Wildlife, fishing and pets

Book Review: The Secret Lives of Garden Bees


This week is Bees’ Needs Week, an annual event coordinated by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and involving charities, businesses, conservation groups and academic institutions to raise awareness of bees and other pollinators. So what better time to remind you about this book?

I had no idea there were so many different kinds of bees! The Secret Life of Garden Bees by Jean Vernon (published by White Owl) really opened my eyes to the vast variety of these endearing and invaluable creatures. Two hundred and seventy six species in Britain alone.

Honeybees: yes, of course, I know about them. These are the ones everybody gets so worked up about. But they’re probably the ones least in need of protection - after all, there are beekeepers all over the country whose aim is to look after them. There are also the bees that burrow into the mortar in the front wall of my old stone house: yes, I know about them.

But I had no idea about, for example, the ivy bee which doesn’t emerge from its below ground nests until September when the first ivy starts to flower. Or Britain's rarest bee, the shrill carder bumblebee, known only from a few places scattered across southern Britain.

This is an eye-opening book and one thing that Jean Vernon does very well, as she guides us through a world that really is secret to most of us, is to present information that could be seen as off-puttingly technical in easy accessible language. It's crucial for writers aiming to engage readers with new and detailed material to carry them along, to present no barriers. Some resort to being superficial - but what's the point of that?

Reading The Secret Lives of Garden Bees we can absorb the information in an enjoyable way without feeling overwhelmed.

  • Declaration of interest: the author is a friend, and the book was supplied free of charge by the publisher.
  • A shorter version of this review appeared on Facebook in July 2020.

New research: Non-native plants just as good as natives for pollinators

Verbena bonariensis and Lobelia tupa, two valuable Southern Hemisphere pollinator plants from South America  on the RHS Plants For Bugs research plots.
There’s been a great deal of controversy about whether native plants are best for pollinating insects or whether non-native garden plants are just as valuable. On the whole, the debate has been informed by more opinion than science but, after a four year research project at their Wisley garden near London, the Royal Horticultural Society has the answer. This is the first ever designed field experiment to test whether the geographical origin (‘nativeness’) of garden plants affects the abundance and diversity of invertebrates (wildlife) they support.

“Until now the role native and non-native plants play in sustaining wildlife in gardens has been unclear and confusing,” say the lead researchers on the project Dr Andrew Salisbury and Helen Bostock. “Now, for the first time, gardeners can access robust, evidence-based information on the most effective planting strategy they can adopt if they wish to attract and support pollinators.”

Over on her Plants For Bugs blog, Helen Bostock summarizes the three main conclusions of the research (her emphasis in bold).

“1. The best strategy for gardeners wanting to support pollinating insects in gardens is to plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions.

VerbenaBee“2. Emphasis should be given to plants native to the UK and the northern hemisphere, though exotic plants from the southern hemisphere can be used to extend the season (there are a greater proportion of exotic plants flowering later in the season compared to UK native and northern hemisphere plants) and provide nectar and pollen for some specific pollinators.

 (Left, Verbena bonariensis from South America)

“3. Regardless of plant origin (native or non-native), the more flowers a garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.”

So there you have it, research at the RHS (part of the research area above, click to enlarge) the best way to encourage pollinating insects is to “plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions” – and not to rely only on native species.

Supported by the Wildlife Gardening Forum, this is exactly the sort of research we need to demonstrate the Entomologist Andy Salisbury uses a Vortis suction sampler to collect insects in the Plants for Bugs experimental plots at Wisley proven realities of an issue which has been dominated by the trading of opinions such as “Native plants will attract more native pollinators” masquerading as facts.

Let’s hope the RHS team will soon be looking at the relative importance of native and non-native plants in providing food for those larvae of native insects which do not require specific native plant species on which to feed – for although the point is pretty much proved in Jennifer Owen’s Wildlife of a Garden, it would be good to have research on the same scale this newly published RHS research to make the point.

* You can read the full details of the RHS research online in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
* Take a look at the latest addition to the RHS guidance on Plants For Pollinators based on this research.
* Read the background to the research and how it was done.

The snowy morning the deer got in

Deer munching as they wait to be chased out from inside the fence. Image ©GardenPhotos.com
Still in my pjs I wandered into my room with my breakfast at about 7am yesterday morning to take a look at the news online, looked out of the window – and a deer was looking in at me.

