Badger Watching

Stumbling across an uneven, tussocky field after dark, clutching my camera and a bean bag leaving no spare hands for a torch is not my usual way to spend a Wednesday evening, but this was not a normal Wednesday. I’d finally seen an animal that I’d wanted to for the longest time – the badger.

I’d only ever seen a badger once before, lying lifeless by the side of a very busy dual carriageway. They aren’t very common in my neck of the woods – it’s massively overdeveloped and also our soil is distinctly clay-like, prone to holding water and not, I’d imagine, easy to excavate into smug, dry tunnels. I don’t blame the badgers for steering clear.

As a result I’d always been curious about these nocturnal creatures with their black and white mint humbug faces. I realised that I didn’t even know how big a badger was. The size of a cat? A dog? I imagined them emerging in the wee small hours well after dark, a glimpse of those white stripes and a dark silhouette being the best sighting a person could hope for of this mysterious animal.

So when I was offered the chance to spend an evening at an active badger sett, I leapt at the chance. Better still I learned that badgers usually emerge a while before dusk, giving me the chance to take some pictures. Which is why I found myself en route to the Peak District, having taken the afternoon off work. Driving through the fabulously named village of Sparrowpit, I tried not to get my hopes up too much. Nature is unpredictable, and there was no guarantee that the badgers would actually show themselves. I’ve lost count of the number of hours that I’ve spent sitting in the garden with my camera waiting for my usually regular as clockwork visitors to arrive, only for them to appear is if from nowhere the minute I’ve given up and gone back inside. It’s almost equal to the amount of times I’ve tried to photograph a new species and only managed to grab a blurry picture of a rapidly retreating animal rear end.

Walking towards the sett, my companion pointed out the badger pathways that were crisscrossing the field. I’d have mistaken these for human trails, but the grass was compressed evenly – a trademark pointer to badger, rather than human or fox activity as it shows where it’s low slung undercarriage has passed over.

As we got closer, we fell into silence. Living a primarily underground existence, badgers don’t see too well (they don’t need to), but their sense of hearing is excellent. As we settled down downwind of the sett – their sense of smell is excellent too – I tried to get comfortable, anticipating a long wait ahead. Predictably, at that moment the heavens opened – not for rain, but hail! After so many weeks of unrelenting heat it was actually nice to be outside in the cool evening air, hearing the (thankfully) miniature hailstones bouncing off my hood. The hail passed over within minutes, just as the opening act appeared – this cheeky rabbit who seemed completely unperturbed by our presence.

I managed to get a few shots before the rabbit suddenly seemed to go onto the alert. Glancing past it, I understood why. A badger had emerged and was snuffling around the ground outside the sett. It was still very light at this point – being about 6.30 in the evening, giving me the chance to get a few shots. Then, just for a second, the sun poked through the clouds giving me the chance to get this shot which I am really pleased with.

The badger continued to snuffle around the base of the bracken, until the cows that were further across the field wandered closer to us to graze. The cows had kept an eye on us since we’d entered the field, and us on them. Though they sounded really close to us, they were a good 50m away.

The badger though, retreated to the sett and resolutely refused to come back up when they were within earshot. I’d been advised to bring a book along in case of boredom while waiting, but there was little chance of that. There was the odd light shower of cooling rain, and a constant buzz as a steady stream of bumblebees motored purposefully overhead. Remarkably, there seemed to be a bumblebee nest in the bracken to one side of us, we were most definitely on a flight path back to the nest. I was amazed by this – badgers are well known for digging up and devouring bumblebee nests – bees, wax and all, so it’s astonishing that one was thriving so close to a sett.

Gradually the cows moved away and first the rabbit, then the badger re-emerged. There was one moment when the badger seemed to look straight down my camera lens, a pose that would have made a wonderful photo, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to press the shutter and break the spell. I must learn not to be so hesitant!

Then, as dusk became darkness proper, two smaller badgers came out from the sett entrance – this year’s cubs! After enjoying a noisy drink they started snuffling around in the bracken on either side of us. By this time, sadly, it was too dark to be able to take any pictures – but the sight of a small nose emerging from the bracken a mere metre away from me was incredible, and a moment I will never forget.

