Category Archives: fungi

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.

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

Autumn: mellow fruitfulness – and clouds of biting midges

In the Cotswold woodland that we visit, the scene has changed and is suddenly autumnal. Now that the cover of the undergrowth is starting to collapse and die back, far more can be seen of what goes on beneath. With the dampness of autumn, fungi have popped up over night, making meals for various types of wildlife. Mammals eat fungi and clumps can be found which have been partially consumed, only the stems remaining. Why did they not eat all of it, one wonders.

chewed-mushrooms

Slugs are also partial to fungi and I found this one making a quiet meal on its own. You can find out more about slugs here.

slug-mushroom

It’s a very good year for puffballs, but they don’t appear to be attractive to wildlife and none I’ve come across have the marks of being sampled.

puff-ball

Elsewhere, badgers show their presence in the form of the pathways they’ve made in the grass. Their routes never seem to vary, even if a log is laid across them, and the paths are well trodden. Another sign of badgers is the shallow latrines they dig at particular points along their territory boundaries. Badgers are cleanly creatures, but these are a rather unpleasant thing to come across, generally being full of sloppy droppings which are coloured according to what has been eaten.

badger-latrine

The presence of an active badger sett can also be seen when the badgers air their bedding, pulling it out of the sett and spreading it around. The bedding I was lucky enough to come across was primarily made up of dried grass and animal hair, which would make quite a soft and comfortable bed. I’ve yet to see a badger gathering bedding for myself but have seen video showing them dragging balls of grass backwards towards the sett, much as a dog would do with bedding. I found it almost as frustrating to watch and recalled how our dog Toby would scuff up the rug in his bed, changing it from being neatly spread out to a lumpy heap.

badger-bedding

At home, the robin still visits us several times a day, alighting on logs in the open fronted wood shed and then making short hops from one perch to another before flying into the garage for its treat of mealworms. The two blackbirds which had also been visiting disappeared suddenly and we suspected they had not been predated, but had gone off to the hedgerows to feast on the abundance of berries available there. They returned today and have gone straight back to their usual routine of speed-eating as many mealworms as possible. The robin, in comparison, is positively genteel, taking only a few worms at one sitting and allowing a few moments between each one.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ it may have been to the poet John Keats, but I suspect he didn’t do much gardening. Autumn is certainly beautiful, but to me it also means the emergence of biting midges and once more resorting to insect repellent. This autumn has been especially midgy and working under shrubs has found me tormented by these wretched creatures and itching for days. How they get through my hair is a mystery. I searched out the repellent I’d mislaid after summer, Stupidly Simple Midge Repel. It contains pine tar and has a faint smoky odour, but it works and I’ve never been happier to smell like an old bonfire.

midge-repel

‘A beautiful young sapling leapt up’

In 2012 the magnificent old cherry tree in the garden, consumed by rot, blossomed for the last time, started dropping branches and died in the autumn. It was the biggest and most gnarled cherry tree I’ve ever seen, splendid and beautiful.

old cherry tree

It was so sad to see it go, like losing a friend, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in missing it – small birds sheltered in the canopy, woodpeckers nested in a hole pecked out of the spongy wood and beetles and wasps bored holes in which to lay eggs. For me, I missed the ancient knobbly trunk, sunlight shining through the dark red foliage and seeing the falling petals drift down like confetti.

fallen_branch

As luck would have it, in 2011 I had found two almost identical seedlings nearby and potted them up. I never found any others and attempts to propagate from seed were not successful, so these two little descendants were all that was left.

felled_cherry_treeGoodbye cherry tree

Winter passed and by the summer of 2013 the remains of the old stump were rotting away. The seedlings had come on nicely and were both some 30cm tall. What if we dug out the rotting wood and planted one of them in the hole? I didn’t see why not, so on the 2nd of July, 2013 we set to and dug it out. The hole was filled with new soil and the tree was planted, watered in and given some support.

tree_planted

Then we watched to see what would happen and the new cherry surpassed our expectations, easily doubling in height during the first year.

new cherry 2013 0702It was so small!

We carried out careful pruning and diligent watering and the tree continued to thrive and grow. By the end of 2015 it was a good deal taller than either of us. In 2016, it flowered for the first time. Not many flowers, perhaps a dozen, but they shone in the sun and I was glad to see them. Now that it’s leafing out, the morning light once again shines through the red leaves and we often admire it through the kitchen window.

cherry flowerFirst flowers

The other sapling I planted out in a farm garden and it has fared very differently. It looks healthy enough, but it’s still under 1m tall rather than the 2m plus of its sibling. Why is there this striking difference in growth? I’ve thought about it a lot and have come up with a few ideas. It may simply be that this was the sturdier specimen, though both seemed very much the same. Perhaps it has better soil or is more protected than the other tree.

cherry tree 2016 0313Spring 2016

The explanation that pleases me the most, whether it’s the best one or not, is that between the time of the old tree coming down and the new one going in – some nine months – the old roots started to soften and break down. The roots of the new tree have found the underground ways of those roots and are following them, making use of the established network and the beneficial work of mycorrhizal fungi which is undoubtedly present below the unfed lawn where the old roots run. Whatever the truth of the matter, the tree is clearly thriving. I am reminded of a line from Tolkien’s ‘The Return of the King‘ about the Mallorn tree which Sam Gamgee plants when he returns to The Shire: ‘A beautiful young sapling leapt up‘. As I look at the beautiful young sapling here, that line goes through my mind often and I wonder how it will look in the years to come and whether it will ever be as resplendent as its ancestor became, giving shelter and sustenance to so many small creatures. I shall never know, but I hope that it does.

cherry-2016-2Coming into leaf