This is not good news. The garden is fenced against the deer - without the fence we couldn't garden, the deer would eat everything. Or it was. It turned out that the weight a foot of heavy snow had sagged the fence and three deer had got in. So I scampered into my boots and coat and woolly hat and dashed outside – pausing for a moment to take a quick snap before they carried on my munching through our hydrangeas.

Anyway… I opened the gate, waved a broom and shouted at them and after they’d run about all over – entirely forgetting where they’d come in, of course – they finally left. It won’t be clear till the spring how much they’ve actually eaten.

Book Review: A brilliant new month-by-month bird book

September Swallows by Carry Akroyd from Tweet Of The Day. Image ©Carry AkroydBirds and plants seem to go together naturally. Birders usually seem to be interested in plants, while gardeners enjoy birds. In the US, there’s even a very popular magazine, Birds & Blooms, that combines the two enthusiasms. But not all bird books appeal to gardeners – they may be too focused or too esoteric – but this one is different.

Tweet Of The Day began as a BBC radio series, a one hundred second daily focus on an individual British bird starting each time with its song (the closest North American equivalent is the two minute BirdNote). The popularity of the series has led to this enticing book in which the bird song of the radio series is replaced by bold and captivating illustrations (click to enlarge). The result is an enjoyable month-by-month guide to birds by two of Britain’s most acclaimed naturalists and one of Britain’s premier wildlife artists.

All the familiar garden birds are included, along with many that we’ll see on our walks and drives around Britain. But rather than provide a detailed description of each one (there are plenty of illustrated field guides, after all) authors Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss concentrate on the birds’ habits, their song, and their jizz – what it’s like to see them and how they behave – all clearly derived from their own long day-to-day experience with the birds. And there’s a tempting sprinkling of intriguing stories as well: find out which bird stays in the air for eighteen months after it leaves its nest and check out the traditional way of cooking baby gannet!

Their style is relaxed, conversational almost, yet they pack in so much information without being heavy-handed about it.

And everything is enlivened by the full page, full colour illustrations from Carry Akroyd (click to enlarge), as well as dramatic July Kestrel by Carry Akroyd from Tweet Of The Day. Image © Carry Akroydendpapers, chapter openers and a neat one-shot black and white cameo of each bird.  Her colour work very effectively sets the birds in their landscape: the pheasant and brambling under an autumn oak, the kestrel hovering above a rural road, the kingfisher streaking over the stream, the grouse on the moor. She has the knack of making us feel familiar with a bird even if we’ve never actually seen it, and even the small black-and-whites give you a snapshot of how they behave.

While it’s the illustarions that first grab you, this is a great book for people who are interested in birds but don’t know very much while seasoned birders will discover details they never knew. You start by dipping into it – and end up forgetting about lunch.

BBC radio's Tweet Of The Day is available as a podcast.

* American readers may not be familiar with the birds but they will surely find the text fascinating and certainly enjoy the illustrations.

Tweet Of The Day by Brett Westwood & Stephen Moss, illustrated by Carry Akroyd, is published by Saltyard Books.


Wasps’ nest over the water

Wasps' Nest hanging from a maple over the water. Image ©GardenPhotos.com

Yesterday evening I took the kayak out round the lake on which our house sits. It’s a little over two miles all round and, after just over half a mile, I noticed something hanging from a waterside maple. I paddled closer. It was this wasps’ nest.

It was more than a foot/30cm+ from top to bottom, it was hanging from a rather slender branch (as you can just see) about 12ft/4m out from the shore and its weight had brought it down perilously close to the water… It was hanging just a few inches above the surface. I suppose when the wasps started building it was 2-3ft/60-90cm above the water – not any more. As it grew larger and heavier it hung lower and lower.

There was a noticeable hole towards the bottom of the nest, on the side facing the shore, and there were large, dark wasps going in and out. I’d have liked to take a closer look but, to be honest, I didn’t want to get too near. And the wind kept blowing me towards it.. But I wanted to take a picture…

My knowledge of the behavior of wasps is largely derived from TV cartoons so I knew that if I got too close they’d all come streaming out of the nest and chase me across the lake as I paddled frantically to get away until I jumped in the water – at which point they’d all laugh and head back home. So I soon paddled away.