While the cubs busied themselves in the undergrowth we took the opportunity to slip away. I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m hoping to be able to return to the sett next spring when there’s the chance of small cubs and longer hours of daylight. If you ever get the chance to visit a sett, I’d highly recommend it.

A Hard Time for Honeybees – and our Wild Bees too

For the first time since we began beekeeping 8 years ago, our Honeybees are showing signs of starvation. At the beginning of July we noticed that they’d begun removing the wax cappings from their Winter honey stores and begun to eat them. Each frame we removed during inspections saw lines of hungry bees head first in the cells, totally ignoring our presence as they ate.

Kersal Vale Honeybees, 2015

Normally at this time of year they’d be busy foraging for pollen and nectar, but they seem to have realised that there’s just not enough about. The effect can be seen on other invertebrates too – each time we open a hive flocks of Bumblebees and Wasps have started appearing too, attracted by the sweet scent of the honey within. Wasps do appear around beehives and try to rob them of honey, but normally this will only happen in early Autumn when flowering plants naturally begin to die back. Bumblebees are normally far too busy with their own bee business to bother beehives, but this year with the lack of food around it seems the smell must be irresistible.

Kersal Vale Honeybee, 2015

Our bees are sited on a large allotment site, where as you can imagine there’s normally a consistent food supply throughout the bee season. The allotmenteers grow a wide variety of plants and so at any point during the season there’s generally something in bloom – but it just doesn’t seem to be enough this year. The flowers seem to be dying back incredibly quickly in the heat and the lack of rain means plants in general are struggling. The apiary itself backs onto the River Irwell, the banks of which at this time of year are normally thick with Himalayan Balsam. This is an invasive species which needs careful management if it isn’t to become a real problem – it spreads like wildfire and outcompetes many native species – but has become an important and reliable food source for insects. It has very shallow roots though, so was an early casualty of the drought. The riverbanks are empty this year.

This means we’re in the unusual position of needing to supplement our bees’ food during the height of Summer. We’ve a few options to use – adding wet supers, frames from which the bulk of the honey has been extracted but which always have some remaining deep in the cells. We’ve also got a couple of buckets of honey which has slightly too high a water content to bottle, so they can have that too. And finally we can feed them with sugar solution, though this is the last option as being essentially pure sugar it isn’t as nutritionally balanced as honey.

Other than feeding we are leaving the bees alone as much as possible – we don’t want to put any unnecessary stress on the colonies. The bees seem to have adopted a low stress, low energy approach to life too, only doing what’s absolutely necessary. For example, there hasn’t been any attempt to swarm like there normally would be when the hot weather began.

Kersal Vale Honeybee covered in Himalayan Balsam pollen, offering her hivemates a taste of the nectar she’s gathered to encourage them to visit the source

So an odd Summer in beekeeping as in the rest of the natural world. And another odd feature to mention – this phenomenon seems to be incredibly localised. Beekeepers in our area are reporting similar issues to ours, but in other parts of the country bees are absolutely booming.

All this being said, I’m not too worried about our honeybees. My main worry is that what this signifies for our local native bees. Our colonies of honeybees will be fine, hopefully – we can feed them. The Solitary and Bumblebees in the area are not so lucky, and not long after noticing what was happening with the honeybees, I started to see problems with them too. We seem to be seeing a much shortened season for them compared to normal – last year I had Leafcutter Bees flying in the garden until September. This year, they emerged at the same point in the Summer but are already gone. At NQ Growboxes, there are far fewer bees than at this point last year. The common issue in all these places is the scorching temperatures and lack of food sources available for the bees.

It remains to be seen what effect this will have had on the local populations of wild bees. I’m hoping that, although the season is shortened this year, they will have had time to complete the breeding cycle. As always with these things though, only time will tell.

Rainy Days and Communal Roosting at NQ Growboxes

I’ve mentioned before a particular nail hole in the fencing at the end of box number 9 at NQ Growboxes. It’s the one where I found the Blue Mason Bee hiding a couple of weeks ago. It’s very popular with bees – I’ve seen them using it as a roosting spot on days when it’s cold or rainy, and I’d guess that it’s used at night too.

This year though, I’ve noticed something curious. I’ve been frequently finding bees of different species occupying the hole quite happily together.

