April 2017. It’s about to come into bloom and looks as if it will flower well. There is new growth coming from lower down which I intend to replace the oldest stem. This old stem is unbalanced in growth and has been snipped at over the years, making it stubby at the ends. Once it’s been removed, the other branches will be untied and re-trained, gradually bringing back the intended fan shape.

April 29, 2017. There is more blossom this year and new stems are flowering further down than in the last two seasons. At some point I’d like to see the whole wall covered in flowers.

Tying them in more horizontally should encourage some bud burst in the bare areas. I shall also try ‘nicking and notching‘ along the stems to trick the plant into thinking some parts have been cut back, which ought to encourage new growth in those parts. I’ve had success using this method on roses – in particular a very tall wall rose which had only one stem and was completely bare for the first 2.2m (seven feet). Taking a notch of bark out below a dormant bud at 45cm (17 inches) high broke the bud’s dormancy just above that point and also prompted the rose to send out multiple new stems further up. The rose now covers the wall as it was meant to do. That’s another story, mind you.

This is how Morello cherries can look when properly treated –

I don’t know where this tree is, but it looks very productive and creates a good screen for the structure behind it.

Morello trained against a dovecote at Rousham House garden in Oxfordshire. The pattern on it reminds me somewhat of the way fungal mycelium spreads out and is pleasing to the eye. I’ll go back later in the year and see how the fruit looks.

There are doves living in there and you can hear them cooing. It’s lovely.

Mycelium spreading on a leaf.

Breeding season brings out bird’s quirks

The robin, which has been visiting us for almost four years now, has finally introduced a mate. It may that he’s had a mate in previous years but if so we haven’t seen her and he’s never taken any worms to give her, as male birds often do during the mating season. We had started calling him a ‘Philosophy robin’, wondering if he intended to spend his life thinking robin thoughts rather than mating. This has changed.

The robin’s mate waits for her gift of worms

For the last couple of weeks, he’s been coming into the garage to eat a few worms himself before gathering two or three and flying away with them. Luckily for us, his mate either waits in the Pyracantha hedge or in the lime tree on the other side of the wall so we’ve been able to see what goes on. Being in the habit of coming to us for mealworms, the male is now eagerly offering his mate worms, seemingly at every opportunity, coming to the bowl several times in quick succession and flying off to stuff his gift of worms into her beak. She’s a fortunate robin and we’re curious to see when the young ones appear, especially as the RSPB say that the male feeding the female at this time can impact on clutch size.

Selecting the best worms

Looking at the photographs, you can see the beautiful detail in the robin’s feathers and also that there is a slight nick in his beak. How did it happen, I wonder? Wear and tear, perhaps? A fight?

See the tiny nick at the end of his beak?

Elsewhere, the breeding season is in full flow. In the woods I picked up the broken shell of a song thrush (Turdus philomelos). Bright blue and speckled with small black patches, this will have been removed from the nest as soon as the young one hatched. Where they’re nesting is a mystery, but it would be nice to think that one of the brash mounds in the woods has made itself attractive as a protected ‘dead hedge’ in which to bring up a family. We’ve found many old nests during our work on rebuilding the brash piles.

Song thrush egg shell

In the nearby garden I tend, the fruit cage has yet to have its wire netting roof put on for summer and its accessibility has been taken advantage of by a female pheasant. In a slightly scruffy gap between the raspberry canes, I spy a scratched out depression in the middle of which is a pale olive-brown egg. No doubt more will appear and I’ll have to work around her and later make sure the door is left open so the chicks can get out when they’re ready to fledge.

The pheasant’s egg

Back at home, plants are springing into lush new growth. In the herb bed, the fresh young leaves have been noticed by a male starling (Sturnus vulgaris). He’s been down a few times now and has been nipping off the new growth and carrying it away to line the nest his mate has made. Starlings have a habit of doing this. Thyme, oregano and lavender are popular, while rosemary is nipped off and wastefully left behind. That was a new plant too. Birds have no respect. I’m reminded of similar bird behaviour from about ten years ago, when starlings nipped off every bit of new growth from a lavender and flew off with it. That same spring, sparrows transformed a gracefully flowing clump of Stipa tenuissima into something that more resembled a small green hedgehog. Taking turns, they grabbed hanks of the grass in their beaks and pulled, tugged and jumped until it came free, only stopping when it was entirely pruned. When they’d done that, they made a move on the primroses and pulled off every flower, leaving them on the ground to wither. That’s birds for you.