Still, it was a great thing to see – even if it may only take one thunderstorm to raise the water level and ruin their nest. And thunderstorms are forecast today.

UPDATE: Two weeks later I paddled over and took another look - someone's smashed up the nest. What's the point of that?

Our friend the frog

Green Frog (Rana clamitans) keeping an eye out for slugs (J048009). Image ©GardenPhotos.com
This fine looking creature has been hopping around our Pennsylvania garden for a week or two now and judy was able to get a great picture. The exceptionally good news is – she’s a Green Frog, and she loves slugs. Which is just as well as she’s quite a way from any water where she would find dragonfly larvae, small fish, shrimps and other small aquatic creatures. On land Green Frogs also eat spiders, snails, small snakes and also, rather alarmingly… birds. Gulp. Can't see Britain's most common frog - yes, it's called the Common Frog! - eating birds.

The Green Frog (Rana clamitans), is the north east’s most widespread frog and reaches about 10cm/4in in length but as, I say, she’s quite a way from the lake. Perhaps a heron dropped her on its way over the trees. The soaker hose watering ensures that there’s plenty of humidity at frog level amongst the lush perennials and shrubs, and there are a couple of broad bowls full of water. But, if you were a Mrs Green Frog, you’d be looking for somewhere else to lay your eggs – though breeding begins in April, and we’re right at the end of the breeding season so exploration is now perhaps more of a priority.

I haven’t heard her make a noise, but they’re said to squawk when alarmed (the Latin “clamitans” means “exclaiming”) The cats are keeping a thoughtful distance.

* Take a look at these other posts about wildlife.

The catbird nest outside our window

Guest post from writer and photographer judywhite

Gray Catbird at the nest with young (J047691). Image ©GardenPhotos.com
Two years ago we had a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) nest in a juniper outside our bedroom window here in northeastern Pennsylvania and we had a decent view of the nesting process, much to the chagrin of the mother catbird. This year, trying to outwit us, she built a nest on the other side of the house entirely, in a ninebark shrub, Physocarpus opulifolius Coppertina (‘Mindia’). This nest was even closer to a window, about three feet (c1m) away. I only discovered it because I was cutting back the shrub in July and saw the nest just in time, leaving it still covered, but conveniently if inadvertently exposed on the window side, providing an excellent view. [BTW For Brits: the Grey Catbird's closest British relatives are thrushes and starlings.]

Catbirds make a squawking meowing noise when they are annoyed; hence their name. We’ve heard it a lot lately. It’s about the most recognizable birdcall. Catbirds are also songbirds, related to the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), cobbling together interesting sounds that can include frog noises and whistles. (Listen to the “Mew” as well as song samples on the excellent Cornell Lab of Ornithology site.)

The catbird is a medium sized (9in/22cm) gray nun of a bird, with a demure black cap, but hides a surprising rusty orange petticoat under its long tail. A perky creature despite the somber appearance, it loves the birdbath, taking long splashes in evident enjoyment. The catbird also stays out long after most other birds have retired for the evening. They’re pretty common here.

CNewly hatched Gray Catbird chick and egg (J047288). Image ©GardenPhotos.comOur catbird female built the twiggy nest about 4ft (1.2m) off the ground and laid three gorgeous teal-blue eggs in mid-July. This was her second brood of the year. She sat on them for 12 days, when the first one hatched; the other two followed within 24 hours. The male helps feed the babies, and we sometimes saw him also feed the mother as she sat - which she often had to do in the rain looking miserable.

What’s amazing is how fast baby catbirds grow. In 12 days, they went from vulnerable pink blobs to adult-sized and full-feathered. Today the first one fledged; the others should follow today and tomorrow, a succession that allows the parents time to worry about just one floundering around in the treetops while still feeding nestlings. The nest size, which seemed cavernous with three eggs, was full to bursting by the time the young were big enough to leave.

So we got some decent photos by cracking open the window, fixing the tripod inside and the Nikon D200 & Nikkor 105mm macro lens outside, using a long remote shutter cord. I lay out of sight on the floor so as not to alarm them, waiting to hear the babies peeping in anticipation when a parent was there with food – then I clicked button on the remote.