Common Yellow Face (Hylaeus communis) and Large Yellow Face (Hylaeus signatus) Bees sharing the nail hole

Communal roosting is a widely known phenomenon in the natural world, especially in birds. Roosting together provides safety in numbers – innate protection from predators, as well as increased warmth. It’s thought that there are social benefits too – with the younger members of the roost learning skills from the older more experienced members. The older members in turn benefit from being able to choose the prime spots in the middle of the roost.

Common Yellow Face and Hairy Yellow Face (Hylaeus hyalinatus) Bees sharing the nail hole

I don’t know whether anything like this is happening here, but if I had to venture a guess I’d say it was the warmth and shelter that’s pulling these bees in and encouraging them to share the space. They are definitely aware of each other and certainly don’t seem to mind each other’s company. I wonder if the fact they are both males has a bearing on this too – while they forage on similar food sources, they won’t be competing for nesting space and so maybe are more naturally tolerant of each other?

I also found another popular roosting spot in a crack in the top of the fence. On one dull day, I found three Hairy-Faced Yellow Face Bees (Hylaeus hyalinatus) piled in together having a snooze. For some reason, I still find it really comical that bees sleep on their backs. I can’t understand how their wings don’t get in the way!

On another day I found a single bee sheltering here during a rainstorm. If you look closely, you can see a raindrop on his eye!

I always used to dislike rainy, dull days. I rely mostly on natural light for my photography so on days like this it’s hard to get a good photo. However this year I’ve changed my mind somewhat – the bees stay much stiller in cooler conditions, and having worked out the places that they go to wait out the bad weather has made for some really interesting photo opportunities!

NQ Growboxes Round-Up – Late June & July 2018

Late June brought very warm temperatures and a distinct lack of rain. The wildflowers were starting to look a touch wilted, but still attracted loads of bees, like this Hylaeus (Yellow Faced Bee) who clearly takes her common name very literally.

The first Cinnabar Moths were flitting around the site. Soon, hopefully, we’ll see their bright yellow and black caterpillars feeding on the Ragwort around the site.

I found this fluorescent spider on one of the Ox-eye Daisies. It’s a Green Orb Weaver, and is a common UK species though this is the first one I’ve seen. Despite it’s vivid colour, it camouflages against vegetation incredibly well, I almost missed it completely as I scanned over the flower heads to check for bees.

On one dull day when I was sure there was nothing to be found, I saw a ladybird hatching! This is the first time I’ve seen this, and I was surprised to see this bright yellow, plain looking ladybird emerging. Reading up later, I discovered that all ladybirds hatch out with yellow wing casings and without their spots, which develop slowly and patchily over the next few hours, along with their final colour.

Later that week I found another ladybird going through this process.

I’ve been seeing plenty of birds at the Growboxes this year. This female Blackbird is around a lot, collecting worms for her chicks.

This poor Blue Tit looks KNACKERED.

I’m also pleased to be seeing more and more House Sparrows around the boxes this year, taking advantage of the rich pickings available.

As July began the scorching temperatures and distinct lack of rain continued. At NQ Growboxes, as with everywhere else, this meant a distinct lack of forage to be found. The wildflowers at the edge of the site have been particularly hard hit. I’m not sure whether t’s the lack of forage or a combination of different factors but, as in my own garden, this seems to be bringing the bee season to an early end this year. Compared to the same time last year there are far fewer bees around – last July the bee season was still in full swing, not so this year.

The upside to this is that you are pretty much guaranteed to see something interesting if you head to one of the flowers that IS still in bloom. I found this Leafcutter bee visiting each Borage flower in turn – Borage is a fantastic bee plant as it refills with nectar incredibly quickly after a pollinator visits it, and it was one of the most popular bee plants on the site in early July.

There were a few Ox-Eye Daisies and Asteracae left – these are normally occupied by female Colletes (Plasterer Bees) gathering pollen with which to provision their nest cells or just using them as a place to warm up on a dull day!

These bees are very common at the Growboxes at this time of year, so much so that I think their nesting site must be somewhere in the near vicinity. They are ground nesters and aren’t nesting in the boxes themselves, so I suspect they may be nesting somewhere in the adjacent car park. I must have a walk round one day to see if I can find them!

