Tag Archives: wildlife

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.

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

Unexpected visitors

Sunday was meant to be a gentle day – we’d bake some bread, potter outside and cook something delicious. That didn’t happen for, as Robert Burns said in his poem, ‘To a Mouse‘, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”. In other words, you can plan all you want to, but don’t expect any of it to happen.

I was enjoying the ‘potter outside’ section of this plan, cutting back spent perennials, and was thus engrossed when I heard buzzing. It grew louder and I looked up to see bees overhead. How wonderful, a swarm of honey bees setting forth to build a new colony. I expected them to fly over in a column, as usual, and disappear beyond the rooftops, but they didn’t. Instead I found myself at the centre of a swirling mass of swarming bees. At first it was alarming, then I recalled all those times working in flower filled beds, with bees almost buzzing in my hair, and realised that they probably hadn’t even noticed me and were interested in their own business of finding a safe place for their queen. Still, probably better to close a couple of windows, just in case, and find the number of a local swarm collector on the British Beekeepers Association site.

bee-swarmThe swarm clustered in the Magnolia tree

I spoke to a swarm collector, Steph Green, from a nearby village, who said she’d be there within the hour. Outside the bees were still active but gradually settling high up in the big old Magnolia tree outside the kitchen window, the worker bees – Steph calls them ‘the girls’ – clustering protectively around the queen. Every so often, I’d go and check that they were still there and hadn’t moved on. Here they are in the clip below.

In due course, Steph arrived with her bee collecting gear – two bee keeper’s suits, boots, gloves, a sheet for any falling bees to land on so they would be seen and not squashed, and a special polystyrene box called a ‘nuc box’, or nucleus collecting box, which was set out under the tree.

IMG_20160703_171805Karl in the tree

The work of bringing the swarm down to the ground began. Our longest ladders weren’t quite long enough for Steph to reach the swarm and the upper branches were congested so would need trimming. Karl was the tallest and had the longest arms so he volunteered to go up. He cut out some wood, a job which needed doing anyway, got into the tree, removed the branch with the swarm and very carefully lowered it down. Steph took it from him, held it over the box, gave a sharp downward shake and most of the bees dropped straight in. The others continued to swirl around us, their buzzing surprisingly loud.

bee-branchGetting ready to shake the bees into the box

in-the-boxLooking for the queen

Steph had told me on the phone that the bees would have filled their stomachs prior to swarming and would be fairly docile. She said their stomachs would be so full they’d find it hard to get into position to sting and anyway they were intent on the queen, not stinging. It made sense. I had long sleeves, was wearing gloves and my trousers were tucked into boots, so I kept what seemed a sensible distance, tidied up the cut branches, took pictures and listened to Steph talking about what the bees were doing.

suits-bootsKarl and Steph

Some remained in the tree top, where they could still smell the queen, whilst others were standing in rows on the edge of the box with their rear ends pointing skyward and their wings flapping. They were giving off the Nasonov pheromone, which smells of geraniums and is used to signal stragglers to the colony’s whereabouts. Beware of eating bananas before dealing with bees, as the alarm pheromone reputably smells much like them.

hive-530pm

The bees fan their pheromone scent to encourage the stragglers to join them

Gradually, the bees were coaxed into the box, the lid put on and a hole left open for latecomers to get in. Steph was extremely gentle in her work, taking care that none of the bees were inadvertently harmed. Inside their box, the bees ‘fanned’ to alert the rest of the colony, sounding very much like an electric fan, while a small group of female workers stood by the round doorway, bottoms pointing up, giving off their geranium scent.

brush-lidSteph gently moves bees out of harm’s way

By 7pm, most had gone inside and only three workers remained at the doorway, so we went in and had dinner. As dusk fell, the bees went to bed and Steph took them to their new home amongst other bees, in a field.

hive-7pmBy 7pm, only three bees were still signalling

What a day. Karl said later how surreal it felt to find himself not doing the odd jobs he’d intended to, but in a tree and holding a branch with a swarm of bees clustering on it. Not the plan, but a very good day indeed.