Catbirds migrate to southeastern US states for winter, as far as Central America, leaving in September/October. I guess ours will be back as usual next May, trying to find yet another shrubby thicket of peace and quiet.

Gray Catbird babies demanding food (J047769). Image ©GardenPhotos.com

Native or non-native: which plants are best for insects?

Shrubby hare’s ear, Bupleurum fruticosum, is a top plant for hoverflies (André Karwath aka Aka (Own work) ‘CC-BY-SA-2.5 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)’, via Wikimedia Commons)
When, a couple of years ago, I wrote about non-native plants often being better for wildlife than native plants it prompted a lot of comments, for and against, and also private emails – mostly against, including some that were unexpectedly unpleasant.

Undeterred, I bring news of an article by Dr Ken Thompson in Britain’s Which? Gardening magazine, published by the impartial, non-profit Consumers’ Association (similar to Consumer Reports in the US) which says the same thing: “Recent research shows that non-native plants can be just as attractive to wildlife as native ones – if not more so.”

Ken Thompson, of the University of Sheffield, is a biologist with a special interest in the science of gardening. He’s examined recent research at the Social Insects Lab at the University of Sussex, and at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Plants for Bugs project and reports that “pollinating insects have no clear preference for the flowers of native plants”.

So we gardeners can rest easy. If we’re looking to attract insects and other wildlife to our gardens, garden plants are often better than native plants. And there seems to be no argument that, especially in densely populated areas, gardens make crucial contributions to the success of so many birds and insects

Borage, Borago officinalis, is the ultimate honeybee plant. Image So what to grow? To attract pollinators, Ken Thompson recommends these four plants:
Borage - “The ultimate honeybee plant” (left, click to enlarge)
Buddleia – “For butterflies, you still can’t beat buddleia, which is also used as a larval food plant by at least 19 different moths”. [Note: Buddleia is invasive in some parts of the USA, where only varieties that do not produce seed should be planted.]
Catmint – For bumblebees “for sheer attractiveness over a very long flowering season”
Shrubby hare’s ear (Bupleurum fruticosum) – For hoverflies, “a plant you’ve almost certainly never heard of”. (top)

So these are the first plants to try. And the number of hoverflies you’ll find on that bupleurum is amazing.

Ken Thompson’s article Native vs non-native plants: which are best for wildlife? appears in the June 2013 issue of Which? Gardening magazine. It is not available online.

You can subscribe to Which? Gardening here

You can check out books by Ken Thompson on amazon.co.uk

You can check out books by Ken Thompson on amazon.com

Rare bobwhite in our Pennsylvania garden

Northern Bobwhite looking for seeds under our bird feeder. Image ©GardenPhotoscom
We’re in the middle of the Great Backyard Bird Count here in the US (last day tomorrow) and here in north east Pennsylvania we have a bird that’s not supposed to be around at this time of year. In fact it rarely shows up in this part of the country at all  – the Northern Bobwhite. It's a kind of quail, a small, chicken-like, ground feeding bird...

In the last ten years it’s been recorded at just four places in the whole of Pennsylvania (for Brits - Pennsylvania is the size of England); so the fact that we have one here is a bit special. It’s more common farther south but this female has been here, on and off, for quite a few weeks. judy spotted her again yesterday (and took the picture), as she (the bobwhite, that is!) pottered about under the feeders hung from the raised deck.

She’s unexpectedly tame, she approached within just a few yards of me not long ago, and seems to appreciate the extra seeds thrown down for her although there’s competition from the squirrels.

As it happens, over in Britain, a friend who runs DT Brown, one of the UK's biggest seed companies, has also been spotting some interesting birds. In his village near Newmarket in eastern England, for the second year running, he’s noticed a rare Great Grey Shrike spending the winter and in a nearby village he spotted sixteen Red Kites roosting in one tree! And they’re big… With their wingspan of 5-6ft/1.5-1.8m that must have been quite a sight.

* There’s still time to participate in America’s Great Backyard Bird Count.

UPDATE (6 April) Mrs Bob White is still with us and is still very tame. Most mornings, she's waiting for her daily appetizer of cracked corn. She clucks, quietly, when approached and seems very content - although no sign of a Mr Bob White.

A message by email suggested she might have been intentionally released but we know of nowhere anywhere near here that raises and releases quail or any other birds.