Weekend Round-up – 19th/20th May 2018

From the continued good weather and lack of rain you’d think it was already Summer!

I’ve noticed that over the past week one of the male Bullfinches has been visiting the garden on his own – I’m hoping that this means that his partner is looking after eggs somewhere. I’d be beyond thrilled if they bought their young to the garden to feed.

We’ve also had our first young fledgling visit the garden. I was taking photos one evening after work when I noticed movement on the back fence…

And it was this little fluffball! I think it may be a Dunnock.

The first Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) workers have finally started to arrive. They are late this year, but then I am still waiting for the Cornflowers to wake up! I like to think these are the daughters of the Queen who I found with her head in the Solitary Bee House all those weeks ago.

A couple of Starlings have started to visit daily and seem to have made it their personal mission to help me run down my stock of suet balls.

I adore Starlings. They, and Sparrows, are the garden birds I have the most vivid memories of as a child. I clearly had a thing for brown birds, though I’m not even sure a Sparrow counts as a brown bird with that iridescent sheen and those white flecks.

Finally, a new visitor to the larger pond. I’ve been silently hoping for dragonflies and damselflies to start using the ponds for a while so was incredibly happy when I saw a familiar skittering movement out of the corner of my eye on Sunday afternoon. I turned to see a female Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) perching on one of the plant stems.

She stayed for a few hours and kept moving from leaf to leaf. I hope she’s chosen this as her territory, or better still was laying eggs here. I guess that in a couple of years I’ll find out!

A case of mistaken identity

When I got back from the apiary on Saturday afternoon I went straight out into the garden to finish off some small jobs I’d started in the morning. Only to come flying back in straight away to grab my camera as I’d seen that another batch of Mason Bees had started hatching out.

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A huge male Mason Bee hauled himself out of one of the tubes – I’m guessing he was causing a bottleneck as three smaller males tumbled out straight after him. The large male plunged straight to the floor so I picked him up to move him to a safer place.

He was so comfortable on my hand that he started an extensive grooming regime which included pooing liberally on me – this is a first, and I think it must be some kind of post hatching cleaning ritual. Poo aside, this was great as it was lovely to be able to get right up close for a good look at him and to take some pictures.

As I mentioned, this boy is huge for a male Mason Bee – he’s about the size of a female. This meant that every time another male saw him, they presumed he was a female and grabbed him. There wasn’t a great deal he could do about it, as newly hatched bees seem a bit woozy at first. All he was trying to do was get himself clean and come around from his long winter sleep. But every time he was spotted, a confused male bee would latch on.

On arriving home last night the first female bees had started to emerge, so I’m hoping that this poor chap will finally get some peace!

Weekend Round-up – 12th – 13th May 2018

The garden is continuing to burst into life now that Spring is finally here!

The first workers have started to emerge from the Buff Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) nest in the garage wall. They’ve found a really good pollen source somewhere – they are bringing bags of it in. I’m really looking forward to being able to watch this nest at close quarters over the summer.

There was another big Mason Bee emergence on Saturday, still only males so I am presuming that the females will start hatching out soon.

I was honoured to see that my all time favourite bee, the Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria) made a visit to the garden! This appeared last year, predictably just after I’d driven all the way to Brockholes nature reserve to see them! It’s a beautiful bee with black and white stripes. I still don’t have a decent picture of one, so I hope it comes back.

I was also pleased to see another Orange Tailed Mining Bee on one of the new clematis we have just put in – I think she approves!

And another unidentified Mining Bee hanging out on the trellis. I need to find a way to create a suitable habitat for them to nest in here!

On the mammal front we were supervised during an early morning gardening session by a Field Mouse I have nicknamed Ferdinand. I haven’t managed any daytime pictures of him yet, but I have managed to capture him on the trail cam.

The Sparrow Clean Up Crew

We are lucky enough to have a flock of House Sparrows that live in and around the garden. Since I’ve been watching them they’ve become one of my favourite garden birds – they are such little characters.

Recently, there’s been a lot of behaviour indicating that they’ve started nesting. I keep seeing Sparrows visit the feeders carrying a feather or other nesting material, which they put down to help themselves to a snack before continuing on their way. They are also regular customers at the nesting material holder I’ve put out.

Over winter, I deliberately don’t over tidy the garden. I prune anything that is particularly unruly but leave a lot of the ground cover vegetation in situ – thinking that it provides good cover for wildlife. Last year we planted a really pretty bronze sedge by the side of the big pond. The dead grass from last year’s growth has been there ever since and I was just starting to think about clearing it away when I noticed that there were Sparrows hovering around it, looking very interested.

Every so often one would grab a strand of grass, pull it out of the ground and fly off with it! I presume they are using it as nesting materials – but they are clearing the area so effectively they are like a mini clean-up crew!