IMG_20160509_075712Their new home

A walk on the wild side

A friend is selling up her acre plot and moving into town and, for this last year, she’s decided to give herself a break and let part of the garden go wild. It’s a good idea, in my opinion – she is well into creaking joints territory and has over 30 year’s worth of belongings to sort out, and caring for an acre is no small undertaking at the best of times. It will also be good to see what wildlife is attracted. The area of garden allowed to go wild has had some four months of vigorous growth, fueled by warm days and plentiful rain, so I am curious to see what’s going on there.

nettles-grassSome of the nettles

The first thing I notice is an abundance of nettles (Urtica dioica) – there are thickets of them almost as tall as I am, some festooned with cleavers (Gallium aparine). According to the aesthetics of appearance that most are familiar with, this sight is no thing of beauty, but the nettles are humming with life. Where growing most thickly, the leaves and stems are smothered with aphids and it’s interesting to note that a large number of the aphids appear to have been parasitised by wasps. I’ve never seen so many parasitised aphids before and wonder if they have been parasitised by one of the tiny wasps of the sub order Aphidiinae. There are none to see, so my guess remains just that. A healthy population of parasitic wasps means the rest of the garden may stand a chance against other insect pests.

fliesFlies and a parasitised aphid

Amongst the aphids countless small flies buzz around or walk to and fro over the nettle leaves and I wonder if they are after the sugary excrement of the aphids, who have been busy siphoning off the sap of the nettles. From a distance, I feel a natural revulsion to so many flies – to a part of my brain they imply putrefaction – but there is no foul smell of decay and, close up, the flies reveal bodies of iridescent green and gold and are really quite beautiful.

I walk around the stands of nettles, careful to avoid touching their stinging hairs. Some nettles have a harsher sting than others and I’ve found that those growing elsewhere in this garden pack quite a punch. Leaning in, a flash of blue catches my eye. It is a male common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) resting on a leaf and my attentions disturb it, so it flies to another part of the thicket.

damselfly

I wander, bending and straightening, peering along stems and under leaves. Here is a ladybird larva busily foraging for aphids and over there is the fat caterpillar of a red admiral butterfly moving slowly amongst the leaves. Soon it will pupate, attach itself to a leaf and ready itself to become a butterfly.

red-admiral-caterpillarA red admiral butterfly caterpillar

Over there, several clusters of Peacock butterfly caterpillars. Another good reason to leave this patch alone. Nearby a harvestman spider, not a true spider but an arachnoid, stands very still on a leaf and I wonder if it is waiting for prey or just resting.

peacock-caterpillarsPeacock butterfly caterpillars

Tall grasses waft around the edges of the wild area and comfrey finds a space for itself where it can and light up the greenness with purple flowers. Bumblebees travel slowly from one pendulous flower to another. If I were to stay here for many hours, and perhaps over night, I’m sure there would be birds, amphibians and small mammals coming to take advantage of the shelter and sustenance of this wild area. There is plenty here for all.

bumblebee-comfreyBumblebee on comfrey 

There’s a lot of tree bark stripping this year

The winter of 2015-2016 was mild compared to some of those from earlier in the decade and you’d think that the wild mammals would have found enough to eat in the fields and hedgerows, but this spring I’ve seen some of the worst damage to tree bark I’ve ever come across. In rural gardens I expect to find the juicy foliage of bulbs and shrubs nibbled at the end of winter, but this year has seen an increase in tree bark stripping that I haven’t previously observed.

deer-bulb-foliageChewed bluebell foliage

At Ruth’s out-of-town garden, about half of her orchard trees have been ring-barked, the bark gnawed off all around the trunks, some up to 40cm. What a mournful sight it was to see her fine apple trees so ravaged, protected too late with chicken wire that will at least prevent further damage. I thought of others I know who have fruit trees and felt a strong urge to check on them. The tale continued – oaks planted to celebrate the Millennium, which had been thought mature enough to no longer need protection, had been stripped. Some creature had made a good meal from a gnarled and leaning old apple tree, with the branches growing along the ground now free of bark. In nearby woodland, the evidence was again clear and tree trunks had been nibbled and gnawed as far as could be reached.

apple-tree-damage-3Doesn’t look so good, does it

Which species ate the bark? Looking into the issue, my guess is that it was a variety of them. A surprising number of UK mammals eat bark and I suspect that the culprits in the gardens were mainly voles and rabbits. Both gardens regularly see the garden plants browsed and bulbs dug out and eaten and both have resident rabbits and voles, as evidenced by droppings and the large number of tunnel entrances – I imagine one particularly holey and uneven area of grass must have a vole citadel beneath it.

deerBambi, was it you?