The birds learn a word

This is the fourth year that the resident robin has been visiting us and every day, we still use the same routine as we always have done, saying ‘Hello robin, do you want some worms?’. There follows the usual sequence of events as the robin flits quickly from one perch to another, coming to rest on the work bench in the garage where the mealworm pot is kept and waiting for its worm treat.

For the male blackbird, it’s the second year. He’s pretty much a daily visitor, sometimes coming as many as three times a day, though there are days when we don’t see him at all. He likes his mealworms too, but he doesn’t come into the garage, preferring to stand on the threshold and eat there. We use the same words with him as well. The female isn’t as frequent a visitor but, when she does, he defers to her and she eats first. It happens rarely, but the look he gets from her if he dares to take the last worm is priceless. He’ll step forward and snatch it and she’ll glare at him like he’s just delivered the most offensive insult you could imagine.

As we feed the birds, we talk to them and they’ve become used to the sound of our voices. Looking at how these birds react to what we say, I think it’s possible that both the robin and the male blackbird have learned the word ‘worm’. The robin started reacting first, about a year ago. Karl told me that it had tweeted at him when he asked if it wanted worms, though we nearly always get a quick bob on the mention of the word. I got a surprising reaction when I went out to the woodshed recently. I was reaching in for some wood when the robin landed on a piece of wood a few inches from my head and sat watching me. I made the usual greeting and for each of the three times I said ‘worms’ it fluttered its wings for a couple of seconds and then followed me straight to the worm pot.

The blackbird isn’t as bold and generally waits to be noticed from a short distance away, often sitting the roof of the other shed. When I turn and invite him to come and have some worms, he looks up alertly and then runs across the shed roof before swooping down to the ground at my feet. Today I went out and called to him where he was sitting on the garage roof and he too fluttered his wings at each mention of ‘worms’.

We wonder how far away our voices can be heard and if the robin, in particular, recognises that it’s us and not other humans. There have been times, walking up the driveway shared with the neighbours, when we’ve been chatting away and look up to see the robin staring at us from the big gates that lead into our place. The way robin sits there looking at us, looks almost like it’s showing off and we find only when in company with others do we remember how tiny robins are. They somehow seem bigger when there are just the two of you.

It’s written that wild parrots in Australia are picking up phrases learned from escapee parrots, whilst starlings in the UK are known for being gifted mimics, so it doesn’t surprise me that the birds now recognise the word ‘worms’. Teaching the birds the melody to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ by whistling it daily, as Karl would like to do, might be too much but it is heartening to see that the birds appear to recognise something said to them. This is a current favourite performance of the ‘Ode to Joy‘. I love the way the faces of the audience show their delight at the unexpected music and the chorus is sung so powerfully it makes me want to weep. Unexpected music, whether from birds or humans deserves an ode to joy.

Tracking activity through the winter woods

Spending time in the woods after snow gives an interesting opportunity to look for signs of activity that wildlife leave behind them. It’s easy to spot where they’ve been, but not always easy to tell what the species was. Walking along one of the main paths through the woodland I’ve been working in during winter since late 2014, I spotted the footprints of a large bird and knew immediately that it was a pheasant (Phasianus colchicus). The footprints, one placed directly in front of the other, brought to mind a clear image of a male pheasant in all his flamboyant glory as he stalked along the path. Male pheasants always look slightly foolish to me; their tentative gait makes them seem uncomfortably nervous, as if they wish to be invisible, but they’re so brightly coloured that you can’t miss them. I must look kindly on them as pheasant season has not long ended and they’ve no doubt been dodging the lead shot of hunters for many weeks.

pheasant prints in snow

Walking on through the woods I spot snow that has clearly been disturbed over a large area. Patches of snow have been moved aside, revealing the leaf litter beneath. I wonder what creature did it. Was it badgers visiting the latrines we find throughout the woods? Or were they looking for food, perhaps? A slow walk and closer observation amongst them and reveals the answer, for next to almost every bare patch I see the faint footprints of a blackbird in the melting snow.