Over the weekend I set up the trail cam to get a closer view –

These two Sparrows seem to be working as a team and arrive to collect grass at the same time. Of course this doesn’t always go according to plan – there you are, minding your own business and choosing the perfect strand of grass and what happens? Some rotter comes and steals it right out from under your beak!

May Day Bank Holiday Weekend Round Up

With the mini heatwave we had over the bank holiday weekend, the garden seems to have exploded into life. Luckily I was able to spend most of the weekend at home and outside so I had a great view of everything that was going on!

Firstly I set up the trail camera by the hanging bird feeders. I’m experimenting using close up filters with the trail camera for a closer view. It’s early days yet and I need to find a way to get the filters closer to the lens as I am getting some weird reflections / refractions, but all the same I am really pleased with the results so far!

Crenova Trail Cam + Polaroid 37mm 1x Close Up Filter

The male Red Mason bees continued to emerge. The older males spend their time mainly patrolling the outside of the bee houses waiting for a female to emerge –

As soon as they see movement from within a cell they dive onto the emerging bee. At the moment the females have yet to hatch, so it is other males they are usually divebombing and a small scuffle ensues. After one of these I found this poor chap on the floor, a little worse for wear as his wing seemed to have been damaged.

I also noticed a female Orange Tailed Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) on the lawn and attempting to dig!

We are getting Mining Bees in the garden a lot at the moment – they never seem to nest here though as I suspect the soil isn’t to their liking being clay-based. For an upcoming project I’m going to try setting up a planter for them if I can work out how to get the soil a bit drier first – watch this space!

On Sunday morning, I saw a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye. It turned out to be a Holly Blue butterfly! I’ve never had any of the blue butterflies visit the garden before so I was very pleased – and I saw it sporadically for the rest of the weekend when it seemed to be patrolling our garden and the one that backs onto it. I hope this is a sign that it is going to stick around!

Having learned that the hedgehog is still around, I put some food out and set the trail cam up to see if it visited. I didn’t capture the hedgehog, but the food did not go to waste –

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Mason Bees emerge in the garden!

I’ve been patiently waiting for the Red Mason Bees to emerge since I put the houses back out at the beginning of April.  Predictably, almost the minute that I did, we had a spell of weather so cold and autumnal that the heating went back on(!), accompanied by monsoon-like rain.

This week though, there were some hopeful signs.  The weather gradually warmed and I saw the first Red Mason Bees at NQ Growboxes at the start of the week.  Things tend to emerge earlier there than in our garden due to it’s city centre location – it’s usually 3-4 degrees warmer there than here in North Manchester.  With the temperature set to sky-rocket and it being the same few days that the Mason bees emerged last year, I knew I’d be keeping a close eye on the beehouses this weekend.

I’ve never seen Red Mason Bees emerge from their nest cells before.  For the past few years they have hatched out on a weekday, when I was safely at work.  I was quietly hoping that this would be the year I’d get to see this for myself, and hopefully get some pictures!

When I arrived home from work last night, a couple of males had hatched out and were patrolling the area round the nest box!  There were still another 20 sealed cells though, so as soon as it got warm this morning I headed outside with my camera.

The males had resumed their patrolling duties, until I noticed one of them had stopped and alighted on a bee house where he seemed to be trying to burrow into one of the sealed cells.

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A moment later, a Mason Bee broke through the capping and out of the cell, he was so fast that I wasn’t quite quick enough with my camera and only managed to catch a couple of shots as he hauled himself out-

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Where he was immediately pounced on by the male waiting outside.  A short scuffle later, and the disappointed ‘midwife’ male retreated once he realised that the freshly hatched bee was not a female.

By this time a scratching noise could be heard coming from several cells as bees chewed through the mud cappings sealing them, so I settled back down to wait.  Not long later I saw a small hole opening up in one, and I managed to finally capture a Red Mason Bee taking his first look at the world!

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Once emerged, he stayed on the beehouse just long enough for me to get a photo – I can’t believe how fresh and bright he looks here.

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5 more cells have hatched today, so the area round the beehouses is currently swarming with males waiting for the females to emerge.  Such a difference from a week ago, when it was still rainy and cold!  I’m looking forward to watching the bees over the coming weeks, and fingers crossed they choose to use the several brand new empty beehouses I’ve put out!

Bumblebee Nest Box Project

The latter parts of last Winter felt like a long old slog. We had several snowfalls from December through to Match and while I love snow and those half light Winter days, I found myself impatiently waiting for the first signs of Spring. In preparation for when the warmer weather would eventually arrive, I decided to start work on my beehouses and habitats in the garden.