It is alarming to come across such damage to beloved trees but once it has happened, there isn’t much to be done and one can only think of ways to prevent further depredations. The first thing I did was protect the tree trunks with an ever-useful material, the galvanised wire mesh we know as chicken wire. Over the years, I have found countless uses for the combination of chicken wire and bamboo canes. Here they came in handy once again as the wire mesh was fashioned into cages around the trees and fixed in position with the canes. Not all the trees will survive, of course, and those completely ring-barked will no doubt die, but others may yet live.

Why has this happened now, I ask myself? I can only think that the mild winter has resulted in an increased survival rate of the wildlife concerned, all of them needing to eat and finding the clusters of trees and succulent young foliage of nearby plants to be most advantageous to them. Speaking to another gardener, I hear that a local herd of deer has increased from around six to 20 in the last couple of years and they are regularly found dining in the village gardens.

rabbit-damageThis Campanula clearly tastes good

I am somewhat torn in my feelings about the matter. I feel very sorry for the garden owners having their gardens damaged and will do all that I can to protect them but another part of me, the part with a fervent interest in ecology and who is a keen fan of the ecologist Aldo Leopold, can’t help but be glad that the rabbits, voles and deer are there in the first place and obviously finding something to eat. In my secret heart, I cheer these wild creatures who are finding a way to live within the ever-increasing sprawl of humanity, for we are encroaching on their territory quite as much as they encroach on what we believe to be ours.

Recognising types of mammal damage

‘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

 

Charting the course of autumn wildlife

Now that this long autumn has begun its move towards winter, the activity of wildlife has changed from one of raising young to securing a territory and surviving the coming months of cold. Robins need little reason to fight amongst themselves and their battles become more frequent as the year ages and they strive to acquire and hold the territory that will feed them until spring. Finches and tits group together to form chattering flocks, hedgehogs, dormice and bats prepare for hibernation and amphibians burrow into soil, compost heaps or under log piles.

1021-1

In this old house, autumn is heralded by the arrival of wood lice, which suddenly increase in numbers and crawl about the edges of rooms or find their way into the bath. As temperatures drop, they are joined by, and appear to be eaten by, spiders and their numbers drop again. We find the dessicated bodies in clusters under cobwebs, tucked away behind the fridge or under the washing machine. Many people don’t like insects in their homes, but it doesn’t really bother me that much, unless they bite or a light has been left on in an open-windowed room and it fills with dancing craneflies (Tipulidae).

In the great outdoors, it is interesting to stand amongst autumn trees and see the changes. In the woods, the deer have moved back into the dense central growth, where they make beds by scraping away the grass and leaves to reveal the bare earth they seem to prefer resting on. They are donning their winter coats, turning from a rich brown to a dull fawn, which blends perfectly with the muted colours of approaching winter.

deer-scrapeA deer has scraped away the grass and moss to make a bed of soil

All around us, insects are seeking shelter, tucking themselves against seed pods or the curls of fallen leaves.

nov-2015Ladybird seeking shelter

Slugs are fattening up on the last of the fungi, that not eaten by mammals, and will themselves become meals for hedgehogs, thrushes or toads.

slug-mushroom

In the Cotswold woodland I frequent, a small team is working to collect the brash from tree thinnings and build it into loosely woven mounds. Work started late last year and finished in spring and now that it is due to begin again, I’ve visited the woodland to observe wildlife activity around these mounds and it is gratifying to see.

shelterA small mammal has made a shelter in this thick mass of pine needles

Spiders are weaving their webs in the woven brash and many small birds move in and out of the twined stems. As I walk along the pathways or through the trees, birds flit from one brash mound to another. Sheltering so many insects, the mounds have become larders for them, as well as both habitat and hunting ground for small mammals and amphibians.

1021-3The birds spend a great deal of time investigating the woven brash

When it sometimes seems that all species except humans are sensibly tucking themselves away from the cold, I hear the soft sub-song of robins and blackbirds under shrubs, then suddenly the voices of dozens of birds. I look up to see a large flock of long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) has landed on a lime tree, and are calling ‘tsee-tsee-tsee’. I can make life easier for these wakeful birds, so the seed feeders will be filled over and again and the songsters will continue to enliven the relative quiet of winter.

 

Time to clean out the nesting boxes. Or should we?