blackbird foot printsThe blackbird’s footprints

The bird’s passage between the trees, as it tossed aside the snow and moved the leaves, is very obvious and reminds of me how blackbirds throw up leaves and bark chippings in gardens. I hope it found what it was looking for, be it worms, grubs, beetles or slugs.

blackbird activity snow 2Signs of foraging

This woodland is host to a large number of fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) during winter. They are winter visitors from Scandinavia, arriving in autumn and leaving in late winter, and I first noticed them in November, when I saw a flock of them perched in a tree in a hedgerow on the nearby farm land, all of them facing the same direction. They are timid on their migration visits and fly off at the hint of a nearby human, but their presence in the woods is clear. Certain trees, often larch or pine, tell that they’ve been used for roosting and the evidence is seen in the dense scattering of droppings at the base of the favoured tree. Stand still and you won’t necessarily see the fieldfares but their voices are all around you. It is a strange cacophony of whistles and clacks and it sounds to me just like I imagine a sound effect might do in an old science-fiction B-movie, used when insectoid aliens are about to terrify some unsuspecting humans (you can hear them in this clip). One day the fieldfares might stop for me to photograph them, but that day is yet to come.

Another mystery in the woods is one created by humans. Someone tried their hand at building a shelter of sorts but it didn’t go too well and stood for less than 48 hours before collapsing in an ugly heap. It’s a little irritating because two other mounds had been taken apart to put this wreck together and we’ll need to dismantle it. It’s fairly regular for people to come into the wood and play, but they usually do a better job of it than this.

mysteryWhat the hell is that supposed to be?

By contrast, here’s one that Karl made nearly two years ago, which is still looking sturdy.

mycelium mound snowMuch better

Happy new bee year

On sunny days recently I’ve been going into the garden to check for bee activity at the hive. For many weeks now the only way to gauge if they were still there has been to look at the debris beneath the hive or press an ear to the outside and listen to the faint buzzing from within. It was with great pleasure that I looked again this last Saturday (February 3) and saw bees coming and going. There weren’t many of them, only ten at the most, but it was encouraging to see them.

bee-yellow-pollenFirst bee sighting of the year – early in the year but bringing in pollen

Yesterday, February 7, is another sunny day so I looked again and was delighted to see dozens of bees milling about on the outside of the hive and many coming in with pollen.

17-02-07_1Their first big outing of the year

Pollen is in short supply in February, but the bees clearly know where to find it. The pollen the bees were carrying was in varying shades of yellow and orange and looking at a pollen colour chart suggests that blue and yellow crocus, willow and snowdrop (Galanthus spp) flowers are the most likely to have been foraged.

17-02-07_3Spot the pollen

Willow (Salix alba) grows along the banks of the nearby river Windrush and flowers early in the year, providing a useful source of early pollen and nectar. Snowdrops and crocuses are both common in local gardens and I’ve put in quite a few more since we’ve lived here. The large-flowered snowdrop, Galanthus elwesii flowers two weeks earlier in this garden than the more common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, giving the bees a longer season of foraging those flowers.

bee in flowerYou can just see a bee in this Galanthus elwesii flower

Looking at the bees themselves, I was pleased to see shiny bodies and wings with no signs of deformity, which would indicate a problem with varroa mites. It’s hard to avoid these mites completely, but they do need controlling. I’d taken quite a lot of pictures of the activity on the hive and in a closer examination of the photos, I spotted something reddish-brown on one bee’s thorax, a varroa mite. I’ve looked very closely at all the other pictures, but haven’t seen any more.

varroa-1The bee in the centre has a varroa mite on her thorax – look for the shiny, red-brown disc

Our bee-friend, Steph, the one who came to collect the swarm last summer, gave us a device to put in the bottom of the hive. It’s a Bee Gym, and it helps the bees to scrape off the mites by themselves as they rub against the wires and ‘flippers’. You can see a Bee Gym being used here.

beegym_shopA Bee Gym

The reviews I’ve seen look positive, so it went straight into the hive and we’ve also put in a varroa board so we can count the number of mites that drop off. They’ll be prevented from crawling back into the hive by Vaseline (petroleum jelly) smeared on the board, which they’ll stick to.

varroa boardHome made varroa board smeared with Vaseline

There was a great deal of bee activity yesterday and it wasn’t easy to track the bee’s movements, but I did notice some gathered in small groups, as if gossiping, and what may have been grooming behaviour. Grooming amongst bees isn’t something I’ve seen before, so I’ll keep a look out for it. On the ground in front of the hive, I noticed three dead bees – alarming, but it’s natural for some of the bees to die over winter and some beekeepers report finding dozens or even hundreds of corpses in late winter, so there’s no reason to be concerned. On the hive itself are small streaks on the wood near the entrance, evidence of the bees answering the ‘call of nature’.