My first project has been a Bumblebee nest box. It’s a bit of an experiment. Last year I was the grateful recipient of a bird box containing a nest of Tree Bumblebees who had taken up residence in my Mother in Law’s garden. Tree Bumblebees, despite what their name suggests, are famously adaptable and will nest just about anywhere they think looks comfortable – one nest was found in an old tumble dryer outlet hose! They seem to love bird nesting boxes –

This has the added benefit that they can easily be moved if they are inconveniently situated.

I’d enjoyed watching the comings and goings from the nest box until the end of the season. When the new Queens emerged and the nest died out, I missed them. I wondered if there was a way that I could encourage them to return to the garden this year, and maybe set up home?

Bumblebee Nest Box Project

You will need :

– A bird box. Mine comes from Wilkinsons – their boxes are good value and I use them as the basis for many of my bee habitats.

– Some garden moss

– Animal fur (optional). Mine was loose fur kindly donated by my cats after I’d combed them.

Firstly choose the site where the nest box will be placed. It needs to be somewhere where the bees won’t be disturbed and the nest box won’t be subject to vibrations. Tree Bumblebees live quite happily alongside humans but on rare occasions they have been known to act defensively if they feel their nest is being threatened. So choose your site carefully – mine is placed on a wall right at the back of a flowerbed, at a height of around 7 feet from the ground.

Double check that the bird box fits securely on it’s fixings, so it is flat against the wall and won’t blow around too much in the wind. This can be a problem in my garden which is a bit of a wind tunnel, and I sometimes have to reshape the holes on the back of the bird box slightly to make sure they fit properly on the nails used to hang it.

Collect your moss – there is no shortage of this in our shady garden after winter. Let it dry out for a few days so it isn’t damp when it goes into the box.

Once your moss is dry, place it and the animal fur if using into the box. We are trying to make it feel like the box has been previously used as a birds nest, which seems to attract bumblebees. Screw the front onto the box and hang, and wait to see if it attracts visitors.

I couldn’t believe it when, just a couple of days after hanging my box I saw a Tree Bumblebee Queen going in and out of it! After a few days of furious activity, it all went quiet again so sadly I think something must have happened to the Queen. I hope that as one Queen found the box and liked it enough to start nesting, others will – so I will be keeping an eager watch for the rest of the season. Who knows, maybe one of last year’s Queens will emerge from hibernation and find it?

A Prickly Affair

Some of my earliest nature memories involve hedgehogs. When I was very young and went to stay with my grandparents they had 4 or 5 hedgehogs that used to visit them each evening. My gran would feed them dishes of cat food on the patio next to the house and together we’d watch their visit before I had my own supper (a treat only allowed at Granny’s house)! And headed off to bed.

Then when I was a little bit older a mother hedgehog nested in the ramshackle garage next to our house. Until the hedgehog family left the garage was off limits, but I was allowed the briefest of glimpses to see mum and her babies before they left.

In the intervening years, I’ve seen few, if any live hedgehogs. Sadly, most of them that I have seen have been victims of the road. That is until I was driving home from a friend’s house late one night last year and I saw a small dark shape step off the curb and into the road. I came to an emergency stop on the deserted road and the shape looked up at the car. Hedgehog! I looked at it while it sized up the car and eventually decided it was safe to proceed across the road safely, where it disappeared into the night.

This was only a couple of roads away from me, so now I knew that hedgehogs were in the area I went round the garden and was able to create gaps in between fence panels on two sides of the garden, to create a hedgehog highway in and out.

I didn’t have that long to wait. One dark Autumn evening my husband suddenly yelled “HEDGEHOG”! And sure enough, one was snuffling around the garden. We saw it again on a couple more occasions before it disappeared, we hoped into hibernation as winter took hold.

It seems that ‘our’ hedgehog may have chosen our garden as it’s hibernation site as just after dawn broke on Sunday morning I heard the alarm call again – “HEDGEHOG”!!! There it was, snuffling around the pond and picking up fallen sunflower hearts from around the bird feeder.

We were initially quite concerned, as a hedgehog out in daylight is usually ill and needs urgent attention. But he seemed perky and bright, and after a quick query on Twitter we learned that sometimes hedgehogs wake a little early at this time of year as they are extremely hungry after winter hibernation. My husband ran out with some hedgehog food which seemed to be gratefully received, and then the hog disappeared again.

Until that evening when it reappeared just before dusk. I’d been prepared and left out food and water and these were wolfed down, adding weight to the theory that we just had a very hungry hog on our hands.

While it was about in the half light I took the opportunity to take some pictures of our visitor –

For the next couple of evenings the hedgehog returned after dark, at a much later and more hedgehog-appropriate hour. I haven’t seen it since, but have continued to put food out each evening which has disappeared by the morning. This has given me the final push to buy a trail camera to see if it returns, and I am looking forward to learning more about our garden wildlife after dark.