One insect that seems to be doing incredibly well in the heat is the butterfly. Large and Small Whites, Commas and Red Admirals are a common sight flitting around the boxes at the moment, usually in groups of several at a time. I was thrilled to find a species I’ve never seen before nectaring on one of the lavender bushes – a Large Skipper. The name is deceptive though – it’s a really tiny creature, so much so that I thought it was a moth at first. It was such a beautiful, iridescent shad of golden orange – it glittered in the sun. It was a rare butterfly too, in that it was happy for me to get right up close with the camera and just continued nonchalantly feeding.

My favourite Hylaeus (Yellow Faced) bees have all but gone now. There are just a few females to be found busily gathering provisions but nothing like the numbers there were a few weeks ago.

A new arrival though is this Blue Lasioglossum (Furrow) bee. These arrived late on in the season last year and may be another sign that the bee year has been accelerated somehow and is coming to an end.

I found this distinctive looking Shield Bug hiding in the lavender. Shield Bugs are a common sight in gardens, where they can be easily recognised by the distinctive shape that gives them their name. They are apparently also known as Stink Bugs because they emit a foul odour when they feel threatened – a theory I have not personally tested! Most of the Shield Bugs I see are in shades of green and brown, but this one was mainly pinky-purple with almost a checkerboard pattern of black and white round the site. This is the Hairy Shield Bug, Dolycoris baccarum, which is mainly found in the South of the country but is spreading Northwards as temperatures rise. There are only a handful of records for this species around Manchester so it’s another great find for NQ Growboxes!

As you pass through the Growboxes at the moment, you find your movements tracked by a strange, buzz-like ‘song’ coming from the sides of the boxes or the ground by your feet. You may see a small something spring across the path in front of you, or at the side out of the corner of your eye. These will be the Grasshoppers, who are all around the boxes at the moment. They seem to like to sit on the edge of the boxes sometimes, watching the world go by, and are fascinating when viewed up close. Pictured is the Common Field Grasshopper, Chorthippus brunneus on box 9.

So another month comes to a close. It’s been a very strange year for wildlife, and the bee season especially seeming to be coming to a premature end when it would normally still be in full swing. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the year unfolds.

Garden Round-Up – July 2018

Normally July sees me spending as much as my free time as possible out in the garden following insects about. This year, the bee season is almost finished now – I wonder if the sheer amount of sunny days means that the bees have ‘burnt out’ early? Additionally there is real pressure on forage – flowering plants also seem to have finished early, and those left have struggled with the lack of rain.

On the other hand, the one insect that seems to be loving the weather and thriving is butterflies and moths. We’ve had some cool moths in the garden this month, I really must invest in a moth trap!

I found this Herald moth when I flipped the garden table over to paint it –

And this Silver Y was roosting on one of the beehouses when I got home one evening. It was so well camouflaged against the leaves in the tubes.

I’ve been doing some more experimenting with the trail cam, using with close up filters to allow the camera to focus closer on the birds. These are taken using the 1x filter.

The Blackbird appears to have started to moult – either that or the pressure of bringing up youngsters has turned him grey!

I was pleased to manage to capture this next picture, as I’m rarely seeing the adult and young Blue Tits together these days as the young birds have started to branch out on their own.

The hedgehog has not been back to the garden, though I am still putting the camera out as well as food in an effort to persuade it to become a regular garden visitor! The fox, though has returned – and it seemed to spot the camera this time.

This weekend I’ve been using a 4x filter on the trailcam to get even closer shots.

It works better for still images than video, as the depth of field (the area of the frame that’s in focus) is really thin. I’m pleased with the results though, and if I can get the birds to stay in one particular part of the frame it will work well.

I’ve also managed some shots with my DSLR – I wanted to get some more shots of the fledglings as they’ll be adult birds before we know it! We had some rain this past weekend, which must be all new to them. This young Great Tit certainly seemed confused by the wet stuff thay had started falling from the sky –

There are also at least two young Blue Tits visiting the feeders regularly. I can’t get over just how tiny they are.

The squirrel has started visiting the garden again and is looking really red at the moment. I think this must be it’s Summer coat.