The British Trust for Ornithology states that Bird Protection Law permits the cleaning out of nesting boxes between 1 August and 31 January and as there are seven nesting boxes in Ruth’s large garden and she doesn’t like going up ladders, at the end of September she asked me to help her clean them out. Armed with gloves, a nest collecting bucket, a stiff brush and a ladder we set off, eager to see how many had been used and what the nests looked like.

birdbox-4A very private residence

Some were easier to get at than others; one was high up and almost entirely hidden by ivy, with only the entrance hole to be seen, whilst another was attached to a mature yew tree surrounded by a dense thicket of Symphoricarpos.

All the boxes were made by Ruth’s husband, a skilled carpenter, and were easily accessible at the base, which swivelled out to allow cleaning. The entrance holes were surrounded by a metal plate to prevent woodpeckers enlarging the hole and reaching in to take young birds.

nesting-box-3Made with care and attention by Ruth’s husband, Fred

As we made our way around the garden, opening boxes, removing the contents, giving the inside a quick scrub, the old nests piled up in the bucket. In the end, we found that five of the boxes had been used and were fascinated to see their variety.

five-nestsA wide variety of nests

All had a base of moss topped by a mixture of wool and other material, but one nest, with shell fragments showing it was used by a Great tit (Parus major), had a particularly deep and luxuriant foundation of moss, topped by a thick layer of wool. It looked so cosy – imagine being born surrounded by that softness.

luxury-nestThis mix of moss and wool was our favourite

In contrast another nest, whilst clearly used, had a fairly thin foundation of moss and very little wool. Yet another had been finished with downy feathers and a single unhatched egg showed it had been used by a blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus).

bluetit-eggUnhatched blue tit egg

All this cleaning activity begs the question, why clean out nesting boxes? A piece in The Telegraph suggests that it doesn’t really matter and that birds don’t really mind. It’s a thought provoking article, but unfortunately the studies mentioned are not named or linked to, so it isn’t possible to read them. Over on the RSPB website, the cleaning of nesting boxes is recommended: ‘The nests of most birds harbour fleas and other parasites, which remain to infest young birds that hatch the following year. We recommend that old nests be removed in the autumn, from August onwards once the birds have stopped using the box’. Take your pick, but if Ruth wants to clean out the nesting boxes that’s fine with me. We didn’t destroy the nests, incidentally, we tucked them under hedges around the garden so that other creatures can make use of the materials. That or they will gently compost into the earth.

 

Flying ant day 2015

If you saw mention in the news about swarms of flying ants during the the last week, then you may also have seen the ants themselves. Over the weekend between July 31 and August 2 there were a flurry of stories across all the media reporting sightings of the emergence of thousands of flying ants with Sunday August 2 being the peak ‘Flying Ant Day’. Here at home, in west Oxfordshire, Flying Ant Day was Friday July 31 at approximately 5.15pm. I was lucky enough to see two colonies emerge, with the larger young queens and smaller males to take to the air for their nuptial flight, guided from the nest by small wingless workers. Last year’s Flying Ant Day occurred on July 27 at 7pm and on that occasion it was yellow meadow ants (Lasius flavus) that were seen. They emerged from an old tree stump in the garden.

ants-2

The ants I saw this year were black ants, probably Lasius niger and the ant most likely to be seen in the UK. One emergence came from under the slabs in the courtyard. We had been aware of their presence because of sandy deposits in the gaps between the slabs and because of increased worker ant activity in the days leading up to the nuptial flight. The other emergence was in the garden, where it seems that they were under the walls of the building at the end of the garden. Seeing that white wall suddenly covered in winged ants was quite startling and took me back to the age of about seven, when I’d seen black ants crawling up a white wall at my childhood home. There were hundreds of them slowly making their way up to about 3m before taking off. Some fell off and had to start again, others took off and landed on my clothes before making another attempt at flight. You can see why people having picnics or barbecues might be annoyed by such a phenomenon but I was involved in neither and it was fascinating to watch.

ants

The weather conditions for both this year and last year’s emergence was the same – dry, warm, humid and with a light breeze. This allows the ants to take flight and mate without being blown away or rained on. So many ants flying at once means that they are so many that not all can be predated by birds and there will be enough queens to land, shed their wings and start a new colony. Only the queens survive the nuptial flight, the males die shortly after mating.

If you saw an ant colony emerge and would like to submit your records, you can do so on the website of the Royal Society of Biology, where you can also find out more about the UK’s ant species.