February, 2012

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Mercy mission finds a newcomer in a buzz

    On Saturday, after a morning in the garden, I was sitting having my lunch in the conservatory when a big bumblebee blundered in to the window (as they do!).

    It then careered into a spider's web (their other party trick), which was clearly very much in use, its wide-awake owner excitedly quivering above the big bee, presumably waiting for the bee to tie itself in knots before moving in for the sting.

    I decided that a dopey queen bee, just out of hibernation, deserved a mercy mission, so I went out and hooked it out of the web with a stick.

    I was expecting to find a bee with yellow stripes and a buff or white coloured tail, so was surprised to see that it was actually all black except for a rich rufous back and white tail. Bumblebees can be difficult to identify, but this one is easy - the Tree Bee Bombus hypnorum.

    She's a little bit bald and ruffled, but then she has been asleep for many months.

    This is a bee that wasn't recorded in the UK until 2001, when it was found on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border. It took a few years to get properly established in that area, but then has just gone bananas over the last five years or so. It has now been seen across most counties of south-eastern, central and eastern England, is now into Wales, and there's no signs of it stopping either. Common on the Continent, there is every reason to believe that it arrived here naturally, and is a new but nevertheless valid part of our native fauna

    It is an early season bee, so definitely one to watch out for right now. The queen will find a cavity above ground, such as a bird nest box, and raise her workers, with the colony at its peak by June.

    At a time when the news about many of our bumblebees is bad, it's good to know that one is doing especially well.

  • Seeing 'untidy' through new eyes

    The recommendation from 'Wildlife Friendly' for Winter Honeysuckle, in her response to my previous blog about winter flowers for pollinating insects, was very timely. Only the week before I had been in Regent's Park in the snow and yet a bumblebee had been busy at Winter Honeysuckle in the Avenue Gardens.

    Watching it doing 'aerobics' with its legs, it was clear that it was taking pollen as well as nectar.

    Nearby, what was hugely encouraging was to see that even now in February the Royal Parks gardeners had left the dried stems and seedheads all in place along the herbaceous borders.

    So many gardens would have cleared all this at the end of October 'to be tidy'. And yet here with all the 'deadness' left in place it was providing so much life.

    Some of that life was wildlife, with Wrens, Dunnocks, Robins and Blackbirds are rootling around in amongst the dead stems.

    But some of the life was the gentle textures and warm golden hues provided by all the dead stems.

    It's so easy to think that flowers have no more use once the flowers fade, but here's proof - to my eyes at least - that their value lives on in so many ways.


  • Have I got Fruhlingunruhe?

    There's a term used in the study of bird migration called Zugunruhe. Translated from the German, it means the restlessness ('unruhe') as birds prepare for their seasonal travels ('Zug'). They effectively get jittery, impatient.

    I'm wondering whether therefore I've got Fruhlingunruhe. If my made-up German is correct, it would mean a restlessness as I prepare for Spring. Out in the garden this weekend, I was just willing things to grow and bloom, and for butterflies and bees to emerge.

    But maybe I should contain my impatience for I've still got loads to get done before Spring arrives.

    For example, this weekend the job list included:

    • mend the broken roof on my Starling nestbox (they now have a fully roof-felted roof over their heads!)
    • prune the native hedge before the nesting season starts
    • coppice a Hazel
    • do my Tarzan impression climbing into the neighbour's leylandii hedge with loppers and hacksaw to stop it zooming heavenwards
    • prune my Pear and Wild Pear trees
    • wash pots ready for sowing seeds in the next couple of weeks.

    And with all that done, I stopped to enjoy the subtle beauty of this little trio. 

    Most prominent is Arum italicum pictum with its marbled leaves. I grow it in part for its red berries later in the year for the Blackbirds, in part just for the drama of all that pattern.

    In the middle of them is a limey-leaved Heuchera, which will provide some bee nectar later in the season.

    And behind it the purpurea version of our native Wood Spurge, Euphorbia amygdaloides. I'm not sure yet what value it is bringing to wildlife in my garden but I'm giving it a chance!

    It's the kind of little aesthetic moment that would get quite eclipsed once Spring is fully underway, but it's things like this in the winter garden that make my Fruhlingunruhe feel not so bad after all.