Finally having had a decent amount of rain this weekend means the frogs are once again moving around the garden. I nipped out on Sunday evening at dusk as the rain had just started falling and they were everywhere.

It’s so good to see the rain. I can only do so much with a hose, even after just a couple of days of rain the plants are looking lush and green again. Never thought that living in Manchester I would say that I missed rain – I’ll certainly appreciate it a lot more in future!

Robin (almost) Redbreast

The garden birds have started to moult in earnest now – the adults, who’ve been looking quite tatty after weeks of exhausting work looking after their chicks, growing a smart new set of feathers in preparation for Winter and the fledglings donning their adult attire.

I must confess that the first odd feathers found round the garden made me panic a bit as we’ve recently been host to a particularly murderous cat. But then I saw the strange ‘half and half’ outfits that the birds had started sporting and put two and two together.

Nowhere is the process more clear than with the young Robin. His Red Breast has started to come through in earnest now, in contrast to how he looked just a few short weeks ago on July 10th –

And now –

It’s only going to be a few weeks until the birds start to disappear to complete the moult – without the protection of their feathers while moulting they are pretty vulnerable, so often retreat to the safety of the hedgerows in late Summer, returning as if anew in Autumn. So I’ve been eager to spend as much time as possible taking pictures now while I can.

I’ve had the trailcam set on the birdtable today – I’ve been putting food up there daily recently to try and reduce the amount of birds feeding on the ground because of the aforementioned cat – and I noticed the young Robin has been feeding there regularly through the day. I put out a fresh supply of mealworms and settled down to wait. What bird can resist a mealworm?

I didn’t have long to wait before the Robin arrived to take advantage of the feast on offer, and gave me the opportunity to get some close up shots.

Leafcutters in Action

I’d been quietly hoping for Leafcutter Bees to start using the bee hotels since I first put them up in 2016. I was seeing small Leafcutters such as the Patchwork Leafcutter Bee (Megachile centuncularis) foraging regularly, but there sadly were no takers for the residences available. That is, until last year. For the first time I’d put out a beehouse of my own making containing bamboo and drilled wood blocks, and the holes had ended up a little larger than those in my purchased houses. This seemed to have attracted one of the largest Leafcutter species that we have in the UK, the Wood-Carving Leafcutter Bee (Megachile liginseca).

This species normally nests in dead wood and are very particular about the size and shape of hole that they use – when selecting a place to nest they fly around an area, ‘auditioning’ any likely looking holes or crevices by climbing in and thoroughly inspecting them to narrow down the options. Once they have made their choice, they perfect the tunnel by shaping it with their powerful jaws. Loudly. The first indication I had that my Leafcutter had arrived were scraping noises coming from the beehouses.

I followed ‘my’ Leafcutter through the season and she was amazingly tolerant of me and my camera, often coming forward in the tunnels to investigate when I was there.

At the end of the nest season she’d completed 7 nest tunnels, so I was eagerly waiting for these to hatch when the Summer started. The males hatched first and spent their early days sunbathing on the top of the beehouses and waiting for the females to emerge.

A few days after the males, the females hatched out and once mated wasted no time in beginning to nest build. I quickly noticed the tell-tale circular holes appearing in various leaves around the garden, most notably the Snowberry which seems to be a firm favourite. They are using an incredible range of leaves in the garden this year, as well as in the gardens beyond.

For the first time this year I’ve managed to get some pictures of the Leafcutters cutting leaves. Still not the best pictures as they are incredibly fast, but am happy to have been able to capture this at last!

Unlike her mother, one of this year’s Leafcutters is an incredibly feisty bee. The minute she senses movement outside the nest tunnel she comes barrelling out to move the culprit on in no uncertain terms.

Others are more accommodating, and have let me get close enough to capture some shots of them finishing off the outer layers of their nest tunnels with leaves. It’s incredible to watch them carefully fold them into place.

At the time of writing, the Leafcutters have sealed a massive 22 nest cells. Last year our Leafcutter was around until September, and while I’m not sure that her offspring will manage the same – due to the hot weather there’s a serious lack of forage around and bees are starting to struggle – I’m hoping for a few more and a bumper Leafcutter year in 2019!