All in all, barring unavoidable calamity, it looks like a good start to the bee year.

bee shadows 2Bee shadows

Growing mushrooms for the bees

It’s winter and the garden is a quiet place without summer’s buzz. The robin and our regular pair of blackbirds attend us every day and sometimes the robin will appear to charm visitors as well as us, which is lovely. The sparrows twitter and flit from willow to Cotoneaster and back again.

robin-janOur constant companion, the robin

Winter plants are flowering – bulbs, Hellebores, the Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa); the witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) is glorious, its ribbon-like flowers glowing in the winter sun. There are a few insects to be seen, there are always bobbing gnats dancing in the air and I see the occasional bumblebee, but the honey bees are spending nearly all their time inside the hive. We probably won’t see much of them for several weeks and then the day will come when they come out to find the spring flowers. I feel a keen anticipation for that day.

hamamelis mollisHamamelis mollis brightens up a gloomy winter day 

I’m thinking about the bees and have been looking into ways of helping them to stay healthy. It was via these thoughts that I came back to something I’d read about last autumn and turned to my favourite mycologist, Paul Stamets, who, with others, has investigated how bees use fungi – you can listen to him talk here. He’d had some raised beds in his garden, which were covered in a thick layer of wood chips, and he noticed that the bees were paying a lot of attention to the chips and went to see what they were doing. He saw that they’d moved some of the wood to get at the mycelium growing beneath and were sipping droplets of liquid from it. Being both mycologist and bee keeper, he wanted to know more. The bees were attracted to sugar-rich cytoplasm from the mycelium and were seeking it out. That’s a good reason to encourage mycelium in the garden and to pay attention to good cultivation rather than turn to fungicides.

2-dec-16-2Mycelium growing on rotting wood

Stamets has also created a mix of honey and a particular fungus that the bees search out for immunological benefit and has found that it improves bee’s disease resistance and longevity. This means that bee numbers stay at a healthy level and that young nurse bees are not prematurely recruited into becoming foragers, leaving the bee nursery under-staffed. It is thought that improving the overall health of the hive should reduce the incidence of Colony Collapse Disorder.

It’s all fascinating to read and think about and I find Stamets’ enthusiasm infectious. Whatever your opinion of him, here is someone who wants to do good, who is trying. I’m going to follow some of his advice and to this end, mulches of wood chips have been laid on the beds, where mycelium will form and spread. Birch logs, one of the woods said to attract bees, have been added to the log piles. This was done in early autumn so whilst there will undoubtedly be a wait for the mycelilum to develop, once the weather warms and it gets started, the bees should find it and start investigating. I’m very keen to see what they do. Another bee keeper has told me that she’s noticed bees investigating rotting wood and has heard reports of the same from others, so I’m hopeful that this experiment will prove positive. To find out if the wood chips and logs are attractive to the bees will mean I have sit in the garden watching the bees. This does not seem too onerous a task and I shall ready myself for it.

Looking at the relationship between bees and fungi, Stamets says that bees search out particular trees, mainly willow, birch and young firs, especially those where the bark has already been damaged by wild animals such as deer or squirrels.

squirrel-damageTrees damaged by squirrels are being left standing to encourage insects and fungi

Art Inspired by the Cotswolds

The Whispering Knights Project I’ve been involved with for just over two years now is to appear in an exhibition at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester, which will run from January 15 – February 5, 2017. The exhibition, ‘Art Inspired by the Cotswolds‘ celebrates 50th anniversary of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Beauty (Cotswolds AONB).

Here is our new video:

We have framed prints of some of our favourite works to show and a video tour of parts of the woodland. Of course, the woodland is there all the time and visitors can wander around when they feel like it.

Entry is free and there is plenty of parking space available if you visit by car.