I am so happy to have had our hedgehog visit, and that it seemed to have found our garden an appropriate habitat in which to spend the winter. By the autumn I’ll be installing a hedgehog house to hopefully make it even more comfortable if our visitor returns, and it’ll be even better if he brings some friends with him!

A strange place to sleep…

I put some empty bee houses up a couple of weeks ago, and as dusk falls tonight one of them is housing an unusual inhabitant…

She seems to be roosting. I’m not sure why she hasn’t chosen one of the largest tubes as she could fit her whole body in there. But who am I to question?

My first Early Bumblebee of the year. Spring is definitely on the way.

A Christmas Day visitor

I’m one of those who finds Christmas a tough time of year. There’s so much pressure and expectation to be jolly built up around the holiday season to begin with, then add to that family issues and by the time Christmas Day rolls around I am normally pretty much at the end of my patience with it all.

This year though my spirits were lifted by a visitor to the bird feeders on Christmas afternoon. Seeing this lovely chap instantly lifted my mood.

The Leafcutter Diaries 3 – Balsam Days

One day while watching our Leafcutter, I realised that her behaviour had subtly changed.  Usually her foraging trips were short – she would leave to collect pollen and nectar and then return only a couple of minutes later.  Now her trips were 15-20 minutes long, and when she returned she’d started to land and rest near to the beehouse for a couple of minutes before resuming her nest building activities.

Her appearance had also turned a touch ghostly.

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Despite her now distinctly mouldy looking appearance I didn’t panic – I had seen this before in honeybees.  Our Leafcutter had found a patch of Himalayan Balsam somewhere.

Himalayan Balsam is a striking, pink flowering plant which grows to about 2m in height. It was introduced to Britain in the 19th century as an ornamental plant.  Unfortunately it is now one of the UK’s main invasive plant species.  It very quickly colonises and overcrowds native species, killing them off.  Despite it’s pretty appearance, it’s a bit of a thug – our apiary backs onto a riverbank where Himalayan Balsam grows, and each year we find strands of it growing straight through the concrete apiary floor.

Balsam

It’s very common on waterways – it is found on all of Lancashire’s main rivers.  I don’t have a major river near the house, but there is a brook about ten minutes walk away – this would also explain the increased length of our Leafcutter’s foraging trips.

At first thought, it seems odd.  Why would a bee expand so much energy flying to a plant some distance away, when there were perfectly good alternatives nearby?  One of the reasons that Himalayan Balsam is so successful in dominating other species is that the nectar it produces is so beloved by bees.  Given the option they will choose Himalayan Balsam over most native species of plant.  And when entering the flowers to get to the nectar, they are covered in the plant’s white pollen – which they then take to another Balsam flower.  Therefore Himalayan Balsam has evolved to ensure that it is very well pollinated – at the expense of the nearby native plants which suffer decreased pollination and therefore slower growth as a result.

While not a notifiable invasive species like Japanese Knotweed, it’s now widely recognised as a problem and parks, nature reserves and estates try to keep it under control by holding ‘balsam bashing’ days.

While I’m not the greatest fan of Himalayan Balsam for the reasons outlined above, our Leafcutter certainly seemed to be thriving on it.  She very quickly finished another nest tunnel.

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The Leafcutter Diaries 2 – 8th July

I’d seen ‘our’ Leafcutter roosting in the beehouses for a few weeks now, but tonight was very happy to see that she’s started nesting there!  As I went out into the garden after work one night I saw her going to and from the beehouse, returning each time clasping a section of leaf before taking it into the tunnel.

I grow a rose bush in the garden especially for Leafcutter bee nesting material – I’d read that rose leaves are their preferred choice when constructing nests.  I’d been watching this carefully to spot any signs that it was being used with no joy, and each trip the bee made to fetch leaves was very short – with only a minute or so between her leaving the beehouse and returning.  So where was she going?

It didn’t take me long to find the answer.  About 6 feet away from the beehouses is a Snowberry bush, and this showed the tell-tale signs that a Leafcutter bee had been at work.

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That night I also managed to get a shot of our Leafcutter bee-hind, which meant that from this and her size I could finally identify her as a Wood-Carving Leafcutter Bee (Megachile ligniseca)

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I staked out the beehouse over the weekend and managed to get a shot of her bringing a leaf back to the nest.

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I thought she must be getting close to finishing this nest as she seemed to be ‘auditioning’ new tunnels in between completing the current one, flying around the front of the house to view all the options and popping in and out of tunnels for a closer look.

Then by the end of the weekend, she’d finished!  Leafcutters always seem to like to finish a nest off by sticking a full leaf to the front for a final flourish.

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